The Psychology of Design

Understanding the interpersonal dimension of the design process

As a young teenager rambling around my house in the 1980s, back in a time when there was nothing on TV and no internet, I recall coming across a copy of Harry Stack Sullivan’s book, Conceptions of Modern Psychiatry.  Our house was peppered with thousands of books that caused my mother some difficulty every time it came to repainting.  I was more of a browser and less of a reader back then – more content moving the stacks of books for my mother, weeding the garden, waxing the car, climbing trees, anything active. But Harry Stack Sullivan immediately struck me as interesting and I paused for a time to read. Indeed, browsing had exposed me to many ideas, and I never took to the intrapsychic focus of Freud. In the opening section of his book, Sullivan pointed urgently to important truths, specifically, that ‘personality’ cannot be isolated from interpersonal relationships and that the field of ‘psychiatry’ is the field of interpersonal relations under all circumstances in which such relations exist. 

Being Irish, I agreed immediately.  Deep in my bones, I always viewed ‘personality’ as our distinctive behaviour in interpersonal contexts, and it made sense to me that ‘psychiatry’ should be defined as a system of interpersonal relations designed to help people adapt to various problems in living, particularly when they present to the community as suffering or struggling in some way. It was only later I realised, but it was interesting to discover that Harry Stack Sullivan had Irish parents too, although he himself didn’t experience the best of Irish community life, growing up in the anti-Catholic neighbourhoods of Norwich, New York, where he struggled as a consequence of the interpersonal milieu.

There’s no doubt, we all struggle at times and another book that struck me as interesting as an undergraduate studying psychology was a book by Jeffrey Masson, Against Therapy.  The book offered a critique of therapy, and psychiatry more generally, noting the fundamental problem of imbalanced power relations between the ‘therapist’ and the ‘patient’.  While offering no alternative to the systems of therapy and psychiatry on offer at the time, Masson somewhat vaguely alludes to the value of peer support systems.  A reasonable suggestion perhaps, even if no reasonable societal design was proposed by Masson. 

Alas, Masson’s book was essentially a critique of existing systems. And you might say that a critique of existing systems is an important catalyst for system design work. Sure, and few will disagree in principle – the voice of dissent, critique, and ‘opposition’ is fundamental to the political process — but you still have to engage in design thinking, and you have to further implement and evaluate your new designs. 

When faced with the inadequacies of societal system designs, poor infrastructures and poor support systems, it’s perhaps too easy for the bulk of our energies to be directed at a critique of the system, and the danger here is that this leaves us with less energy for system redesign work. A balance needs to be struck. We simply need to be aware of our limited energies and proceed as best we can.

The Work Required for System Redesign

What would a reasonable system of ‘psychiatry’ look like – that is, reasonably feasible, impactful, sustainable?  Some initial thoughts may come to mind while you’re talking with others. For example, you might say it needs to have capacity to empathise and help address many different forms of suffering and struggling that community members present with.  Indeed, observable empathy and help are needed as a signal to community members that they can present to the community without fear of stigma or rejection, and they will indeed be helped.

In conversation with others, we might expand upon the idea of ‘capacity’ and propose that ‘requisite capacity’ implies that there be a set of practices, norms, roles, tools, methods, medicines, and patterns of interpersonal relating that fundamentally help members of our community who are suffering and struggling. That may be more of a system specification than Masson provides in his book, but it’s clearly not enough.  A vague wish-list is not a system.  Of course, the conversation has to start somewhere.

Notwithstanding the challenge of simply identifying a set {of practices, roles, methods, etc…} that help community members (e.g, by drawing upon the evidence from randomised controlled trials), requisite capacity, even in a system that abolishes the problem of power relations, implies requisite capital {finance, assets, infrastructure, etc…}. In an ideal world, the capital investment is considered a public good, and thus the funds used are public rather than private funds, and there is no ‘for-profit’ dimension in the public good. 

But we also need a form of human capital that not only delivers on a system design, but fundamentally takes ownership in innovating and reengineering the set of {practices, tools, medicines, patterns of interpersonal relating, etc…} the community is using, in a way that sustains a reasonably feasible and impactful operating system over time.  The broader community and group dynamics are important here, and it’s not just power relations that need to be considered in the overall design.  The financial and human capital investment is significant.

Principles That Shape the Design Process

And thus you might ask, what principles will shape the system design process?  An academic might excitedly jump in, following John Rawls, and say, well, the system should be designed in a way that empowers its members, but that the liberty of any one member should not infringe on the liberty of others; differences in socioeconomic status across members of the community, if they cannot be eradicated completely, should be transformed in a way that is beneficial to the community as a whole – and any inequality that does exist should have no bearing on the potential political power of any one member of the community.  Some people in the design room may nod their head knowingly, others may smile kindly and quizzically and ask the speaker to repeat the statement, and others may look upon the speaker with mild scepticism or even mild distain, perhaps, because the principles voiced are too abstract, do not match the reality, are insufficient for transformative design work, or simply don’t go far enough. So, how far will the community go, what will the community do? 

Perhaps it’s useful to return again to Harry Stack Sullivan’s starting point, and ask how we — as a collection of ‘personalities’ with our distinctive behaviour in context — can establish a system of interpersonal relations that allows us to design a feasible, impactful, sustainable system that helps us to adapt to a host of different problems in living.  Over the next six blog posts, I’m going to return again to a focus on systems thinking and collective action capabilities needed to address societal challenges.  I’m going to expand on a recent paper we wrote and focus on system design project work, and more specifically, the importance of understanding the group dynamics and interpersonal relations that shape project work. I think it’s useful to note as we proceed that it’s somewhat understandable from a historical, and indeed evidential, perspective why communities, groups, and teams are not often very skilled in managing their own group dynamics.  We don’t have a long history of integral enquiry in this domain — the basic research we have access to often simply provides a basic understanding, which in turn needs to be negotiated in any implementation effort.  At the same time, if we want to enhance our collective intelligence and system design capabilities, we need to do our best to understand, monitor, and manage group dynamics during system design project work.  We need to start the conversation.

Given the nature of systemic societal challenges focused broadly on issues of well-being, sustainability, productivity, and innovation, in some of the work we have previously published in this area we have argued that educational training focused on group process facilitation should be included as part of broader, integrated programmes focused on applied systems science and the management of complexity (Hogan, Harney, Broome, 2015; Hogan and Broome 2020).  When thinking about the group dynamics that play out in system design projects, our recent paper suggests that it’s useful to consider the proximal interactions between group members in their efforts to understand the system they are operating in and the type of system redesign they would like to see; but it’s also useful to consider the broader group dynamics within which project work unfolds over time.  This implies understanding distinct but overlapping aspects of group dynamics during different phases of working with a group.

There are many different methods we can use when approaching the challenge of systems thinking and system design work, but these methods are applied in the context of exceedingly complex group dynamics. Our ability to understand, monitor, and manage group dynamics will always be limited and constrained in certain respects, but we can usually work constructively within these constraints and limitations. One way or another, in order to facilitate groups and help them along the path to the design of better systems, we need to immerse ourselves in the process and speak openly about the dynamic waters in which we swim.


Hogan, M. J., Harney O., & Broome, B. (2015). Catalyzing Collaborative Learning and Collective Action for Positive Social Change through Systems Science Education. In: Wegerif, R., Kaufman, J. Li L (eds). The Routledge Handbook of Research on Teaching Thinking. London: Routledge.

Hogan, M.J., Broome, B. (2021).  Facilitation and the focus on process. Systems Research and Behavioral Science.

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