What the %*$# Is Systems Design?
A systems designer explains systems, why they need designing, and what she actually does for a living
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.
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.
Okay, so what is systems design?
In his business school lectures, Ackoff criticized managers for focusing on business silos (marketing, operations…