Returning to the ‘design turn’

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A conversation on my LinkedIn STiP alumni group has sparked me to think once again about the concept of a ‘design turn in my systems practice’.

It’s been a while so let’s recap.

I was first introduced to this whole idea whilst studying Ray Ison’s book ‘Systems practice: how to act in a climate change world’ during TU812.  I blogged about it then – trying to get my head around the whole idea and then also updated the same post with the 200 word summary I pulled together for an assignment.  However, as I mentioned in the recent LinkedIn thread, although I read about it and wrote about it and could parrot off ‘what’ the design turn meant to me – I was never really sure whether I got there – whether I had actually embodied some sort of change or really ‘got it’ in a fundamental sense.  (It’s a bit like the notion of ‘authenticity’ – how do you know when that is just naturally part of who you are.)

Later, I came across further materials on Design – and once again wrote a blog.  Once again I grappled a little – the whole notion of a design turn seems like trying to hold sand in your hand.  You think you’ve got it but then it’s not there anymore.

So when the thread kicked off in the LinkedIn group, I sighed ‘here we go again’.

From the conversation I realised that I wasn’t really sure about the concept of ‘Design’ – what it really is.  I did some searching around and came across a website on ‘Defining design‘ – the artefact of a masters student’s research into this very issue.  This website has been helpful to help me understand that:

  • design is a contested concept – which means that the word is used in lots of different ways (not surprising then that it felt difficult to grasp)
  • that the notion of design is currently ‘evolving’ from an ‘old’ definition associated with applied arts to a ‘new’ definition associated with any application of ‘knowledge’ (natural science; social science; political science; ethics) to solve a practical problem (this switch from an ‘old’ to ‘new’ positioning of the discipline is visualised in a diagram here)

Helpfully too, the website includes a whole set of ‘quotations’ offering a range of different perspectives on design.  Reading through them, the two that seem most helpful to me as I get to grips with thinking about design in the context of my practice are:

“Design is, in its most general educational sense, defined as the area of human experience, skill and understanding that reflects man’s concern with the appreciation and adaptation in his surroundings in the light of his material and spiritual needs.” ~ Bruce Archer, 1979

“Design is devising courses of action aimed at changing existing situations into preferred ones.” ~ Herbert Simon, 1969

So it seems very crudely that the notion of designing can be equated to the notion of planning.  I feel a little cautious about this though – it could so easily be understood only in terms of hard systematic thinking characterised by Checkland (1985) as oriented to goal seeking, talking the language of ‘problems’ and ‘solutions’ and assuming that the world contains systems that can be engineered (Ison refers to this as first-order designing, p262).  For me the value comes in thinking about this in a more ‘systemic’ way – about purposeful action and accepting that designing like inquiry is never ending with no ‘final’ answer.

Now I am wondering whether this matters – why does this connection with ‘design’ help me think differently about systematic and/or systemic thinking and action?  I can think of two ‘responses’ to this question.

The first is that ‘designing’ seems to connect you more with the fact that what you do – the course of actions you choose to take (and in the process not taking actions you could have taken) leaves a legacy…or an artefact.  More so than ‘planning’ it puts you in touch with the realisation that you are leading towards some sort of ‘artefact’ (some shared understandings; some practices; a way of working; a way of thinking) that then impacts on possibilities and options in the future.

The second is that connecting with ‘design’ opens up your thinking to learning from a different discipline.  It leads to the question – what can I learn about what it is that I do when I do what I do if I think about it as if it is designing?

Those involved with thinking about ‘Managing as designing’ (as mentioned in my previous post on Design) have produced a series of YouTube videos reflecting on their learning about this issue.  There are seven little videos altogether – the first two are introductory – the remainder each focus on a key concept from the world of design that are then discussed in the context of how they help in fields beyond those traditionally associated with design (like architecture).

Multiple models (click for link to YouTube video)

When thinking about complex phenomena you need multiple models.  Each model offers you different insights.  This seems very familiar as a systems thinker – I’ve come used to thinking of different concepts, or different approaches, or different diagrams as simply offering A view on the situation of concern.  What is interesting listening to the video is how they talk about the need for multiple models over time (not just at a point in time).  The contributors talk about designing being a continuous process of refinement with a model acting as a way of touching base as to where your thinking is at a point in time.  There is a concern with making sure you don’t firm up a model too much – get too attached to it, because they may make you less able to move on from it.

Thrown-ness (click for link to YouTube video)

This refers to the acknowledgement that you are ‘thrown’ into a situation where there are already things going on.  There is never a ‘blank slate’.  So in effect you are working your way through understanding an existing dynamic and trying to think about how to work to improve it.

There is an interesting distinction made in this video between ‘improvisation’ and ‘design’.  Improvisation is doing something in the moment, having an idea, then acting, without having planned or designed it.  Designing is a process of thinking in more detail before you act – an intermediary step between having an idea and doing something – it’s important when you can’t do something in one go because you need multiple people or it is too complex to get to grips with in an instant.  Getting the right balance between improvisation and design is important.

The LinkedIn conversations I had led to some interesting imagery around this – ‘like changing the wheel on a car whilst driving it’.  Or as I saw as a chapter heading in a book – ‘designing a plane whilst flying it’.  It’s kind of like it is all going on already – there is an existing flux of events and ideas and you are just becoming part of it and trying to intervene to make it go in a desirable direction.

Lots of resonances here with the whole notion of ‘managing systemic change’ and accepting that a situation is already changing.  I think thrown-ness helps emphasise the importance of pausing to ‘appreciate’ what is going on already.

Collaboration (click for link to YouTube video)

Something here that I am familiar with.  The importance of multiple, partial perspectives and the idea that no-one person has the ‘wisdom’ or ‘the answer’ in spite of the fact that culturally we ‘revere’ the leader.

There is an interesting section on the video where the contributor talks about the fact that as an idea circulates it develops and changes and this is a really important aspect of collaboration.  The ‘leader’ shouldn’t worry about their idea becoming ‘diluted’

Liquid crystal (click for link to YouTube video)

I think this is my favourite concept.  It reflects that tension between tangibility and fluidity; long and short term; creativity and constraint; technological detail and vision.  Designing – as a process – is all about ebbing and flowing between these – seeing them perhaps as dualities (rather than either/or options).

In an organisation some people may be stronger at one side rather than the other.  Good ‘organisation’ means being able to draw on these different talents simulataneously and recognising their importance.

I think that one of the reasons this concept resonates with me so much is that I ended up ‘inventing’ it for myself at the end of this blog.  I like the idea of a flux of events and ideas where every so often something more ‘tangible’ comes along.  It also really helps bring to life the relationship between the liquid of systemic inquiry and the crystal of a more bounded project (where project is temporary purposeful action).

Legacy (click for link to YouTube video)

Love this – how do we judge the value of what a manager does – the legacy they leave.  This moves beyond the share price (or the measurable outcome!) and  thinks about the gift you leave for the future – a more productive organisation; a happy workforce; an improved society; helpful technology or buildings.

It puts you in touch with your place in moving towards a more ‘worthy society’.  And that what you do (or don’t do) affects possibilities in the future.

This ‘gift’ idea seems to keep coming back to me at the moment.  Wenger (2010) in his discussion of ‘learning citizenship’ reminds me that my learning trajectory through a landscape of practices has led me to have a unique combination of skills/knowledge etc that I should see as my ‘gift’ to the world.  What legacy reminds you is that ‘gift’ isn’t just for the here and now it is for the future.


My brief inquiry into design has helped me to realise the synergies with systems thinking and practice – there seem to be lots of ways in which these five concepts originating from discussions about ‘designing’ resonate with what it is to be a systems practitioner.  So why does Ison invite a ‘design turn’ – now I have more familiarity with the nature of ‘design’, it is the word ‘turn’ that seems to be causing me problems.  There seem to be two possible ‘transformations’ that it reflects

1) a transformation from ‘no connection with design in your systems practice’ TO ‘connecting with design as a part of your systems practice’


2) a transformation from ‘first order designing’ TO ‘second order designing’.

Either way, I think I’ve now got there….for now…until that sand….

Oh, I was about to publish this post but whilst reading the preview for typos something crystallized for me out of the liquid.  Do I commit this crystal to paper or do I need it to stay fuzzy?  I think I’ll commit….

I’ve conceptualised this ‘triality’ (yes, it is a word I checked) of three different practices that are important in doing systems practice.  They are:

  • appreciating or inquiring – with a view to understanding (requiring a research attitude)
  • designing – with a view to envisage ‘what should be’ and conceptualising a course of action to get there (requiring a design attitude)
  • enacting – taking purposeful ethical action (requiring a commitment attitude)

It’s kind of like all three are going on at once but sometimes you are more aware of one than another.  All three of them require you to ‘juggle’ the B, E, C, M balls.  And all three of them need you to recognise the dimension of time – the history and the possible legacy.

One to mull over.



Checkland, P., 1985. From Optimizing to Learning: A Development of Systems Thinking for the 1990s. The Journal of the Operational Research Society, 36(9), pp.757–767.

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

Wenger (2010) Communities of Practice and Social Learning Systems: the career of a concept in Blackmore (Ed, 2010) Social Learning Systems and Communities of Practice, Open University/Springer, Milton Keynes, London.

3 thoughts on “Returning to the ‘design turn’

  1. Next day, been mulling.
    I wonder whether in fact there is a fourth element – making it a quadrality!
    The fourth element being “evaluating” – which is a bit like appreciating but more specifically about considering the impact (and therefore the value) of your purposeful action.
    I suppose it could all be viewed as some sort of ‘cycle’ or ‘process’ but I am worried that then it would just be seen with a more systematic ‘plan, do, review’ or ‘plan, do, study, act’ type of mentality.

  2. Pingback: Just Practicing − Assignment One: write a research proposal

  3. Pingback: TB872: Systemic inquiry and the ‘design turn’ – Open Thinkering

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