Systemic Design Beyond the Screen

Last evening I introduced students in my systems studio class to their final project for the semester. The project has them designing an intervention to help individuals with their financial health. I must call it an “intervention” because I’ve been trying to steer the students away from thinking about the things they’re making as manifesting exclusively through screens.

It’s a challenge. Designing at a systemic level calls for thinking abstractly, and looking at the entire ecosystem one is designing for. However, systemic change happens as a result of concrete interventions: Something must serve as the catalyst for change, and that something must be made tangible somehow. Given how much time we spend interacting with and through screens, it’s natural to immediately gravitate towards solutions that involve software experienced through (especially) mobile app screens.

While software can be incredibly powerful, to think exclusively about the objects of interaction design as screen-based experiences is to limit ourselves unnecessarily. Our bodies and the world they inhabit are incredibly rich; screen-based experiences collapse that richness into relatively small windows that concentrate everything into what you can experience through a small glass rectangle.

We have so many more possibilities to choose from! What if the object of design were a new ritual? Or how about language? (“Create a new way of talking about the domain that opens up new possibilities.”) And of course, service design offers a broad range of possible interventions well beyond what can happen through screens.

Of course, I’m not opposed to screen-based interventions. The problem is that we’re so used to them that students run the risk of 1) immediately gravitating towards cliched solutions, and/or 2) not thinking about the problem as a systemic design challenge, thinking instead that they’re working on an “app” (something they’re more familiar — and therefore, more comfortable with.) I’m hoping that nudging them to think beyond the screens can help them think more systemically and propose more interesting (and fresh) solutions.