Design for Chaos

Massive change often prompts fear, confusion, and a sense of chaos. How we manage and mitigate this is all about the right design choices.

At the time of this writing we are seeing entire countries being quarantined along with thousands of people on cruise ships, sporting events being played to empty arenas, and large planned events being cancelled. Add in market instability, energy price plunges, runs on supplies (like toilet paper), and we have the making of social chaos.

The reasons for this are many, but share a root cause related to fear of an unknown, unfamiliar threat and the perceived consequences of it.

What makes things like COVID-19 and outbreaks particularly troublesome is that the effects are networked and compound. How do we manage?

There are ways to mitigate this and that requires a new approach to how we design our products and services and our institutions.

Designing for Change

Most of what we design for are static conditions or at least consistency. We don’t design for movement. Yet, most of the social, environmental, economic, technological, and political conditions we engage in are dynamic. Here are some basic principles to consider in preparing ourselves for the unknown and being resilient in the face of chaos drawing on the science of complexity and design.

  1. Reframe the problem & solutions. Rather than consider design as an event, consider it more as an ongoing process that is consistently done, much like gardening, sailing, or surfing. The mindset of each of these activities is set toward designing with, not in opposition to, the ongoing changing forces of nature.
  2. Emphasize praxis. Praxis is reflection-in-action and the process of learning as we go. Chaos can’t be fully predicted, cannot be controlled, but it also can be a great source of information if we attune ourselves to it. Developmental design and evaluation are two approaches that can help.
  3. Create order where you can. Rather than quest for order in all things, focus on the smallest things you can control. Small amounts of coherence in a chaotic environment can be what leads to greater order over time.
  4. Move. Designing for movement means moving yourself. Chaotic situations do not lend themselves to pause, stasis, or reflection – that time will come. This is where confidently making design decisions on the go, gathering information, and adapting over time comes in.
  5. Flex. Like movement, flexible, negotiable designs are more resilient in the face of great and rapid change than static structures. Rigid policies, practices, and organizational structures are prone to collapsing or impeding healthy adaptation. Create spaces to flex and modify rather than solidify in these times.
  6. Evaluate. Adaptive, dynamic, and responsive evaluation is key. Watch what you’re doing, attend to whatever effects you can, and feed back that information to your decisions. Complex systems evolve through feedback and that is what evaluation provides.
  7. Persist. Small changes can lead to small effects and big ones. In chaotic situations the key is to create coherence and build on small wins. That might take multiple attempts. Don’t give up otherwise it will be the system that will decide your fate, not your intentions and actions.
  8. Principled change. Principles are touchstones that can guide the way we see, think, and approach problems even when the actual tactics aren’t clear. By setting out some design principles for your organization or service, you create these touchstones that can be relied on when things get ‘fuzzy’ or unknown. They also are things that you can evaluate and use to help ‘place’ where you are in the middle of a chaotic situation.

Chaos is a high-energy state and consequently cannot last long. While it may seem hard to navigate in the moment, chaotic situations usually revert to something more manageable over time. The key to surviving is to know what you can do and focusing on that, rather than dwelling on what is out of your control — even if that feels like a lot.

Photo by Drew Dau on Unsplash

Cameron D. Norman

I am a designer, psychologist, educator, evaluator, and strategist focused on innovation in human systems. I'm curious about the world around me and use my role as Principal and President of Cense Ltd. as a means of channeling that curiosity into ideas, questions, and projects that contribute to a better world.

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