PhD Thesis: Systemic Design in Complex Contexts

Nov 2018 | Books & Other Publications, Design for Industry, PhD Projects

Sigrun Lurås


In recent years designers seem to increasingly be engaged in projects for complex, high-risk domains. Yet, little research has been conducted that addresses how designers experience such projects, what kinds of challenges they face, and how they may manage these challenges. This thesis addresses the design in one such domain: the offshore ship industry. The presumptions for the thesis are that designing for such contexts is complex and that systemic design approaches may prove valuable. Systemic design is a recent initiative in design that integrates systems thinking and human-centred design, with the intention of helping designers cope with complex design projects.

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The aim of the thesis is to understand designing for complex, high-risk control environments, and how systemic design may be of help when designing for such contexts. This has been investigated through ‘research by design’ that addresses the design of a ship’s bridge, and by an interview study with industrial and interaction designers with experience in the maritime and offshore industries. Research by design is a research approach where design practise is at the core of research. The design practise of this thesis was carried out within the Ulstein Bridge Concept (UBC) design research project.

The thesis confirms that designing for the offshore ship industry is complex and challenging on many fronts. First, the domain is unfamiliar to most designers, and acquiring the insights needed for designing requires substantial effort. Second, the products to be designed constitute highly advanced technology that is used in complex, uncertain, and high-risk situations. Third, the industry is global; it has many stakeholders and is highly regulated, both of which make the framework conditions for offshore-specific design projects difficult to grasp.

In the thesis, systemic design is conceptualised by a systemic model of the design situation that makes explicit what designers need to make sense of in such projects. The operationalisation of systemic design was conducted within the UBC project and includes the development of two systemic design methods: design-driven field research at sea and layered scenario mapping. Further, the designs developed by UBC, the Ulstein Bridge Vision™, can serve as design exemplars resulting from systemic approaches.

This is a thesis by publication, which consists of an exegesis (included as Part 1) and six publications (included as Part 2). The exegesis presents the research design and theoretical perspectives that are used, and includes an overarching reflection on the results of the thesis that binds the publications together.