John Chris Jones: Design for system transformation

“Why is designing difficult?” asked John Chris Jones in his prescient 1970 book, Design Methods: Seeds of Human Futures. “The fundamental problem is that designers are obliged to use current information to predict a future state that will not come about unless their predictions are correct.”

Jones, whose early work was in industrial design, cited numerous design descriptions and definitions (e.g., J. K. Page: “the imaginative jump from present facts to future possibilities”) before settling on “the initiation of change in man-made things.”

The main difficulty in any form of designing is that of coping with the complexity of a huge search space filled with millions of alternative combinations of possible sub-components. … Clearly we need ‘multi-professional’ designers and planners whose intuitive leaps are informed by knowledge and experience of changes at all levels from community action to component design. Equally, we need new methods that provide sufficient perceptual span at each of these levels.

He surveyed 35 such methods. Some notes from Method 5.4: Systems Transformation:

To find ways of transforming an unsatisfactory system so as to remove its inherent faults.

1. Identify the inherent faults of the existing system.
2. Identify the reasons for the existence of these faults.
3. Search for new kinds of system components capable of removing the inherent faults.
4. Find a sequence of changes (a transformation route, or evolutionary pathway) that would allow the existing components to evolve into the new ones.

It is easy to imagine the transformation of a design situation but much more difficult to carry it out. This is because, in changing the components of a system, one is changing the things upon which its stability depends, and with it, the stability of many people’s beliefs, jobs and expectations.

Not the kind of design-for-engagement methods that would be cataloged in, say, Peggy Holman and coauthors’ The Change Handbook — but fascinating nonetheless.

Leave a Comment