The Design of the Systems Course

I’ve applied for a speaking position for Relating Systems Thinking & Design 2013 at the Oslo School of Architecture and Design.  My submission is toward the wonderfully punctuated theme of “teaching (systemic design or), system thinking in design (or design in system approaches).”

Here is my abstract:

The goal of this talk will be to communicate the approach and outcomes of a 16 week studio course developed over the past two years to teach systems thinking to undergraduate interaction designers at the California College of the Arts (CCA) in San Francisco. The plan for the final presentation is to provide symposium attendees with a narrative describing the thinking behind the course design, learning objectives, and activities as well as a report of my experience teaching and revising the course over the past two years. The value to attendees will be as a model and case study of one successful (as judged from student feedback) approach to relating system thinking and design.

The course was developed as part of starting up an entirely new undergraduate program in Interaction Design at CCA. The vision with which I won the commission to originate the course framed the learning objectives as a growth process beginning with learning to see the systems around us, moving on to being able to model them conceptually, and closing with how to produce change in them, both in a general sense and within the context of interactive experiences.

My first step in translating this vision into a workable syllabus was an extensive online search of the public web for like syllabi. I found essentially zero publicly available references that addressed my proposed framework directly. This was when I realized I actually needed to design this design course!

I saw this innovation challenge mainly in term of creating a new, dynamic narrative for existing formal system thinking constructs that would make these ideas relevant to the digitally native sophomores (roughly 19 year olds) taking the course. Therefore, I opened the course with a lecture in which I use a ‘ripped from the headlines’ method to demonstrate both how designing interactive experiences in today’s world requires an understanding of systems and also how to use observations of events to see a system in terms of patterns, structure and containing context.

After setting the stage to begin a formal presentation of system thinking theory I pause for us to read out loud a love story: Arcadia, a play by Tom Stoppard. This masterpiece packs a doctorate’s worth of system thinking constructs–including time, structure, entropy, fractals, abduction vs induction and probability–into a 2.5 hour experience. But most importantly it provides a mechanism for me to communicate to the students the critical role that emotion plays in human systems. This becomes the implicit frame for the rest of the course.

Next we turn to the fertile time just after World War II in which thinkers at Massachusetts Institute of Technology more or less simultaneously developed Information Theory, Cybernetics and System Dynamics. We begin the conversation with System Dynamics because it is the most intuitive and least mathematically intimidating of the three. We use Donella Meadows’s wonderfully accessible “Thinking in Systems” as a basis for studio discussion and activities that bring to life the idea of a system as made up of stocks and flows. From this base we expand the definition of a system to “a structure of relationships between elements that accomplishes a purpose and is regulated by feedback.” This provides a frame to talk about system archetypes and the importance of patterns as a tool for system analysis.

The general behavioral patterns introduced by archetypes provided a segue to the formal treatment of regulation and control offered by Cybernetics. The main goal of this part of the course is to provide students with a way to see certain kinds of man-made systems as machines with inputs, outputs, predictable behaviors and discrete states. This ‘mechanical’ understanding of systems becomes a conceptual a bridge between the the initial ‘seeing systems’ material and the next phase of the course that I call “designing the digital machine.”

In this phase we use the idea of a digital machine to create a bounding framework for the application of modeling as a tool for designing interactive experiences. I introduce 5 specific models–conceptual, persona, data, object, interaction–and teach how they fit within the model-view-controller framework that describes software flow control, or the digital machine. We close out this phase of the course with a major project in which students develop models of a system with feedback and then use those models as the basis for a software interface.

The narrative for the final phase of the course uses the framework of Rittel’s Wicked Problem to create a launching pad for the students into an optimistic and aspirational future. The story we tell is that Rittel defined the wicked problem to explain the increasingly obvious failure of capital D Design as a top down planning exercise to solve social problems. This in turn led to a roughly 50 year period in which design played a minor apolitical role of delivering delight at an individual level. However, (the course narrative continues) for the interaction designers of today a new opportunity has arisen to combine an understanding of systems with the time compression of high bandwidth connectivity, device diversity, cloud services, and social networking to create bottom up mitigations for social problems. Students are then asked to work in teams to design an information system focused on mitigating communication challenges within a particular wicked context: in the first year we looked at the distribution of organic produce; in the second, the fishery supply chain.

The conceptual narrative described above is reinforced and given some degree of ‘muscle memory’ for the students through a series of 12 short lessons, the two longer form projects mentioned above, as well as an highly compressed two week training on using the system of HTML/CSS/Javascript to think–and design–in code. The outcome, based on my observations and reports from the students, is a successful 16 week experience that communicates a clear position with respect to the relationship between system thinking and design, the conceptual and tactical tools to implement this learning, and most importantly, the lesson that to design systems for humans means keeping in mind that, to paraphrase a character from Arcadia, emotion is the force that Newton left out.


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