Systems Mapping and Service Design


Context:  The project was completed for my Understanding Systems Class of Spring 2021 as part of OCADu's Strategic Foresight and Innovation MDes Curriculum*. It was completed with the collaboration of my teammates Nicole BrkicMartha Chomyn, Alejandra Farias Fornes, and Amy Morrell.

Key Activities: Research, application of Systemic Design Toolkit process, systems mapping, graphical output 

Primary Roles: Research, graphics, group mapping exercises. 

Inspired by our frustrations regarding our relationships with material objects, the team investigated the systems in place that facilitate acquisition, encourage consumption, and ultimately lead to disposal. Our primary focus was to assess how this system affects the environment and an individual's mental health.  This led us to come up with the problem statement below.

*To download the full report- click here

How might we leverage knowledge towards actionable change to encourage responsible and conscious consumption for societal well-being?


Our gigamap brings all of our findings and reasoning together in one visual. Details presented further below. 

GigaMap Breakdown

Iterative Inquiry

This tool allowed us to frame our project and understand the different processes that encourage us to consume and purchase, who are the actors to consider and how the process of consumption is realized. It gave us a better understanding of the system at large.

We identified how one simple purchase is part of a bigger system and thus has deeper implication.

Purchasing behaviours is influenced by advertisers and media, distributors, manufacturers, and retailers to increase profit by creating a "need". This need temporarily satisfies the consumers. Their purchases are tied to their identity and social status.   ​

Actors Map

This tool identifies the various actors entities involved in our system, and maps them relative to the knowledge (horizontal axis) and power (vertical axis) they possess in the existing system.

The Global Market sits in the right hand quadrant as it influences smaller actors like the retailers, governments and shareholders.

The individual consumer receives information from and is influenced by other actors competing for their attention and dollars. Ultimately, consumers decide where to spend their money but this remains a moderate amount of power – they make decisions based on impulse, and the most prevalent organizational messages.

NGOs and social activists, along with secondhand shops and recycling organizations, have a knowledge on how to mitigate our increase of waste, but not enough power to effectively leverage it.


To further comprehend the nature of consumerism, we identified how the different actors and areas of the system work with one another. Defining these interrelationships allowed us to visualize how their actions influence and affect one another. This allowed us to highlighted the complexity of the driving factors behind consumerism. 

Causal Loops

We identified two main causal loop archetypes to illustrate the system of consumerism. 

Shifting The Burden

Purchasing is often an emotional response. This causal loop diagrams illustrates how the act of purchasing addresses a symptom as opposed to the actual issue. While“retail therapy” can bring immediate satisfaction, it is followed by  guilt and shame for spending money on an unnecessary purchase. That guilt could encourage the consumer to seek help and professional support to address their underlying unhappiness. However, eventually the consumer becomes unhappy again and the cycle repeats itself.

Fixes That Fail

A consumer makes a purchase to fulfill a "need", which prompts an unintended  emotional response. This response can be positive (“That felt good -- Let's do that again”) or negative (“That wasn't great, let me buy something else to feel better ”). Either way, the consumer ends up with an unfulfilled  urge to purchase additional items and the cycle repeats. 

Interactive Systems Map

We created a Dynamic System Map to examine the effects of consumerism on our environment, our economy, and our mental health. For an interactive walk-through of this map, click here

Social, Economic and Individual Values

We are shown though media and marketing strategies what a ‘better’ life looks like, and we are promised that we will can achieve it only through the purchase and acquisition of certain goods. However, the thrill of instant gratification can lead to a purchasing addiction which leads to ever-increasing consumption.  As more purchases are made, so does debt a person takes on, increasing stress. Over time, this cycle could lead to feelings of unhappiness and dissatisfaction. Ultimately, these negative emotions keep consumers still seeking a ‘better’ life. This quest to improve our status creates the need to build and maintain appearances of success, and ultimately leads to questioning our own identity and sense of self. 

Environmental Values

The accumulation of goods via purchasing eventually leads to the discard of other goods. Space is a limited resource, and will eventually lead a person either direct their unused items to a landfill, which leads to environmental degradation, or put up for reuse (donations, charity shops). The rise of the Zero Waste and Minimalism movement counteract the negative effect on of unnecessary purchased on the environment. In turn, this decrease in consumption has a positive impact on the environment as fewer purchases mean fewer resources being used for production and manufacturing, and fewer goods coming into play in the cycle of acquisition and disposal.

What can be Done?

I. Stop the Madness

Amplifying research around mental health and consumerism would make health professionals more aware of excessive purchasing as a cause for concern. This would help individuals suffering excessive consumption be taken more seriously and can prompt them to engage in conversations about their habits and how they might go about changing them for the better.

II. Buy it For Life

Introducing a “Buy it for Life” designation which would give the consumer peace of mind that their money would not be wasted on a low- quality item and prevent them from having to replace the item repeatedly in the future. This pivot to long term investment and care of items may change the relationships people have with their things. 

III. Fix it First

By teaching consumers how to care for and fix  the things they own, we would help extend the shelf life of products, decreasing the amount of products that end up in landfills. The ability to fix what is broken can be empowering.  It can inspire great confidence in both adults and children alike.

Using Format