What the %*$# Is Systems Design?

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

Deirdre Cerminaro
Modus
Published in
7 min readAug 22, 2019

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Legos
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.”

Pause.

“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…

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