Systems Thinking vs Design Thinking, What’s the Difference?

Definition of systems thinking versus design thinking. Systems thinking is holistic, analytical, abstract, conceptual, and relationship-oriented. Design thinking is deeply human, creative, tangible, experimental, and action-oriented.



  1. Introduction
  2. What is Systems Thinking?
  3. What is Design Thinking?
  4. The Differences Between Systems Thinking vs. Design Thinking
  5. Advantages and Drawbacks of Systems Thinking
  6. Advantages and Drawbacks of Design Thinking
  7. Human-Centered Systems Thinking: Integrating Systems Thinking and Design Thinking 
  8. Frameworks, Tools, and Methodologies for Human-Centered Systems Thinking


1. Introduction

Systems thinking and design thinking are both approaches to problem solving and innovation. Systems thinking starts with understanding entire systems rather than individualized elements to spot opportunities for change, whereas design thinking is focused on understanding people’s real needs to create human-centered products, services, and processes. It’s important to learn the nuances of each when incorporating them into your practice.


2. What is Systems Thinking?

Systems, like healthcare and cities, are big, multifaceted, dynamic things built for a purpose. They span several services and products working together simultaneously. Some systems benefit society, but some can lead to harm too. Donella Meadows, author of Thinking in Systems, describes systems as made up of structures (institutions), relationships (stakeholders and power dynamics), and paradigms (culture and mindsets).

So what is systems thinking? In his book The Fifth Discipline, Peter Senge gives a systems thinking definition as “A discipline for seeing wholes. It is a framework for seeing interrelationships rather than things, for seeing patterns of change rather than static ‘snapshots.’ And systems thinking is a sensibility—for the subtle interconnectedness that gives living systems their unique character."

Systems thinking has been around for a long time. If you search the history of the field, you will find your way to pioneering systems theorists like Jay W. Forrester, Russell Ackoff, Donella Meadows, Peter Senge, and more. They codified much of our modern thinking on systems theory, dynamics, and modeling. But were they the first systems thinkers? Certainly not. There are roots in Native American cultures and worldviews, early feminism, and many other examples.

The concept of wholeness is integral to a systems thinking approach. A system is more than the sum of its parts—it's defined by the interaction of its parts. To understand how a system works, you have to study not the individual elements but the linkages between them. When you start thinking in systems, you can then spot opportunities for change. By bringing more awareness to the process of designing systems, we can all be more intentional about creating equitable ones and dismantling harmful ones. 


“A system is more than the sum of its parts—it's defined by the interaction of its parts.”


3. What is Design Thinking?

Design thinking is a human-centered approach to innovation—anchored in understanding customer’s needs, prototyping, and generating creative ideas—to transform the way you develop products, services, processes, and organizations.

When using design thinking principles, you bring together what is desirable from a human point of view with what is technologically feasible and economically viable.

  • Desirability: What makes sense to people and for people?
  • Feasibility: What is technically possible within the foreseeable future?
  • Viability: What is likely to become part of a sustainable business model?



We teach the phases of design thinking as linear steps, but in practice the process is not always linear. Some of these steps may happen several times, and you may even jump back and forth between them. The phases of the design thinking process include:


Frame a Question—Identify a driving question that inspires others to search for creative solutions.

Gather Inspiration—Inspire new thinking by discovering what people really need.

Generate Ideas—Push past obvious solutions to get to breakthrough ideas.

Make Ideas Tangible—Build rough prototypes to learn how to make ideas better.

Test to Learn—Refine ideas by gathering feedback and experimenting forward.

Share the Story—Craft a human story to inspire others toward action.

If you want to learn more about using a design thinking approach, you can explore design thinking examples, case studies, and activities in our free Design Thinking Resources


4. The Differences Between Systems Thinking vs. Design Thinking

You might be wondering: when should I use design thinking and when should I use systems thinking? Each approach has its own distinct characteristics and benefits. Here is a comparison of systems thinking and design thinking:


5. Advantages and Drawbacks of Systems Thinking

Systems thinking enables us to overcome stalled decision-making that often occurs when we’re overwhelmed by the scale of a problem and it’s hard to know where to get started. It helps us see the interconnectedness of things, spot patterns, and identify the right areas to focus our efforts. This approach is a good fit for challenges where there's a lot of stakeholders, competing incentives, or no obvious solution.

Other benefits of systems thinking include:

  •  Deepening understanding of a problem by getting different perspectives from people within the system.
  • Expanding the range of choices by framing the problem in new and different ways.
  • Making more informed choices by understanding how things are interrelated and how choices may impact other parts of the system.
  • Anticipating the impact of trade-offs to reduce the risk of unintended consequences.
  • Building buy-in and support for solutions by making sure everyone's viewpoint is included.

The goal of systems thinking is ultimately to come up with solutions that are more holistic and take into account the needs of all stakeholders while also understanding the dynamics of the system. A common drawback or limitation of systems thinking is getting stuck in the ideation and thinking phase without getting tangible. When practicing systems thinking without including the prototyping mindsets of design thinking, it can be more difficult to implement the solutions that you come up with. Additionally, when you use a solely systems thinking approach, you may overlook the individual human needs and behaviors that you uncover with design thinking.


6. Advantages and Drawbacks of Design Thinking

Design thinking is valuable because it puts people at the center of problem solving. It encourages us to ask questions and find out what our customers and clients need, rather than assuming we already know all the answers. Brainstorming ideas, prototyping, and iterating allow us to learn faster and improve products and services before they go out into the real world.


Over time, the methods and mindsets of design thinking lead to something even more important—creative confidence. The subtle techniques of design thinking unlock mindset shifts that lead people (many for the first time in their lives) to see themselves as creative. Creative confidence gives people the ability to fearlessly (or with less fear) tackle complex problems in the world.

Here are some additional benefits of design thinking, and how it can help your team or organization:

  • Understanding the unmet needs of the people you’re creating for.
  • Reducing the risk associated with launching new ideas, products, and services.
  • Generating solutions that are revolutionary, not just incremental.
  • Learning and iterating faster.
  • Collaborating better and tapping into the creative potential of individuals and teams. 

When it comes to drawbacks or limitations of design thinking, some teams may find it difficult to incorporate design thinking because it involves a lot of ambiguity. It’s not a linear path, and sometimes requires looping back to different parts of the process. Additionally, it takes time and practice to practice design thinking at a high level.

Some may also find it difficult to change social norms or behavior on their team. If an organization is used to doing things in a certain way, it might be resistant to a new, more creative way of working. It can be challenging when a team isn’t aligned on applying a design thinking mindset, since it’s such a collaborative approach.


7. Human-Centered Systems Thinking: Integrating Systems Thinking and Design Thinking

Human-centered systems thinking brings together the analytical, holistic tools of systems thinking with the creative human-centered process of design thinking. It’s a mindset and methodology for tackling complex systemic challenges in a human way: staying grounded in the needs of multiple stakeholders while also seeing larger dynamics at play so you can diagnose the real problem, design more effective solutions, and drive real behavior change and positive impact within systems.

Combining systems thinking and design thinking enables you to:

  • Zoom in and out, and toggle back and forth between a systems lens and a human lens.
  • Gain a deeper, more holistic and human understanding of the system and its stakeholders.
  • Develop empathy for both the people and the system itself.
  • Understand what drives human behavior and system behavior.
  • Redesign the system to produce better outcomes by designing and implementing interventions that drive positive change within the system.

Today, human-centered systems thinking is needed more than ever. We have a greater awareness of the interconnected nature of our world. The challenges we face—as individuals, teams, organizations, communities, and as a society—are myriad and multifaceted. Their scale and complexity can be overwhelming. Where do we begin? How do we start to make sense of things?

So many of our complex systems today are human systems like organizations, which are made up of relationships between people. A human-centered approach to systems thinking starts with people and diagnoses the underlying causes of problems before taking action to solve them, and stays grounded in the needs of many stakeholders while also seeing the larger dynamics at play. When you approach problem solving in this way—deeply human and holistic—you will get to solutions that are more effective, connected, integrated, and ethical.


8. Frameworks, Tools, and Methodologies for Human-Centered Systems Thinking

Human-centered systems thinking isn’t just a theoretical concept—there are practical frameworks and tools that you use to bring it to life. Here are a couple of our favorites:


The Iceberg Model


In a complex system, solving problems requires considering the whole picture and surfacing the root of the problem. The iceberg model is a framework for uncovering the many layers of a system, including behaviors, structures, and mindsets. It helps you:

  • Look for patterns over time, starting with what you see
  • Uncover deeper structural influences
  • Surface underlying mindsets


The Systems Map


A systems map is a tool commonly used by systems designers to lay out all the relationships and interactions between stakeholders in a given system, such as a local high school (shown in the image above). Mapping systems can help you spot opportunities for growth and change.

To create a systems map, follow these steps:

  • Write down every stakeholder in your system on a blank piece of paper. Push yourself to think past the obvious.
  • Draw arrows between the different parts of your system to identify how they’re connected.
  • Reflect on what specific areas you want to examine more closely. What questions come up for you? What gaps do you see?

If you want to dive deeper into systems thinking and learn more tools and frameworks, check out our 5-week online course Human-Centered Systems Thinking.

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