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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.

THE BIG SNAGTake 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.

Can systems thinking be taught effectively to instill better habits of mind? How much depends on gut instinct? We have clearly been lacking in systems thinking in so many key areas in the world, yet so much would benefit from good design in one way or another.

COMMUNICATING THE SYSTEMAre communication designers able to communicate what they do to others or is their process too instinctual? If they are not, is this why they are not necessarily even in the picture until it is too late to affect the overall system? Others are in roles that designers used to have. Is this because, even though by definition, design equals planning, many professional communication designers fall short as serious systems thinkers? Do designers even believe they need to show this kind of leadership?

I attended The Stanford Design Conference in the mid- to late-1970s. It was visionary to hold such an annual event then and there, at a time when the flower children of San Francisco, where I lived, were reaching adulthood. Communication design was a new concept. The Stanford University brand has long been “smart, confident, level-headed:” a place for deep, disciplined thinkers. It was a good place to start a discussion of what design might grow up to be. It was long before discussions of design thinking.

THE D SCHOOLThirty-five years later, I visited Jim Patell who teaches Design for Extreme Affordability at the D School at Stanford where design thinking is the resident protocol. Stanford’s 8,000-acre, palm-tree-lined campus is uniform and modern while evoking the style of the California missions.

Patell is a business school professor who was trained as an engineer. He puts together student teams from six to eight schools within Stanford to tackle the development of entrepreneurial ventures brought to them from the poorest areas of the world. “The problem can’t be too limited or limitless or we can’t take it on,” he says. The D School takes on definable, manageable problems to solve. For instance, low birth-weight newborns must be kept at a constant body temperature, but in poor rural areas, especially where there is no access to hospitals or possibly even electricity, this is extremely problematic. So a Stanford student team designed a sleeping bag for newborns they named Embrace. The bag has a pouch in the back with a reusable insert filled with a phase-change material—tiny balls that melt at exactly the temperature of body heat and stay at that temperature for four hours, the average amount of time between nursing. Mom can reheat the pack in hot water or by her own body-heat during the feeding. The Embrace incubator will sell for about $20, can be sterilized and passed on and on and on. It’s sold for very little partly to prevent undercutting by a knock-off manufacturer, a big problem in developing countries. Yet it is not given away, and some may wonder why. Professor Patell says, “Charity is not scalable.” In other words, were it given away, at some point, Embrace might not be available anymore. By charging something, a sustainable ongoing enterprise is born.

A very methodical process led to this elegantly simple solution. In design thinking, after accepting the problem, the project enters a user empathy phase when the team immerses itself in the world of the ultimate user, through site visits, extensive photography and research about the culture and context of the problem that inform team discussions. The team examines why this problem has not yet been solved or why others failed in trying. The team crystallizes the user’s needs and articulates insights gained from this process. It establishes a concise mission statement before the actual process of visualizing the solution starts. Ideas are then thrown out quickly without judgment. Honing in on solutions, assuming the approach is to create something tangible (which it may not be), rapid prototyping keeps the current prototype from becoming “too precious.” “It keeps people from becoming too attached to early ideas, and then defending rather than improving their work.” Professor Patell says, “One of the hardest lessons to remember is that you aren’’t designing for yourself.” Prototyping is followed by implementation. Throughout, the team is mindful of the process they are in so they may learn, improve and ultimately measure success. They remain open to user feedback and collect data after the project is completed about how improvements could be made in the future.

The D in the D School is design. David Kelley, from the Northern California-based design firm IDEO, is clearly a designer. He heads the D School, but is referred to as a mechanical engineer. Where are the designers? When asked, Professor Patell seemed almost puzzled by this question. Perhaps the D is not so much a noun as a verb, an attitude hallmarked by participation. Maybe the label “designer” is (or should be) inherent in being human?

A building was renovated recently on Stanford’s campus, just for the D School. It looks amazing in its high-tech, open format. Professor Patell points out that architects and interior designers might benefit from the active participation of their ultimate clients, the students, faculty, administrators and janitors, before their design decisions are literally set in concrete. Professor Patell says, “We always try to interview the people who clean or repair current products when we start a project, whether it is an incubator or an irrigation system. Janitors and repairmen are an untapped source of deep insights, even for a building like ours.”

It’s projected that Embrace will have several big effects. Besides helping to save a million at-risk newborns in the next five years, it’s hoped that it will also help reduce the overall world population over time: When families don’t know how many of their children will live, they over procreate.2

COMMUNICATING TO DESIGNERSTim Brown, CEO of IDEO is a guru of design thinking. He was one of the 27 “World’s Most Influential Designers” chosen by BusinessWeek, a list that includes few communication or industrial designers. Design is clearly meant in the broadest sense. This gets confusing since Brown says, “In design, meaning largely comes from aesthetics.” We see that good design may attract where bad design would repel. Professional industrial and communication designers often feel they are the high priests of ‘good design’ because they can mysteriously create that attraction. However design thinking puts the thinking ahead of aesthetics, calls for many perspectives to be received without judgment. This may be hard for some high priests to swallow.

If you compare and contrast design thinking with the design process used in a lot of communication design projects, the difference is vast. The normal communication design phases are: orientation, design exploration, design refinement, implementation. In and out. The communication designer has the most active role in each part. The client is the audience, the critic.

Clients often come to projects with a preconceived notion of the end result, frantic deadlines and puny fees that automatically restrict the design response. Fear, impatience and antsiness arrive also. Clients are not often open to in-depth research (so they won’t budget for this). User empathy is often a non sequitur (since there is no time or money to find out anything of substance).

I visited Valerie Casey, who was a designer at both Frog and Pentagram and, most recently, IDEO. She is now an independent consultant in Berkeley, a designer and innovator.3 She has been named a “Guru”of the year by Fortune magazine and a “Hero of the Environment” by Time magazine. At 37, she was also one of the youngest on BusinessWeek’s short list of influential designers.

Casey’s “office” is in The Hub, a “co-working” space in The Brower Center, a large green building overlooking University of California’s Berkeley Campus.4 The name honors Berkeley native David Brower whom many consider to be the father of the modern environmental movement. A second Hub is opening in San Francisco shortly.

Casey understands how difficult it is for designers to influence clients. She says, “Designers cycle in and out of client projects pretty quickly because of the traditional design consulting model. Our work is often incremental, and our responsibility for outcomes limited, so we tend not to understand the full systems we are designing for.” The challenge is for communication designers to get into the conversation as players: to bring holistic, systematic thinking as the process they use for problem solving, a process in which “communication” is inherent, there from the beginning. This would require a perceptual change by both the client and the designer. The roles each play must change.

An ally may be the business schools that see design thinking as the way of the future. Roger Martin, University of Toronto, who is also on BusinessWeek’s list, is a proponent of design thinking which he believes provides the competitive edge that business needs.5 Companies often avoid problem solving because it makes them nervous. It’s messy, as Martin points out. Most businesses have rules of thumb—or heuristics as Martin calls them—for decision-making and problem solving. Rather than opening up possibilities, these heuristics often constrain: “We do things this way. Don’t rock the boat” (even if your instinct is that a little rocking could bring the boat back on course). Martin thinks it’s much more effective to interpret problems as mysteries to be solved. Design thinking provides an approach to solving mysteries that combines the best of disciplined, logic-based thinking with intuition and creativity.

PARADIGM SHIFTING: THE DESIGNERS ACCORDCasey is the founder of the Designers Accord6, the goal of which is to “galvanize the creative community around social and environmental impact.” The Accord invites designers to take serious leadership positions in affecting change. Thinking in systems may be the way in. About designers, Casey adds, “We’re creating new collaborations, partnerships and business models. As we recreate ourselves as systems thinkers, we’ll need to help our clients to work divergently with us and fully understand the powerful contributions design can make.” We need to provide alternative models to the client. Convince them that if they try a different process, this may mean greater benefits down the road so they increase their investment in the process—in both time and money, show them that slowing down could increase productivity.

Since its founding in 2007, The Accord reaches over 200,000 signers in all design disciplines encouraging them to adopt the guidelines. Those who have signed on at this writing, include 643 design firms, 34 educational institutions, 32 corporate adopters in 100 countries on 6 continents.

The Accord is not prescriptive and calls for self-regulation. It asks that designers7 publicly declare participation in six ongoing actions:
•    Initiate a dialogue about environmental and social impact and sustainable alternatives with each and every client.
•    Rework client contracts to favor environmentally- and socially-responsible design and work processes.
•    Provide strategic and material alternatives for sustainable design.
•    Undertake a program to educate your teams about sustainability and sustainable design.
•    Consider your ethical footprint. Understand the environmental impact of your firm and work to measure, manage and reduce it on an annual basis.
•    Advance the understanding of environmental and social issues from a design perspective by actively contributing to the communal knowledge base for sustainable design.

The hope is, by taking The Accord to heart, these actions could become habitual, and professional designers may indeed affect change.

The Accord hosts town halls, and has a robust Web site. It has several key strategic alliances and advisors. Amazingly, Casey leads the strategic vision and finds time to handle the day-to-day operations. She also writes a column regularly for Fast Company called Networked Culture, through which she gets the word out to a broad audience in the form of case studies and commentary. New York-based Core77 hosts a free online directory of all adopters to the Accord. Other partners include Design Ignites Change and The Biomimicry Institute (included in part two of this article).

However change does not happen because a designer signs a manifesto. We have seen that before: the First Things First Design Manifesto circulated for decades and touted all of 33 signers8 including some of the usual design icons. The challenge is to understand what it is you are adopting at such a profound level that this causes you and your process to actually change. The bottom line question is, will The Accord be any more effective in this way than First Things First was? 

Casey’s point is to get the conversation started, not to be “the be all and end all” of change agents.

LIVING BY PRINCIPLESLike the 1960s, the Bay Area is at the center of change. Out of the Compostmodern Conference in 2009 in San Francisco sprung The Living Principles for Design, an integrated sustainability framework that strives to go into depth about the process designers need to adopt to affect change. The Living Principles says sustainability is the Golden Rule (e.g., do unto others as you would have them do unto you) applied to the global marketplace. The Living Principles is in a nascent stage, being shepherded by Tomorrow Partners in Berkeley with the AIGA Center for Sustainability and other design-related organizations.

OPEN QUESTIONSHow do you affect positive change in anything? Conditions have to be intolerable so that many people are compelled to act—and get involved, not just at a surface level, creating a paradigm shift. Besides designers, corporations, thought leaders, schools and institutions need to be engaged. Are we in the user empathy phase? Who is walking the walk or are more just talking the talk? Who is a designer? What does the title mean? Where are the comparable design thinking models that have worked? Part two of this article in the September/October Design Annual will delve into all of this. ca

1. There were three Shakers remaining in the world in 2009.
2. embraceglobal.org.
3. valcasey.com.
4. browercenter.org.
5. businessinnovationfactory.com.
6. designersaccord.org.
7. Two other sets of similar guidelines are provided for corporate and educational adopters.
8. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/First_Things_First_2000_manifesto.

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.

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