The hidden skill: thinking in systems

Design started as an aesthetic activity. Industrial designers were frequently called upon to “do the plastics” and wrap components in a pretty shell. But even before the design thinking madness took over, designers have been advancing their purview and perspective, and exploring more and more of design problems and opportunities.

The focus on digital experiences became a way for designers to consider larger and larger parts of a problem space, like interactions that occur over time. As problems themselves became more and more confusing, some designers have learned to adopt a “systems stance” to design. But what does it mean?

Scientist and Author Donella Meadows dedicated her career to advancing systems thinking in environmental science. Her consideration of systems found in nature have strong parallels to the systems we find in technological culture. She explains that the components of systems are interconnected in a way as to produce their own behavior patterns over time. That’s pretty compelling, and somewhat controversial: it means that there’s no direct causality in a system. We aren’t hapless puppets, but we can’t take all of the credit or the blame for things like successful product innovations or failed startups. As she describes, “something about statements like these is deeply unsettling… we have been taught to analyze, to use our rational ability, to trace direct paths from cause to effect, to look at things in small and understandable pieces, to solve problems by acting on or controlling the world around us.” (pdf) But these systems have behavior of their own, outside of any of our individual actions or reactions.

The “system-ness”, at least in the human-made world, emerges and hides as we zoom in and out.

thinking in systems


Consider a coffee maker, a simple $17.99 Mr. Coffee from Amazon. It boasts an indicator light, a filter basket, a “pause n’ serve” sensor, a window to see the water level, a clock, an alarm, a delay-brew feature, and cord storage. Almost incidentally, it also makes coffee.

A product perspective views the coffee maker as a discrete, finite, understandable object. We can see it and touch it, and there it is. Those things – the light, the basket, the clock – are features of the product, and through a product lens, that’s all there is to the thing.

A systems perspective allows us to zoom around the concept of coffee-ness. We can:

  • Zoom around the functional qualities of the coffee maker. It has a heating element. How does that work? Electricity flows through it, it glows hot, and converts electricity into heat. How does electricity work? Electrons move over wires, carrying electrical charges. How did the electrons get in the house
  • Zoom around the delivery qualities of the coffee maker. You bought it from Amazon. How did it arrive at your house? On a UPS truck. How did it get on the UPS truck? It was picked up at an Amazon loading facility. How was it sorted correctly to arrive there?
  • Zoom around the production qualities of the coffee maker. Where was it made? In a facility in China. How? The body was injection molded. How does injection molding work? Plastic pellets are melted and forced into a mold. How is the mold made?

A system is hard to think of. It’s hard to hold the whole thing in your mind at once, because there is no single whole thing. Systems thinking is to think around the problem, and in many modern-day design problems, this thinking around the problem is a core skill.

thinking in systems


This is a skill that can be taught and learned. I learned it during my undergraduate education, training to be an industrial designer, in a class called How Things Work.

One of our first tasks was to buy a coffee maker and take it apart. We looked at the components, drew them, and diagrammed the relationships between parts. For many students, this is the first time they’ve ever peered below the plastic to really understand how things work, and why they work. This simple exercise acts as a basic for system thinking, because it identifies that a product is more than what it appears to be. When the machine is plugged in, coffee doesn’t flow out immediately, and there’s a practical reason for why not. A diagram becomes a way of communicating the behavior of this simple system.

It’s a local system, and is fairly well contained. Variability in the system comes from repeated use, from people doing weird things like forgetting to clean the carafe, and from anomalies in electricity to the house.

Now, students are asked to put it in a broader system. Just like we can take apart the coffee maker, we can take apart the market around it. Zoom around the political qualities of the coffee maker. Why is it only $17.99? It’s all about volume and cheap materials. The manufacturing plant cut a deal with Mr. Coffee based on quantity produced. How did they make the deal? The head of production met with the head of manufacturing. How did they know each other? A friend introduced them.

Consider the production and distribution part of coffee-maker-making. A coffee maker has a metal base. The production facility has sheets of metal. They buy them from a sheet metal distributor, who buys raw bauxite from a production company, who mines it in Africa. Everything is going great, and then the US President – under pressure from the American coffee maker making industry – imposes tariffs on Chinese imports of Mr. Coffee Coffee Makers. Prices go up; sales go down. Mr. Coffee stops producing so many units, requiring less sheet metal, resulting in less need for raw materials, and so-on. And these situations aren’t static. The tariff happens, it goes away; one country creates sanctions while another removes them. Businesses discontinue product lines and add new ones. Consumers change their coffee drinking habits. The system ebbs and flows.

thinking in systems


Systems thinking is provoked by asking “How” questions. How did it get there? How does it work? This seems like a search for root-cause, but it’s not: it’s an exploration around the concept of the system. At every single question-node, there are infinite directions to follow the thread, into topics of engineering, culture, economics, and on and on. The threads are interconnected and the system exhibits its own behavior.

Design strategy is steeped in systems. A new product or service naturally exists in the context of a business, a market, a brand, customers, and employees. Design is uniquely positioned to describe the system, because systems are best described in diagrams. Sketching the system components, sketching the variability in the system, sketching the flow of information, or knowledge, or ideas: these sketches become roadmaps for navigating system complexity.

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