Design Skills for The Present


If you wish to create something new or transform something, you’ll need to design. You must design well if you want that change to achieve something meaningful. What does that mean for designing in the present? What methods and approaches are fit-for-purpose when designing for living systems in the present?

The mid 2010s and early 2020s have seen the world enter a state of polycrisis. It’s an environment characterized as VUCA in its qualities (volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous). Most design methods and approaches were designed prior to these conditions being in place. If we are looking to design for the present situation using updated methods and those that are sensitive to VUCA-like conditions are necessary.

Systemic Design / System Mapping

Systemic Design is an approach to understanding systems that considers interdependence and how design affects how things relate to one another. At the heart of systemic design is mapping the system using a variety of methods and approaches. Mapping is largely descriptive, however, it does provide an overview of systems and reveals connections between them. Guided using a variety of systemic design methods or tools, systems maps can help us identify the scope and scale of certain factors that influence a system. This is a good starting point.

Innovation Case Studies

Case studies can help to ascertain local contexts to allow for more intelligent responses to what’s going on. Conducted with Systemic Design approaches, Innovation Case Studies allow for a more clear sense of connections between variables (relationships) to help inform design questions we might have moving forward. Keep in mind that case studies are less useful for extrapolating widely; their value is in helping understand local context.

Attractor Mapping

If you’re going to map a system and are unclear where to start or what kind of influence that different variables have, try attractor mapping. Unlike other mapping techniques, this approach focuses on where energy — attention, focus, resources – are going or are avoiding. This can help determine where some of the best places are to start.

Design for Awful

In highly complicated situations, it’s often unclear what the desired outcomes are. If you’re unclear what the preferred outcomes are, try designing for the worst outcomes. What this simple approach — designing for awful — does is create coherence around ideas using a negative case example. It can help to draw out patterns that can help focus design strategy on areas within a system.

Perspective Taking

Two approaches can help us determine what is needed and useful in a complex situation: perspective taking circles and the Cynefin Framework . Both of these help draw our perspective in or out to help assess where we are, what is going on, and frame what we might do.

Each of these approaches can help designers with a place to start. We’ll explore more about specific techniques in future posts — or just search toolkit on our site to find the list of methods we’ve already covered.

When you want to move ahead with plans to design better for your business or organization with an eye to sustainability, impact, and effectiveness, reach out and let’s talk how we can help.

Photo by Douglas Sanchez on Unsplash

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