The Design Way: first principles

Ultimate particulars, service, systemics, and the whole

This blog post summarizes Section II: Foundations of Nelson and Stolterman’s “The design way” (TDW: 2012, 2003), see also the four previous posts. TDW merges several intellectual traditions, including Churchman’s systems approach, which also inspired our own book “Wicked Solutions.” It is not surprising that there are interesting parallels between the books, some of which we are happy to point out (to ourselves in the first place) at the end of this summary.

Ultimate particulars       The design approach of TDW is different from the scientific method in the same sense as the real is different from the true: science seeks to produce abstract generalizations that cannot be falsified, whereas design aims to produce ultimate particulars that help shape our complex reality. For design to play its creative, transformative role the mind must be freed of all tendentiousness, prejudices, and fixed positions and must be dispassionately aware of the same among those directly concerned. And at some point the mind must be empty. Design and inquiry are two sides of the same coin. Design can be based on different forms of inquiry, e.g. of the scientific, spiritual, intuitive, logical, or artistic variety. The design way proposes that design uses a compound form of inquiry that is composed of the ideal, the real, and the true, where the ideal refers to norm and values, and the true to possible scientific support.

Service       Design is intentional change or more precisely the act of creating something intentionally on behalf of another’s desires and purpose. In that sense design is a service that caters to the needs or desires of (surrogate) clients and end users. This means that design is more than just about selling products or changing other people’s behavior. It is this notion of service that defines the designer’s accountability to the client and the designer’s responsibility to the end user. The design as a product must be meaningful in the sense that it satisfies certain desires (‘desiderata’) of the end user. Ideally, though, design transcends the desiderata. Design as a process gradually helps clarify (‘midwives’) desiderata and meaning with the designer, the client and others delicately balancing a complex relationship among themselves to avoid the design becoming a one-sided affair with too much influence by either the designer, the client, the end-user and possible others involved.

Systemics      Systemics roughly corresponds with what is generally known as systems thinking. Systems thinking is a broad term for a wide range of systems of inquiry that look at ‘wholes’ (see next paragraph). Systemics admits that complexity is the natural order of things. By identifying and protecting essential relationship and critical connections in complex wholes, systemics enhances sustainability in design. Systemic inquiry works across different knowledge domains and perspectives to better understand complex wholes.

The whole   Any design constitutes a whole. Wholes have emergent qualities that arise from a purposive force that unifies the parts or elements that constitute the whole. Wholes are considered to be part of other wholes, which is tantamount to saying that systems are composed of sub-systems and are themselves sub-systems in larger systems. Complexity arises from the fact that these systems and sub-systems are not simply hierarchically organized but intermesh. By considering wholes to be part of other wholes, one creates opportunities for transcending constraints by striving for greater ends. For a whole to be useful and sustainable it must have the following four characteristics: essence, significance, adequacy, and vitality. Essence means that the designed whole must have all essential attributes to satisfy the client’s or end-users desiderata. Adequacy means that the means for understanding complex reality and for optimizing the constituent elements are limited. One of the implications is that it is not possible to optimize all elements. Instead, one should attempt to optimize the whole.

Parallels with “Wicked solutions”    ‘Wicked solutions’, not unlike ‘The design way’ proposes a compound form of inquiry that uses pictures to assist imagination and focuses on values and motivations as much as on more concrete elements in ‘the whole’. The category of the ‘ideal’ is particularly present in the boundary critique, which contrasts the ‘real’, ‘is’ situation with an ‘ideal’, ‘ought’ one. Scope for shaping responsibility and accountability of the designer to the client and/or end-users is ensured by enabling team efforts in all steps of the design process. Framing is used to ‘midwive’ the desiderata. ‘Wicked solutions’ uses systemics by basing its process on soft systems and the systems approach. The latter encourages the designer to look at the greater whole to explore opportunities for transcending constraints of a more narrow view. ‘Wicked solutions’ uses value-oriented dialectics to ensure the design’s essence, significance, adequacy, and vitality, which reflects the ‘ideal’ as much as the ‘real’.


Nelson, Harold G. and Erik Stolterman. 2012. The design way: intentional change in an unpredictable world (Second edition). Cambridge, Massachusetts. Available from

Williams, Bob and Sjon van ’t Hof. 2014. Wicked solutions: a systems approach to complex problems (First edition). Wellington, New Zealand: Bob Williams. Available from


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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