Composing and connecting

Integrating design strategies to create innovative links

Design    …. can mean (1) the result of a design process, i.e. a compositional assembly, or (2) the design process itself, which involves integrating design strategies to find novel connections and relations for linking elements or parts of a whole by means of creative judgment (see previous blog post). In practice, a compositional assembly does not exemplify an absolute, perfect solution, but rather a particular, adequate holistic outcome, which emphasizes the performance of the whole rather than that of the constituent parts. A design should display emergent, systemic qualities as well as integrity, which it derives from the substance provided by the constituent parts.

Three main steps     Design involves three main steps: (1) emersion of the ‘parti’, an architectural term meaning a sketch of the main, formative ideal of the design; (2) the development of possible schemas for the design; and (3) the concluding compositional phase, which finalizes the design. The parti needs some sort of crucible and a spirit of good design to emerge. It also must be somewhat tentative and vague to allow enough latitude for step 2, while it must be clear enough to engender schema development. In the end, the parti must be recognizable in the design. Schema development may consider multiple schemas in a setting of participatory iteration. The quality of the final design depends on the skills, character, and tools of the designer applied during the concluding compositional phase.

Potential and appearance     Apart from quality, design has two other key characteristics: appearance and actual potential. A design must have the potential to match a client’s desires, and the more of this potential can be realized the better. The other characteristic, appearance, is important because it can give a sense of wholeness and comprehensibility, even to someone who does not know all the intricacies of the design in question. In fact, many designs are so intricate that it is impossible to tell how and why the design took place. Appearance comes in four ‘layers’: style or fashion, nature, character, and soul. It depends on the design which ones are important.

P.S. It is particularly noteworthy that systemics (=systems thinking) is considered by Nelson and Stolterman to be the essential intellectual foundation of design (TDW, p. 167).

composing and connecting

The text of this blog post explains most of this concept map. The blog post is based on chapter 9 of The Design Way (2012), written by Harold Nelson and Erik Stolterman, see previous post.


About Sjon van ’t Hof

Development professional who worked in rural development, tropical agriculture, and irrigation development in Chad, Zambia, Mali, Ghana, Mauritania, Israel, Burkina Faso, Niger, and the Netherlands in capacities ranging from project design and management to information management. Conducted missions to India, China, Kenya, and Bangladesh. Experience in the development and delivery of trainings in irrigation equipment selection, information literacy, Internet searching and database searching. Explores systems thinking in relation to international development, education, and management, with an ever stronger focus on the systems approach of C. West Churchman. Knowledgeable in tropical agriculture, project design and development economics, agricultural mechanization, irrigation, plant pathology, environmental degradation and protection, rural development. Co-authored "Wicked Solutions: a systems approach to complex problems", a book written by Bob Williams and Sjon van 't Hof. It was published in June 2014 and provides a practical way of dealing with wicked problems. Wicked problems are complex, ill-structured, human problem situations. This book will help you design an inquiry and intervention in such messy, wicked situations. It does so by guiding you through the steps and stages of a systemic process that addresses your own wicked problem. For more information, see or
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