Systems Communications: A systems-oriented approach to strategic communication

Zaid Khan, OCAD University, Canada

How can systemic design evolve the practice of strategic communications and how might that help inform responses to complexity?

After nearly a decade of field-building, systemic design has emerged with a robust theoretical foundation, as well as practical tools, methods, and cases, to help designers better work with complexity in higher-order systems.

This focus on establishing foundational works for the young field leaves some areas of the integration between systems thinking and design underdeveloped; namely, communication design.

Communication design, as explored within a systemic design context, has traditionally been concerned with visual thinking, which itself is a common characteristic of both systems thinking and design. The result of this concentrated effort on visual thinking has led to advancements in communication artefacts, such as the flagship gigamaps and synthesis maps.

At RSD8, the discussion titled Conversations on Systemic Design generated much dialogue around the need to better translate the value of systemic design for a variety of audiences.

It’s here where the opportunity to develop a stronger ‘strategic’ foundation for communication design, with a systems-orientation, is presented as a critical next step towards strengthening the field and breadth of systemic design.

This discussion explores how the principles of systemic design (Jones, 2014) inform an evolved practise of strategic communications – the planned process of delivering a relevant message to a specific audience to achieve an objective – to reach a broader set of stakeholders.

The discussion will be based on the author’s recently completed Major Research Project which took a systems-oriented communication approach to Canadian News Media, a higher-order system.

The issues facing Canadian News Media are complex in nature; with multiple stakeholders, different organisations and industries, competing value systems, objectives, perspectives, and interests. This makes it an ideal case to examine the effects that a more systems-oriented approach to communications may have towards inviting action in a contested system.

The author will offer a set of learnings, based on how the principles of systemic design could inform a systems-oriented approach to communications. Following this the discussion will surface the potential value of systems-oriented communications, its consequences, and future considerations and possibilities for research.


Hallahan, K., Holtzhausen, D., Van Ruler, B., Verčič, D., & Sriramesh, K. (2007). Defining strategic communication. International journal of strategic communication, 1(1), 3-35.
Jones, P., & Bowes, J. (2017). Rendering Systems Visible for Design: Synthesis Maps as Constructivist Design Narratives. She Ji: The Journal of Design, Economics, and Innovation, 3, 229-248.
Jones, P. H. (2014). Systemic design principles for complex social systems. In Social systems and design (pp. 91-128). Springer, Tokyo.
Sevaldson, B. (2011). GIGA-Mapping: Visualisation for complexity and systems thinking in design. Nordes, (4).
Sevaldson, B. (2018). Visualizing complex design: The evolution of gigamaps. In Systemic Design (pp. 243-269). Springer, Tokyo.
Sevaldson, B. (2015). Gigamaps: Their role as bridging artefacts and a new sense sharing model. In A. Ryan & P. Jones (Eds.), Proceedings of Relating Systems Thinking and Design (RSD4) 2015 Symposium, Banff, Canada, September 1–3, 2015. (pp. 1–11). Banff, Canada: Systemic Design Research Network. Retrieved from
Sevaldson, B., & Jones, P.. (2019). An Interdiscipline Emerges: Pathways to Systemic Design. She Ji: The Journal of Design, Economics, and Innovation, 5, 75-84.


Posted: Oct-2020

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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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