2013/10/10 14:00 “Designing Large Systems: Five Stories; Five lessons” | Fred Collopy | Relating Systems Thinking & Design 2013

Digest from #RSD2 by @FredCollopy with @playthink sketchnote on Designing Large Systems at Relating Systems Thinking and Design 2 at AHO Oslo School of Design and Architecture


This digest was created in real-time during the meeting, based on the speaker’s presentation(s) and comments from the audience. The content should not be viewed as an official transcript of the meeting, but only as an interpretation by a single individual. Lapses, grammatical errors, and typing mistakes may not have been corrected. Questions about content should be directed to the originator. The digest has been made available for purposes of scholarship by David Ing.

Introduction by Alex Ryan:

  • Set up design attitude over a decision attitude
  • Start a design vocabulary

[Fred Collopy]

Personal narrative, hopefully not too revisionist

Wang 600

  • Learned about computers by getting a person to rip off tip
  • Thought could make money as $4400 for a Wang 600:  it was positioned as a calculator

Wanted to program econometrics for urban cable communications systems, thinking that it would be the liberating technology beyond narrowcast

  • Wanted legislators to take a strong stance with communities

Had read about Kenneth Boulding

  • Macy Conference lectures
  • Stafford Beer’s Platform for Change
  • West Churchman
  • Peter Checkland
  • Reading struck as answer in communities:  how to use emergent technologies to leverage stakeholders who didn’t have much voice

Kenneth Boulding:  the order of the empirical world itself has an order which might be called order of the second degree

  • Prelude by Boulding:  If laws are good, laws about laws and delicious, and the more praiseworthy objects of search

Position:  Have always considered self as designer first and foremost, someone who makes things

  • Degree in decision-making is in opposition to design

Apple II:  was ready and attracted

  • Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication
  • 64KB, so bits were precious
  • Software was written around a structured approach to information, had unstructured information
  • Intellectual challenge:  how to reallocated core memory to store a lot of trivial things, rather than structured things

Landed on a product:  The Organizer  (the conceptual instruments company)

  • Telephone can be dialed from the calendar, etc.
  • Gave a copy of the first production to Steve Jobs, who looked through the manual
  • Jobs:  what does it organize?  The first person who is thinking about buying it won’t know

Did a version for the IBM PC, called The Desk Organizer

  • Got acknowledgement
  • PC Magazine said it’s a gem
  • Microcomputer said it’s the most useful thing to come about since 1-2-3

Time-Warner decided to target his product

Apple published and repacked the software

Did a version for the Mac

Then world of this product category went away

  • Borland’s SideKick did better
  • Microsoft Time Manager killed their product within months

As a designer, was frustrated

  • Anyone that looked it at, loved it
  • Customers used it, loved it

In business, need to generate more money than spend

  • Didn’t understand why

In mid-1980s, Apple Newton

Mid-1990s, Palm Pilot

Had overcome that no one would give up the computer for address book, telephone

  • So had created as terminate stay resident program
  • Took a Compaq to IBM, the operating system person said couldn’t run two programs at once, but it did

Lessons:  even critical successes fail at the box office

  • Being early is as challenging as coming in late, though things were changing more rapidly than they really were
  • Each ecosystem has its of feel, its own style, its own rule:  thought Apple II to IBM PC would only take a few months, but people using that ecosystem have their own rules of the road
  • Thoughtful positioning is critical:  Steve Jobs was being hypercritical, enjoyed that
  • Craft counts:  didn’t make a commercial success, but was something that could be proud of, e.g. progress bars copying from one disk to another, which others didn’t know

Second narrative:  power of collaborating

  • Paul Kaiser, the Open-Ended Company, e-book that extend book
  • Most of the way we’re using the collaboration is nonsense, not collaboration

Business Animator:  Visualizing the health of business

  • Why was business graphics so stuck?
  • William Playfair in 1736 created all of the graphs used today:  bar charts, pie charts

Chernoff faces an alternative, not taking off

Dick Boland:  Model of enterprise as the cycle model

  • Acquisition of raw material
  • Conversion to products
  • Selling to customers

Gave this to Ph.D. student interested in visualization

  • Actual data, presentations, asked people which companies would do better or worse
  • With tables, 6-7 minutes, 75% correct
  • People on base product were taking longer
  • Problems with people remembering what colours meant
  • Eventually took bottom half of the scale, red to green
  • Changed the tool with animation and colours, refined version had better success than graphs

Lessons learned from designing Business Animator

  • Craft counts, versions by students weren’t well done
  • Hard work is seldom where you expect it to be, the challenge of normization
  • Emergent features are most bodacious, i.e. no numbers, got rid of numbers as people didn’t use the numbers

Story #3:  Passion and hobby, creating since the Apple II

Imager:  Playing with abstract images the way that musicians play with sound

Went back to Trevor Pinch on the history of designing the Moog synthesizer

Observations from Brian Eno:  it’s not more options you want, it’s more useful options

Dimensionality:  pitch, loudness, timbre and rhythm

  • In vision, color (….), form (…) and motion (….)

Have done many versions of this

  • People need a payoff:  when they learn to control colour, they’ll use that to control form and motion
  • Things about the human body that matter, both large and small muscle movements
  • Resist entering before the ecosystem is ready (and it hasn’t been ready for some time).

Story 4: Managing as Designing, bringing colleagues along

Success in business

Analytic construrctive

Replicable novel

What is that might be

Coherent Value conflicts

IBM study bringing up creativity


Everything about a business is designed (the rest is ripped off)

Lots of processes for desgin

The Master and his Emissary:  battle between left and right hemispheres

  • Left hemisphere, lifeless
  • Right hemisphere, always imperfectly known in a relationship of care

Dichotomies between decision and design

  • Also synthesis and analysis

Drucker: Managers create the conditions in which other people work

Design as a business school?

  • Bauhaus:  previously art was taught by standing in front of students, lecturing about perspective, vanishing point
  • In Bauhaus, they draw
  • Design students, working through exercises
  • Have to make materials designerly

On Sept 22, designed the first department in design as applied to management and organizations

Lessons from Managing as Designing

  • Multiple audiences require multiple aruments
  • Managers more receptive to idea when presented as hypothesis than as a facdt
  • Wanted to building an enduring model of management pedagogy
  • Students come to school looking for this, and driving the faculty
  • e.g. lack of convergence as a wicked problem, so discussion of Horst Rittel in a finance class
  • Could do this because Case Western Reserve doesn’t have a design school

Second order learnings

  • Shouldn’t be surprised at enigneering, medicine, business, architecture and painting as concerned not with the necessary, but with the contingent — not how things are, but how they might be — in short, design
  • Sciences of the Artificial

Gregory Gargarian, Ph.D. thesis MIT, Art of Design, Expressive in Music

  • Controls process complexity while evaluating
  • So designs are provisional, most of time is in redesign
  • Design is reflexive, lots of unanticipated problems
  • Design is evaluative,  lot of time restricting options
  • Design is confidence building, have to play the instrument for a while

Gordon Pask wrote about aesthetically potent environments

  • Have sufficient variety to provide potentially controllable novelty
  • Should use forms that can be interpreted at various levels of abstraction (more than a single mapping)
  • Provide cues or tacitly stated instruction to guide the learning and abstraction process
  • Are responsible enough to engage players in discourse

Ecosystem you are designing for is a changing unknown, not a stage-gate process

Hard to resist entry, even when ecosystem isn’t ready for your innovation

The impact of craft shouldn’t be underestimated

Imposing constraints often expands expressive utility

Design is a dance between refining the object of interest and the tools you use to make it (about 50/50?)

Milton Glazer:  It was not until I tried to draw my mother that I realized I hadn’t looked at her

Considerations:  Can designers do?  (Or could be how questions)

  • Can designers focus on objectives without falling in love with their early ideas?
  • Can people not skilled int he discipline of the thing contribute without undermining craft?  Experience, no.
  • Can the one-off that constitute the existential gift be integrated into systems on thought that are premised on coherence and integrity?

Karl Gerstner:  graphic designer and artist, founded an ad agency in Switzerland, truly understands the nature of color

  • Early lecture:  Design might not be understood as an activity reserved to artists.  It is the privilege of all people everywhere.


Interdisciplinary?  Work with people not from same background?

  • Interdisciplinarity is important.
  • A fan of tacking, moving from right brain to left brain
  • Jack, neuroscientist says can’t be both empathic and logical, it is described as schizophrenia
  • Big collaborations have nothing to do with trying to create a functional diverse team, it’s all chemistry

Related craft that resonates in a domain. Craft lessons across domains?

  • Organizational rather than material
  • Organizations have cultures, sectors
  • Working with nonprofits, need different characteristics
  • Need to get to know what’s going own, what institutions own life is like:  what’s the colony

Disruptive innovation, leverage points, intervening, seem violent.  Organizations don’t want to change that much.

Ecosystem is ready?

  • Could let others go in, then wait and see
  • There’s paradox
  • Have to find what ecosystems can absorb
  • Not first-mover advantage, maybe second-mover advantage

Asking difficult question.  Decision making versus designing.  Decision making as convergence, and designing as divergence.  Is this marketing of the idea?

  • This is to speak to managerial audiences
  • Need many presentations for different audiences

Could systems thinking have predicted the Palm Pilot?

  • If had been sufficiently attentive to design of the systems, e.g. personal admin in the context of Jobs, could have detected that needed to put into pocket.
  • At the right time, the right disciplined individual could have influenced.

[Abstract of talk from http://www.systemic-design.net/]

Keynote 1

Fred Collopy
Designing Large Systems: Five Stories; Five lessons

Abstract: Systems thinking and design practice share the characteristic that to be successful each must concern itself with attending to the needs of the whole and to the interactions among its parts. And they suffer the same fate when they succeed. Inevitably they produce unintended consequences and unanticipated side effects. But there is a radical difference in their typical starting places and their logics.

Systems thinking starts most often with a system’s objectives. Due attention is often given to engaging a variety of stakeholders in the identification of those objectives, to the specifics of their articulation, and even at times to questioning them, but the objective is the “thing.” At its most creative systems thinking is often marked by an expansion of the assumptions about the boundary of the system, which in turn shifts our understanding of its objectives.

Design generally starts from a different place, a place which is almost the opposite of that which serves systems thinking. Design recognizes the importance of an objective but seldom privileges one and instead judges the merit of a design by the multiplicity of objectives it achieves, many of which may not even have been anticipated. Instead, design often starts from and focuses attention on constraints. Charles Eames put it nicely when he said “Here is one of the few effective keys to the design problem—the ability of the designer to recognize as many of the constraints as possible.”

So, while the system thinker is concerned with how relations among a system’s elements, such as its inputs, transformations, feedback, requisite variety and guarantors, produce a desired output, the designer is concerned with how creatively and effectively a design’s elements, such as its materials, form, energy, interaction and aesthetic experience, are synthesized into a humanly satisfying whole. We might say that the system thinker makes logico-analytic abstractions of how the world works while the designer makes synthetic-artistic moves that shape how the world is experienced.

At this moment, there appears to be in process an exciting dynamic that is drawing the two closer together. My thesis is that because the world’s, each society’s, and indeed most businesses’ problems have grown so particular and so complex, designers need the perspective of systems thinkers and systems thinkers need the tools of designers.

While reflecting on these broad and important matters, I will tell five personal stories. Each is a story of designing. And each involves what, for me at least, was a large and complex system. From each I will draw a lesson that I think may apply to the current moment.

In the early days of personal computing I designed, produced and marketed The Desk Organizer, one of the first personal information management systems. As a PhD student, I designed Rule-Based Forecasting, an approach to time series analysis that integrates simple mathematical extrapolation models with human judgment. With colleagues at the Weatherhead School I designed a representation of accounting and financial information that can improve decisions, though it presents no numbers to its users. Most recently I have been working with colleagues on redesigning MBA education. And throughout my professional life, I have retreated into the design of imager, an instrument to play abstract graphics in the way that musicians play sounds.

Finally, I will reiterate some concerns that I have expressed about this moment and will express them in the form of considerations for going forward.

Fred Collopy


#design, #large-systems, #rsd2