The Unpacking of Complexity

Another great Design of Understanding just happened here in London on Friday. Max’s conference set out to explore mark making and meaning on the basis that, as designers, we should only communicate if we understand something.

Well, so what? That’s not new. We should only communicate if we understand something.

What is new is that there’s quite a lot more than there ever used to be out there waiting, and needing, to be understood. And Friday’s speakers went some way to exploring the what, how and why of going about that.

A handful of words kept on cropping up throughout the day: system, complexity, technology and unpack (occasionally unpick). ‘System’ in particular was a new one to me, used with such frequency, so I’ve been thinking it through. I see all those words as part and parcel of the same phenomenon.

Everyone, everywhere, everywhat is connected by systems, is part of a system. And many small systems make up bigger systems. They can be political, social, technological, organisational systems. They can be natural, accidental or manufactured. They overlap. And so when one thing changes, other things are affected. They are complex by their nature.

Technology has made our systems evermore complex, and introduced new systems. But technology has also enabled us to glimpse this complexity.

Unpacking is what you have to do to understand a complex thing. (And sometimes a system is created and used as the tool to unpack something – like a complex system – that needs understanding. Easy.)

The near future was mentioned a lot too. I think the future has got nearer because of the accelerating rate of change of everything (technology and systems and stuff). With that comes opportunity for anyone who can work with that rate of change, harness it, but remain flexible enough for the next bubble or burst. You’ve got to be clever. This year’s DoU speakers were exactly that, between them forecasting, building, planning, creating, advising and visualising the near future across a heap of different industries.

So what of design or designers? Well, take Max’s starting point that designers should only communicate if they understand something. It’s based on the premise that designers are quite good at understanding stuff. And with that inclination it’s not a big step to adopt new tools (technology) to help with the understanding (unpacking) of new stuff (complex systems). It’s more about the approach. The same approach that people who don’t have ‘designer’ in their job titles are using anyway to understand complexity. None of the speakers were designers. And in the near future that really doesn’t matter. I’m glad to report that there were still plenty of voices championing the craft, integrity and passion that underpin good design.


I haven’t listed the speakers, but you can find out about them here.
And exciting examples of all this cross-discipline creativity and material they referred to on Lanyrd here.