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What Really is Design Systems Thinking?

Design Thinking and Systems Thinking are two words that are being thrown around more commonly in the the realm of design. So what do these words mean?

Both DT and ST transcend graphic design, and encompass the entire function of how a new idea works. To best describe what these two ideas are, Design Thinking has been described as a very systematic approach to problem solving that starts with first considering the customers, and how to create a better experience, for them. To be a design thinker, you must be empathetic. You begin to place yourself in the shoes of the individual and consider every possible problem that someone could experience, then determine how you would find a solution to this. DT is considering how to best problem solve in the most efficient and effective way. That’s the short-hand definition, but as you can imagine, each problem and situation requires a different DT approach.

To contrast this in Systems Thinking, design is a way of looking at systems that attempts to estimate how alternative sets of behaviors would serve very specified goals. This is a more effective approach than just the act of “problem solving” or “planning.” It goes beyond this to look at how a system works, and what variety of approaches you can have. Triarchy Press describes systems thinking as, a system that looks at relationships (rather than unrelated objects), connectedness, process (rather than structure), the whole (rather than just its parts), the patterns (rather than the contents) of a system, and context. Thinking systemically also requires several shifts in perception, which lead in turn to different ways to teach, and different ways to organize society." It's fascinating to consider looking at the specific pieces of a system that can really determine the most effective systematic result. 

Both of these ways of thinking are utilized to solve a wide-range of complex problems ranging from product development to organizational and social problems. For a real-life example of these applications, Stanford graduate students, Tim Brown and Jocelyn Wyatt, discuss Design Thinking for Social Innovation. They use the example of providing accessible drinking water for individuals in underdeveloped countries, a big issue that is being addressed by many different organizations today. The researchers argued that: 

“Social challenges require systematic solutions that are grounded in the client’s to customer’s needs. This is where many approaches flounder, but it is where Design Thinking—a new approach to creating solutions—excels."

When thinking in-terms of the individuals faced with the problem of lack of safe water, and this system, rather than just the issue, the results are far more favorable. It is clear to see how with a well-developed use of Design Thinking and System Thinking, we can have the best results. Adding a well to an underdeveloped area might seem like a valiant effort for drinking water, but is it the exact system that is needed for these individuals? Considering the ideal system to become the best solution has much more favorable results. These problem solving methods have a greater perspective than just an individualist way of thinking, therefore, the results are more effective and carefully planned. 

In the future, and especially in-terms of the Experience Design course that I am taking, these methods of problem solving can help to guide me towards the best design solution, and strategy when it comes to considering my audience and goal for the design. 

Article sources: 
Systems Thinking and Design Thinking
Design Thinking for Social Innovation
Systems Thinking and Design Thinking: Complimentary Approaches? 

Heather DunmoyerComment