Jabe Bloom: A History of Design’s Sense of Complexity

Designers are exemplary negotiators of complexity when abducting toward promising solution spaces (Charles Sanders Peirce), using bounded rationality to satisfice provisional solutions (Herbert Simon) or targeting system leverage points (Donnella Meadows). In an everyday sense, Complexity is often understood via its antonym, simplicity. Complex things are not easy to understand and complex problems are difficult to solve. Some social sciences also make use of this sense of complexity, though often to draw attention to the difficulty of comprehending a system that you are in. When you are a component of a system, and especially when your knowledge about the system can impact on the relations within the system, then it becomes complex to discern the whole of the system. Social systems have the added complexity that the components – communities and individuals – have (more or less, depending on the social theory informing the research) agency to change their values or behaviors unexpectedly. These two kinds of social complexities prompted Horst Rittel to famously coin the term ‘wicked problems.’ These are social issues to which design responses may be appropriate but whose complexity mean that there is not even a definitive way of defining the problem. Complexities more quantitative conceptions emerged out of Norbert Wiener’s Cybernetics, von Bertalanffy’s General Systems Theory, and Claude Shannon’s Information Theory, all of which in different ways laid the groundwork for quantitative negotiations of complexity. A direct outcome was the development of modern computing systems following Alan Turing’s Decoding Machine. Mandelbrot and Lorenz’s work in the 1970s developed ways of modelling nonlinear dynamic systems, algorithms that underlie weather forecasting, etc. This work was later popularized under the title of ‘Chaos Theory,’ though that title is confusing as by definition, nonlinear systems are not truly chaotic More recently, designers, especially architects, have embrace deterministic chaos, deliberately constructing such systems with generative algorithms in order to create an array of forms that seem more complex and/or innovative than anything a non-computational designer could have imagined.

David Snowden, an information systems researcher and consultant, uses a framework that he calls ‘Cynefin’ (a Welsh word for a sense of place) that further distinguishes situations that are Obvious, Complicated, Complex, Chaotic and then situations that are experienced as Disorder. This is a constraints and causality based framework. Situations that are Obvious or Complicated are tightly constrained with evident causality, though in Complicated situations, a certain kind of expertise is required to discern the constrains and causality. Situations that are Complex and Chaotic are less constrained or unconstrained, and have two-way or non-linear causality. Interventions are needed to make sense of what is emerging in a Complex situation, or what is possible in a Chaotic one. Disorder is the experience of not being able to determine which kind of constraints and causality are operating in a situation. The central point of this framework is to stress that Complexity is not a system whose structure you need to be able explain, but rather a dynamic experience that you need only try to make sense within, narrating your way toward appropriate actions. Design’s sense of complexity, and the use of related terms and frames is evolving and remains contentious. This paper explores the historical sources and senses of complexity as used by designers. We believe disambiguating conceptions of complexity and complexity’s relationship to systems and systems design, can further the theoretical explorations systemic design.

Reference List:
Cilliers, Paul, and David Spurrett. 1999 Complexity and Post-modernism: Understanding complex systems. New York: Routledge.
Protzen, Jean-Pierre, and David J. Harris. 2010. The universe of design: Horst Rittel’s theories of design and planning. New York: Routledge.
Snowden, David J., and Mary E. Boone. 2007. “A leader’s framework for decision making.” Harvard Business Review 85.11: 68.


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