Changing the key system is a technique I teach to help people develop new ideas when their thinking has become stuck. It’s one of my techniques for ‘turning the Kalideascope’. In other words, it’s a way to find new creative connections between all the inputs we have gathered.

What is the key system?

Design is creating something new. If it already exists, it isn’t design: it’s shopping (for more on this see my post on the Designer’s Paradox). I usually find that the overall shape of that new thing is defined by the answer to a few key questions.

For example, the overall shape of a city master plan might be defined by the answer to the question: how do we manage surface water. In a tall building, the key question is how do we manage lateral loads. For a song, it might be the rhyming structure or the chord progression.

In each of these situations, the key system, then, is the flood water system, the lateral stability system, the rhyming structure or the chord sequence.

The answer to these big questions has such a dominant effect on the solution space that, once they are set, the rest of the ideas develop within these parameters.

How do I spot the key system?

I find a good question to ask is if I change this element of the system does it have a big impact on the rest of the design. A change of materials, say, might not dramatically affect the rest of the design if it is cosmetic change. But if that change fundamentally affects how the different materials in the building work together – for example if you change the core material in a tall building – then that could be considered a key system.

Having identified the key system or systems, ask, what would happen if I significantly changed that key system? For example by changing the geometry of that key system, or its material. Or for a user journey, how could I fundamentally change the path they take? And for a song, how could I change the cadences in the chord structure?

How does it work?

As I wrote in my post on the ‘what if‘ technique, the human brain operates a sort of filter between subconscious and conscious. This filter allows only relevant ideas to pass through. Changing the key system is really a specific version of that more general ‘what if’ technique. But here we are focusing it on the area of the solution space that is likely to have greater impact. Like an acupuncturist looking for a particular spot to put in their needles.

When we already have a pretty fixed idea in our head, changing the key system blows the solution apart. It says, right, we are now looking at something completely different here. In conceptual design we are answering the big questions, rather than delving into the detail. Changing the key system keeps us on our toes and looking for other possibilities.