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Thinking in Systems: Design and Otherwise
Part 1

by DK Holland

Are you as in awe of the Fifth Avenue Christmas store window dressers as I am? They create interconnected, enchanting and elaborate windows—and do it backwards and from behind? What about the creators of Mad Men and The Sopranos? How are they able to maintain credibility, stay true to the characters’ lives and times, year after year? They develop dozens of complex ever-changing relationships, develop a larger quasi-imaginary world often incorporating real life twists and turns. Likewise, a brand like Apple, in all its stunning simplicity, never ceases to amaze. Its genius, newness, consistency, design integrity—and sheer courage—means Apple regularly makes the front page of our minds.

All these examples rely on human-constructed systems. We create systems because we are planners, both unconsciously and consciously. The larger natural world has far more systems that baffle and astound us. An example: Sheep dung contains a parasite. A snail rolls over the dung and picks up the parasite. Once inside the snail, the nasty little parasite excretes an enzyme that makes the snail spit it up, the irritation of the enzyme having caused the snail to wrap the parasite in yummy goo. The goo is a delicacy for a nearby ant, but, having ingested it, the ant is driven crazy and, just in time for mid afternoon grazing, is compelled to climb to the very top of a tall blade of grass, right to sheep mouth height, delivering the parasite right back home again. A non-human system—or to put it another way—a system without a cerebral cortex to guide it. Amazing.

If humans are systems-thinking organisms, then how have we managed to screw up so many systems? We’ve created dead-end waste. Cities crumble when earthquakes rumble. And then there is war, sprawl and capitalism—all human “systems” that, in their flaws, destroy when they are meant to build or protect. We could go on and on.

Implementing systems thinking (the process of understanding how things influence one another within a whole) may be the answer to straightening out these tangled messes.

We know that systems in nature, which we are still trying to understand, (i.e., ecosystems—like the parasite, sheep, dung, snail, grass and ant) are not cognitive, they’re intuitive.

Systems in organizations are easier for us to dissect. They consist of people, structures and processes that work together to make any organization healthy or unhealthy. Complex human systems include the U.S. Congress, Amtrak, the Catholic Church.

Rather than reacting to a specific part, outcome or event, a systems thinker considers the whole to be the sum of its parts. The window dresser, TV series creator, product developer and even that feisty little parasite all rely on systems that are relatively problem free in order to thrive.

Take away or mindlessly alter a component and everything may fall apart: One lawn mower would surely screw up that little parasite’s world. Sustainability of an effective human-created system requires disciplined teamwork and stewardship and that kind of cooperative participation seems to be very difficult for many organizations and corporations.

As evidenced in their artifacts and lore, many early peoples seemed to understand their interconnectedness. Their sacred worldviews informed their interior and exterior lives shaping their belief systems. They were most often organized in small numbers, they were not mammoth corporations or governments. More recently the tribe-oriented, celibate Shakers meditated on their design process: Everything they did reflected their strongly held values of mindful simplicity and right living. They walked the walk, talked the talk. Their products, music and philosophy are appreciated even though there are but a very few Shakers left in this world.1 Their vow not to have sex, integral to their testimonies, contributed to their religion’s unsustainability. Likewise, the vulnerability of the tribal system means there are comparatively few aboriginal tribes left. The big fish have consumed the smaller ones for thousands of years as people move to cities.

Assuming the tendency to think holistically is inherent in all of us, what disrupts or suppresses it? Stupidity? Greed? Ego? Fear? Power-grabbing? Destructive paradigms? Lack of tribal interconnection? A mix of some of the above, undoubtedly. What makes us human can also be our downfall. Holland
DK Holland writes about design and teaches in two MFA design programs in New York, one at SVA and one at Pratt. She is an advisor to Project M and Design Ignites Change. Holland has been the editor of Design Issues since she started it in 1990. She is the author/producer of many books on design as well as Branding for Nonprofits. She is the producer of CitizenME, which creates transmedia tools that engage students in understanding how to become proactive citizens. Holland lives and works in her tiny nineteenth-century restored Italianate house and garden in Fort Greene, Brooklyn.