As a follow up to my last blog on the evolution of design, a recent article in the Wall Street Journal, Design Firms go Beyond Gadgets as Portfolios Expand, focuses on the opportunities that are arising with traditional design firm's advancing frontiers. However these new opportunities should also signal the need more generally for some serious reflection on the difference between designing 'stuff' or 'things' and designing 'social systems' with the understanding that every design is either a part of a system or a system itself. This understanding brings new responsibilities and accountabilities into the preparation for and practice of design.
In the 60's there was a keen interest in applying the very successful 'systems thinking' approaches (a set of approaches developed beginning in the Second World War for dealing with complex and large scale technical systems) that had worked so well in technical contexts to health, education and business systems etc. After a series of serious failures 'systems thinking' was declared 'dead' (professionals and academics continue making such declarations even now) and was no longer considered appropriate for serious interventions into troubled social systems. It should have been obvious from the beginning that people were different from technical components and that human activity was not the same as technical functionality but it wasn't. Systems thinking has struggled to regain credibility in social domains ever since.
The design approaches and methods used to create consumer products, technical assemblies and other material designs are not well matched to the challenges of designing social systems. The education and training of material designers do not automatically qualify them to take on the role of social systems designers. They are not automatically disqualified of course but there needs to be some very serious reconsiderations of what type of designers and what type of approaches best fit the challenges of designing or redesigning social systems. New types of designers and design approaches need to emerge so as to not repeat the experience of the miss-application of technical systems thinking to human systems design.