Where is the Thinking in
Carnegie Mellon University | email@example.com
Systems thinking has a long
history. Its influence on design
can be traced back for many
decades. However, systems thinking remains almost unknown
today among practicing designers and design researchers.
Systems thinking is relevant,
especially in light of all that is
going on in modern society.
When designers work, they commonly create two models in their
practice: a model of the current
state, describing the situation to
be improved, and a model of the
idealized future state that a design
solution will address. While these
models are useful, they can remain
high-level abstractions, failing
to document a system in detail.
Understanding how systems are
organized and analyzed and applying this understanding in moving
from an abstract model to create a
design solution are invaluable skills
The concept of a system is easy
enough to comprehend, but understanding a whole system can be
difficult. More often than not, we
can grasp only a few parts instead
of getting the whole structure.
Understanding systems can help
any designer, or anyone collaborating with a designer, to understand
the context around a problem and
how to create an actionable solution.
What is a System?
Systems are identifiable everywhere in nature and the developed world. As a young child,
you probably learned about the
solar system—a group of planets that rotate around the sun.
If you have received medical
care recently, you most likely
interacted with the healthcare
system. A local neighborhood
group may be working to save the
ecosystem in your community.
The solar system, the healthcare
system, the local ecosystem, neighborhoods, church groups, organizations, cities, and societies are all
examples of systems.
A system in its most basic defi-
nition is a whole, acting as a unit
of interacting parts. A system has
interrelated elements whose rela-
tionships are both structural and
functional. Structurally, a system
is made up of subsystems that
also contain subsystems them-
selves. Each system also relates to
greater systems in the universe.
Functionally, every part of a sys-
tem depends on other parts of the
system for something. If part of a
system changes, another part of
the system will likely also change
as a result. The emergent proper-
ties of a system are greater than
the parts of the system themselves.
A system maintains a relationship
with everything within itself and
with larger and greater systems.
How Can a Systems Approach be
used in the Design Process?
Anyone who engages in the design
process—using human power to
conceive, plan, and realize products that serve human beings in
individual or collective goals [ 1]—
engages in a systems approach.
Consider the following examples.
A simple use of a system for a
visual design is considered in this
March + April 2011