When they hear that I teach design to MBAs, people’s first question is often “What kind of design?” This is a good question that is hard to answer.

The focus in this MBA elective is on how designerly approaches can be used across organisational contexts and issues, tracking recent developments in design practice, criticism of them and research into them. Over the past decade or so, design professionals have brought a “design” approach to redesigning public services, international development, and high-school education as well as designing products for consumption. So in the elective we do not just focus on product design, or designing communications and branding, for example, but rather explore how design-based approaches can be used to engage with key contemporary questions around sustainability, innovation and value creation.

The way I approach this is to say that even stand-alone “products” should be viewed within the services and systems to which they are connected and interdependent with – which draws on traditions in sociology and anthropology which highlight the relations between things.

As sociologists have shown, even an object as apparently well-defined as a toaster is connected to and dependent on many other artefacts, technologies and cultural practices. In the case of the toaster this includes bread that comes in a format that makes it easy to slice, electricity sockets at table height in kitchens, and things people put on their toast. So for me it does not make sense to focus on just one kind of designed thing, without paying attention to the wider socio-material context.

This complements work in marketing, for example a shift to a “value constellation”, in the words of Richard Normann and Rafael Ramirez, or “service-dominant” logic as described by Steve Vargo and Bob Lusch, as well as studies of socio-technical systems or socio-material assemblages in science and technology studies.

So my starting point for the elective is that managers and entrepreneurs are often involved in assembling or creating services and systems, and exploring what design approaches can bring to this.