A radically democratic way to transform communities, systems, and practices

Dialogic design fuses the oldest and the newest in culture, engages people across all places and cultures, and brings forth authentic design ideation in both the virtual and visceral.

Drawing from both the ancients and modern systems theory, we share a practice that maximizes design options and actions, produces consensus through learning and micro-decisions, bridges multiple cultures, and distributes power equally among participants.

In dialogic design we infuse the wisdom of democratic participation and the design tools of modern systems theory in a toolset and process scalable from one to hundreds. We demonstrate this process by case study, current practice, and the desire to share it widely as a solution to the extreme complexity of interconnectedness.

Dialogic design is a collaborative process for multiple stakeholders to democratically generate consensus design for complex, interconnected technosocial systems. In the constantly changing and interconnecting cultures, organizations, and services of the 21st century, almost everything can be located in a complex, interconnected system. As opposed to other systems thinking or design tools, dialogic design requires engagement of the collective wisdom of all stakeholders deeply caring about transformative redesign of a service or system. The practice reaches well beyond participatory design, as it immerses all and solicits from all in a scalable process of collaborative engagement.

We have rescued dialogic design from its roots in Interactive Management, where a core toolset has been developed by systems thinkers in the early 1970’s for strategic visioning and action planning for complex, large-scale systems problems. This process (known as Generic Design Science in the literature) was a heavy, guru-driven method seen as too unwieldy and expensive to be used in product or service design. We have streamlined and refined the toolset using modern software and collaborative websites. With Internet technology, the costs and cognitive burdens of negotiating and documenting design-oriented dialogue have diminished. We have used the process in synchronous, collocated workshops, in multi-continent online teleworkshops, and in UN-sanctioned peace dialogues (Cyprus).

The primary insights shared are that of a proven process of structured, transformative dialogue as a participatory design approach that generates extraordinary concepts from full participation of stakeholders. Individual autonomy is preserved and true consensus is reached in all cases, as the core principles to ensure these outcomes are engineered into the dialogic process. The primary driver for presenting at Connecting is the increasing interest in applying the tools of design thinking for democratically transforming contemporary social, public, and institutional systems.

Beyond the SDD process itself, though, is the underlying philosophy that complex systems require multiple thinkers in a disciplined collaboration to uncover the key factors and variables for redesign. The underlying values and principles generate the SDD process, it is not a methodology for process sake. In our experience, there are few alternatives for generative and democratic design in highly complex social system problems, such as natural resource stewardship, disease elimination, or ethical design for public healthcare systems. Since the process “scales down” easily for use in product definition or creative problem solving by groups, it deserves hearing by a larger venue of designers.


Transformation Design brings democratic participation to the design of tools and systems people encounter in everyday life. The prevailing paradigm of system and technology design has been based on the “expert designer” model, which has continuity throughout the history of technology development. We aim to change that paradigm, using the tools of SDP, dialogic design, and participatory design to liberate people from mis-designed public (and private) systems.

Consider all the unnecessarily obstructive, unsafe, unhealthy, and burdensome processes encountered in your communities and services – from long lines in public offices to poor transportation systems design, from bad signage and wayfinding to complex healthcare services. Nearly every service in public life can be improved – the point of Transformation Design is to improve life for a given community of stakeholders, letting designers “be the tools” for change, rather than turning responsibility over to system designers.

We consider design to provide extraordinary and powerful tools for reconfiguring the relationship of the world to people’s needs and real interests. We encourage your involvement in this developing theme and competency through the companion site:

Doors of Perception                                             Big Ideas in social innovation

Centre for Social Innovation                                  Toronto-based hub of social design projects

UK Design Council – RED                                    Transformation design agency of the UK Design Council

Design for Democracy                                         NYC-based advocacy for social issues projects

Viridian Design                                                   Bruce Sterling-inspired environment design


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