What is Systemic Design? Practices Beyond Modelling and Analyses

Format: Papers, RSD8, Topic: Methods & Methodology

Birger Sevaldson

This working paper intends to set the stage for drawing the landscape of systemic design. This large task can neither be completed in one working paper nor accomplished by one individual. In systemic design, authority is intentionally distributed, and variety and pluralism are central. Therefore, the intention is to seed a discourse to develop a dialogic environment. What follows is the first stumbling attempt at rendering the rich landscape of systemic design. It is a draft of the current landscape, which is (at this stage) coloured by the author’s own perspectives and point of departure, but it will hopefully be expanded and nuanced through dialogue with other individuals during the field-building process.

Let us start by discussing what systemic design is not. Some people who are knowledgeable about systems theories tend to look at systemic design as the application of one or another systems theory or particular methodology to design. However, this is not the case. While systemic design draws from systems theories, our main position is that both domains – design and systems – have something to contribute to each other, and relating the two will (or at least should) result in novel perspectives, processes, ideas and even theories. Systemic design intends to develop multiple new practices based on intersections between multiple perspectives.

Systemic design was defined by its founding members as a pluralistic and open field with a variety of approaches, which is a normative strategic position. Despite this, there are fundamental principles that form the bases of systemic design that should be re-expressed and further crystallised. This is neither being done to navigate towards less pluralism and variety nor to stop dynamic development. However, to avoid bleeding outside the discourse into themes that have been discussed at length and to let its nature develop organically, we need to establish an a priori platform from which we can launch a discussion instead of spending energy on repetitions, misconceptions, misunderstandings and straw arguments.

Systemic design is an emergent approach that contributes to something that is, if not entirely new, well-described and defined. It is the organic meshing of systems perspectives with design. Organic means that it is not based on theory and reasoning alone; rather, it relies heavily on the development of a variety of practices. Comparing, discussing and competing between those practices comprise the core dynamics that help develop the field. In this endeavour, several points must be considered. We understand systemic design as processes that induce change on four levels: the design (a) of change, (b) as change, (c) for change and (d) into change 1. This implies the conception of design as an inherently systemic activity (Nelson & Stolterman, 2012).

This article intends to steer the discourse towards the central issues; it is time to demarcate and clarify the core intention and to step towards and encourage the next developments in the field.




Citation Data

Author(s): Birger Sevaldson
Title: What is Systemic Design? Practices Beyond Modelling and Analyses
Published in: Proceedings of Relating Systems Thinking and Design
Article No.:
Symposium Dates:
First published: 4 October 2019
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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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