Systems thinking

Designers who use systems thinking look at a creative project in context with what causes the problem for the needed design and who/what is affected. They look to our natural ecosystems as a guide and a source of inspiration to create (plants are our oldest teachers!) considering the Earth is as much a stakeholder in the project as the clients and users.

Systems Thinking 

“When we try to pick out anything by itself we find that it is bound fast by a thousand invisible cords that cannot be broken, to everything in the universe.” – John Muir

The problem with design as we know it

Many of us were taught in design school in a top-down approach where the instructor told us what to make and how to make it – without discussing the impacts the materials or messaging had on our natural environment or social fabric. This form of design education would work if our planet had infinite resources, global warming didn’t exist, there was near 100% equity, and our consumption levels were already on a sustainable course. Because none of these are true and the climate is changing faster than scientists predicted, the window of opportunity to minimize our worst case climate scenario is closing quickly. 

System thinking is the way forward for designers to continue their practice and renourish what humanity has taken away from (and damaged) the planet, and, in turn, drawdown our global carbon emissions. 

The goals of system thinking 

  • Eliminate waste
  • Renourish our planet (reparations for nature)
  • Renourish our souls with a beautiful object or service
  • Create reciprocity (a gift that creates an ongoing relationship)  
  • Create with, not for – inclusivity 
  • Have a purpose, not just profit (improve quality of life)
  • Advocacy for marginalized voices (reparations for others)

The outcomes of system thinking 

Systems thinking in design should result in a usable and beautiful object or service that improves not only our quality of life, but nature as well. The term sustainability implies a net-zero impact on the planet (and us). At this moment, sustainable design would keep the current levels of damage the same.  But to renourish goes a step beyond this to heal wounds and create a positive impact on people and the planet.  This means designers must create to renourish (through systems thinking) rather than merely doing “less bad” (commonly called green design). We must create to not only slow the rate of our planet warming, but also reverse it. We need to renourish and replenish what we damaged and took from the planet – designed reparations for nature.

As an example, rather than sourcing a tree-fiber paper, you could select a paper that uses a readily available, fast-growing local agricultural fiber (like prairie grass) that when grown improves the nutrients in the soil and when composted or recycled also improves the land and water. 

The systems design process is four interlaced steps:

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Design to Renourish


We go into much greater detail on how to use systems thinking in our new book “Design to Renourish: Sustainable Graphic Design in Practice.” The book offers solutions to the real life challenges of working with the client to create sustainable work. Through ten case studies that feature interviews with international design teams who embrace a sustainable systems methodology, the reader will gain valuable insights on how to design to renourish.

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Print & Packaging Design

More and more, print designers are taking small steps along a new, more sustainable path. We’re discovering that small changes become large when multiplied by thousands of other designers making similar decisions.

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UI/UX Design

Creating for the web or mobile device can provide many opportunities to connect, educate, and mobilize. However, it is important to remember that even though paper is not involved, UI/UX work does still have significant environmental and social impacts.

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