What the %*$# Is Systems Design?

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

Deirdre Cerminaro
Aug 22, 2019 · 7 min read
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
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
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, finance). He urged his students — future managers — to take a wider systems view by understanding the interactions that create the whole.

As a business school graduate, I couldn’t agree more. But if that’s systems thinking, what about systems design? What’s the difference?

Ackoff heralded one profession for best exemplifying systems design: architecture. Architects don’t design the bedroom, kitchen, or living room separately, because these rooms need certain elements and attributes to work together and form a house. Ackoff explains, the architect “will never modify the house to improve the quality of the room, unless the quality of the house is simultaneously improved.” In other words, an architect wouldn’t make the kitchen bigger if it meant getting rid of the bathroom.

Systems design is designing the interactions between parts.

A house made of Legos
A house made of Legos
Architects grok systems.

Ah, so you’re an architect?

Not exactly, although it’s no coincidence that I used to be a designer at an architecture firm. To be more specific, I think of myself as a “human-centered systems designer” (but that doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue).

IDEO is known for human-centered design, a process that takes inspiration from the needs and aspirations of people — usually the end users of a product, service, or experience. Human-centered systems design also starts with people, but looks at all the diverse stakeholders within a system, including end users.

For example, when designing schools, students are the end users. But the needs of teachers, parents, and administrators are equally important to inspire design. A few years ago, IDEO was tasked with creating a way for schools to redesign their culture. Culture is the collective behaviors and mindsets of people. Since behaviors and mindsets are intangible, they can’t be designed directly. But you can design spaces, schedules, processes, roles, rituals, and incentives — tangible “levers for change” — to influence behaviors and mindsets, and therefore give rise to culture.

We zeroed in on the needs of school leaders who have the most control of these levers. Based on this research, we developed School Retool, a professional development program that empowers school principals to use these levers to “hack” their school culture. We provided school leaders with the framework to be empathetic and experimental systems designers at their own schools. For example, one big idea of unwalling principals’ offices makes principals more accessible to students and teachers. This creates an openness to unexpected conversations, which in turn develops a culture of trust.

When you’re designing a system with a lot of moving pieces, it’s hard to know where to start and easy to get lost in the “what ifs?” Design needs constraints, and being human-centered provides them. Human-centered systems designers are grounded in the stories and needs of people.

Human-centered systems design starts with stakeholder needs.

Lego people
Lego people
All the stakeholders (or as many LEGO people as I could find)

Got it — but why systems design?

Let’s return to my man, Russell Ackoff. He wrote, “No problem ever exists in complete isolation. Every problem interacts with every other problem and is therefore part of a set of interrelated problems, a system of problems.” Ackoff even coined a term for systems of problems — he called them “messes.”

Indeed, our biggest issues in education, health care, criminal justice, and government are systems challenges. Moreover, these are all human systems challenges — hence the importance of marrying “human” with “systems design.” When the “parts” of a system are made up of people, complexity is exponentially high because human feelings and needs are unpredictable and constantly changing. Despite good intentions, these important existing societal systems can be some of the least human-centered experiences we encounter.

None of these problems can be solved in isolation, but it’s easy to get a headache just thinking about tackling these “messes.” We need human-centered systems design because it puts empathy and optimism where we need them most, by putting the needs of people at the center of our most complex challenges.

Human-centered systems design brings empathy to complexity.

Lego people in a classroom
Lego people in a classroom
Our most complex systems need human-centeredness the most.

So, what do you actually do?

The field of design is enormously broad, encompassing the practices of interaction design, graphic design, industrial design, design research, and more. As a systems designer, I specialize in zooming in and out. I’m constantly jumping back and forth between the big picture and the little details. I work with teams to bring the best of all disciplines together to design individual elements that form an integrated, cohesive experience for end users. I ask questions like “How might the environment support the new behaviors we’re trying to create? How might digital tools enable a new mindset? How might trends in other adjacent systems — like health care, for example — interact with our current systems design challenge?” I create intentional interactions between parts.

In some ways, systems design isn’t new — many products are complex systems in and of themselves. But designing for complex human systems is pushing and extending the methodologies, mindsets, and questions systems designers are asking. We’re using new tools, such as systems maps, and looking to new areas, like evidence-based research, for inspiration. With IDEO’s new capabilities in data science, for instance, we’re increasingly thinking about how to design not just learning systems, but systems that learn.

So, if we meet someday in a quiet but crowded bar, you already know the answer to “What do you do?” But I have some questions for you: How does systems design relate to what you do? What human systems do you interact with everyday? Think about it: The bus you ride is part of the city system, and the lunch you eat is a part of the greater food system. Even the simple act of washing your hands plays a role in your immune system and the public health system. How do these interactions and parts influence the larger system, and how could these systems be more human-centered?

You never know — you could be a budding systems designer.

Thank you to my human system of editors (Sally Madsen, Rachel Young, Heather Emerson, Sandy Speicher, Sarah Codraro, Mat Chow, English Taylor, Sarah Rich, and Sean Hewens), LEGO builder (Andy Deakin), and photographer (Niko Zurcher). If you’d like to develop a crush on Russell Ackoff (or just learn more about systems thinking from a sharp-witted professor), I highly recommend these three videos, which I’ve paraphrased above.


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