Socially responsible system design

“Systems theory lies at the heart of the design process,” a quote from Jan Nichols in his article ‘A Hearty Economy and Healthy Ecology Can Co-exist’ in the current Journal of Interior Design.

He goes on, “We cannot design with segregated elements; all must work together in the systems we create. The design process is organic and, at its essence, must respond to a changing environment in the same way life forms adapt to environmental alterations. This process moves us beyond tapping into biophilia—the method that Stieg intelligently suggests—to design by biomimicry (Benyus, 1997), which means recognizing organic patterns and natural connections, understanding the causes and effects of competing and interrelated components, and then making appropriate design modiications. We intuitively design for flexibility, adaptability, universality, and plan space for growth, restructuring and contraction. In its inherent capacity to adapt, deconstruct, and recreate as needed, the design process mirrors the actions of living organisms. Therefore, the educated and experienced designer uses the model of systems theory during the routine course of project work. If any professionals understand that success doesn’t occur in a vacuum, and that everything affects everything else, it is those professionals who design the built environment. Systems theory gives us a basis upon which to model an earth-altering paradigm shift (Hawken,Llovins, & Lovins, 1999). ”

It brings to mind Bill Buxtons keynote at CHI 2008, where he basically put out a call for designers to consider the wider implications of their designs…to think in systems rather than just software.

I’m sympathetic to and inspired by such calls to action, but to be honest, I find the whole process little daunting. I look at the projects I am currently working on: the complexity of the processes we support and diversity of our users, the gaps in our understanding, the requirements coming in from different directions, and the fact that we have to get a product designed, built, and shipped by…well, by yesterday. And then I think of sustainable design, of systems thinking, of ecological and social responsibility; and I have to admit that I’m not sure if all of these wonderful concepts and considerations can comfortably fit into my already strained work day.

I am also aware that I am working for a business. As an interaction and product designer I come up with many wonderful ideas about how to improve our software, of which only a fraction of which make it through the various organizational filters (are we willing to invest in this type of design/technology? do we have the resources? does it make us money?), and into the actual products.

It’s an interesting dilemma. I will be posting more on this soon.


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