Line chefs in a restaurant kitchen. Copyright 2013: Ken Goodman Photography. Used with permission. All rights reserved.

The Design Studio as a Living System

The design studio has essentially remained unchanged for the last century. Seasoned designers, no matter how progressive, are oft quick to declare, “how it’s done” following a workflow and studio model they were trained to follow, without ever wondering why.

Most studios operate using a top-down management model similar to the one illustrated below. Orders are passed along, using strict levels of hierarchy. This is generally done while adhering to a traditional product assembly-line process.


A closer look exposes flaws in this structure. Some ‘marginal’ roles are involved at every design phase, whereas some ‘centralized’ roles only once. Time commitments can also vary, but status and compensation stay glued to this system, which is becoming ineffective for today’s design landscape. It has been fine to follow “business-as-usual” over recent decades because, in most cases, technologies like the computer have aided the design process. But “business-as-usual” does work well for recent technological, economic, or sustainable developments. How can the studio be ready for what’s next? How do designers address the behaviors metric (EN.01)?

Start by changing perspective. A studio interpreted as a system can be reorganized in a myriad of ways. Systems theory is a means of organizing anything in the way life might. It’s also about re-evaluating how things are connected. Below is an illustration of the studio and process as a living system.


In this particular model, new business brings work in (inhaling); then it’s handled by strategy. Immediately, strategy moves into the center of the process where it mixes with latter steps (blood flow), moving around while being fed new research (oxygenation). Project management and the legal department function as skin for the system. Finally, comes the release (exhaling).

Seasoned directors generally agree that good project managers are invaluable. Junior designers will question this, wondering why time should be tracked or why project roles are needed when they have a title. But project managers are much more than glorified task managers.

In a living system, they can be viewed as protection. An example of a ‘marginal’ role that becomes important: Project managers filter client comments in positive ways, avoiding “scope creep,” and assure work moves smoothly through the process, freeing creatives up to do what they do best. ‘Centralized’ roles also become less isolated. Designers can work closely with strategists, production artists, and printers to create better products. This gives projects a greater impact (PE.01) on studios, clients, and customers. Likewise, connections between ‘unrelated’ roles can be recognized and strengthened, creating a stronger studio and stronger projects. It develops the long view (PE.05) opening projects to more stakeholders.

Unknowingly, restaurants have been structuring themselves like living systems for years. The restaurant has multiple organs of activity operating interdependently in a larger system. They interact in a nonlinear fashion, taking an array of inputs and channeling them into outputs, essentially “made to order.” When this “Kitchen Brigade” system was introduced by Escoffier, it reduced customers’ waiting time by two thirds while retaining meal quality and improving consistency [2]. An expertly run restaurant will have minimal items on the menu, which are organized into hundreds of dining options. These options are deployed quickly and accurately, bringing value both through service and the product (EC.06). If restaurants ran like design studios, guests might wait days to eat!

Sustainable innovation can gain a lot from this thinking. By turning the current studio model into an interdependent system, businesses can adapt to client’s needs while project roles operate cohesively and simultaneously (CU.03). This means better design and better feedback loops. Ultimately, it means better solutions for the client, and more possibilities for leveraging individual staff talents and strengths for the design firm.


The first “Making Sustainability Work” article focused on analyzing and then manipulating the current design process by adjusting where in the sequence production falls.

Meadows, Donatella H.: Thinking in Systems: a primer. White River, VT: Chelsea Green, 2008. Print.
As the title says, this book is a beginner’s overview of

James, Kenneth: Escoffier: The King of Chefs. London: Hambledon Continuum, 2006. Print.