top of page
  • Admin

UNPACKING "System-Shifting Design"

Updated: Nov 14, 2022


NextD Journal today published a peer review of an important design community document related to the ever-evolving Design for Complexity Movement.

The review document: "System-Shifting Design, An Emergent Practice Explored”, authored by Cat Drew, Cassie Robinson and Jennie Winhall in collaboration with 40+ design experts was published by the Design Council in the United Kingdom in 2021.

Our readers may know; Humantific is the corporate sponsor of NextD Journal and GK VanPatter is the founding Editor.

Read GK VanPatter's contribution to the review comments below and you can read the entire peer review on the NextD Journal site

Invited Contributors: Alan Arnett (UK), Geoff Elliott (UK), Daniel Engelberg (Canada), Peter Jones (Canada), Roger James (UK), Arvind Lodaya (India), Sunil Malhotra (India), Pascal Wicht (Switzerland), GK VanPatter (USA)

NextD Journal has for more than a decade been journalistically covering a change phenomenon underway across multiple channels, moving at different speeds, inside the emerging practice design community. Some channels have been prescient, active early and moving rapidly, while at the opposite end of the continuum, others were late arriving and slow moving. It's a diverse, mixed bag of community changemaking.

In this regard I might begin here by pointing out to our NextD Journal readers that the channel focused on adding a version of systems thinking to design, described in the Design Council report entitled; System-Shifting Design is just one of several streams within the broader Design for Complexity Movement. To keep it simple; The Design Council document is not a picture of the emerging practice design community but rather a picture of one channel within that community. It is a community of communities that has existed for some time, largely flying under the mainstream radar, with much knowledge already codified and in forward motion.

Honestly, I had to walk around the block a couple of times after reading the Design Council document. For seasoned veterans of the complexity arenas it's a bit of a head spinner. While walking I said to myself: No wonder so many folks find these subjects confusing and confused!

Clearly the Design Council report is a well-meaning document. Lots of work went into it. The problem is it contains a rather odd mix of dueling tonalities, truths, untruths, misinformed criticism, forceful false straw man arguments, substantial omissions, presumptions and optimistic, adventuresome speculations, all mixed into one bundle being packaged under the banner of “emerging practice”.

To be brief, suffice it to say the Design Council document does not reflect where the emerging practice community is, but rather where the Systemic Design channel is or at least where the Design Council folks think it is.

There are many things I could say about this Design Council report, however in the interest of your time and mine I will share five, hopefully helpful mini-perspectives here. For methods-oriented practitioners there are more than a few head-scratcher moments in the Systems-Shifting Design report. The continuing mission of NextD Journal is community sensemaking.


Over the years we have noticed that “The State of the World” messaging in the design community typically has two central parts to it: Part 1: Messaging that the world outside is changing, is seriously broken and challenges facing our organizations, communities and planet earth are becoming more complex. Part 2: Questioning what internally the design community is going to do in response? Response Option A; Change nothing as design / design thinking is in fine shape. Response Option B; We need to change our ways, create alternate tracks through the forest.

Since 2005 we have seen numerous versions of this two-part dance messaging pop-up and either be embraced or ignored. Response Option A remains wildly popular in the mainstream design community and certainly in many graduate design academic circles. The arriving Design Council Report is a 2021 version of that two-part dance, leaning towards Response Option B. It is Option B that underlies the Design for Complexity Movement.

The reports depiction of the external world in a brokenish dysfunctional state is not exactly a breaking news flash but is probably the one aspect of the report that most could agree on. I found this high-altitude part of the report to be constructive, well written and clear.

It is typically in the second part of the dance that problems arise. Strong on the front end it is when the Design Council report wades into methods commentary that its tonalities change and its strengths dissipate.

Journalistically speaking, the one puzzling, close to community aspect that is not contained in the report introduction regarding the messy world and its relationship to design is why it has taken so long for the design community, the design education community in particular, to acknowledge need for methods change.

It is no secret that all during the design thinking popularity era many high profile graduate design schools have been engaged in a rather forceful narrative, often heavily defended, insisting that design thinking is all one needs to address any kind or scale of problem. A high profile 2015 article appearing in Harvard Business Review as Design Thinking Comes of Age played along with that narrative. In many, not all neighborhoods, that depiction went on and on for years. Some are still at it.

In the design community, particularly in design education, it seems to be easier to point out what’s problematic in the big bad world outside then it is to approach the subject of what is problematic inside with current designerly methods. When it comes to the latter, lots of confusing spin-shifting tends to appear.

Journalistically speaking the change of heart and the now in progress, wider waking up to need for change emerging into view is an important part of the bumpy community changemaking story. Unfortunately, this part of the story is largely missing from the Design Council document as is rendition of who the folks were pointing out this need for change in the direction of complexity more than a decade ago. A little more authentic community context would have helped readers place the ambitious Design Council report in realistic context. Many shades of we don’t know what we don't know seem to be present in the Design Council document.


If I had to choose one odd, head-scratcher depiction that exemplifies, from a methods perspective, the confusion in the document it would be this highly critical, misinformed concoction aimed at creative problem solving methodology:

Design is billed as creative problem-solving, delivering workable solutions to discrete problems. This means the design process is most often taken to be a process of defining – or isolating– a problem and resolving it through a product or service solution.”

Huh? Holy mixed up methods! What is that doing there? First up, I hope our readers recognize that CPS (creative problem solving) is an entire, super active community of practice outside of design, with a deep methods R&D history that predates the design methods movement.

Since it is well known that it is design / design thinking methodology, not creative problem solving methodology that has baked-in assumptions regarding product, service and experience, let’s get our brains around what telling readers the exact opposite in this Design Council report does to the sensemaking around this subject, to the credibility of that document, to the Design Council and even to the subject of Systemic Design itself.

Anyone attending even an introductory CPS workshop would know this. One might wonder how could a panel of 40+ design experts be so misinformed? I have my doubts that the miscasting of CPS seen in the report came from the three primary authors. It does however sound very much like a well-known, uninformed differentiating effort published by one of the “Designer Contributors” in 2015. It was and is a mixed-up, upside-down, false straw-man argument construction detached from reality. I was surprised to see it imported into the Design Council document.

To be clear to our readers: Unlike what is stated in the Design Council report: CPS does not jump off from “briefs”. That's design / design thinking. CPS is not about “delivering workable solutions to discrete problems.” That's design / design thinking. CPS is not about “isolating a problem and resolving it through a product or service solution. That's design / design thinking.

CPS methods make no upfront assumptions regarding challenge or outcome paths. In high contrast, design / design thinking methods do contain upfront challenge and solution path assumptions regarding products, services, experiences baked right into the process.

To be clear: Current conventional design thinking, based on design methods, is assumption boxed downstream methodology. CPS is assumption free upstream methodology. I’m referring to not the philosophy, but rather the actual methodology.

With such upside-down misinformation being broadcast by the design community itself no wonder these subjects are confused. It is no secret that consuming misinformation is how communities and their clients get confused. Why would such a high-flying Design Council report be down such an upside-down, gas-lighten path? How did that happen and what are the implications?

Many of our readers will know that if the factual realities of design / design thinking methods are missed in design community problem finding, a key building block in design for complexity awareness is missed. To keep it simple: the complexity that must be faced is on the other side of product, service and experience assumptions that are deeply embedded in design and design thinking methods. In NextD Journal we have been talking about, writing about the need to make that jump beyond product, service, experience for years and years. For this Design Council document to be presenting in 2021 a false picture, depicting CPS as stuck there is bonkers, a complete misrepresentation.

Truth be told: Upstream in its basic orientation, most leading innovation practices have long since integrated aspects of CPS into their hybrid methods, especially on the front end. Since CPS contains numerous strategically useful gold nuggets, including open systemic challenge framing, not present in design or systems thinking what a shame it is to see such an unenlightened false straw man argument injected into such an important design community document.

While the report points to well-known societal problems it misses the crucial point that most of the challenges facing changemakers in everyday practice are not defined, waiting on a table to be selected and worked on. What that means is that the tools and skills for working downstream on defined challenges are rather different from the tools and skills needed to work upstream on undefined, fuzzy situations. It is in the CPS toolbox, not the design / design thinking toolbox, not the systems thinking toolbox that you find the tools and skills to undertake upstream systemic challenge framing, so you see how tragic it is for the Design Council document to be miscasting CPS. Talk about shooting oneself in the foot and so unnecessarily!

It’s certainly a bit of a head twister and rather tragic to see that miscasting others is how the design community tackles its own problem finding around its own methods. One might wonder: How the hell did that misrepresentation get out the Design Council door?

For seasoned methods-oriented practitioners this kind of stuff grows weary.

Seeing the false constructions, one might wonder if it is possible for Systems-Shifting Design, Systemic Design to build a differencing approach without having to utilize uninformed false, straw man arguments.

False straw man arguments work only if your audience is isolated, engaged in narrow casting and inter-tribal Kool-Aid consumption. Recognized as signs of weakness, not strength, false straw man arguments become instant red flags, dead on arrival when posted into the cross-community collective.

Talking up the future, while depending on old tribal false argument constructions is a formula, not just for confusion making, but for advancing no real progress. Such dynamics do not belong in emerging practice.


Remarkably, rather oddly, sadly, a similar unenlightened head scratcher miscasting can be seen in the Design Council reports depiction of Complexity Navigation. WTF? The report authors seem to be unaware that Complexity Navigation is an already present, already operating approach inside the emerging practice community, inside the Design for Complexity Movement, with much upstream knowledge already in codified form.

Since Humantific has been engaged with Complexity Navigation for more than a decade, teaching organizational leaders upstream sensemaking and changemaking skills we know the Design Council depiction to be not just amateurish and misinformed but flat-out wrong. In Complexity Navigation it is already known that adding one ingredient to design is not going to be a magic elixir for the complexities of Design Arena 3 or Arena 4.

Complexity Navigation has already integrated and codified, not one, but many ingredients, from outside of design, including systemic challenge mapping, cognitive inclusion, psychological safety and inclusive culture building which are not found in design / design thinking, systems thinking or Systemic Design.

To be clear: The terrain that Complexity Navigation is preparing changemaking oriented folks to work in is not the terrain where the challenges are sitting on the table. The skills we have been teaching organizational leaders for a decade in our Complexity Navigation Program are far beyond those being depicted in the report as needed for Systemic Design.

Unfortunately presented in the report was a complete misrepresentation of Complexity Navigation in real world practice. How do such mistseps happen? Why the Design Council would embark down such a misinformed, amateurish depiction path is a bit of a mystery. Why rain into methods related subjects that the assembled report team clearly knows nothing about? Again, false argument constructions tend to not hold water when posted into the cross community collective. The believability of the Design Council report was not enhanced by the hurtling of those rather naive, unenlightened miscastings.

Considering the pressing issues that many of our communities are facing, we believe the design community owes the rapidly arriving future, the next generation in our own community better, more enlightened, more useful, more honest insights.

Again, the Design for Complexity Movement is bigger than the Systems-Shifting Approach.


Our long time readers will know that before we wrote the book; Rethinking Design Thinking: Making Sense of the Future that Has Already Arrived we not only studied and worked the subject for many years as practitioners but we conducted considerable community research published via NextD Journal. All of that gave us a detailed understanding of the current state as well as the challenges facing design in the context of rising complexity, from a methods perspective. Since sensemaking is the focus of that book we included 10 Secrets of Design Thinking depicting current problematics as well as 25 Suggested Change Avenues.

Swimming in those waters for many years we have noticed that there seems to be two schools of thought, two approaches to problem finding/acknowledgement regarding what is depicted in the Design Council Report as “The Design We Have & The Design We Need” and “Characteristics of Current Practice”.

One often appearing approach is known to us as the Avoidance School of design methods problem finding which tends to differ significantly from the Authentic School of problem finding.

The Avoidance School tends to approach design related problem finding as a dance-around, often taking into consideration the academic politics of tenure track, etc. The practice-based Authentic School of problem finding/acknowledgement is sensemaking oriented and tenure track considerations are not in the mix there.

We view that two schools picture as common in a complex world. It’s good to have choices and so be it. Readers of the Design Council report can decide for themselves which school of problem finding is present in the depiction that appears in “The Design We Have & The Design We Need.”

What we do know from a real world practice perspective is that dance-around problem finding/problem acknowledgement tends to provide a foggy foundation for charting meaningful change. Poor problem finding, poor problem acknowledgment might be great for egos but leads to lack-luster, misdirected changemaking and alternate path creation.

Of course someone might ask: What does it mean to be miscasting alternate approaches already operating while miscasting the current problems with designerly methods? What does that picture mean and what are its implications?


The Design Council document suggests: “Many have embraced systems thinking as a tool to understand the nature of these complex systemic challenges.”

That is the view from the Systemic Design channel. While that is true, it is at best an over-simplification. We might point out the broader picture is that not everyone in the Design for Complexity Movement has placed the same emphasis on systems thinking, not everyone sees it as a new ingredient capable of driving the train, not everyone subscribes to the idea that systems thinking contains tools that will help overcome current shortcomings of designerly methods for use in the context of the complexity arenas, not everyone embraces the often stiff, hubristic, engineering oriented systems language and logic.

In addition, some in the community believe that the thinking holistically part of systems thinking has been inside strategic design and transformation design for more than a decade. Not one, but rather many perspectives on systems thinking exist within the Design for Complexity Movement.

Certainly seasoned veterans well know that as a stand-alone offering systems thinking has been around the consulting block a few times already in the organizational change arena without strong/broad uptake.

In the big picture sense, the jury remains out on the calibration of systems thinking, as just one of numerous dimensions being added to conventional design / design thinking. Diverse perspectives on those questions and on that calibration have already resulted in other approaches outside the Systemic Design logic including Complexity Navigation and Meta Design.

If we take the report literally and look at the “Systems Innovation Capabilities” suggested in the Design Council document which include: “Integrative thinking, Abductive Reasoning, Perspective-Taking, Proportionality, Reflexivity, Synthesis”, none of those are exclusive to systems thinking or to design. Most would be considered Level 1 skills in Complexity Navigation. To be clear to our readers, those skills alone are nowhere near enough to be operating in the arenas of fuzzy organizational and societal complexity.

While the report encourages engagement with so-called wicked problems, there are a few key distinguishing features of the opportunity space missing. We would, from a practice perspective be happy to share that there is a lot of operational possibility space between world peace size problems and the current state of design / design thinking, fixated on assuming everything is a product, service or experience problem.

Vast quantities of fuzzy complex problematics exist there in the complexity arenas of organizational and societal contexts. Not everyone is going to be working on world peace. The reality is that most of the emerging practice community will be working on that in-between complexity space for decades to come.

Since the challenges are not all framed up sitting on the table in the form of design briefs or systems to be selected in those arenas, the ability to work in that in-between space of high complexity upstream from outcome assumptions is extremely important. Truth be told: Upstream open challenge framing originates in the CPS community. Root cause analysis (The 5 Whys) does not create systemic pictures of challenge constellations.


The reports states “It is not yet clear if we have the right ways to address complex issues.”

With this statement we would agree and thus see the Design for Complexity Movement as having multiple channels running, not just Systemic Design. The giant presumptuous misstep of the Design Council report was to position its Systems-Shifting Design/ Systemic Design as the self-proclaimed parent. Too much work has been done by too many others for that narrowing presumption to fly.

In fairness to all parties, all channels and in consideration of the timeline, it is not so much about everyone building on the Design Council's Systems-Shifting perspective and more about all parties recognizing that others are already involved in these arenas across more than one approach.

Once we understand and acknowledge that multiple channels already exist within the emerging practice community and the Design for Complexity Movement, then numerous outstanding questions tend to appear.

Currently Complexity Navigation, Meta Design, Transition Design, OpenFrame Design and Systemic Design are all present in differing stages of development and codification. Some are based in and originate from academia. Some in and from practice. Some have longstanding skill-building programs built on codified knowledge and some do not. Some are geared towards teaching students in academia, some towards teaching organizational leaders. Others are likely percolating somewhere. What the similarities and differences are, what lessons have already been learned and how they might apply to various complex situations is not yet clear. The movement is now maturing and transitioning to the era of such questions.

It’s a good moment for NextD Journal to be clear that from our perspective, the foundation of the movement that we have been covering and will continue to cover is the condition of perceived complexity and not the single solution option of adding systems thinking to design. It is certainly conceivable in the present and emerging that some approach variations might construct in ways that result in design and systems thinking being on the train, but not driving it.

As we work on Book 2 of Innovation Methods Mapping focused on Design for Complexity the question we ask is not whether an approach in review centers around systems thinking or not but rather simply; Is it operating beyond the assumptions of product, service and experience in either the organizational or societal complexity arena?

In close reading of the Design Council report it was noted that not one but rather two tonalities are present there. The rather forceful tonalities of the miscasting seemed to be at odds with a later appearing in the document, warmer invitation to somehow collaborate, share knowledge in the future.

While there is no formal community mechanism in place for cross-channel sharing and learning from each other, it seems rather obvious that such possibilities necessitate the respectful jettisoning of false straw man constructions and miscasting. Working across communties in hybrid form is already the way most leading innovation practices operate. It requires an open, cross-community mindset.

All considered, it seems likely that multiple channels of changemaking are going to be present in the emerging practice community and the various complexity arenas for some time.

Last month, I was invited to speak at the dSchool Africa Conference where the positioning of the shiny new school remains steadfast on Design Thinking and the terms “Reframe, Rethink, Resolve Real World Problems” and “Practical Problem Solving”.

Suffice it to say that the graduate design academies are going to need all the help they can get to deliver on such promises and more beyond in the age of complexity recognition.

Most of us are well aware that the clocks are ticking.

Hope this was helpful NextD Journal readers.


Image credits: Rethinking Design Thinking: Making Sense of the Future that has Already Arrived, Humantific 2021.

Previously Published in this NextD Journal series:


Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page