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Beyond Looking Cool

Use Systems-Thinking Approaches to Empower Visual Design Practice

Photo by alan King on Unsplash

OK. What the heck do you mean by “systems-thinking” anyway? It sounds really nerdy. I’d rather make cool art.

Here’s a secret: You probably already employ a systems-thinking approach to your work, but haven’t really thought about it in this way, or in this kind of detail.

If you have ever worked on a logo, researched the company brand and its audience, developed a pile of initial sketches (bruh, do you even sketch?), shown them to your client to whittle the choices down to three (or we hope, one), and then refined the results to produce the final logo, then you have employed a system to produce your work.

The system might look a little like this:

We’ve all done this to solve problems. After all, we designers are all about solving real-world problems through our process.

And making things look cool.

Solving a problem naturally requires a systems-thinking approach. So, if you are still scratching your head, here is a simple definition:

Systems-thinking is a technique for comprehending and evaluating how various components of a system interact and influence one another. It enables us to comprehend how minor modifications made to one aspect of a system can have significant effects on other aspects of the system.

This type of thinking comes naturally to us. We humans have used systems-thinking ever since Grog showed-off his awesome cave painting of a bison, and his ever-encouraging buddy Grunk said it looked like a dog. So, after clubbing Grunk senseless (and more-helpfully went outside to see what a bison actually looked like), back to the drawing-stone went Grog to revise his work, launching his career to fortune and fame.

Numerous types of systems, including social systems, environmental systems, and our own art, can benefit from the application of systems thinking. It aids in our comprehension of the relationships between things and demonstrates how improvements can be made to a system’s function. When we begin to break design problems down into their relationships, we often run into other domains where systems exist that we designers can impact them in our (cool-looking) work.

Here are 5 ways that visual designers can employ a systems-thinking approach (and still be cool)

  1. Use diagrams and other visualizations to demonstrate the connections and interactions between various system components: We can use visuals to demonstrate how various system components are linked and how they influence one another. This can aid people in comprehending the operation of the system and motivating improvement or action.
  2. Consider the long-term effects of your design choices: Systems thinking enables us to comprehend how small changes in one system component can have significant effects on other system components. For example, a packaging designer who uses systems thinking in their work may take the long-term effects of their design choices into account rather than just the short-term ones in order to protect the environment by reducing waste caused by over-packaging.
  3. Work closely with subject-matter experts to ensure that the design accurately reflects the complex relationships and interactions within the system being represented. A visual designer who is familiar with systems thinking naturally seeks out other voices and perspectives to inform their work. They might research international design approaches from other cultures where similar design problems have been addressed by other designers working on them.
  4. Increase the accessibility and comprehension of complex systems: Visual designers can use their talents to produce succinct, clear, and visually appealing representations of complex systems and issues. Visual design engaging difficult and important societal issues help many people understand them, especially in our more visually-literate society. Once the issue is clearly understood, the design may encourage their audience to take positive actions or to persuade them to alter their perspectives.
  5. Test and iterate the design continuously: As illustrated above, systems-thinking encourages us to test and iterate our designs continuously to comprehend their effects and boost their power to motivate others by testing and improving their designs in response to feedback and observations.

Systems-Thinking is Essential to Human Experience Design

Human Experience Design takes the principles of systems-thinking and applies them to real-world design problems in order to create work that:

  • Is human-centered rather than data-centered.
  • Enhances our shared human experience in the world.
  • Uses technology as tools for people, not people as tools for technology.

I hope as you open your own mind, as I have, to how intentionally thinking through the systems we encounter and influence in our work as we do it, we can each improve our society and world.

And, make things look cool, while we’re at it.

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