Exclusive Interview: Dr. Harold Nelson, Author of “The Design Way”

April 25, 2005

Dr. Saba:
You have an eclectic background in systems design; how did you become interested in such an interesting area

Dr. Nelson:
After extensive training in electronics compliments of the navy, I made a compromise decision between my daemon’s preference for art, and my pragmatic side’s preference for employability—I entered the B. Architecture program at Montana State University. After graduation, I spent a year in Finland studying and teaching architecture, teaching ceramic design, and working as an assistant to a well-known international architect.

From Finland, I moved to Colorado to serve out the obligatory three-year apprenticeship period which was required in order to qualify to take the professional architect’s licensing exam. During this period of time, I worked on two design projects that I felt were too complex for a traditionally trained architect to handle well. These projects were the catalysts for my decision to go back to graduate school in search of the necessary skills for dealing with complex design challenges at a broader and deeper level than my undergraduate training prepared me for.

I entered the Master of Architecture program at Berkeley, where Christopher Alexander was teaching. I soon met Horst Rittel, a professor of design best known for his theory of wicked problems; Horst essentially changed the course of my academic career. Because of him, I met West Churchman, a systems philosopher and professor in the Haas Business School at Berkeley, and through Churchman I met other faculty involved in systems thinking and design.

After completing my M. Arch. Degree and passing the exam for a professional license, I entered the Ad Hoc Ph.D. Program at UCB where I chose my own faculty and designed my own degree—Social Systems Design—with the help of West Churchman and an exceptional committee of scholars. I completed the research for my dissertation in value distribution assessment at the Lawrence Berkeley Research Laboratory.

Dr. Saba:
What prompted you to write a book on systems design?

Dr. Nelson:
We wrote this book, because we believe design is a big deal; bigger than the public, or popular press understands, and bigger than academics profess. Design is a tradition of inquiry and action that predates any of the other traditions. It is the essential competence that identifies us as humans and makes it possible for us to act with intention. Design is the means by which humans continue to participate in the ongoing genesis of the real world. Through our innate capacity to design, we have created our cosmologies, cultures, and technologies. Design is a distinct form of inquiry: not a midpoint on a continuum between art and science, or one of the end points—design is neither applied art, nor science.

We wanted to help facilitate the creation of a culture of design—a reconstitution of sophia. In the Western tradition, sophia (the Greek term for wisdom) was split into two distinct parts during the Socratic era. In pre-Socratic Greece, the term sophia meant the knowing, or wise hand— there was no separation between reflection and action. During the Socratic age, sophia was cleaved in two, with only one of the two being preserved as wisdom. Reflective thinkers were given the highest position in the Greek social hierarchy, while those who engaged in the activity of making or producing fell to the bottom of the hierarchy.


Philosophy, which was the love of wisdom, became primarily a consideration of first principles. From then to now this diminished form of sophia remains in place and is played out daily in a variety of polarities. For example, we have white-collar and blue-collar workers, researchers and practitioners, learning scientists and instructional designers. There are good reasons for not supporting this residual polarity. Systems design scholarship gives us the means to reintegrate reflection and action—the reconstitution of sophia. Our book introduces some of the ideas behind this most pragmatic challenge.

Dr. Saba:
How do you see the current state of instructional design?

Dr. Nelson:
I can only speak as an outsider looking in, but I do have some general impressions. From reading the literature it appears that instructional design has often been identified with the practitioner side of the split between reflection and action. I am sure it is not as simple as that, but that is the general impression I get. The field is reported to be in flux at the moment with a certain amount of confusion over which direction ought to be taken for the maturation of the field. There also seems to be uncertainty on how instructional design relates, or ought to relate, to the other communities of practice formed around issues of learning—especially theory development.

Instructional design is often referred to as being systematic, which is different from being systemic or representing a true systems approach. A systemic approach implies there is a belief in general or universal applications of methods of instructional design. A systems thinking approach would provide significant opportunities for a more integrative development of the field.

There also seems to be a predominant focus on the technology of learning environments. The field is often represented as a consumer of knowledge created by others in more research focused fields. As designers, the community ought to be the triggering force for support from researchers.

Within the field, the term design seems to predominantly refer to the processes of putting together structured learning settings—a craft process identified with making, producing, constructing, and similar implementation processes. This is an unnecessary limit on the field as a design field.

Although it may not always be respected in academic settings, I appreciate the involvement of instructional designers in real world settings, which include business, government, and institutional contexts. This implies there is a high priority and value among instructional designers to serve the needs of people outside of an academic context.

Dr. Saba:
In what ways will instructional designers benefit from reading The Design Way?

Dr. Nelson:
As the title of the book suggests, they will get an introduction to the foundations and fundamentals of designing from a systems thinking approach. They will be given a perspective on design that is particularly timely, given the complex challenges faced by professionals and academics today.

This is a philosophic and practical book—not just a theoretical book. It does not present a singular model of design. It presents a big picture of design with many essential details filled in. It is a pragmatic and contemplative introduction to an important ongoing dialogue. A dialogue in which, designers from formal and informally designated design fields, are actively engaged in around the world. Design is being discovered, or redefined, by diverse communities of practice, which find that design has immense promise to move them beyond the analysis or value paralysis that they continually find themselves in when using other traditions of inquiry.

They will be introduced to a conceptualization of design that is much broader, deeper, and more integrated than is commonly presented in academic or professional contexts. The book provides an introduction to many seminal ideas that actively point to new opportunities and possibilities for leaders and stakeholders in the field. The book provides insight into what is involved in becoming design competent. It introduces the dynamics of design practice, and the requirements of a design education.

Dr. Saba:
How do you see the future of design for learning and teaching systems?

Dr. Nelson:
As stated in the book: “Description and explanation do not prescribe action. Prediction and control do not justify action.” This means that design action and ethical choices do not flow from design research. To the contrary, design research needs to flow from design activity. Design activity has an immense impact on the world and the sustainability of human intervention in the world, especially in education. It is essential that designers, and those who engage designers, accept responsibility and accountability for what they do—but that accountability is not supported by scientific certainty alone—it also depends on design competence.

We differentiate design from art and science by the concept of service. Design is defined as service on behalf of someone else—a contractual relationship. Artists and scientists engage in forms of service legitimately focused more on their own interests. Artists express their emotions and feelings; scientists express their curiosity about the world. Designers, however, serve the needs and desires of others. This does not mean that designers are not aesthetic or rational, they are both, but most importantly they are empathic.

When design is considered to be a form of science or art, educational strategies are borrowed from those traditions. When design is considered to be a midpoint in a continuum between art and science, design curriculum is accordingly balanced out between the two. When design is accepted as a unique tradition of inquiry and action, the education of designers needs to reflect this. If designers are going to design learning and teaching systems, they need to be educated as designers and gain experience as designers. They need to know the distinctions between the different traditions of inquiry that determine what the different purposes of learning and teaching systems need to be. Design competence is essential for engaging in authentic design activity.

Dr. Saba:
Thank you for sharing your insights with us.

Dr. Nelson is president and co-founder of the Advanced Design Institute. He is presently working as an organizational systems designer and education consultant for universities, governmental agencies and business organizations. His focus is in two areas. The first is on the development of design competent organizations. The second is on innovation leadership development based on systems thinking and advanced design theory. He is an affiliate faculty member of the Department of Mechanical Engineering at the University of Washington.

The Design Way, a book, co-authored with Erik Stolterman, recently was named “Outstanding Book of the Year” by the Division of Instructional Development of the Association for Educational Communications and Technology.

For over twelve years Dr. Nelson was the Director (Department Head) of the Graduate Programs in Whole Systems Design (WSD) at Antioch University. Under his leadership the programs became nationally recognized in the field of systems design. One program was ranked among the top graduate programs in organizational development (OD) in the United States. He was the principle designer of the degree programs as well as administrative manager and core faculty (Professor). The student population consisted primarily of in mid-career professionals or adults preparing for new careers.

He has been involved with diverse organizations including non-profits and corporations, state and federal agencies, international governments and the United Nations. Dr. Nelson has made presentations, and facilitated workshops on a variety of topics including; leadership development, organizational systems design, creativity and systems thinking. He has worked as a researcher, consultant and university educator in design and systems science. He has consulted or taught in countries as diverse as: Chile, Turkey, Finland, Indonesia, and Australia. He is a past-president of the International Society for Systems Science.

Prior to his work in the fields of organizational systems design, leadership development and educational systems design Dr. Nelson, a licensed architect in the State of California, worked as a practicing architect in the private sector and as an assistant regional architect for region V of the U.S. Forest Service.

Dr. Harold Nelson graduated with distinction from the University of California at Berkeley. His Ph.D. in the Design of Social System was designed by him and administered through the Ad Hoc Ph.D. program supervised by the Dean of Graduate Studies. His dissertation focused on a systems approach to the impact on rural communities of large-scale resource development projects with an emphasis on value distribution assessment. He received his Master of Architecture degree from the University of California at Berkeley as well. Upon receiving his Bachelor of Architecture from Montana State University, Dr. Nelson studied architecture and ceramic design in Finland at the Technical University and Ateneum Fine Arts Academy.