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Systems and design

Systems and design is one of the Social Design Institute's key focus areas.

Today’s designers are asked to design ‘solutions’ for many complex, interconnected problems. In the process, they contribute to the creation – and adaptation – of a variety of ‘systems’.

We are exploring this through collaborative research drawing on traditions in design and the social sciences including by the visualisation of systems.

We aim to provide designers, creative practitioners, policy makers and organisations with new ways to understand the potential, limitations, and consequences of designing in relation to systems.

Woman reading London underground map
Braille tube map by Ziyue Wang, photographed by David Poultney


Knife crime systems mapping

In collaboration with the Design Against Crime Research CentreJocelyn Bailey, research fellow in the Social Design Institute, worked with community groups and local government officers to understand and visualise the multiple systems and worlds associated with youth violence in London to inform new ways of working.

Read more about our collaboration to address the challenges of knife crime and Redesign Youth Futures.

Sketches of road maps
Sketchbook by Tom Butler, Case Study

Using design methodology to understand the challenges of Artificial Intelligence (AI)

The research project ‘Next Generation Services through Collaborative Design’ (funded by UK Research and Innovation’s Industrial Strategy Fund) explored the challenge of AI and its potential impact on professional services.

Led by the Institute's Director Professor Lucy Kimbell and Dr Makayla Lewis (previously at UAL), the project team developed the AI Readiness Toolkit that people in the professional service sector can use to explore what AI might mean for their future services and business models.

People working at a table with lots of papers and materials on the desk
Design sprint workshop with professionals exploring AI-enabled services © UAL Social Design Institute

Redesigning the food system with Bite Back 2030

Since June 2019, the Social Design Institute has been collaborating with Bite Back 2030, whose mission is to redesign the food system, putting young peoples’ health first.

We worked with Bite Back to embed a social design approach within the organisation, as well as co-producing a number of briefs for students at Central Saint Martins and London College of Communication. The briefs explored young people's attitudes towards food and what the experience of buying food might be like in the future.

Find out more about the student projects and view images in the project report (PDF 2957KB).

Students playing card games and laughing
Image courtesy of UAL

Systems and design literature review

Christian Nold (formerly a Research Fellow at the Social Design Institute) compiled a review of different design literatures around systems. The results of this work are encompassed in 2 working papers:

Close up shot of students reading a magazine
Visitors reading students magazine


To work thoughtfully with and in systems, we first need to make them comprehensible. Finding ways of representing a complex problem is the first step towards grappling with it. The activity of representation-making is an act of inquiry: the process here is as valuable as the end result. However, when it comes to the end result, the necessarily linear form of verbal language and text does not lend itself well to bringing a complex mess of interacting elements into view simultaneously. A picture, by contrast, can.

Jocelyn Bailey , Research Fellow
Talking about systems is a good way to move away from the dominance of user-centred design, yet it brings with it the danger of a God’s-eye view and technocratic managerialism. I believe its true potential is to sensitise users to the complexity of living socio-technical systems that include different species and multiple worlds.

— Dr Christian Nold, Research Fellow

More themes

  • Exterior of Make space with people on ladders
    Make @ Story Garden (photo: Adam Razvi)
    Value and valuation through design

    Exploring how value is created and understood through design and use.

  • People sat around a blackboard
    Make @ Story Garden (photo: Adam Razvi)
    Policy contexts and implications

    Developing a better understanding of policymaking, design and public policy.

  • Three images of model wearing various materials
    Image courtesy of UAL
    Circular design

    Circular design aims to support people and planet through emerging technology, systems design, new materials, social innovation and more.

  • A person holding a flower pot made out of seaweed
    Seaweed flower pots by Diana Tso
    Design for sustainability

    Find out about how our researchers are using design to build up knowledge and develop new approaches on how to address the challenges of sustainability.

  • Farmers having a discussion in a workshop
    A co-design session with dairy farmers, image courtesy of Alison Prendiville
    Health and wellbeing

    Working with external partners in the life and medical sciences to produce insights and new, actionable ideas, based on people’s lived experiences.

  • People at a flower market
    Columbia Road Flower Market by Jo Mansfield
    Place and community

    Researchers at UAL use design to engage, inspire and support communities and places.

  • Student at a grad show
    Image courtesy of UAL
    Public and social innovation

    UAL researchers use approaches from design to intervene in public sector, government and social innovation contexts.

  • A group of people wearing anti-theft bags
    Caption Young people with anti-theft bags by Design Against Crime Research Centre, photographed by Tom Willcocks
    Social action and criminal justice

    UAL's ground-breaking work using design research to address issues in the criminal justice system and to facilitate social action.