Design Journeys Through Complex Systems

Dec 2022 | Books & Other Publications, News & Notes

Book Review

by Svein Gunnar Kjøde

Kristel Van Ael and Peter Jones might be as close to household names in the systemic community as one can get. The launch of a book in their writing trigger equal anticipation and wonderment. A culmination of several years collaborating on the Systemic Design Toolkit, and decades of practice-oriented experience, it is a sight to behold.

As a long-time practitioner, I started working as an artefact maker like many in my generation of designers. Creative problem-solving seemed easier back then. However- we were constantly butting against somewhat obscured barriers to real, positive innovation. They were, of course, what we identify as structural, systemic issues manifesting as resistance to change. Considering the grand challenges we’re facing as global communities, such “blindness” to the systems we create (and are part of) becomes increasingly unsettling. In these critical, seemingly messy contexts, designers embark on a new adventure; Start listening to and dancing with complexity.

In my home country, Norway, the notion of a deliberate and well-equipped backpack is essential when hiking the outdoors –being prepared for shifting conditions and unforeseen situations so that one can confidently explore new terrains. Hence, a fitting analogy for the adventures Van Ael and Jones invites us on, as it is not to be taken as a prescriptive process, but rather, in its own words: “is a grammar that allows thought leaders to construct new ways of conveying complex issues, leading to collaborative breakthroughs”.

Such a sequence-agnostic approach acknowledges the open-aperture and -ended nature of systemic challenges. The complex, interconnected issues we are currently engaging with cannot be easily resolved in linear, reductionist processes of the old. Throughout the book, the authors remind us of the importance of revisiting, rescoping and adapting our approach- at multiple levels of inquiry. It is, perhaps then, the work’s most important contribution; a dedication to the dialogic inquiry of participatory processes, reflecting decades of real-world experience in embracing complexity and systems.

The foundations of this book can be traced to several strands of knowledge, spanning a broad spectrum of historical influences to systemic practices, and as such, is in itself of high value. It connects new adventurers to Hazan Özbekhans Continuous Critical Problems (1970), Ivan Illich’s ideas of Convivial Tools (1973), Russel Ackoffs’ engagement with the Mess (1981), Bela Banathys’ seminal works on Sosial Systems Design (1997), Alexander Christakis’ exploration of Dialogic-Design (2006) and exploration of new systemic tools like Gigamaps by Birger Sevaldson (2018), to name a few– not to mention the contributions by the authors own academic work.

The extensive tools and methods are of uniquely high value, including their methodological rationale, concrete advice and suggestion for workshops, and example cases– even short playbooks for anyone venturing into facilitation. It is worth noting that these tools have seen iterations as the Systemic Design Toolkit, even including the Systemic community at RSD symposiums as a source of testing and evaluation.

However, I do have some concerns regarding the complexity of the tools. I have yet to have the time to field-test them all; Some tools seem overly complicated and feel tailored for systemic practitioners, while a range of stakeholders might struggle in advanced co-design/production. Furthermore, I miss a deeper deliberation on how systemic projects would come to be. How do we even get to the starting line on systemic journeys? These are all quibbles in the end, and both the introductory and final reflection chapters are inspiring jumping-off points for further explorations of these issues.

When asked about the book by colleagues and fellow practitioners, I repeatedly find myself stating that “this is currently the state of the art for anyone seeking to expand their designerly approach to systemic practice.”

As of now, this book is a permanent fixture in my systemic backpack.

S. Kjøde (Dec 2022)


Design Journeys Through Complex Systems: Practice Tools for Systemic Design
Peter Jones, Kristel Van Ael
BIS Publishers, 2022
9063696345, 9789063696344
241 pages