Why Is Design Always Talking About Complexity?
By Jarrett Fuller
March 8, 2023
One of the biggest shifts in the history of design is the move from object to system. Historically, design could feel superficial — something that happened at the end of a process to help a product or service go to market. No longer relegated to mere decorating, design is integral to the entire process. No longer is it merely designing a product but also designing the systems that surround it. Design, and designers, are involved in increasingly complex systems to help think about the development of products, processes, organizations, and cultures. In many ways, the role of the designer is more intangible than ever, yet it is also more important. What does it mean to be a designer when the thing you are designing isn’t always a clear, physical object? How does a designer find their place — and their purpose — within a system where what the asks are are not always clear? How does the role of the designer change when design’s role moves from the object to the system?
Two ID professors who have thought about these questions a lot are Kim Erwin and Maura Shea. Kim is an associate professor of practice at ID and the director of the Equitable Healthcare Action Lab. As an expert in healthcare design, she applies design methods to complex systems and develops novel solutions to address healthcare’s frontline problems.
Maura, also an associate professor of practice, focuses on evolving community-led development methods and approaches. At ID, she co-leads the Food Systems Action Lab that explores ways to make local food systems more visible to the network of organizations, institutions, and individuals within them.
JF— Maura, you’ve done a lot of work on thinking about belonging, and community, and collaboration. Can you talk about your work and research, and the types of classes that you’re teaching?
MS— I came across a guidebook that was published in the early ’90s when I was in the YMCA’s archives that resonated with me because I recognized in my work in national nonprofit networks how important the position of design needs to be informed by the assets that exist in any community. I’m really interested in being influenced by other fields and other ways of thinking about the human experience beyond what human-centered design has offered me.
So I’m currently teaching some core research courses, but I’m also teaching a course that focuses on how we can actually scrutinize the design process and the role of the designer from an approach, which came out of the School of Social Policy at Northwestern University and is currently at the DePaul University Steans Center, that centers asset-based community development. Asset-based community development is a way to recognize the assets that already exist in a community, rather than looking at a community around a problem. That’s very deficit-minded. So to instead be asset-minded helps us to actually say, “What are the conditions for change? Where are those voices within a community that actually can drive, direct, and ideally, sustain, whatever changes they want to make? How can design build a context, build support for, and enable, in whatever way is appropriate, the kind of conditions for social impact and social change?”
JF— Kim, you’ve done a lot of work around healthcare design. Can you talk about that work in the classes that you’re teaching?
KE— I stumbled into healthcare in 2013 when I was invited to participate in a randomized clinical trial to help develop the core intervention in that trial, which turned out to be a piece of communication that is supposed to be delivered by doctors to patients in the emergency department, especially to the pediatric patient population. I really didn’t know why I was involved. I went to the first meeting, they passed the intervention around and I took one look at it and thought, “Okay, I know what I could do here.” It was something that had a lot of technical and thoughtful information from somebody who thinks about things in a medical sense but wasn’t remotely usable not just from an information design perspective but also just from a cultural perspective. How do you give this to parents, especially in the low-income communities that they were supposed to be targeting? That was my introduction and it snowballed from there.
Kim Erwin and Graduate Students at the Equitable Healthcare Action Lab
I’ve been incorporating that into coursework at the Institute of Design in various ways. I just finished teaching my first Healthcare Design class where the focus is introducing students to the complex, invisible, living web of systems that hold current practices in place. Pretty much anyone can walk into a health system and go, “We could do better than this” but there’s a reason that it’s the way it is, and it’s not for the lack of knowledge. No one more than healthcare providers understands how poorly structured the care delivery system is in the United States. It’s not willful. It’s not intentional. That particular course is about how to apprehend the multi-system that is healthcare and figure out design’s role in impacting that. Designers don’t — and shouldn’t — own the agenda in healthcare. But you need background knowledge. You need domain knowledge. That is what I attempt to do.
I also run healthcare workshops, which bring in sponsored projects. As I like to tell my students, “The problem in healthcare is not the lack of ideas. It’s getting anything to happen at all.”
JF— For so long and for so many different types of design, the cliche that we always hear is that “design is problem-solving”. When you think about design that way, that leads to particular types of practices and particular types of processes. What changes when we shift from being problem solvers to asset identifiers? How does that change the role of the designer or the way the designer works within these systems?
MS— It’s not that problems don’t exist. It’s not some overly optimistic stance. It’s starting from a position of acknowledging and taking inventory of the assets that exist. When you’re working within social systems — communities, health systems, or even university systems — they have social dynamics that are complex. By visualizing those assets across multi-layered systems, we can begin to perceive in new ways the context we’re working in. That inherently will affect the ways we define what opportunities there are for design, who should be involved, what kind of objectives and outcomes we’re after, and how we would possibly measure any results that we’re pursuing.
When I was at IDEO, we would say, “Design is about keeping your head in the clouds and your feet on the ground.” Which is cute but what we’re trying to do is make positive systemic societal change so we have to be reality-focused. We have to know who is owning any intervention, any solution, any shift of the context, or the conditions for the system to function within. Often that’s not the designer.
JF— Kim mentioned earlier that designers can’t solve healthcare because designers aren’t qualified. So designers have to ask, “Well, what is our role? What do we bring to these complex systems? What are the ways we can identify our set of skills and match those to the issues at hand?” How do you work with students to give them the tools to be able to enter into a diverse, complex, complicated community and find their place or where design is helpful? Which is to say, in finding where design is helpful, it’s also identifying where design is not helpful and not needed sometimes.
MS— A lot of it is about helping to build capacities to see what alternatives are available where you’re role-modeling alternative ways of doing things. For example, I’m co-leading a Food Systems Action Lab with Professor Weslynne Ashton, and what we’re trying to do there is help facilitate how food waste is prevented, upcycled, or directed in the right direction. That’s a workflow process. Just like Kim said about the health system, those workflows are designed in very specific ways over many, many years, and often for good reason. Designers generally have to get acquainted with those workflows.
A workflow is a way of connecting nodes. It’s about understanding actors in a system, and how the interactions between those actors exist. It’s taking an inventory of how those things interact. Then we can understand where those shifts in the system might work differently. That’s an imagineering role. That is very hard for the folks who are doing the day-to-day work. They’re very committed to keeping the trains running on time so to shift operations like this takes some courage, and not everybody has that creative courage.
JF— Kim, in healthcare specifically, how do you think about how designers find their place in a system like that that is cultural, political, professional?
KE— I focus on this idea of the multisystem. Jay Doblin in 1987, before he passed away, left us with one last brilliant piece of writing that he called, in true Jay Doblin terms, “A Short, Grandiose Theory of Design.” He wrote that designers have to understand that there are at least three levels of complexity. Products are the first level. At the product level, there’s a finite number of features and performance features that somebody needs to manage and these sorts of things.
Next is systems. Systems-level design puts a product into a context and says, “There are many more forces at work that this product has to be situated in.” If you’re designing an airline seat, for example, you have to start thinking about how people order food, where they put their baggage, or how the seat fits into the temporary communal aspect of flying.
Doblin, then, saw a third level coming, which was very prescient. The third one he called “the multisystem” The multisystem is a system of systems and he compared it to not just an airline seat in an airplane, but in an airline system where there is baggage check and TSA and retail and scheduling systems.
That’s a different role for a designer. So when I work with my students, I talk about the multisystem and I say, “Healthcare’s too big to know.” It just is. It’s ginormous. So you need new tools, questions, frameworks, and checklists, to help you manage the sheer volume of factors that are going to affect your thinking. To me, it’s a mindset of thinking about things as a multi-system and knowing that your design has to be systems-aware.
JF— This is one of the big shifts in design of the last decade or so: Design has moved away from objects to systems and increasingly, the thing the designer produces is immaterial. It is the system, it is the visualization. I think that’s complicated design’s role because before you could say, “Oh, well, we’re designing the chair.” That’s what the designer does. Or “We’re designing the logo, the building, or whatever.” But now it is imagining new ways of doing things, it’s imagining systems, it’s suggesting alternatives. Tell me more about how that changes the role of the designer.
KE— I think that one of the challenges is that the designer’s role has to shift from just being about the problem-solving and the solution, to being about the human beings and the organization involved in launching that solution. Not people in abstraction or people as users, but as your implementers.
MS— Hearing your question reminded me of when I would work side-by-side with mechanical engineers. Design was about making not only one prototype, but multiple types of prototypes: works-like prototypes, appearance prototypes, and material prototypes. Then with digital, with the experience economy, as manufacturing was moving away from the US and the digital economy was on the rise, we were focused more on upfront planning and on product portfolios and the variability that digital design has offered a whole generation of designers. What’s the next context that design is trying to function in? I appreciate Kim saying it’s relational because that’s absolutely right. We are decolonizing design and reckoning with the privileged positions that design has always claimed.
My theory about visualizing them is that it gives us a way to try and make tangible and shareable, and hopefully thus democratic, the systems we’re working within. The democratic component is that it’s a collective meaning-making. It’s not up to the designer to interpret and conclude and summarize and present. Rather it’s this much more facilitative, interactive interpretation that is led by the folks who will be impacted most by the solutions they devise.
JF— I like this idea of collective meaning-making and what this makes me think about is how this completely flips the script of what we should and could be teaching designers and teaching the next generation of designers. What new additions to a design curriculum are needed? And what are the things from the past that are still important?
MS— I’m a graduate of the Institute of Design from the previous millennia, and I graduated with a Master’s in Design as one of the last photographers. I was using photography as a social design research tool and I was presenting my graduate thesis at the Conference of Visual Sociology. One of my students recently was talking about AI-generated imagery and was able to, within seconds, of course, just construct an image that reflected the keywords that he input. It’s a totally different process and a different experience, but I was really fascinated by what the artifact itself was able to provide our discussion. How are images used as a communication tool both in generative discussion and in summative discussion? That left me numb for a little bit because I’m going to stand by craft and production and making as a core skill of design, but are the tools now shifting that relationship so tremendously that I don’t even recognize that process?
KE— I think the skillset that we should keep teaching, but maybe teach it more expansively, is this reliance on user research. User research has ethnographic roots — most ethnographers would cringe at the fortune of their practices in design — but an ethnographic perspective says you’re going to look at functional aspects of an activity system. So if I’m going into an emergency department, I’m going to look at all the users and all their activities and all their interactions and objects. It also says that we would look at that as a human system. It’s also a workplace and as a workplace, it has a culture. As a culture, it has relationships.
When we think of user observation and other exploratory mechanisms that we call user research, we should also be teaching people how to turn that on the organization that you’re working with so they can be equally open and curious and understand the human interactions in the organization. They will help you be a better designer. They will help you understand who needs to see what. All of those skill sets transfer, but we don’t teach them that way. We are always focused on end users, without thinking about the organization as being a stakeholder that we should be considering.
I don’t think it’s about the visualization. I think it’s about the visualizing. It’s not the user research, it’s the researching. It’s not the prototype, it’s the prototyping. That’s all still relevant.
JF— I think it’s interesting that we can talk about these tools, these processes, as not just for designers anymore. Are these actually principles that are more widely helpful? Do we even need to think of them as design, or can these ideas actually be expanded, so different types of people and different types of industries who would never use the word design can actually apply them in their work, in their communities, in their organizations, in their systems?
MS— I left ID and spent almost a decade at IDEO where innovation was really the work. We were talking about it from a human-centered design methodology but I was able to encounter all kinds of innovators who came from different fields, from creative problem-solving to group facilitation experts to business perspectives, etc..
Design is just one approach to address the challenges that we’re talking about and to engage across sectors to solve some of these problems. I don’t know that design has a monopoly on anything, but it does have some skillsets that can be brought in to be contributive.
KE— Herbert Simon defined design as the mechanism that takes something from a current state to a preferred state. That’s designing, not necessarily designers. What we saw in the nineties was this proliferation of the term “design thinking” and a dissemination of basic design strategy into the population. People have different points of view on that but I think it’s nice that people actually know that that’s a term now, so it’s definitely broadened the target market.
So do I think design has a distinctive role? Yeah, I do. It’s called a field of practice and a field of knowledge. And it’s why it takes two years in a graduate program to actually come into contact with all that knowledge, because, like medicine, design has developed specialties. I think that for especially more complex problems, there are strategies that you can’t learn on a weekend or a week. And I think that that is what we should be calling design.
JF— You touched on something interesting there — how this word “design” has become so broad. There is a difference between a design strategist and an interface designer and a graphic designer. There’s this move to be multidisciplinary or a generalist designer but that’s so hard to actually do. How do we think about organizing design, about being multidisciplinary and generative and not territorial? What is the balance between being a part of the team? Having these different roles, while also not entrenching different fields of study?
KE— Historically, design has been taught and organized around output: you had interiors, you had communication, you had product. I think the modern era is better served by maybe stepping away from output as being the focal point of the training.
I think that a designer who wants to work in the fields like Maura and me, in food sustainability and healthcare, you have to assume you are one of many people at a table, and you need to be curious about those adjacent fields. If you’re a designer working in healthcare, you probably want to understand what epidemiologists do. You probably want to understand what statisticians or health service researchers do. You don’t need to be a leading expert in health economics, but you need to know when to turn to them and you need to know what they are, what their role is likely to be. Looking at different specialties and being adjacent-aware is something that has to be taught. I don’t think it’s necessarily native for designers.
MS— What is it that you’re looking for as a designer? What’s not only the curiosity you bring, but the lens through which you’re observing the world? What’s your way of learning and thinking about a given environment or context?
For me, I’m always looking for what the incentives are that are activating or catalyzing a system. Where are the barriers, whether they’re intentional or not? How can players or actors in a system find purpose, and how does that context of interaction play out?
That’s not an output. I think that’s why asset-based community development is so interesting to me because I’m looking at the pieces and interactions of the contexts. Kim and I both were students of Chuck Owen, who was all about the structures, elements, and functions of systems, so we were educated to look at the world that way. I think the legacy of ID is in thinking about our world in those detailed parts and then recognizing how intentionally or unintentionally those were all designed.