Strategic Design & A Hot Bath

August 17, 2017

With the humility, curiosity, empathy and openness indicative of ‘beginner’s mind’, I’ve just commenced a Masters of Design Futures (MDF) at RMIT University in Melbourne. The course is intended to cultivate a level of leadership mastery amongst design professionals already working in the field. More specifically, it promises to combine the best of design practice with the best of strategic thinking to grow knowledge, capability and wisdom within those who seek to serve as catalysts for conscious change in response to our world’s most complex problems.


I checked out the reading list for our first unit and with much relief, zeroed in on two thought leaders I deeply admire: Donella Meadows and Dan Hill. There is no better, more simplified expression of a feedback loop in complex open systems than Donella’s ‘bathtub’ analogy. 

Now as I sit in my tub for a bit of nightly self-nourishment, I find myself turning taps on and off with my toes as a tangible way of playing with feedback loops. On particularly cold nights I time the minutes it takes for the hot water to turn tepid while I read the latest from Dan Hill. All the while, appreciating Donella’s legacy as I top up the hot water to maintain a balancing feedback loop and my own comfort.


Dan Hill’s robust account of Strategic Design’s purposefulness is depicted in what is fast becoming a trans-disciplinary classic, Dark Matter and Trojan Horses: A Strategic Design Vocabulary. When I read Dan’s words and listen to him speak, I feel he describes my own ego structure, which, outside of design, is often construed as neurotically existential. Dan seems to normalise the constant inquiring nature of the designers’ mind by re-contextualising questions like, what’s going on here? into a Zen koan (picture an anxious Woody Allan with raised shoulders and upward facing palms melt into a cheeky Dalai Lama in easeful repose). He inspires me to yield to my own designerly nature with sincerity and childlike wonder, my curiosity a professional asset.


I’ve also found the read deeply reassuring in terms of what I have intuitively developed in my own practice. In particular, zooming out to the ‘meta’, and zooming in to the ‘matter’ as a dynamic, ongoing tango between designer, artefact and deeper strategic purpose:


“At this point, it becomes clear that the meta – the organisational vision and strategy – is being richly informed by the detail of work conducted at the matter level… This basic idea, zooming back and forth from matter to meta, and using each scale to refine the other, is core to strategic design.” (Hill, 2012, Chapter 4, section 1, paragraph 11)


I would also like to acknowledge just how much I appreciate the rigour with which Dan approaches what he calls, Dark Matter, or the intangible, invisible, inter-subjective dynamics buried deep within organisational culture and/or the policy environment.

In Jungian psychology, this Dark Matter is called, The Shadow. Clinical psychotherapists work with The Shadow hidden within single unit systems, that is, the unconscious, often supressed and intangible psychic material contributing to the challenging emotions and undesirable behaviours experienced by individuals. In this context, clients seek a safe container and skilful facilitator in order to explore their own Dark Matter, hold it up to the light, make piece with fragmented, denied parts of themselves and re-enter the present with a sense of integration and renewal. In essence, it is a redesigning process whereby a desired future state takes shape to reflect a deeply human journey that includes: (i) differentiating hidden parts, (ii) giving them voice, (iii) linking them together as a new, healthy and coherent narrative and (iv) integrating them in alignment with a longing for wholeness. 


Is it possible, then, that a strategic designer’s role is not so dissimilar to that of a Jungian psychotherapist? In other words, is it not our job as strategic designers to understand how to read the map of transformation and then serve as a whole systems navigator across the terrain? Like the therapist, we dive into matter with metaphorical torch in hand, leading and then stepping aside so others may themselves differentiate ‘what is’ from ‘what could be’. Do we not sticky note fragmented pieces of an evolving puzzle up on walls so that our clients can see the bigger picture? Do we not embody empathy while listening to people’s stories, partial as they may be? Is it not our purpose to steward systems toward integrated and coherent wholes with narratives that reflect the real brief, the true north, the imagined possibility of dreams and hopes for something more deliberately healthy? Do we not walk beside our clients as they chart a feasible path forward renewed, re-patterned, re-emergent and re-connected?

The only difference here is a matter of scale. Whether working with individuals or with whole systems change, I see my role in the reinvention journey as consistent. Thank you Dan Hill, for your most eloquent reminder of my purpose: to yield to the earth, to lift my serpent wings, to breath fire on Dark Matter and to take flight, returning Psyche into the arms of her beloved Eros. I leave you with my Jungian version of a Strategic Designer’s manifesto:


  • May we hold the collective soul in our warm embrace,

  • May our purpose be fulfilled,

  • May our creative contributions stoke the fire,

  • May our worthiness be tested


Until next time, this is Susanna Carman inviting you to read about strategic design in the bathtub. You will be amazed by its potential to inspire. For more about how strategic design can support you, please contact or visit


Hill, D. PhD, (2012). Dark Matter and Trojan Horses: A Strategic Design Vocabulary (Kindle Paperwhite version). Retrieved from

Meadows, D. PhD, (2008). Thinking In Systems: A Primer (Kindle Paperwhite version). Retrieved from

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