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Nudging Systems + Equity-centered Design + Systems Thinking with Sheryl Cababa — DT101 E120

Sheryl Cababa drives a human-centered design practice focusing on systems thinking and equity-based design, working on everything from robotic surgery experience design to reimagining K-12 education through service design. In her work with consultancies such as Substantial, Frog, and Adaptive Path, she has worked with a diverse base of clients including the Gates Foundation, Microsoft, IHME, and IKEA. Sheryl is an international speaker and workshop facilitator. When not in the office, she can be found at the University of Washington, helping educate the next generation of human centered design and engineering students.

Portrait of Sheryl Cababa

Listen to Learn About

  • Equity-centered design
  • Systems thinking and designing in complex systems
  • Co-creation and working with lived experts
  • Sheryl’s book, Closing the Loop: Systems Thinking for Designers

Our Guest

Sheryl Cababa is the Chief Design Officer at the Insights Design + Development Studio, Substantial, and a multi-disciplinary design strategist with more than two decades of experience. She is focused on reinventing the approaches of learning and collaboration in today’s educational environment to help equity-centered research affirm and advance relationships between institutions, educators, and students.

Sheryl has worked extensively in human-centered design within the social impact space. She specializes in developing tools and methods for designers to expand their mindsets beyond user-centered design, anticipate unintended consequences, and engage in systems thinking.

Her recent work with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation includes leading student voice research to inform the K-12 Balance The Equation Grand Challenge. Sheryl works with their teams to provide equity-centered technical assistance to their grantees, designing the Use Case Guide for demand-side thinking programs, and conducting extensive design research with both U.S. Programs and Global Health teams. Her book, Closing the Loop: Systems Thinking for Designers, was released in early 2023.

Show Highlights

[02:36] Sheryl’s degrees are in political science and journalism, not design.
[02:46] Getting into design by creating infographics and websites.
[03:20] Turning an intern job at the Seattle Times into a job at Microsoft.
[03:54] Sheryl’s official entry into design was as a product designer.
[04:56] Becoming a design consultant while living in the Netherlands.
[05:33] Shifting more into design strategy over design execution.
[06:03] Why Sheryl started integrating systems thinking methods into her work.
[07:19] Sheryl’s current work in equity-centered design.
[08:52] What is equity-centered design?
[09:58] Design is an act of power.
[10:51] Equity-centered design is about designing with, not for.
[12:03] The problem with personas.
[14:28] Going beyond personas.
[17:50] “When I was in college…” and the biases we tend to start from.
[18:54] Co-creation, and letting people speak for themselves during the design process.
[20:43] Thinking about legacy systems and designing in complex systems.
[23:12] There aren’t really any “broken” systems.
[24:10] You can’t sit down and just design a system.
[24:38] When we “design” for a system, we are intervening in order to shift outcomes in a different direction.
[26:25] Thinking about potential harm and harm reduction during the design process.
[27:18] There is no silver bullet solution.
[30:34] Re-examining solutions to see if they are still working as time goes on.
[31:23] Looking at generative AI from a systems perspective.
[34:24] A Miro Moment.
[36:39] Sheryl’s book, Closing the Loop: Systems Thinking for Designers gives designers tools and frameworks to better understand systems.
[37:49] Encouraging designers to think intentionally about how things interconnect.
[38:15] Viewing the system as a whole ecosystem that surrounds your design.
[41:28] Sheryl talks about one of her favorite frameworks from the book.
[45:28] Sheryl introduces the concept of “lived experts.”
[46:25] Shifting mindsets leads to different outcomes.
[49:35] Dawan’s post-interview thoughts about systems.


Sheryl on LinkedIn
Sheryl on Twitter
Sheryl on Medium
Sheryl on UW Human Centered Design & Engineering
Sheryl on Women Talk Design
This is Design School: Ep 33 – Sheryl Cababa on Unintended Consequences
The Product Design Podcast: Sheryl Cababa – Systems Thinking for Designers
Content Strategy Insights: Closing the Loop – Systems Thinking for Designers | Episode 141
UX Podcast: #308 Systems thinking with Sheryl Cababa
Substantial on Instagram
National Equity Project: Liberatory Design
The Donella Meadows Project

Book Recommendations

Closing the Loop: Systems Thinking for Designers, by Sheryl Cababa
The Fifth Discipline: The Art & Practice of The Learning Organization, by Peter Senge

Design Thinking 101 Episodes You Might Like

Adding System Awareness to System Design to Your Innovation Stack with Julie Guinn — DT101 E43
Design Council UK + Systemic Design + Design in Government with Cat Drew — DT101 E78
5.5 Things Every Designer Should Know About Hacking Bureaucracy with Marina Nitze — DT101 E106

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