Designing stuff, revisited

In August 2014, I made a post (here) about the presentation on design thinking by Harold G. Nelson at the Human-Computer Interaction Seminar on People, Computers, and Design at Stanford on April 16, 2010Since then I have grown convinced that design and systems thinking are more intricately linked than I thought back then (see also my post of 4 October 2018). Hence the need to revisit Harold Nelson’s work on design thinking. The problem is to find a suitable scaffold to construe my understanding of Nelson’s design thinking in terms of Churchman’s systems thinking. In Nelson’s major book on design, the design way, Churchman is referred to 5 times and his systems approach 8 times, which seems relatively little compared with its underlying influence. Nelson’s presentation at Stanford is an introduction to his book, which is an introduction to the fundamental understanding of design. I made the assumption that the presentation could be disentangled in a way to provide me with the scaffold I was looking for. My scaffolding tool, as usual, is concept mapping. The final summary (end) turned out to hold a pleasant surprise for me. Just in case the video disappears I have also made a transcript of Nelson’s presentation (here). This post has been syndicated by The Systems Community of Inquiry at, the global network of systems thinkers, scientists and practitioners, as well as by Nelson himself (at accidental vagrant).

Presentation structure     After quite a bit of conceptual rearrangement I figured that the presentation has four main themes: 1. the importance of design (‘big deal’); 2. general ideas about design; 3. the designer; and 4. the client. Note that the designer (or planner) and the client (or beneficiary) are important role categories in the dialectical framework of Churchman’s systems approach. Other role categories are the decision-maker and the systems philosopher, who are of lesser importance when we take a design stance.

Big deal     Design has not been recognized as very important until fairly recently. Nowadays design is considered to be fundamental to creating all sorts of artifacts, from buildings to policies and from software to business organizations. Design had very humble, traditional beginnings such as the creation of tools, pottery, weaving, basketry. Nelson insists that even prehistoric fire was designed and not discovered. How that could be the case I will explain further down in the ‘client’ paragraph.

Accidental vagrant         …. is the name of Nelson’s personal blog (here). He called himself that because in order to find out what design was all about he had to ‘intrude in other people’s territories’. Most people are accidental vagrants in systems thinking (see my previous post). I am a case in point and have been trying to explore what it is about, how it works and why for the past six years (in this blog). By the way, these days we have flamingos and pelicans in the Netherlands, in the wild that is (we have zoos too). So vagrancy can be a good thing and lead to new forms of sustainability. Vagrancy and innovation are intricately linked.

Models of inquiry     Vagrancy is a model of inquiry: go where you do not belong and you will find out new things. Design has its own models of inquiry, so do the humanities and science. In the past design was situated somewhere between the arts and science. Nelson pulls design away from this midpoint between art and science and gives it a place in its own right, with its own mode of inquiry. Various terms have been used for ‘models of inquiry’, including inquiring systems, thinking methods, research methodology etc. Different methods have different relationships with the real, the true and the ideal. They produce different results. Sometimes new thinking methods are needed in new combinations.

General characteristics      Design differs from the humanities and science in that it creates the real, it makes meaningful things that are tied up to our lives. Design is innovative in the original sense of introducing novelty in our lives. There is no such thing as detached design, it is always connected and it always has a purpose. It combines thinking and making, and does so specifically to serve a client, i.e. a person who desires something to improve his life. There are three types of design: apparent design, systemic design, and deep design. Systemic design can deal with wicked problems. Deep design can produce things that resonate with the values we hold dearest.

The designer         Nelson distinguishes three types of experts: routine experts, adaptive experts and design experts. Routine experts come out of the educational system. They know the answers to routine questions. That works well in a world that doesn’t change. As soon as it changes we need adaptive experts, who can carry their insights to a next level. Both routine and adaptive experts respond to the world, whereas design experts help create the world, see new opportunities or solutions nobody ever thought of. They are capable envisaging and judging new forms of the ultimate particular.  This requires appropriate, sometimes novel thinking methods and design judgment.

The client      … is what it is all about. The client imagines new desires, often vague or inarticulate or ‘crazy’. In a fundamental way these desires are best understood as extensions of the human self. Now the human self is a networked entity, so these extensions, too, have networked properties. A house is an extension of the human skin, a knife of the human teeth, fire of the biochemistry in the stomach, a car or bicycle of the human legs. Humans live in communities or social systems. So a car can also reflect a person’s belief system (climate change) or life style (a French car) or important values (safety) or help impersonate a person’s social status. Humans have belief systems to make sense of the world. These belief systems need maintenance, i.e. rituals. These are also designed.

Human communication      … in a fundamental way is about desires for and designs of artificial networks of extended self. This communication is difficult because reality is complex and we have difficulty imagining which designs fit in ‘the real’ and satisfy our desires best, i.e. in a connected, interdependent way. In many cases we are not autonomous but depend for our designs on an external expert or designer. If we have difficulty imagining what we want it will be difficult to communicate our desires with a sufficient level of clarity to the designer. That is why models of inquiry are of such great importance. These models are necessarily systemic and capable of accommodating a wide range of artificial networks. Communication is further complicated because there can be multiple clients and designers.  Some clients and designers are also decision-makers, and hardly any of them is a fully fledged systems thinker, but often rather an ‘enemy’ of the systems approach.

Summary     I made a summary using only 6 basic concepts: client, networks, personal goals, designer, implementation, outcome. The basic design idea is that a designer optimizes artificial networks to achieve a client’s personal goals (desiderata). The designer may be the same person as the client. Implementation is difficult, partly because of the question of priorities, partly because of questions of realism etc. Furthermore, the ultimate outcome should be favourable, which means there should be as few negative consequences as possible. To foresee these is difficult. There is a limit to what we can foresee; that’s where belief in some kind of ‘guarantor’ takes over, which begs the question of the justifiability of this belief. Churchmannians will probably have recognized by now categories 7 to 9 of the framework of the dialectical systems approach: planner (or designer) – implementation – guarantor. Surprise!

System as a whole      The systems approach is about approaching reality as a whole. There is no spatio-temporal limit to what falls within the whole to be considered. For the sake of manageability we need to impose boundaries. Any boundary is arbitrary from a systems point of view, hence the rational need for boundary critique among those concerned. The result will still be arbitrary. Hence the need for the guarantor. But who guarantees the guarantor. There is a limit to systems thinking or systems philosophy. Non-rational ideas come into play, aesthetics, morality, politics, religion. There are few rules there. The question of the significance of one against the other is hard to answer, but we must. We have desires, we must act to change reality, our reality. For more information, click here or here or here.


About csl4d
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1 Response to Designing stuff, revisited

  1. antlerboy - Benjamin P Taylor says:

    Reblogged this on Systems Community of Inquiry.

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