Complexity models in design

Earl, C.; Eckert, C. and Johnson, J. (2004). Complexity models in design. In: Design 2004 (Proceedings of the 8th International Design Conference) (Marjanovic, D. ed.), Faculty of Mechanical Engineering and Naval Architecture, Zagreb, Zagreb, Croatia, pp. 163–168.


Complexity is a widely used term; it has many formal and informal meanings. Several formal models of complexity can be applied to designs and design processes. The aim of the paper is to examine the relation between complexity and design. This argument runs in two ways. First designing provides insights into how to respond to complex systems – how to manage, plan and control them. Second, the overwhelming complexity of many design projects lead us to examine how better understanding of complexity science can lead to improved designs and processes. This is the focus of this paper. We start with an outline of some observations on where complexity arises in design, followed by a brief discussion of the development of scientific and formal conceptions of complexity. We indicate how these can help in understanding design processes and improving designs.

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