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How does Systems Thinking help Design Thinking?

In this article, I will be discussing Systems Thinking and its application in Design Thinking.

What is a System?

A system is a group of elements that are interconnected and interact with each other in which changing one part of the system affects other parts and the whole system, with predictable patterns of behaviour.

What is Systems Thinking?

Systems thinking is a holistic approach to analysis that focuses on the way “how elements in a system are interrelated?” and “How does this interconnectedness of different elements synthesize to create a new effect in the system over time?”

In Traditional Thinking, we analyze by dissection of complexity into manageable components. Analysis fits into the mechanical and reductionist worldview, where the world is broken down into parts.

But all systems are dynamic and often complex; thus, we need a more holistic approach to understanding any phenomena.

Systems Mapping

Systems mapping is one of the key tools of the systems thinker.

There are many ways to map, from analogue cluster mapping to complex digital feedback analysis.

However, the fundamental principles and practices of systems mapping are universal.

Identify and map the elements of ‘things’ within a system to understand how they interconnect, relate and act in a complex system, and from here, unique insights and discoveries can be used to develop interventions, shifts, or policy decisions that will dramatically change the system most effectively.

What is Design Thinking?

Design thinking is a human-centred approach to design — anchored in understanding customers’ needs, rapid prototyping, and generating creative ideas — that will transform the way you develop products, services, processes, and organizations. By using design thinking, you make decisions based on what customers really want instead of relying only on historical data or making risky bets based on instinct instead of evidence.

Design thinking brings together what is desirable from a human point of view with what is technologically feasible and economically viable.

  • Desirability(People): What makes sense to people and for people?

  • Feasibility(Technology): What is technically possible within the foreseeable future?

  • Viability(Business): What is likely to become part of a sustainable business model?

How do Systems Thinking help Design Thinking?

Systems thinking facilitates a shift in mindset, away from linear to circular. The fundamental principle of this shift is that everything is interconnected.

Understanding customer’s/user’s needs,

While Design thinking is anchored on understanding customers’ needs, System Thinking helps to understand the whole system which influences the customer.

In Design Thinking, research is done to understand the user’s mindset, In Which a lot of effort has been taken to understand the context of the user.

Systems thinking allows a researcher to understand multiple levels of factors that affect the user.

The customer’s world is a system that is mappable and from there can be found the root cause(s) of their pain points, problems and needs.

Example: The image below typically shows the various first and second-order causes of Traffic violation in Chennai city. It is created by me for one of my projects which is done for understanding the favourable context of the traffic violation. From this diagram, you can notice varieties of elements like socio-cultural, environmental, demographic, technology are interconnected to a traffic violation.

Like the above example, Essentially, everything is reliant upon something else for something.

Humans need food, air, and water to sustain their bodies, and trees need carbon dioxide and sunlight to thrive. Inanimate objects are also reliant on other things: a chair needs a tree to grow to provide its wood, and a cell phone needs electricity distribution to power it.

So, when we say ‘everything is interconnected’ from systems thinking perspective in understanding the user. We not isolating the user from the context.

The clarity one gets by using the systems mapping is enormous. It gives a broader view. It will highly helpful for researchers while they construct theory, write recommendations, do analysis with qualitative data.

I would recommend using a systems map in foundational research.

Archetype from movies that are loosely based on these concepts!

(Experts can skip it, it is mainly for students & newcomers)

Lets Consider

Marvel Cinematic Universe = System

Each Marvel Movies = Elements (Like Ironman 1 is one element, Avengers Endgame as one element)

All elements are interlinked in a system = Storyplot of all movies are Interlinked & Interconnected.

Consuming this whole set of movies, having a clear overview understanding of all characters, overall story plot & each subplot is Systems Thinking.

In the same Marvel Universe,

Ironman’s close superhero friend Warmachine was paralyzed by falling from the sky. And once Ironman had to make a fire to make him warm after he fell into the deep sea.

Understanding these pain points from past & present experiences of other superheroes, Ironman designed a user-centred superhero suit for novice superhero spiderman with a parachute to avoid falling from the sky and with a heater to get warmer after falling into the sea. This is Design Thinking.

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  1. Tools for Systems Thinkers: The 6 Fundamental Concepts of Systems Thinking (

  2. Futures Thinking and Design Thinking Simply Explained! (

  3. Systems theory (

  4. Traffic Violations (

  5. Systems Thinking — What is it all about?(

  6. The Fourth Way: Design Thinking Meets Futures Thinking (

  7. IDEOU Design Thinking Process (


Originally Published on my medium blog

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