Singular and Shared – Exploring metaphors and systems

Palak Dudani and Dan Lockton

This dialogue builds on two RSD10 papers: Making metaphors matter within SOD by Palak Dudani, and Metaphors and Systems by Dan Lockton. We have collaborated to bring together some of the themes explored in our papers into a participatory format.

Metaphors are important in systemic design

On the one hand, metaphors provide plural forms of abstraction and enable us to describe otherwise invisible relationships or concepts in new ways. There is a long history of metaphorical thinking in systems theory and cybernetics working along these lines, including establishing parallels between natural and artificial systems, and also in design, where strategic use of metaphors is often a way of introducing people to new things (types of product, modes of interaction) by giving a link to something they already understand.

Practically, in participatory contexts, metaphors also help us access and build associations with cultural knowledge, where different stakeholders can use familiar concepts as scaffolding to form and express their unique understandings of a complex system that is otherwise challenging to comprehend, through a process of exploring aspects such as associations, embodying, materialising, diversifying, and probing. The everyday qualities of metaphors support forming a more culturally rich view of complex systems, also potentially elevating the softer, transient, dynamic and emergent qualities of complex systems in awareness. Equally, metaphors can be generative—offering creative ways to reinterpret and reimagine the systems we are part of. How would systemic design approaches differ if we started with alternative metaphors, discarding or flipping embedded assumptions? We take a stance essentially that our ways of talking about systems themselves are itself often metaphorical: complex systems are abstract and conceptual in nature, and questions about the extent to which systems ‘exist’, and where the boundaries are drawn, are part of exploring their fuzzy, indeterminate, relational, poetic, and emergent qualities.

This RSD10 dialogue explores some of these ideas through an activity and discussion that values the wide and diverse expertise and experience present within the systemic design community. In participatory contexts, metaphors can help us access and build associations with cultural knowledge, where different stakeholders can use familiar concepts as scaffolding to form and express their unique understandings of complex systems. We will use the idea of explaining to different audiences as a way to frame the activity as a form of cultural probe and engage participants during the dialogue session to unpack their ways of thinking about systems through metaphors. Our interest in this activity is not primarily to analyse the metaphors themselves but to capture and share the variety of ways of thinking, to support a pluriversal way of engaging with the world.


For Stage 1, we will prepare an A5 size template in both print and online (Miro) format. The template will have a challenge statement, instructions for the activity and a dedicated blank space for creative expression.

Stage 1: Activity

The creative activity will be done individually by participants throughout the conference (based around a quick, fun, 5-minute challenge to use metaphors to describe particular systemic issues to different audiences, with a ready-made template). This includes both physical templates and a simultaneous Miro version for online conference participants.

Stage 2: Collection and Preparation

At the conference, on-campus delegates will be invited to pin their completed templates to a display board to create a ‘wall of metaphors’ (which will be present throughout the conference, and also the poster session) to complement the Miro board for online participants.

Stage 3: Discussion

The dialogue session will take place towards the end of RSD10, and will comprise 30-minutes of presenting and exploring the metaphors created by participants physically and online, and some of the trends, dimensions, and themes emerging. This will be followed by a 30-minute discussion and analysis with session participants, exploring ways in which these ideas can be taken further, applied in practical contexts, and developed.

Panel members

We would like to invite others present at RSD10 with a specific interest in these topics to participate in the dialogue session in a more explicit ‘expert’ role, whether online or in person, but would aim to approach people once the list of accepted papers is available so that we can draw from a wider cross-section of the conference participants.


A wide range of relevant references – from the systemic design literature and outside of it – are included in our papers:

Dudani, P. (2021). Making metaphors matter within SOD. RSD10: Relating Systems Thinking and Design Symposium 2021, Delft. Preprint:

Lockton, D. (2021). Metaphors and Systems. RSD10: Relating Systems Thinking and Design Symposium 2021, Delft. Preprint:

but some which are especially relevant are:

Aguirre Ulloa, M. and Paulsen, A.(2017). ‘Co-designing with relationships in mind: Introducing relational material mapping’. Form Akademisk 10(1) 1–14.

Boehnert, J. (2018). The Visual Representation of Complexity: Sixteen Key Characteristics of Complex Systems. RSD7: Relating Systems Thinking and Design Symposium 2018, Turin.

Dudani, P. (2020). From Wealth to Well-being – A systems oriented design exploration of imagining alternatives in urban housing. In Proceedings of Relating Systems Thinking and Design (RSD9) 2020 Symposium. Ahmedabad, India, October 9-17, 2020.

Dudani, P. (2019b). Wealth to Wellbeing: A systems exploration in imagining alternatives within housing in Norway (Master’s Thesis). Retrieved from

Halsall, F. (2021). Systems: Between Metaphor and Infrastructure. In: O’Neill, P. (2021), Systems: User or Used? Science Gallery Dublin, Ireland.

Lakoff, G., Johnson, M. (1980). Metaphors we Live by. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. ISBN: 978-0-226-46800-6

Lockton, D., Brawley, L. Aguirre Ulloa, M., Prindible, M., Forlano, L., Rygh, K., Fass, J., Herzog, K., Nissen, B. (2019a). ‘Tangible Thinking: Materializing how we imagine and understand interdisciplinary systems, experiences, and relationships’. Workshop at RSD8: Relating Systems Thinking and Design Symposium 2019, 17–19 October 2019, Chicago. Available at

Lockton, D., Singh, D., Sabnis, S., Chou, M., Foley, S., & Pantoja, A. (2019b). New Metaphors: A workshop method for generating ideas and reframing problems in design and beyond. In Proceedings of the 2019 ACM Conference on Creativity and Cognition (pp. 319-332).

Morrison A. (2019). ‘Anticipation and design’. Invited guest speaker. Imagining Collaborative Future-Making. Malmö University: Malmö. 12-13 November.

Phillips, R., Lockton, D., Baurley, S., Silve, S. (2013) ‘Making instructions for others: exploring mental models through a simple exercise’. Interactions 20(5), 74-79.

Sevaldson, B. (2013). Systems Oriented Design: The emergence and development of a designerly approach to address complexity. DRS//CUMULUS, 14-17.

Stoyko, P. (2019). SystemViz Codex v.1.5.0. Available at

Keywords: metaphors, systems, participatory, pluriversal

Background: metaphors and systems

Posted September 2021 content is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 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) (20XX). Article title. Proceedings of Relating Systems Thinking and Design (RSDX) Symposium.