What the %*$# Is Systems Design?

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

Deirdre Cerminaro


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…