Systems Thinking is “the way”
Design does not exist or function in a vacuum. It also does not exist without Mother Earth. Gaia gifts everything we need for us to live and thrive. What we have unfortunately done with her philanthropy created the divides, crises, and opportunities we still have. Nature provides for all of us and, equally as important, is a model for inspiration and creation for the “common good”. Nature works as a cycle where waste is food and excess is eliminated. Nature works in a series of countless connected systems that rely on one another to achieve a sustainable balance.
But what is exactly the “common good”?
The generally accepted definition is defined as “the benefits or interests of all.” Scholars in design have opined on the definition of designing for the common good. Designer and educator Jorge Frascara recognizes “… four kinds of design: design to support life, design to facilitate life, design to improve life. And then, there is inconsequential design…. Inconsequential design, in terms of the grand scheme of things, is the exclusive commercial design; that is, design-oriented at supporting corporation A against corporation B.” (Frascara, 2001).
Outside of design, English philosopher John Stuart Mill believed happiness was integral for the common good of all, but most importantly it couldn’t be achieved if decisions made to improve your overall happiness impeded others from doing the same. He said, “(i)n any situation where there is a moral choice, the right thing to do is that which is likely to produce the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people and not harm others or promote values contrary to your own” (Mill, 1879). He called this philosophy Utilitarianism. It is another workable definition for creating for the common good, and the one I’d like to use as a working definition for this article.
Systems Thinking is “the way”
The current model of teaching and practicing design is rooted in Colonial Imperialism which rejects the cyclical process of nature for one that is linear and unsustainable which consistently excludes non-white cultural voices, creates toxic waste and messaging, increases greenhouse gas emissions that warm our climate, and supports misogyny all in the name of a rising GDP.
“We have an economy where we steal the future, sell it in the present, and call it GDP.” ~ Paul Hawken
This model does not put design as a discipline into the category of “in the common good” as it consistently ignores natural cycles and non-white cultures. We propose to make design a catalyst for the common good by rethinking the design process from linear to cyclical, mimicking nature. The design process should be practiced and taught under a framework called Systems Thinking. Robin Wall Kimmerer, an Indigenous professor of Biology, idyllically describes this methodology:
“The breath of plants gives life to animals and the breath of animals gives life to plants. My breath is your breath, your breath is mine. It’s the great poem of give and take, of reciprocity that animates the world” — Robin Wall Kimmerer
In other words, everything is connected on our planet and our natural systems depend on a dynamic non-equilibrium trying to achieve balance. So, to think in systems, when it comes to the design profession, it means we
“…approach a design problem by being informed, aware of, and influenced by the impacts that our material and vendor choices have on one another, the planet, and consequently on us” — Eric Benson & Yvette Perullo
Furthermore, the best practices, tools, and methodologies from the various design sub-areas like human-centered, service, empathic, sustainable, inclusive, indigenous, social, participatory, experiential, speculative, and transition design (and more) should be incorporated into the Systems Thinking process.
It is common in academic and professional conferences to see innovative design methods for participatory or service design that produce impactful results in one talk, and at the same time, it is equally common for these outcomes to be lacking in considerations for environmental sustainability or regenerative design projects (or visa versa). A more holistic approach to creating is important for the common good to be achieved “for all” through design. We can’t continue to be so siloed. Best practices from each sub-area of design must be integrated into a holistic design process that aims to benefit all. No more should we be putting on siloed conferences about “insert adjective” design knowing that climate change is happening now.
There is too much at stake. The climate is changing fast and design is dragging its heels. Just look at Texas this week (Feb. 2021). Design must emulate nature’s cycles, and Systems Thinking is the way.
Yea! But where do I start?
How do designers transition to a Systems Thinking process? It won’t be fast or smooth. However, it’s necessary. Re-nourish.org plots out the Systems Thinking process effectively into four steps that can be taught at any design level or implemented in a design agency. Imagine just swapping out the Design Thinking process that you already know with Systems Thinking (with still keeping what’s good from Design Thinking). This is how Re-nourish.org believes it can be done. Here are the four steps
- Determine project goals,
- Map out the design problem,
- Brainstorm outcomes, and
- Evaluate each possible outcome.
The deliverable for Step One is a project brief (that excludes possible solutions) that clearly articulates the goal(s) of the project, the considerations that must be followed, who the stakeholders are, and how the project will create positive outcomes for all the stakeholders (including the Earth). To best complete this brief, you should also interview and research the intended audience(s) and stakeholders prior to moving forward (and create user personas.) Do what we already do.
In Step Two, the process that works best is messy. Messy in the sense that you and your team will be starting, stopping, questioning, adding, erasing, researching, calling experts, and eventually creating a visual map (think a mind map on steroids) of the design problem(s) that will need further clean-up and refinement post-session. You and your team will explore not only the surface-level design problem but also, most importantly, the root cause, who is affected.
As an aside, one quick way to visualize how the Systems Thinking process works is to watch the 1977 “Powers of Ten” film by Charles and Ray Eames. In this film, we learn about the universe and ourselves through how similar we are to everything else as we zoom in and out by a power of ten. This analogy demonstrates that in a design process acknowledging that everything is connected, we must look at details as much broader concepts to best solve a root cause of a problem for the common good.
Step Three is more like the design process you know. Here you are proposing solutions and exploring how each helps or hinders the stakeholders and addresses the design problem(s) from Step One.
In Step Four, you return to the questions asked in Step One to “zoom in” to each proposed design outcome (from Step Three) to evaluate what outcome holds the greatest value in connection to creating a transformative solution that ideally does no harm, improves the quality of life, and is inclusive.
These four steps are included as part of a more robust Systems Thinking Toolkit from Re-nourish.org. A component of this toolkit and a bedrock of a Systems Thinking process are seven goals that should seek to be met in every design project.
- Eliminate waste
- Renourish our planet (reparations for nature)
- Renourish our souls with a beautiful object or service
- Create reciprocity (a gift that creates an ongoing relationship)
- Create with, not for — inclusivity
- Have a purpose, not just profit (improve quality of life)
- Advocacy for marginalized voices (reparations for others)
These seven goals of a Systems Thinking project are each important overarching thematic ideals found in many of our design sub-areas (like indigenous, inclusive, and sustainable designs). They are all components of a living document that should and will change as Systems Thinking is taught and practiced in various iterations.
It is important to note that Systems Thinking is not a new concept as it has been researched and discussed by scholars ranging from the worlds of ecology and biology to business and design for decades. But, Systems Thinking in our proposal is a new and holistic way to help designers realize their responsibility in exploring everything that is connected to a problem in a way that the common good can be realized.
“I’m sorry, lady. I don’t understand frog.” (But you should)
Gaia and Human-Centered Design are both crucial components of the common good. We consider “good” design to include other species beyond homo sapiens. Homo sapiens are just one species of many. Life around us has figured out strategies for more than 3.8 billion years on how to thrive. All living organisms are exposed to the same rules and limitations (like frogs).
We all experience the same gravity, are made of the same cells, and have a desire to procreate, create community, and nurture future generations. Human-centered design has been a well-established practice in design research, practice, and education. However, for a design to truly benefit all, the design also needs to consider all life. We, therefore, also propose to evolve the term human-centered to life-centered design.
In addition to the Re-nourish toolkit, another method to access, teach, and discover Systems Thinking is through Life’s Principles (LPs) (cc Biomimicry 3.8). The LP’s were developed by a group of dedicated biologists, scientists, ecologists, and other experts who promote the application of biomimicry (Baumeister et al., 2012). They examined, categorized, and grouped the general laws of our planet and thriving organisms into 26 Life’s Principles. In a way, they summarized the rules of the system we know as planet Earth. They should be considered as a necessary method in the Systems Thinking process.
I’m in. Sign me up.
Our proposal needs refinement from you. We need you to bring the best of what you know into the Systems Thinking process.
- Determine project goals,
- Map out the design problem,
- Brainstorm outcomes, and
- Evaluate each possible outcome
In each of the four steps, knowledge from life-centered, service, empathic, sustainable, inclusive, indigenous, social, participatory, experiential, speculative, and transition design (and more) should be incorporated into the Systems Thinking process.
Best practices from resources that you already use like the IDEO HCD Toolkit, Social Design Pathways, Decolonial School, International Indigenous Design Charter, Ask Nature, Service Design Tools, User Experience, Speculative, Racism Untaught, and more should be added to the Re-nourish Systems Thinking Toolkit (beta).
If you want to get involved, let’s talk below in the comments about what is “the common good”, how to achieve that in design, and what are you doing that is working toward this goal.
You can also:
- Download the Toolkit (to read, test, and improve),
- Attend our discussion at the “Design as a common good” conference panel,
- Join our workshop at the Climate Designers Party Program.
Excited to hear from you!
Citations (books & articles you should read!)
Baumeister, D., Tocke, R., Dwyer, J., Ritter, S., & Benyus, J. (2012). Biomimicry resource handbook. A seed.
Benson, E., & Perullo, Y. (2017). Design to Renourish: Sustainable Graphic Design in Practice. Boca Raton, FL: Chapman & Hall CRC.
Fehler, Michelle. (2020). Life’s Principles in Visual Communication Design. Retrieved from https://naturefactor.com/resources/
Frascara, J. (2001). A history of design, a history of concerns. Graphic design history, 13–18.
Kimmerer, R. W. (2013). Braiding sweetgrass: Indigenous wisdom, scientific knowledge, and the teachings of plants. Milkweed Editions.
Mill, J. S. (1879). Utilitarianism. United Kingdom: Longmans, Green, and Company.
About the authors:
Benson is an Associate Professor of Graphic Design at the University of Illinois. He researches design utopias (Systems Thinking) and dystopias (hopepunk climate fiction). Two of his most prolific works are the Fresh Press Agri-Fiber Paper Making Lab and Re-nourish.
Fehler is a Clinical Assistant Professor and Biomimicry Professional who focuses on defining a life-centered design methodology by infusing biomimicry into the design process. She develops various tools that make the biomimetic approach more accessible to designers from various disciplines.