Gordon Dyer

Open University, 12 Hills Road, Cambridge, UK


Julie Dyer

Causeway Gallery, Cambs. PE19 5BG, UK


How do we begin a design journey to change a social system such as education? It is unlikely that an ideal system can be created in one leap. More likely it is necessary to proceed by incremental change. But where to start? And how to proceed? There is little in the existing body of design knowledge to help with such questions. But the creative artist also faces the same set of issues. There is a similarity in the artist attempting to maintain the vision of what is originally perceived, making some first steps, and then progressively building on the painting. This paper analyses the steps of landscape painting in terms of the inspiring vision, the preparation of the design, the building of the design, and the review; and then contrasts these to what are seen as the equivalent phases of systems design in education. The interpretations, insights and limitations arising from the contrast are presented.

Key words: system, systems design, art, creativity, metaphor, education system

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At the 1992 Asilomar Conversation on Systems Design in Education [1][2] one sub-group chose to explore the question:

How do we begin a design journey to change a social system such as education?

Those who have experience of open conversations on a complex topic will have expected the group to have initially experienced "wheelspin" and uncertainty of direction. This occasion was no exception! The group explored, back-tracked, diverted and retraced; it tested some imaging techniques. One image tried was a walk into a school of the future designed according to the ideals of the systems design approach. What would they expect to observe? What would it feel like? This imaging technique partially helped to produce a list of features of current and ideal characteristics of an educational system/school design (see Appendix). The key contrast in the comparison is the sense that the current system represents a factory model more in tune with a bygone era in terms of purposes, structure, etc. .Many features of the ideal system are direct opposites to those of the current system. For example the learner is seen as an active participant rather than passive receptor, and a varied or pluralistic model as opposed to unitary model of education is implied. Also, greater responsiveness to change, greater sensitivity to the system environment, greater accountability, and a more egalitarian treatment of learners would exist in the ideal system. The group were very conscious that it was unlikely that an "ideal" system could be created in one leap. More likely it would be necessary to proceed by incremental change. But where to start? and how to proceed?

Lack of Systems Design Knowledge

There is little in the existing body of systems design knowledge to help with such questions. But the Asilomar group were aware that these issues face designers in other fields. They also face the creative artist. Julie Dyer, watercolour artist, volunteered to give a painting demonstration to the group and to recount her feelings and describe the process. This enabled the group to see the challenge faced in maintaining the vision of the scene that is originally perceived while the first steps in the "design" are made and then subsequently progressed. What was clear was that in the process of the building up of the painting, the outcome at any particular time -itself a result of the interactions between the resources used (watercolour media and paper type) and the environment (atmospheric conditions) - was not completely predictable, and this had an influence on the next incremental stage in the design. This no doubt mapped onto the organisation design case and the group agreed that: considering the description of the current system and the image of some of the features of an ideal system, the transformation might require decades to achieve. With this kind of time frame, it was necessary to think in terms of stages - a series of progressive transformations from the system we have now to the one we imagined .

Aim. The experiment of working with the creative artist led to the idea of some further analysis of the work and processes of landscape painting which might provide insights for those investigating and practising systems design. An outline of this investigation is summarised in this paper. The paper is the result of a dialogue between a systemist and an artist conducted intermittently over a period of some days. The dialogue was wide ranging and in the presentation below the outcomes have been structured into nine questions which link to iterative phases -the inspiring vision, the preparation for design, building of the design, completion and review -which apply to both types of activity.


The dialogue between the systemist and the artist was initiated in two ways. The artist was first invited to read the list of features of the current and ideal system and give a reaction. Her immediate response was to express surprise that the group had omitted any reference to the physical design of future schools. The artist saw it as vital to so design and decorate a school so that it was a place that people would actually want to go to and spend time in. It should be aesthetically attractive. Current schools were so often "grey" in atmosphere and colour, decorated in beige or white throughout. They often had over- utilitarian facilities and furniture. They were often very large which could be extremely intimidating for younger children. The artist stressed that in her vision of an ideal school, the use of light and colour in the design -in the way in which they would contribute to the warmth of the atmosphere -and a physical design which recognised a child's need for safety, security and fun, were all crucial. These observations, clearly highlight the limits to the perception of the original group, and the potential contribution that creativity from other design disciplines can make to systems design.

The dialogue then extended to the issue of how far a painting could be regarded as a system. This was interesting in that the artist was not previously fully acquainted with systems ideas, and that there is no universally accepted definition of a system. The discussion focused around a very pragmatic four-part definition which has been used by the Open University for the last 25 years. The definition appears mechanistic but is adaptable to cover a range of system types. The assessment of a painting against this definition is given below.

A system is an assembly of components connected together in an organised way:

A painting meets this criteria in the sense that the components (objects, features and areas) have spatial, tonal, colour and lighting relationships

The components are affected by being in the system and are changed if they leave it

This component of the definition relates to system synergy. A landscape painting meets the criteria e.g. a tree placed in any particular position will radically alter the " emergent property" of the painting

The assembly does something i.e. it is not inactive.

This aspect is interesting, in that the painting depends on the input of light before it can "do" anything i.e. radiate. But it may not be a complete system as it depends on an observer or a meditator before it can be claimed that it is doing anything. Except when it acts as a security cover to a safe, a painting hanging on the wall without an observer or meditator is a potential system?

The assembly has been identified by a human being as of interest. (The systemist author personally dislikes this component of the definition as the emphasis is on a human being. System design of education suggests a community led design effort)

This is important because it brings out the fact that a system is often a personal ordering of reality ( how do we work towards it being a shared community view?) Thus a system can be many different types of system simultaneously. A painting certainly meets this criteria for it can be, for observers a system to encourage reflection, a system to bring peace and tranquillity, for the artist a system to make a statement, a system to bring recognition and so on. Without question a painting is a model.

Thus a painting passes many of the assessment tests of a system, even if it is not dynamic in the normal sense of a human activity system. Further examination of the metaphor of creating such a system would seem to be justified.


In what follows, the author-artist’s response to some key questions is given together with their interpretation by the author-systemist in the context of systems design of education. It is convenient to have a question order which relates to.

The Vision




Review and Evaluation

recognising, as Banathy [2] does, that these stages are often iterative. Given the space available the number of questions considered is necessarily limited

Ql. What is the source of the vision?

"This is a big question. I am sometimes moved as much by a sudden memory or mood paint rather than actually observing a scene and painting on the spot. I can be moved by the overall sense of a scene rather than particular details and many images are stored in n head. What I see can evoke other thoughts, sometimes they are joyful, sometimes sad. never want to paint the latter. Cityscapes seldom inspire me, I find them too grey. usually get my inspiration from landscapes or seascapes. When I paint a scene from natu I try to give it a sense of brilliance or intrigue. Painting in the studio gives me the freedo to reproduce the sense of the scene rather than try to reproduce an accurate representation. I prefer to paint straight from my head rather than copy. The source of light is ye important in painting and I often want to introduce the light coming from another direction to that which I actually observed. I do this to bring about the sense of atmosphere that I need, which is basically joy, and to enable me to remember and convey the beauty of an experience. "

Comment: The stimulus of joy mentioned by the artist links to what system designers of education are trying to do. Education should be joyful experience and an inspiration throughout life and not the downbeat and miserable process that it has represented for many in the past.

Q.2 What is usually most important about the vision?

"1 draw a distinction between those occasions when my painting has been commissioned and those which I paint for myself. In the former case clearly the client's needs m, considerably influence the vision. But in either case I will conceive of the painting and pi: it in such a way that when a viewer looks at it, without realising it they will be drawn to point where I will want them to be. This could be under some trees, the brow of a hill, the end of a winding road or along a narrow waterway. When their gaze gets to this point they will find a sense of warmth, joy and peace and I hope an element of mystery. I hope is to evoke in them a feeling of intrigue of what may be through the trees, around the corner or over the hill. My retention of light in the painting will be absolutely crucial in achieving this.

Comment: Recognising client/community needs is fundamental to systems design. The references to a journey, light and mystery also have parallels. It is most important that learners see the education system as a place or experience that encourages their personal development and allows self -discovery The veil of mist could be interpreted that this journey is not going to be easy.

Q.3 How do you organise yourself to begin a painting?

"The subject or vision of the painting determines how I organise myself Crucially the choice of watercolours in my palette will depend on whether I wish to paint a landscape or seascape, a warm scene, or a cool scene, and its mood. Similarly my choice of tools: from a range of large, medium or small brushes, hard or soft brushes, toothbrush, and from a range of other tools designed or adapted by my experience to create special effects, such as sponge, blotting paper, sandpaper, knives and razor blades, will all be determined by the subject. The choice of paper, board or card for my painting, which I call the support, is also part of the organisation. Finally, I must ensure that I have adequate light, space and peace to complete my work. The organisational ability I now have comes from many years of practice, learning with and from others (painting in groups on courses), and the experience of success and failure."

Comment: There are obvious parallels. Organising for systems design depends on the scenario. The artist's use of the word support to cover the basis for layout of the design is extremely interesting, as is her reference to space, peace and light. The former implies systems design must also have a strong base of support for it to succeed. The latter that the design team needs to be empowered to take action (space), without undue interference and impatience (peace), and have information and understanding of the culture and situation they face (light). The reference to tools and techniques, and their adaptation through personal and shared experience, also point to the crucial value of sharing of practice and. communication amongst systems designers.

Q.4. How far can you plan the outcome of a painting ?

"There is a limit as to how far one can plan the outcome of a painting. This applies to all forms of media, but is particularly true in the elusive nature of watercolour painting. There is a certain unpredictability in the interaction of the paint with water and the absorption of the support. It is also influenced by environmental factors such as the sun, humidity, wind and temperature which affects the rate of drying and thus absorption. The effects of the environment are of course much reduced when painting in the studio. Overall this means is that I must prepare to be flexible, to adapt the methods and techniques I had planned to use. As watercolour painting is so elusive it can be a very frustrating medium to work with. It is also the most exciting medium as it can reward one’s patience and self-control with unexpectedly beautiful results"

Comment: The elusive nature of watercolour painting seems to relate directly to group work, where the outcomes can be equally unpredictable. the process can be frustrating and yet with patience it can produce fascinating and rewarding results. There is the similar need for a group facilitator to respond to environmenta/cultural factors by being flexible and adaptive in the methods and techniques which might have been planned. It is equally true that the ability to plan and chart the way forward with a change process depends enormously in the experience and skills of the facilitator or design team. Horiuchi [3] has recently examined the metaphor of long-range aircraft navigation to suggest flexible planning for social system change. This proposal, which he has termed social system navigation (SSNV) assumes a plan to reach a point some way towards the ideal. The plan is implemented and after a period of time a review of progress towards the ideal is made, as well as a review of the ideal. The process then continues iteratively.

Q.5. How and where do you make a start?

"Under question 2 I referred to the importance of light in the painting. In a landscape the most important decision I will have made is the choice of colour of the light. The light of course comes from the sky but will also be present in a reflected. or refracted form elsewhere in the scene. I start with a large brush and try to cover as much of the paper as possible with a wash of transparent colour which is related to the sky tone. This will enable me subsequently to relate one colour to another as the build-up of colour progresses. It also prevents me being confused by the glaring white of the paper. At this initial stage I always introduce a sample of my darkest value so that I can always relate lighter values to it as the work progresses."

Comment: The reference to an underwash of sky tone seems to imply that it is most important to ensure from the start that the culture and values of the community are fully recognised and underpin the design of an educational system. The community needs to be involved with the design. The need to cover the glaring white of the paper evokes the danger of new ideas being imposed by the design team and which will not succeed without consensus. The reference to the lightest and darkest tones could represent the upper and lower ranges of acceptability of behaviour by participants, processes, outcomes, and component designs within the overall design which still meet the community's core values.

Q.6. How do you develop the structure and the components of the painting?

"I assume that structure is equivalent to the shape and strength of main areas of the painting, and components are smaller features of the structure. With watercolours one paints from light to dark I usually build up the largest areas in a loose and free fashion using a large brush, enabling me to quickly establish the general balance of the painting. As I build up the painting I work with the whole image in mind and not just the individual areas. The pattern of shapes and colour within the design is also important as it must appropriately represent the image I am trying to portray. Only when I am satisfied with the overall pattern would I put in detail. Once the shape and strength of main areas are established correctly I can hang any amount of detail on it. But if the composition of the structure areas is wrong, no amount of detail will redress it. When I am adding points of interest, this is when I exploit all my tools and techniques to convey atmosphere, mood, texture. The side of my fingernail comes in very useful! The challenge in building up the painting is to ensure that the underlying washes of colour are not lost and that the transparency of colours is maintained."

Comment: It was fascinating to hear that the artist advocates working with the whole image in mind -this is systemic design, some might see it as whole system design. This touches on an issue which has been central to systems debates for some years i.e. the extent to which practice of "systems science" is defined in terms of dealing with the "feasible and desirable" (small pieces) or should tackle, as systems design is now attempting to do, the whole. The points about getting the strength, composition, and relationships of structure correct are also equally relevant to systems design. Getting strengths right evokes the need to ensure that the sharing of power between main sub-systems is appropriate. Doing this before detail is added, seems to tell us that small projects are unlikely to have along term effect unless they have a supporting power base. The skill of the designer(s) in exploiting their experience, tools and techniques to progress the design while,maintaining the central vision (the light) is clearly crucial.

Q.7. How do you know when to finish?

" This is very difficult. There is always a temptation to add more colour .Thus there is a danger that the painting will lose its transparency and even become muddy in parts. As I come towards the finish I am increasingly aware of a sense of light within the painting that must be retained. It is usually at this point that I decide to stop. The painting being wet will need to settle down so I usually put it aside for a while. The painting will change in this period and my judgement about finishing must take this into account."

Comment: The finish point in a systems design will be equally difficult. The message seems to be to avoid over-design or over-structuring., Retention of light implies the need for the underlying culture to be fully represented in the finished system. Avoiding muddying is crucial. Muddying implies there is insufficient empowerment of system components to contribute most effectively to the overall design. There must be room for local interpretations.

Q8. What determines the choice of mount/frame that you will put round the painting?

" I prefer the mount to be a neutral colour. It is important that the mount does r distract from the image but complement it. There is a limit as to how large an area can painted and framed. If the boundary of the painting is extended too far the strength of 1 central focus is lost as is the connections to the edges. "

Comment: The mount seems to stress the analogy that the environment of the system must be supportive of the system and not in conflict with it. TI reinforces a major principle of systems design, which is that the design considerations must extend into the environment. The reference to the central focus being lost reflects a truism that influence from a power source v decrease at the edges; this probably partially accounts for the limit to growth systems. It also hints at the need to begin design efforts within small communities i.e. from family unit upwards?

Q.9. How do you review or evaluate your work?

" I am my own fiercest critic and am very rarely completely satisfied. But when I am successful I have managed to produce a certain quality which is unlikely to be consciously repeated. I prefer then to do something different. A painting has to have been a new challenge before I can be pleased. I will want to seek feedback on my work from others as soon as possible. Given my goal which I mentioned under question 1 of wanting to draw them to a key point of light to enable them to reflect, there are several ways I will know i have succeeded e.g. if an observer says:

-I wonder if there is something round that corner -or

-I'd love to go round the bend in the winding road or over the brow of that hill -or

-they are moved by the atmosphere in the painting"

Comment. The main inference is here is that success is measured by how w the design meets both the needs of client and designer. The thought that successful outcome in one case is unlikely to be repeated is also relevant to systems design in education; systems design must reflect the uniqueness of particular community. One difference that must be acknowledged is that in the case of the painting the emergent property, be it success or failure is visual obvious; in the case of a system design, success or failure is not necessarily obvious. So how is a design evaluated? By whom? when?


The fundamental value of the metaphor of the activity of landscape painting to provide insights to systems design derives from the fact that they are both change processes, involving human creativity. The metaphor provides some useful new insights and strong reinforces ideas emerging from as central to Banathy’s systems design. Attempting to apply any metaphor is an intellectually stimulating exercise and great fun, and this was no exception. There are always dangers that the metaphor is extended beyond its value.

Clearly there are limits to the value of this particular metaphor. As painting is an individual activity it is not as dynamic as the human activity systems we are interested in. From one perspective, a partially- or fully-completed painting is simply a mix of chemicals which produce an emergent property when electro-magnetic radiation in the visible band falls on it. It becomes a more interesting system when a human mind engages with it. Every human being will perceive a different emergent property; the emergent property can change with mood/time and many others factors.

The questions addressed in this paper are very broad and limited in number; more specific and focused questions may need to be asked before practical outcomes emerge. The analysis of painting and its interpretation in this paper are those of a single artist and a single systemist. They cannot in any way claim to be scientific. But the challenge of redesigning our education system is so great that we must continue to seek ideas from any direction. All areas of human activity where creativity is paramount must be investigated. The hope is that this paper represents a small contribution which can be developed and extended. Colleagues may wish to consider their own interpretation of the watercolour, or engage with another form of human creative art.


[1] Banathy, B.H., 1991, Systems Design of Education: A Journey to Create the Future, Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs,NJ

[2] Dyer, G., Hood, P., Jenks, L., Minati, G., Rowland, G. "Report from Group A at the 4th Asilomar Conference on Comprehensive Systems Design of Education, 29th November -4th December 1992 " ( published by ISI)

[3] Horiuchi, Y., 1994, "Social System Navigation", a paper presented at the 1994 Annual Conference of the International Society for the System Sciences




Current System

Ideal System

1. resistant to change responsive to needed change
2. ignores the environment sensitive to the environment
3. stability of structures, operations flexibility of structures, operations
4. relative safety/comfort dynamic
5. expert as source learner as co-designer
6. passive learning active learning
7. sorting function lifelong learning -maximises potential
8. past/historicallyoriented past and future oriented
9. factory model- standardisation of learning opportunity model: outcome content and progress oriented versus time sequenced
10. curriculum compartmentalised self -discovery; integrated knowledge
11.minimal accountability appropriate accountability for quality in both process and outcome
12.unitary model pluralistic model
13.personnel salaries based on tenure role diversity, reward by merit
14.little competition students choose learning environments
15.little interaction with other social agencies interaction with other agencies agencies for service delivery
16.little checking of graduates checking for value received
17.little self-evaluation self-evaluation common
18.graduation as end-point lifelong learning
19.indoctrinization/memorization appreciate alternative world views
20.overly simplistic model of human develops higher order skills; cognitive, development affective, physical, values, ethics
21. very deductive deductive,inductive,abductive
22.sports excellence identity identity developed through personal/multiple accomplishments
23. preference to academically able egalitarian
24.non-individualised individualised learning by age multiple groupings
26.classroom based multiple learning environments

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