Systems thinking research cluster

This research cluster formed in the summer of 2021 with the goals of creating an effective and easy-to-use systems thinking toolkit for the design educator and design practitioner. We believe systems thinking is the best design process to create in harmony with nature and for humanity’s common good.

The core research team


This project emerged from the research of both Eric Benson and Michelle Fehler in March of 2021. Together they presented their systems thinking toolkits at the Climate Designers Party Program and the Design as Common Good. Framing Design through Pluralism and Social Values (Swiss Design Network).

In both of these events, Benson & Fehler’s thesis was that systems thinking is the best way forward for humanity to design for the common good. They wrote:

“Design does not exist or function in a vacuum. It also does not exist without Mother Earth. Gaia gifts everything we need for us to live and thrive. What we have unfortunately done with her philanthropy created the divides, crises, and opportunities we still have. Nature provides for all of us and, equally as important, is a model for inspiration and creation for the “common good”. Nature works as a cycle where waste is food and excess is eliminated. Nature works in a series of countless connected systems that rely on one another to achieve a sustainable balance.”

In addition, the best practices, tools, and methodologies from the various design sub-areas like human-centered, service, empathic, sustainable, inclusive, indigenous, social, participatory, experiential, speculative, and transition design (and more) should be incorporated into the systems thinking process.

Systems Thinking proposal

It is common in academic and professional conferences to see innovative design methods for participatory or service design that produce impactful results in one talk, and at the same time, it is equally common for these outcomes to be lacking in considerations for environmental sustainability or regenerative design projects (or visa versa). A more holistic approach to creating is important for the common good to be achieved “for all” through design. We can’t continue to be so siloed. Best practices from each sub-area of design must be integrated into a holistic design process that aims to benefit all. No more should we be putting on siloed conferences about “insert adjective” design knowing that climate change is happening now.

The feedback for these initial systems thinking toolkits was that:

  • It was not holistic enough as it didn’t include enough global perspectives and input
  • Needed to be separated into two audiences: the educator and practitioner
  • Should be decolonized

This led Benson and Fehler to rethink their toolkits and to create this research cluster. Read more details about the background of this project in A Proposal to Connect all Design for the Common Good.

Research process

  1. Select the core research team. (The team must be small and global. Each member should bring a diverse background of experiences and knowledge to the conversation.)
  2. Decide on group dynamics, organization, and deadlines.
  3. Discuss the baseline structure on which to build a toolkit
  4. Create a toolkit to test either in a classroom or professional studio.
  5. Test the effectiveness of the toolkit through participant feedback.
  6. Revise the toolkit.
  7. Re-test the effectiveness of the toolkit through participant feedback.
  8. Revise and design the toolkit for public use.
  9. Disseminate to design educators and practitioners.

Calendar for educator-focused toolkit

Summer 2021

Autumn 2021

Forthcoming Autumn 2021

  • Feedback surveys disseminated in the 8-week course
  • Revisions to Systems Thinking Toolkit for the Design Educator syllabus

Forthcoming Winter 2022

  • Phase 2 – Systems Thinking Toolkit for the Design Educator syllabus for an 8-week project.
  • Testing at Arizona State University and the University of Illinois

Forthcoming Spring 2022

  • Feedback surveys disseminated in the 8-week course
  • Revisions and design Systems Thinking Toolkit for the Design Educator syllabus

Forthcoming Summer 2022

  • Disseminate to design educators for further testing and feedback in their classrooms

Results/Lessons Learned

  • Instructors need to better explain how Systems Thinking is Graphic Design +
  • Need to better define Connections versus Relationships
  • Not enough time for both content delivery, content retention, and to realize a meaningful student design outcome in an 8-week course
  • Need to show a detailed ideal systems map as an example for students to know what they are working toward and achieve the level of research/detail we desire
  • Life’s Principles Survey was very helpful
  • Expert lectures were crucial for further learning/understanding of topics
  • Students expressed that they feel they probably have only a surface level understanding of systems thinking and sustainable design
  • Students feel this was one of the harder classes they’ve taken
  • This topic is harder to teach online than in-person
  • Possibly easier and better results if taught as a full semester course
  • Integrate more intermediate steps – some of the jumps and connections might have been too far apart 
  • Maybe structure Systems Thinking into clear mini-modules
  • Reduce the amount of time spent on the design solution and really focus on “doing systems thinking”


We will be presenting our paper on the conclusions at the 2022 Cumulus Detroit Design for Adaption Conference.

Suggestions for further research

We will be presenting our paper on further research at the 2022 Cumulus Detroit Design for Adaption Conference.

Downloadable assets

Coming Winter 2023.

Advisory panel

Coming soon.

Want more information? Want to join our efforts?

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