Intl J of Design: Special Issue on Integrating Systems Thinking and Design Action

Full Paper Due: 31 May 2010

The scope of design has grown from a narrow focus on the function and aesthetics of objects to a broader focus on creating intentional change in society and culture through the creation of new products, services, systems, and environments. As part of this shift of focus, design inquiry is increasingly being adopted in a growing number of disciplines as a path toward innovative progress on real issues. Furthermore, as design continues to address ever more complex problems, its expanding scope appears to be increasingly overlapping with systems design. Therefore, we at the International Journal of Design believe it is an ideal time to once again consider the relationship between systems thinking and design action.

Systems thinking focuses on understanding the relationships between constituent elements and the resulting
qualities of an emergent whole as it interacts in any given situation with larger contexts and environments. Design is about actively and creatively proposing and critiquing new sets of relationships by composing newly designed wholes, and then iteratively refining these wholes with the intention of improving the state of the world. For example, consider sustainability: a “wicked” problem, made up of factors ranging from how products are designed, produced, and delivered, to factors of materiality, reuse and disposal, including ordinary people’s habits and values, as well as issues of public policy and government. Any sustainability-related design must thus relate to all of these aspects while not being paralyzed by the inherent complexity involved. A systems approach could provide a holistic means for revealing potential ways of taking all of these factors into account.

Systems thinking as an approach to complex, real-world problems has been developed theoretically over recent decades by thinkers such as C. West Churchman, Russel L. Ackoff, Horst Rittel, Donella Meadows, Jay W. Forrester, Stafford Beer, Margaret Mead, Bela H. Banathy, and others. During this time, progress has also been made in developing a similar theoretical foundation for a design approach. Now is thus an ideal time to examine how these two intellectual traditions and approaches relate to one other.

For this special issue of the International Journal of Design, we are seeking contributions that will explore how a systems approach can be integrated into design thinking and action. We are also looking for examinations into the present state of systems thinking as it relates to design.

Suggested Research Themes

There are several potential research themes that we envision being part of this special issue, though we are open
to other contributions as well. These potential themes are:
• What can designers learn from the history of applied systems thinking?
• How a systems approach can be integrated into design thinking to create intentional change in society and culture through the creation of new products, services, systems, and environments?
• What are the core distinguishing features of systems thinking and design thinking that could form the basis of a common approach to intentional change?


• Abstract (optional): 31 March 2010
• Full Paper Due: 31 May 2010
• Notification of Acceptance: 31 July 2010
• Final Version of Paper Due: 31 August 2010
• Special Issue Publication Date: 31 October 2010

Submission of Papers

The authors are encouraged to e-mail an abstract of no more than 800 words to by 31 March to receive a quick evaluation on suitability of a proposal.

Manuscripts should be prepared with the template file and guidelines found at Submitted papers should not have been previously published nor be currently under consideration for publication elsewhere. A double-blind review process will be employed for this special issue.

Manuscripts should be sent through the on-line system at Authors should choose “Special Issue on Designing for Systems Thinking and Design Action” as the Journal Section when submitting papers.

Special Issue Editors

Jodi Forlizzi
Human Computer Interaction Institute and School of
Design, Carnegie Mellon University

Harold G. Nelson
School of Design
Carnegie Mellon University

Erik Stolterman
School of Informatics
Indiana University

John Zimmerman
Human Computer Interaction Institute and School of
Design, Carnegie Mellon University

About Fil Salustri
I'm a design methodologist and Professor of Mechanical Engineering at Ryerson University, Toronto, Canada. Adjectives that describe me include: secular humanist, meritocrat, and long-winded. Some people call me a positivist too, as if that were a bad thing. Go figure. My real home page is

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