I realise this is a bit late as a response to the previous discussions and
expert contributions from everyone. The replies from such experienced
researchers and practitioners have been useful to extend the depth and scope
of the issues and identify some key factors not previously addressed.
What I feel has been missing to date, however, is a formally expressed
overview of why it is important to search for even very small developments
in other fields that have potential implications in Design.
Outlining part of that overview is the aim of this post.
Before focusing on the reasons why it seems important always to be searching
other fields for relevant developments , I suggest it is important to be
aware of the importance of design activity in the world and the importance
of ensuring the organisations (fields, institutions, bodies of knowledge
etc.) supporting design activity to be as viable as possible. There is a lot
to be proud of in what designers, design researchers and design educators
have achieved and contributed to. Humans live longer, have easier and less
brutal lives, and are wealthier. We have more access to useful resources and
support, and aesthetically beautiful art in our everyday lives in ways that
were almost unimaginable even a few years ago. All of these improvements to
the quality of human life have been shaped by designers, many of whom have
been positively influenced by design education. In parallel, design
researchers have worked to continually improve the quality of design
outputs. Taking a helicopter view, the contribution of design activity
across the hundreds of fields of design has been strongly positive for
humans. As a result, money has flowed to designers and the idea of design as
a wide range of categories of work has been increasing, and all of these
have been increasingly regarded as valuable.
What follows outlines one of the reasons why it seems to be important for
the design field to conduct continuous scanning of the environment, i.e.
developments in other fields, for changes that may be relevant to design
activity, especially new developments those that have potential yet appear
An aspect of this is to help address the ongoing challenges for design
professionals. For example:
• Systems being developed in other disciplines that automate aspects
of design activity
• New kinds of design activity being undertaken by professionals in
other disciplines that subsume or reduce the relevance of existing design
• New computerised methods that aim to be better than humans at
creativity and design
• New computerised approaches that aim to be better at inferring best
design solutions in the context of participative or collaborative design,
(for example through data mining of Facebook or similar methods)
In this context, viewing the world’s design infrastructure (design schools,
businesses, research groups, methods, knowledge, technologies, relationships
etc.) as a large complicated organisation or eco-system seems to be helpful.
Taking an overview of the discussion, it seems useful to ask two questions:
Whether paying attention to small developments in other fields is
important to the health of the design infrastructure/organisation/eco-system
– or not?
If so, why?
The first and perhaps most obvious approach to answering these questions
(for organisational systems designers) is through the lens of Beer’s Viable
System Model. This looks at the structural requirements of an
organisation/infrastructure or eco-system for it to remain to be viable.
A second approach might be to undertake a SWOT analysis of the design
infrastructure/organisation/eco-system looking at the ‘Strengths,
Weaknesses. Opportunities and Threats’ in the wider context. In an early
draft of this post, I initially wrote in some detail about using a SWOT
analysis and intended to include both VSM and SWOT. In doing the SWOT
analysis it became obvious it wasn’t a sophisticated enough tool for the
task. Using a SWOT analysis however, provides some overall additional
support for the premise it is important to continually scan for small new
developments outside design activity that are relevant to it.
In his Viable System Model (VSM), Stafford Beer identified the core elements
and activities necessary for ANY form of organisation to be viable (this
includes anything from brains to nation states; institutions or fields of
study to artificially intelligent robots; and social policy programs to
local or global eco-systems.
In addition to identifying the necessary elements and activities for an
organisation to be viable, Beer identified what happens when parts or
missing. He identified that if any of the elements of the VSM are missing,
the consequences are specific organisational pathological states that lead
to failure or degradation of that organisation (and knock on consequences
for related organisations). These pathological organisational effects from
missing elements of the VSM appear to apply to all organisations, regardless
of whether the organisations are businesses, governments, social groups,
individual brains or nervous systems, plants, animals, robots, information
systems, digital or natural eco-systems or any other form of active
Descriptions of Beer’s VSM, and examples of its use, are found in many
places on the web as well as in Beers books. For example:
Beer, S. 1979, The Heart of Enterprise, John Wiley, London
Beer, S. 1972, Brain Of The Firm, Allen Lane, The Penguin Press, London.
For any organisation (such as the overall body of design fields, including
design education and research), it is helpful to check whether all of the
necessary elements and functions are in place and functioning well.
Where particular VSM systems elements are missing or weak it is possible to
identify particular pathological failures for the overall organisation. This
is crucial knowledge both for competitors and those wishing to protect or
grow the organisation. The ability to check for missing or weak
organisational elements or activities makes Beer’s Viable System Model
particularly useful in Design as it can tell almost at first glance whether
and how a design for organisational arrangement will fail. For examples of
this role, see,
Love, T. (2008). Improving Design of Micro-business Systems via VSM and
Constituent Orientation Analysis. In C. Rust (Ed.), Design Research Society
International Conference 2008: Undisciplined! (pp. CDROM). Sheffield, UK:
Sheffield Hallam University and Design Research Society [CDROM]. Available
Love, T., & Cooper, T. (2010). Health services system improvements: case
study of stroke unit using design research methods Australian Medical
Journal, 3(8), 445-457. Available
When design infrastructure/organisations/eco-systems as a whole are analysed
against the VSM, the weaknesses that are most obviously visible are of
systems elements 5, 4, 3* and 2 and over dependence on algedonic alerting.
The more mature technical design fields tend to address some of the
weaknesses of systems elements 3* and 2, yet remain weak in systems elements
5 and 4.
Without all of these VSM system elements being up to strength, the
consequences are the typical organisational pathologies Beer identified, all
the way to sudden organisational failure; radical unplanned disruptive
change that breaks the organisation; or being overrun. These problems of
organisational pathology apply as much to design
fields/infrastructures/organisations/eco-systems as they do to any other
The focus in this post is on system element 4 in Beer’s VSM and its role in
environmental intelligence gathering to inform strategy making to guide the
organisational management processes of elements 3 downwards.
System element 4 is about gathering the information from outside the
organisation and critically analysing it for its implications in directing
or modifying future policies, strategies and (with feedback to system
element 5) changes in direction and role of the organisation.
The most obvious organisational pathologies where systems element 4 is
• Organisation remains conservatively stuck in the past – trying to
find ways of using outdated methods to remain relevant
• Failure to identify or respond to challenges from outside
• Failure of:
o Strategy and policy creation to maintain the health of the
o Failure of the organisation to define its role (this latter
can perhaps be seen as the driver of the many discussions on ‘what is
• Lack of integration between the different design fields, between
practice and research, and lack of responsive fast development between
research, practice and education.
Where new developments in other fields emerge that may have significant
implications for future developments in design practice, education and
design research, identifying and analysing there significance is providing,
at least in a small way, part of the missing system elements of 4 and 3*.
Strong enthusiasm for identifying developments in other fields and analysing
them in terms of their implications for design research, practice, and
education can be seen as an indication of a health system element 4.
In contrast, apathy towards such developments or active criticism about why
one might want to identify and analyse the implications of such developments
in other fields implies a weak or non-existent system element 4 for design
The above are, I suggest, part of a suite of reasons why it is useful and
perhaps essential to draw attention to developments in other fields that
have the potential for requiring radical change in design practices,
education and research as they develop.
In the case described above, it is for ensuring the longer term viability
of local, national and global design
infrastructures/fields/organisations/eco-systems, in terms of them being
organisationally healthy as per Beer’s VSM. The actual consequences of
individual developments identified from other fields are a secondary issue.
Such analyses using Beer's VSM might also be useful in terms of exploring
the failures of the different design fields and practices to integrate to
create design outputs that include the best of all. It would be an
interesting PhD project. I would be grateful to know if anyone has done work
in this area already.
Best wishes from the Martini Kerk café in cold and sunny Groningen in the
Dr Terence Love
PhD (UWA), B.A. (Hons) Engin, PGCE. FDRS, AMIMechE, PMACM, MISI
Institute of Entrepreneurship and Enterprise Development
Bailrigg, Lancaster, UK
Love Services Pty Ltd
PO Box 226, Quinns Rocks Western Australia 6030
Tel: +61 (0)4 3497 5848
Fax:+61 (0)8 9305 7629
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