Mapping the invisible: Co-designing with taboos and illegal systems as systemic design materials

Adrian Paulsen and Manuela Aguirre


This is a hands-on interactive workshop to work with taboos and illegal systems as reflective co-design materials. As systemic design practitioners, we’ve experienced that certain (powerful) stakeholders – during giga-mapping sessions – ask (or demand) that particular perspectives or areas are intentionally made invisible (or left out). Reasons vary. Sometimes it is to avoid governmental attention, sometimes it is because systemic components are illegal or would simply be embarrassing to share.

Giga-mapping systems (Sevaldson, 2011) inevitably exposes faults, weaknesses, power relations, and accountabilities. Sometimes these are centered around specific roles – sometime a product of the system as a whole. Sometimes these are formal – and sometimes not. When mapping is done rigorously, these systems are not ‘covered-up’ – but they illuminate powerful opportunity areas or leverage points. In any case, these factors require careful systemic navigation. As design moves deeper into both private and public sectors, the optimistic, open and empathic design approach is challenged.

That is why we are proposing to curate the conditions where these type of conversations can surface in a reflective, constructive, and confidential way. Building on our previous workshop at RSD3 (Aguirre & Paulsen, 2014) – where we used physical material properties to discuss how invisible relationships shape our social interactions – we will create tangible ways to map the invisible. As an outcome, we expect to co-create an instrumental and practical toolkit that participants can bring back to their own social systems (organizations like healthcare, education, public policies) and shed light on these sensitive issues through a systemic design approach.

Why is this relevant? We recognize – when mapping diverse perspectives in complex social systems – that certain perspectives influence what is represented and what is left out. The strengths of a systemic approach lies in co-creating robust, resilient, and synergic interventions that have an ‘appropriate fit’ in the social systems in which they are embedded (Banathy, 1996). Therefore, when things are ‘made invisible’ on purpose – this limits the potential impact of giga-mapping’s with regards to holistic understanding – which then in turn inevitably limits the abilities to co-design.

In order to facilitate this discussion, we will either bring sensitive cases from our own practice or – if people are willing and trust is enabled – we will facilitate an anonymous discussion that is relevant to the people in the room. We want to encourage a reflective space that allows for sharing stories, anecdotes, fears, and doubts between practitioners and researchers. In order to assure confidentiality and for trust to be established, a non-disclosure agreement will be provided and all electronics will be securely stored. Participants that join must know that this is work in progress and a prototype in its nature. Therefore we invite participants to come with an open mind, be critically experimental, and be prepared to co-create actionable spaces for reflection through co-designing with taboos and illegal systems as visible design materials. (Max 20 people)

Aguirre, M., & Paulsen, A. (2014). Using material properties to understand and shape relationships in public and social services. In B. Sevaldson & P. Jones (Eds.), RSD3, Third Symposium of Relating Systems Thinking to Design. Oslo, Norway: Oslo School of Architecture and Design, October 15-17, 2014. Oslo: Systemic Design Research Network. Retrieved from

Banathy, B. H. (1996). Designing social systems in a changing world. (R. L. Flood, Ed.). New York: Plenum Press.

Sevaldson, B. (2011). Giga-mapping: visualisation for complexity and systems thinking in design. In I. Koskinen, T. Härkäsalmi, R. Mazé, B. Matthews, & J.-J. Lee (Eds.), Nordes ’11, the 4th Nordic Design Research Conference. Helsinki, Finland: School of Art and Design, Aalto University, Helsinki, Finland.

Posted: Oct-2017

RSD 10 Call for Papers

RSD10 offers a platform for discussing ongoing work with peers and presents the state-of-the-art in the systemic design field. This year there are two paper tracks: short papers for ongoing work, and long papers for finished work.

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