SOD is open source

profesjonal workshop1

From a workshop with design professionals in Tallin 2013

SOD is open source

Updated November 2017

From the very beginning, the techniques and methodology of Systems oriented design (SOD) were never thought to be precise descriptions of defined processes. On the contrary, each project or systemic intervention needs its own variation of the process. Each situation is slightly unique and demands a rethinking and adjustment of the process. Process design is an integrated part of a SOD project. In that sense, SOD is a ‘methodology without a method’.

Another aspect of this is that the research on SOD has always been shared in the academic context of the design research community.

Announcing SOD as ‘open source' we actively declare this inherent nature of SODand encourage others to participate in its development.

As an open-sourced methodology, anyone is welcome to use any part of the methodology and change it in in any way. As you think about ways to change SOD, we ask you to respect the following:

  • Please make a reference to the SOD page with a ‘based on SOD’ note.
  • Please respect the core of SOD.
  • If you find that your project is not covered anymore by the core of SOD, then please stop referencing SOD.

The Core of SOD
The core of SOD represents the core values and perspectives that determine if a project can be seen as a SOD project. These are guidelines that were made by us, but we will not police these guidelines in any way. We ask you to consider them and respect the core of SOD.

If your project corresponds to all or most of the coreparameters, we welcome you to reference it as a SOD project, and we would appreciate it if you send us a reference to the project or even material to publish on the website.

If the project does not correspond to most of the coreparameters, we kindly ask you not to refer to the project as an SOD project. If the project is within the field of systems thinking in design, we suggest that you refer to the project as a systemic design project. If your project is mostly on the systems side and does not contain an important element of design, design thinking and design practice, we suggest you refer to the project as a systems engineering project, a systemic development project or something similar.

The core of SOD is characterised by the following:

1) Practicing a Designerly way of understanding and creating systems
2) Applying central SOD techniques, amongst them Gigamapping
3) Addressing complex problems using multiple perspectives.
4) Emphasising relations and interconnections
5) Understanding soft as well as hard system approaches
6) Applying the four views: Bird – Frog, Telescope - Microscope
7) Working with problem-fields, problem-networks and situations rather than singular problems.
8) Taking responsibility for intended and unintended consequences of the design
9) Representing affected bystanders as well as non-human actors
10) Facilitating participatory processes with stakeholders, experts and all relevant organizations and individuals.

To be regarded as a SOD project, your project should be able to check off all or most of the points mentioned above. 
We encourage you to help us develop SOD.

The Mind Shifts of SOD

By Birger Sevaldson

Many people in general, and designers specifically, do not know about, or relateto systems thinking or systems approaches, which are too often seen as difficult, cumbersome and alien. Therefore, we need to address the mindset needed to appreciate Systems Oriented Design.

When talking about systems, people often think that systems are something specific, something not related to them directly. We use the term systems in everyday language, for example, ‘The system does not work’, or ‘I don’t understand the system’, for addressing large, opaque and often public or organisational problems. One can also use the term system for something smaller, such as ‘I made myself this system for controlling my economy, and it works wonderfully’.

All those uses of the term system are indeed correct. Nobody has a copyright for the term system. The everyday use of the term is as correct as any other more specific use. In fact, the everyday meaning of the term is a good starting point for understanding systems. However, we need to make several small shifts in our understanding to truly grasp systems thinking in general and to start to become a systemic designer.

  • Systems are everywhere
    Systems are everywhere, everything is part of a system and everything is a system.
  • Look beyond the object
    Look beyond the object, and move attention from the object to relations (ref. Thackara 1988).
  • Systems are dynamic
    Everything is dynamic: What seems stable just moves very slowly.
  • The “Gestalt” of the system
    Look for the apparel of the system rather than understanding the sum of its fragments.
  • Designing means working with systems
    Designing is potentially a very powerful way to deal with systems change, but not any design will do.
  • Systemics is the logic of design 
    Harold Nelson claims that the inner nature of design is systemic (in the book The Design Way)
  • Design is the means
    Design is a means that can be used to understand and resolve systems.

Revision November 2017 


Systems Oriented Design in a nutshell

By Birger Sevaldson


Here is a short and superficial presentation of Systems Oriented Design  

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The field of systems thinking is populated with a myriad of theories and applications. Most scientific realms and knowledge-based professions have managed to situate themselves within this landscape to relate to the more or less generic systems theories and develop specialised applications of those theories to suit their field. Examples are found in creativity research, systems engineering and management. Some fields have not succeeded in the adaptation processes, with one prime example being the realm of design. However, there are a number of design theorists who refer to and apply systems theories and practices in design, and these approaches revolve, almost without exception, around importing systems thinking from other fields, either those that claim to be generic, for example, systems dynamics, or from adjacent fields such as systems engineering. These discussions have been going on for a long time and they are valuable. However, they fail to integrate systems approaches with design practice. In addition, one could assume design practice and theories can be useful for the systems world.

These attempts, however valuable they are, have been not very successful to become influential in design. Though the need to be able to address greater levels of complexity is pressing, the spread of systems thinking in design has been limited. The reason may be because these imported concepts and methods are not easily combined with the main characteristics of design thinking and practice. Typically, the approaches are too technical and ‘mechanistic’ or too ‘anthropological’, leaving little space for design thinking, design practice and design creativity.

Design thinking and design practice are potentially very powerful approaches to deal with super complexity.

The main mission of systems-oriented design is to build the designer’s own interpretation and implementation of systems thinking so that systems thinking can fully benefit from design thinking and practice and vice versa. 

If you are interested in this building process, please do not hesitate to contact me at

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About Systems Oriented Design

By Birger Sevaldson




Design for a complex world.

The main mission of systems oriented design (SOD) is to help designers to become better at dealing with very complex problems. Complex problems are described as problem fields, networks of problems, wicked problems and Problematiques.

Complexity comes from the interconnectedness of things. Systems thinking is the science of interconnectedness. Therefore, we use systems perspectives in SOD.

Design can be seen as the science of what ought to be. While system thinking describes the interconnectedness of complex issues, design suggests how to react and innovate as well as solve complex problems. These two modes have not been integrated well enough

The aproach of SOD is to build the designer’s own interpretation and implementation of systems thinking, so that systems thinking can fully benefit from design thinking and practice and vice versa.

Designers are forced into a process of change because the world is rapidly changing. The forces that drive this change are caused by globalisation and the need for sustainability, and need to stay ahead of changes increases the complexity of the design process immensely.

Systems-oriented design addresses these problems by developing systems thinking in design practice further with concepts, techniques and methods that are developed genuinely for designers.

Designers are especially well suited to cope with the complexity of the real world for three reasons: they are trained to synthesise from complex and fuzzy material and can visualise, which is an enormous advantage for thinking about complex issues. When working with complexity many issues and relations need to be understood. Our mental capacity is limited. Visualizing complex systems helps us to keep more details and relations in the forefront. Visualisation is both implemented as a process technique and is used for communication. Finally, designers are creative people trained to come up with new solutions.

SOD instrumentalises these three abilities to better help designers be able to solve the pressing problems we all are confronted with. At their best, designers work creatively and intuitively to generate holistic and synergetic solutions to complex challenges. SOD emphasises these abilities, and it trains systems thinking and systems practice as a skill and an art.

SOD is informed by modern systems thinking and theories such as soft systems method, systems architecting and critical systems thinking. However, SOD contains a series of proprietary concepts, methods, and techniques. Amongst them are GIGA-mapping, ZIP analyses and impact and threshold analyses.. SOD is regarded as a genuine creative tool in design.

SOD propagates a multi-centric approach to design. This means that the dominating anthropocentric design orientation, with user centred design as its main expression is criticised. In the age of environmental crises, an anthropocentric design approach is futile. Instead, we should be able to have multiple agendas at play. These could be user oriented, or they could work on behalf of non-human agencies. The different perspectives form together a system of values that needs to be negotiated or synergized

An offspring of SOD is the Relating Systems Thinking and Design symposia starting in 2012. This resulted in the founding of the Systemic Design Research Network ( Systemic design was chosen as a term for the larger pluralistic field covering all discussions about systems in design and design for and of systems, where different approaches are encouraged. SOD is one of the most design-oriented approaches in the field of systemic design.