Not the Venn: An emergent notion of systemic design that transcends the intersection of design + systems thinking

Format: Papers, RSD9, Topic: Methods & Methodology, Topic: Policy & Governance

Cat Drew, Cassie Robinson, and Jennie Winhall

Design Council & The Point People UK | The National Lottery Community Fund  | ALT/NOW 

As the scale, complexity and interdependence of societal challenges are more recognised, the need for systemic approaches to change has grown, and design and systems thinking becomes ever more entwined. The RSD conference has led discussions about the integration of these practices, with papers putting forward frameworks and principles that combine the two.

But what if it’s not as simple as just putting the two together? Previous discussion has highlighted the shortcomings of systems thinking (e.g. preponderance of analysis over action) and design (e.g. limitations of rapid prototyping in complex systems where feedback is slow). But equally, the role of design has not been used to its full potential.

We are currently hosting a discussion series with leading designers in the UK on what a next generation of creative systemic design practice could look like that goes beyond combining current design approaches with systems thinking—and how design itself needs to evolve—to make a greater contribution to meeting these systemic societal challenges. This abstract contains emerging thoughts, with the final submission crystallising these.

The social innovation field has widely adopted design. However, when it comes to systems, the role of design is, in practice, largely limited to, firstly, mapping and understanding systems using visual tools and, secondly, designing incremental improvements within the terms of current systems. This reflects a bias towards the analytical and processual that we think has become endemic in parts of the design field and social change more generally. Design has a greater role to play in strengthening the creative leadership required to reimagine and remake systems. We need more designers contributing their skills to big systemic challenges and more non-designers valuing the act of creation—but design itself needs to be stretched to fulfil this potential. This paper contributes to conference themes around the methodology for systemic design and also—through its focus on design practitioners, on systemic design (not just thinking) for creating systems for contentment and sustainability.




Citation Data

Author(s): Cat Drew, Cassie Robinson, and Jennie Winhall
Title: Not the Venn: An emergent notion of systemic design that transcends the intersection of design + systems thinking
Published in: Proceedings of Relating Systems Thinking and Design
Article No.:
Symposium Dates:
First published: 4 October 2020
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Copyright Information

Proceedings of Relating Systems Thinking and Design (ISSN 2371-8404) are published annually by the Systemic Design Association, a non-profit scholarly association leading the research and practice of design for complex systems: 3803 Tønsberg, Norway (922 275 696).


Open Access article published under the CC-BY-NC-ND 4.0 International License. This permits anyone to copy and redistribute the material in any medium or form according to the licence terms.

Suggested citation format (APA)

Author(s). (20##). Article title. Proceedings of Relating Systems Thinking and Design, RSD##. Article ##.

Publishing with RSD

Proceedings of Relating Systems Thinking and Design are published online and include the contributions for each format.

Papers and presentations are entered into a single-blind peer-review process, meaning reviewers see the authors’ names but not vice versa. Reviewers consider the quality of the proposed contribution and whether it addresses topics of interest or raises relevant issues in systemic design. The review process provides feedback and possible suggestions for modifications.

The Organising Committee reviews and assesses workshops and systems maps & exhibits with input from reviewers and the Programme Committee.

Editor: Cheryl May
Peter Jones
Ben Sweeting

The Scholars Spiral

In 2022, the Systemic Design Association adopted the scholars spiral—a cyclic non-hierarchical approach to advance scholarship—and in 2023, launched Contexts—The Systemic Design Journal. Together, the RSD symposia and Contexts support the vital emergence of supportive opportunities for scholars and practitioners to publish work in the interdisciplinary field of systemic design.

The Systemic Design Association's membership ethos is to co-create the socialization and support for all members to contribute their work, find feedback and collaboration where needed, and pursue their pathways toward research and practice outcomes that naturally build a vital design field for the future.


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