What the %*$# Is Systems Design?

A systems designer explains systems, why they need designing, and what she actually does for a living

Deirdre Cerminaro
Published in
7 min readAug 22, 2019


One of the greatest systems ever designed. Photography: Niko Zurcher

I’m in a quiet but crowded bar chatting with a friend of a friend, who inevitably asks: “So, what do you do?”

Sometimes I wish I could reply with an expected answer — doctor, lawyer, teacher, engineer, entrepreneur.

Instead, I say: “I’m a systems designer.”


“A what?” they ask.

When I started at IDEO six years ago, I had no idea what a systems designer was either. Only that I was one.

Now I have an answer, but I’m still perfecting the 30-second elevator pitch. If you’ve got four minutes, here’s what I’ve got so far.

A bar made out of Legos
Grab yourself a beverage. (I’ll have an Old Fashioned, thanks.)

What is a system?

An iPhone, the human body, buildings, cities, organizations, economies, the universe. One of these can fit in your pocket and another is infinite — what makes them all systems?

In a series of excellent lectures, Russell Ackoff, a pioneer in systems thinking and former professor at Wharton Business School, uses the analogy of an automobile to explain systems. Ackoff explains that no individual part of a car can move you from point A to point B on its own — not the wheel, axle, seat, or even the motor. But a car can. If you take apart a car, you no longer have a car, just the pieces. As Ackoff says, this is because “A system is not the sum of the behavior of its parts; it’s the product of their interactions.” This is as true for a computer as it is for the universe as it is for any other system.

A system is defined by the interactions of its parts.

Cars made of Legos
A car is a complex system.

Okay, so what is systems design?

In his business school lectures, Ackoff criticized managers for focusing on business silos (marketing, operations…



Deirdre Cerminaro
Writer for

Systems Designer at IDEO