What is systemic design?

Mar 2022
Dr Tim Tompson

Systemic design is an approach developed to help people—designers, practitioners, strategists and others—to better handle uncertain and complex challenges.

While it is considered a broad collection of tools and approaches, systemic design can be most simply understood as an intention to integrate the analytical and descriptive practices of systems thinking with the action-orientation of design.

The lens of systems thinking is used to map and understand the relationships, dynamics, and tensions at play in a given system, and design is used to ideate and experiment with new frames and system configurations.

The relationship between systems thinking and design practice

Systemic design blends these practices to understand issues holistically and validate pathways to resolve them.

What's the benefit?

Structured learning
Systemic design creates a structured learning process, bringing clarity and understanding of what matters. By giving participants a better and shared understanding of context, purpose and their choices, they can move forward with greater confidence. Systemic design provides a reliable process to reduce uncertainty.

Engaged people
Systemic design is humanist in nature, engaging people involved in the change in the process of understanding and shaping it. This ensures their perspectives are captured, synthesised, and the choices are selected that have the highest chance of success. Importantly, the allies that you might need to create change can be brought into the process earlier.

Improved outcomes
As it considers a broad theatre of action, systemic design encourages you to think about consequences and implications across stakeholders and timeframes. In doing so, it minimises unintended consequences when changes are made, and helps avoid creating new problems. Further, it helps you identify opportunities early to maximise your possibilities. For organisations, this leads to saving time, reducing costs and improving outcomes.

Who is systemic design for?

Systemic design can be helpful for anyone confronted with uncertain and complex situations with decisions to make.

We believe that systemic design is most useful when decisions must be made but there is no clear process. These circumstances can occur when it’s unclear which stakeholders or factors are most influential, or the definition of success is ambiguous.

Often this occurs at points of transition—when the relationships between an organisation and their context are shifting, and you need to understand a situation holistically. Examples include:

  • reviewing a business or operating model;
  • entering a new market;
  • making investments; or,
  • introducing a business to new audiences,

Those leading and building organisations encounter these circumstances more than many others; these include CEOs, founders, executives, and strategic and product disciplines professionals.

It’s a powerful approach to change and build systems

Systemic design has broad application. It is well suited to the complex nature of decision making in contemporary organisations. It’s an approach to problem-solving that is well-aligned with the challenges of a complex, changing world. Some examples include:

  • Identifying the best changes to make - Working at the source rather than the symptom.
  • Putting design choices in perspective - Understanding the dependencies and implications beyond the change.
  • Aligning actors and incentives - Creating shared meaning and purpose in complex environments.
  • Enable a greater awareness of context - key areas of attention and influence in the system are known upfront.

Systemic design is already been used across a wide variety of projects at different scales; from helping understand the way a business works through to large scale system transformations such as food systems in healthcare, and shaping entrepreneurial ecosystems.


For a broad set of resources on systemic design explore the library of the annual Relating Systems Thinking and Design Conference. Also take a look at the Systemic Design Toolkit to try out some of the activities in your own projects.

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