Taking a design turn in my systems practice

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Updated 15 February 2011

(Activity 2.33)

Ison (2010, 260-262) describes the concept of a ‘design turn’.  I am finding it one of the more difficult concepts to get a handle on so I will use this post to explore my understanding of the concept and apply it to my systems practice.

Before I do, I want to quote what is – to date – my biggest and most significant insight from studying TU812.  Of course, I kind of knew it before but having it pointed out made me realise its significance:

The direct consequence of the profound changes in the character and role of organised knowledge is that the future most now be regarded as increasingly a human artefact – an art-in-fact.  The future can no longer be regarded as a natural object, a fact already there or objectively determined by present trends.  It must be chosen.

Hooker (1992) cited in Ison (2010, 261)

So this is why design is important.  It is part of the way we choose the future.  Every design will create ripples that becomes its legacy or artefact.  So what is design?

Ison says:

Design is an involvement in an activity that has many players and that translates human culture, technology and aspirations into form (page 260)

My musings on this include:

– Design is an activity – a practice – a designer designs (verb) to come up with a design (noun) – and I guess this involves a relational dynamic between the practitioner, their framework of ideas, methods and situation.  All of these will have a history and a context that shaped them.

– Design includes many players – something that co-evolves and adapts along the way depending on what emerges from the interactions of those involved.  This would mean you only really know the design in retrospect – after enactment.

– Ison’s definition also gives the sense of a transformation process with inputs of “human culture, technology and aspirations” and outputs of “form”.  “Form” is something tangible – experienced, enacted, maybe even touched.

– I’ve just read Wikipedia’s entry on Design [accessed 16 Jan 2011] – I had no idea this was such a contested idea! It covers two contrasting ways of conceptualising the design process – the rational model and the action-centric model.  I think the action-centric one resonates with what we are covering here.  One of the aspects of this is conceptualising design activities as moving between sensemaking-implementation-co-evolution.

Now let’s bring in the word ‘turn’ – this seems to be about a change or a shift.  In systems practice, it seems to be shifts that entail the following:

– view of system as having ontological status to a view of system as an epistemic device (a way of knowing or doing)

– a solely first order logic (I have designed a system that will…) to include a second-order logic (this system was enacted and experienced as a system to…)

– understandings where “goal seeking behaviour is the norm, control is considered possible and designs have a blueprint quality” (page 262) to understanding that design is a performance where the designer “acts with awareness”.

– design as the solitary activity of a designer to participation in design

So like all practices, we must consider ‘design’ as one including a context, a person (or people) and tools and methods. And, each element of that practice has a history that can be explored. It is a practice that emerges in social relations – whether you are practicing ‘good design’ depends on the evaluation of an observer.

I am still grappling a little but if I think of my work which is essentially about change, the design turn would be to conceptualise and conduct that work as a learning system rather than traditional blueprint goal-oriented plans.  I think I have been making this shift for a while already though it has not been as purposeful as I have just expressed.  I definitely avoid drawing up blueprint plans wherever possible and if I do have to do them I tend to organise the process of developing them as a process of discussion and learning amongst stakeholders.  This is one of those areas that so much depends on the context – the vicious cycle – in order to make systemic actions culturally feasible you need to change the culture but you can only change the culture by taking systemic actions rather than systematic ones and you cannot take these actions because…

Update 15 February 2011

I did further work on developing my understanding of a ‘design turn’ for a course assignment.  This is how I managed to pull my thoughts together in about 200 words:

Ison (2010, 27) provides an explanation of systems practice as being made up of systematic and systemic practice. Furthermore, he invites his readers to make a choice to regard this pairing as a duality – two parts of a whole (ibid, 191) with the systematic nested in the systemic. Later in the book, he explains his perspective that “when managing or engaging in messy situations, it is usually more appropriate to approach the task systemically” (ibid, 191).

To me ‘taking a design turn’ in my systems practice is about deliberately setting out with a systemic perspective, rather that defaulting to systematic thinking and practice. This comes with systemic awareness.

In designing my systemic approach, for example using systemic inquiry, I need to act with awareness that the design has implications for the future. I need to view systems as epistemic devices (“processes as part of an inquiry” (ibid, 52)), rather than having ontological status (existing in the ‘real-world’).

Design entails acting purposefully, not creating blueprints that assume certainty into the future. It also involves recognising both first order logic (I have designed a learning system that will..) and second order logic (when enacted this system was experienced as a system that…). (ibid, 261)


Ison, R. (2010) Systems Practice: how to act in a climate-change world, Springer/Open University, London/Milton Keynes

2 thoughts on “Taking a design turn in my systems practice

  1. Hi Helen
    just popped by to escape the mess of my blog and seek solace in one easier to follow – so thankyou. You description of Design is very close to how i work as a graden designer – I will meet with a client view their space and discuss why they called me and what they hope to achieve – with this info and the aspects of the space I will then formulate a concept sketch ( no charge) i then return and go through my cartoon depiction of my understanding of what they wish shaped around my knowledge of garden design and construction – this is then the next iteration and with this both myself and client develop a stronger understanding of what we wish to achieve – this goes on to a design plan – this is a ‘greenprint'(named in an enviro module) as opposed a blueprint and allows for growth and development as understandings change…….

    I still go back after one year , two year and help tweak and learn as I am far from expert and certainly make decisions that dont work out as hoped for etc

    Turned a comment into a rough TMA outline, hope you dont mind and my rambling helps you in some way with design turns! ‘greenprint’ is a good un!

  2. Hi Dugal
    I love that – greenprint – a plan that allows for growth and development.

    When your comment came through I was staring at this post thinking that I had lost the very week grip I had on this concept. Feel a little spurred on now so thanks.


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