Systems & Designing Conversation

We have reached the end (for now). As we button this up, I wanted to step back from the trenches, and consider conversation design (and design itself) from a broader perspective.

As discussed in my earlier post “Twenty Years in Design,” we’ve reached new heights with where design shows up, but with this comes new responsibilities and a new awareness of how design can impact the world in a negative way. Wicked problems are here to stay; they question our very future and ask us to adapt in ways we are not accustomed to. Designers trained in understanding the nuances of the way we communicate can help mediate through this uncertainty, supporting groups who need to speak more directly with each other, creating open and safe environments for the best, most novel and feasible ideas to crawl up to the surface.

This cannot happen in a bubble. As Milan Guenther writes in Intersection: “In every project or program we are involved in, we find elements that don’t fit together, and conditions that prevent good relationships from developing. When relationships fail, it is rarely a single issue that can be blamed. It is the interplay of all the parts which, together with the circumstances at hand, lead to a complex picture of problems and shortcomings” (448). This means that designing better, more thoughtful, more purposeful conversation may be extremely valuable to a single team or single product development initiative, but unless we want it to have real impact, real value to business and our communities at large, we need to start thinking BIGGER. We need to go beyond a focus on human-to-human interactions, to how formed communities of humans interact. We need to look at systems of humans, communities, and nations, factoring in all the social, biological, and technological influences.

But where do we start? How can we turn conversation design from a one-off project into our default style of operation, a standard team approach, an organization’s mindset? How can we influence the people around us to think more holistically?

One way is to start small. Start local. And the localist place is you. If you don’t think it’s possible, I will share my own journey as a way to illustrate that it is:

With an undergraduate degree in English, a ten-year career as an accountant and an [almost] graduate degree in the arts, I would say I qualify as a right brain AND left brain thinker. You might think that is very unique, but my research for this thesis has only shown me how many of us there are. Additionally, I wasn’t born this way. My varied choices in education as well as influencing family, teachers, bosses, and organizations have all guided my path to this point, lighting up new areas of thought along the way.

This means that, as you read this, you might not consider yourself a whole brain, holistic thinker, but you can be. I thought this could be a great place for me to add a few pointers to help you get started…

“What we urgently need is a social technology that allows us to deal with the diverse kind of wicked challenges we’ve got today… And it has to be more than simple rules like turn-taking. It has to be an entire approach that lets us harness whatever it takes for human beings to have better conversations that allow them to work together to produce better outcomes” (Liedka).



This one, to me, is the essence not only of holistic design, but holistic thinkers across disciples and fields. As an accountant, long before design school, my obsession with why made a monotonous job more exciting and people-centered, and opened the doors to quality control projects. I now consider this to be the early stepping stones to my interest in designing better processes for people.

For designers, this may mean challenging what you or your client knows from the very beginning of a project – starting with the design brief. In Yves Behar’s 7 Principles of Holistic Product Design (from his speech at the 2011 Opportunity Green Conference), he begins with: “Start with questions, not answers — Instead of trying to design a product from a detailed client brief that dictates the answers, the design process should start with a few simple questions” (Scharwarth).

Asking why is a simple way to start opening up the lines of communication between designers and their clients, teams and departments.


Find the 'golden ratio'

The golden ratio is a term I’ve stolen from mathematics surrounding the spiral pattern we so frequently encounter in nature, is about finding patterns and understanding the root of how they happen. This consideration is, of course, metaphorical in nature. Though we often forget, we human beings are biological – as part of this, we seek patterns, we participate in them (often without knowing), we learn about the new based on what we already know about the old.

Designers, whether or not they are focusing specifically on conversation, should imagine themselves walking that spiral, starting in the center and moving outwards. What begins as a tightly wound and confusing cross section of opinions, knowledge, data, and parameters can begin to unwind and open as we weave through it all, connecting things along the way. Thinking like this can help us journey from a single problem to the full ecology of interacting elements that surround it. Holistic design requires this mindset.

Designing more thoughtful and purposeful conversation can be a key to unlocking each next stage in that journey.



Yep, you read that right!

Find the (appropriate time) to be disagreeable, a thorn in someone’s side! Pick your battles wisely. Sometimes it is best to accept defeat when you’ve exhausted your possibilities, or you risk losing your job. Not all people are open and willing to hear you out, toss around your idea, or listen to you soapbox about things you know nothing about (even though you probably know more than they assume). We’ve all been there, and sometimes you just… gotta wait your turn.

In his 2016 Ted Talk, organizational psychologist Adam Grant talks about the underappreciated presence of disagreeableness in the workplace: “I always assumed that agreeable people were ‘givers’ and disagreeable people were ‘takers’ but then I gathered the data and I was stunned to find no correlation between those traits… there are disagreeable ‘givers’ in our organizations; they are people who are gruff and tough on the surface but underneath, have other’s best interests at heart… Disagreeable givers are the most undervalued people in our organization because they’re the ones who give the critical feedback that no one wants to hear but everyone needs to hear” (Grant).

In any personality test I’ve ever taken, I almost always score high in ‘agreeableness’ and while this is overwhelmingly true, if you know me personally, you also know I have a very strong ‘disagreeable’ streak. Overall, this quality has served me well throughout my career – it has helped me stand up for myself and others, for doing what’s right or ethical, for challenging blind spots that my leadership was missing, among other reasons. I’m still working on laying down my sword when something feels off, so I too, am still very much a work in progress.

To be a holistic thinker, you need to get comfortable with your disagreeable streak, if you aren’t already. Embrace it, nurture it, but also recognize when it needs to be put to bed. When used effectively, this quality is what allows designers of all niches to challenge accepted norms, to reframe ‘truths’, to disrupt the same ol’, same ol’ encountered day to day.



Sometimes being disagreeable is being bold. But here, I’m talking about pushing the boundaries of your position. Perhaps your organization has no design forward mindset; perhaps you are a lone individual, hoping to inspire others or insert some elements of design thinking in your team or department. The hill may seem impossible to climb but it isn’t always. There are little ways you can start to influence those around you, and sometimes you can look outside your niche or company for inspiration.

When service designers Megan Miller and Erik Flowers started, they had no idea how many people would contact them asking for advice on how to implement design activities (in this instance service design related) within traditional, top-down, zero design-oriented organizations.

In the video “How to make Service Design work with no money, time or support,” Flowers says: “Every day every day we get some sort of …communication from people who are working from the ground up in companies: ‘hey I’m one person… at a huge cell phone company, this place couldn’t be less design oriented … no one’s going to give me any money, I’m not going to be able to hire anybody – how does one person bring service design?’ – our audience is more of the lone practitioner … who see it from the bottom up and not the top down” (Flowers and Miller). Their answer is about making service design practical, to show how it can be effective and to open people’s eyes by showcasing what benefits there are when used effectively. Eventually, there are managers who buy in; it can spread from there.

Of course that is not a one-size-fits-all situation, but there are many more examples out there to find inspiration for boldness. In Interviewing Users, author Steve Portigal writes: “You should position yourself in your organization so that interviewing customers is an integral part of how you work. If this wasn’t part of your arrangement upon being hired, you need to evolve your brand with your managers and colleagues” (142). In this example, it’s about positioning yourself closer to the action you seek, even if your position didn’t originally start off this way. Being bold may be asking for additional responsibilities in your current role.

If you want to expand your application of design, if you see blind spots or opportunities others don’t (or are too busy to give time to), put yourself out there. Go further in your position, add value to your deliverables. If you aren’t sure where to start—start Googling. Seeing how other designers brought fresh, new ideas to the table in other organizations could be a great way for lone, holistic designers to have a larger impact.

If I still haven’t convinced you, watch this video Systems-thinking: A Little Film About a Big Idea. It may show you that you are already a systems thinker, you just don’t know it yet!