“you have this complex cluster of
actions, but if you want to make
an intervention, you pick a point in
the system, and you maximize
intended consequences while
acknowledging that there will be
In 2014, Natalie Nixon asked Sarah to write a chapter for her book, Strategic Design Thinking: Innovation in Products, Services, Experiences and Beyond.
Sarah used the opportunity to explore a topic that had been particularly troubling for her, as well as to help people better understand how to design for resilience. But she also wanted to explain the idea of complexity, which she had spent five years teaching and facilitating in conferences, but had yet to write down.
Sarah saw a photo made by Chris Jordan that showed an albatross that had died on the Midway Atoll. Nesting albatrosses on the atoll feed their babies plastic that they have mistaken for food. The babies then die because there isn’t room in their stomachs for real food. Jordan’s image showed a decomposing bird—feathers, beak, legs all forming a full outline—with pieces of plastic filling the bird’s stomach cavity.
But to address the problem of birds feeding babies plastic, one can’t just say, “Stop making plastic.” Sarah wanted to explain systems thinking and complexity, as well as strategic design interventions in systems.
“Putting a man on the moon is complicated,” Sarah explains, “but there are defined steps to get there. Complexity is different. Complexity is emerging conditions. It’s global hunger that’s subject to regime change and military actions and weather and available resources. So you have this complex cluster of actions, but if you want to make an intervention, you pick a point in the system, and you maximize intended consequences while acknowledging that there will be unintended consequences.”
The chapter, she said, allowed her to explore the idea of complexity, but also to bring it back to the design world. It also allowed her to explain that there isn’t always “an app for that” –and that designers have to look at overlapping systems.
“If designers want to work on these kinds of problems, we need to understand beyond how to bring a new product to market,” she says.