Skip to main content

In strategic design, upstream explorations are the process of investigating, understanding and defining the broader context and systems within which a problem or opportunity exists, before moving to specific solution development.

This concept originates from the metaphor of a river, where downstream actions are those that deal with the immediate, visible effects of a problem and upstream actions are those that try to address the root causes of the problem. GK VanPatter, co-founder of Humantific, uses the term “open challenge framing” 1 in design framework, which classifies design problems into four orders of complexity, the last two of which are considered ‘upstream’ challenges.

An open-ended briefing is a broad and flexible starting point for a project. Unlike a conventional design brief, which usually outlines a clear, specific problem and set of requirements, an open-ended brief offers a general direction or area of interest without predefining the problem or solution. In this context, the problem is largely understood and the task involves generating ideas and solutions to address it. This can be particularly useful for well-defined or “tame” problems, where the problem statement, solution space, and success criteria are all clear.

However, this traditional approach can limit the ability to identify and tackle more complex, systemic issues that extend beyond the scope of individual products or services. Also, because the upstream design approach is less known and practiced, the vast majority of designers and clients are unfamiliar with its methods and potential benefits. Therefore, they often default to the more familiar territory of clear briefs, missing opportunities for deeper, more impactful interventions that could lead to transformative change.

When designers default to traditional briefings, they often find themselves operating within the discipline space of experience design for products and services2. While this space can be valuable for addressing a variety of challenges, it often falls short when confronted with complex, systemic problems that require a broader perspective. This situation can be described as an instance of “The Scale-Mismatch Illusion”, which refers to the misalignment between the scale at which a problem exists and the scale at which we attempt to address it. When faced with a complex systemic issue, addressing it at the level of individual products or services can be like patching a hole in the roof while the entire house is sinking.

Upstream explorations

By going upstream, strategic designers aim to create more holistic, systemic and sustainable solutions, rather than simply reacting to problems as they emerge downstream. It requires a broader perspective, a focus on systems thinking and an ability to deal with ambiguity and complexity.

  1. Collaborative visual sense-making: This technique uses visual tools and processes to collectively explore, understand and communicate complex issues. It can facilitate shared understanding, generate new insights and align diverse stakeholders around common ground and mutual clarity. Moreover, it can also serve as a powerful storytelling tool, helping bridge the gap between abstract concepts and tangible action.
  2. System mapping: This involves mapping out the larger system in which the problems exist, including the various actors, relationships, forces and trends that are at play. The goal is to understand the system dynamics and identify leverage points for intervention.
  3. Stakeholder engagement: This includes identifying and engaging with the various stakeholders who are involved in or affected by the problem. This can provide valuable insights into the needs, motivations and constraints of different actors and can also help to build support for future interventions.
  4. Problem framing: This involves defining the problem in a way that takes into account the broader context and system dynamics. A good problem frame can guide the solution development process and ensure that the solutions address the root causes of the problem, rather than just the symptoms.
  5. Futures thinking and scenario planning: This involves exploring different possible futures and understanding how the problem and the system might evolve over time. This can help to identify potential opportunities and challenges and can inform the development of robust and flexible strategies.

Upstream explorations in strategic design involve dealing with ill-defined or “wicked” problems where the problem itself is not clearly understood, the solution space is uncertain and the success criteria are unclear or evolving. The goal is not just to find a solution to a given problem, but to understand and define the problem itself within a complex system. This includes exploring the broader context, engaging with diverse stakeholders, understanding the underlying system dynamics and considering the future evolution of the system.

  1. Problem definition: In a clear brief, the problem is given and well-defined. In upstream explorations, the problem is not given and part of the task is to define the problem.
  2. Solution space: In clear briefs, the scope for solutions is typically defined and constrained, with parameters set by various factors like budget or organizational strategy. In contrast, upstream explorations allow for a broader, often undefined solution space that encourages exploration and innovation.
  3. Success criteria: In a clear brief, the success criteria are usually clear and agreed upon. In upstream explorations, the success criteria may be unclear, contested, or evolving and part of the task is to negotiate and define these criteria.
  4. Process: A clear brief usually implies a more linear and predictable process, moving from problem to solution. Upstream explorations involve a more iterative and emergent process, involving cycles of exploration, learning and adaptation.
  5. Problem definition: Clear briefs present a defined problem to tackle, providing direction from the start. Upstream explorations, on the other hand, require the problem to be identified and defined, necessitating extensive research and a deep dive into the root causes.
  6. Success criteria: Clear briefs come with preset success metrics, such as cost savings or user satisfaction. In upstream explorations, success criteria may be evolving or contested, requiring negotiation and consideration of short-term and long-term effects.
  7. Process: Clear briefs suggest a linear, predictable process, with defined steps from problem to solution. Upstream explorations follow a more iterative and emergent process, involving cycles of exploration, adaptation and learning, making the process more adaptable but also more challenging to manage.

Paradigm lock-in

Design clients, especially those from well-established organizations, often prefer to address more “tame” problems that fit within their existing frameworks and paradigms. This can be due to a variety of reasons:

  1. Structural realities: Going upstream in design requires grappling with deeper structural realities, including systemic inequities, power dynamics and unsustainable practices. These are often complex and deeply entrenched issues that can be uncomfortable and challenging to address.
  2. Paradigm shifts: Addressing these structural realities often requires a paradigm shift, including new ways of thinking, working and relating. This can be difficult and disruptive, especially for organizations that are deeply invested in the existing paradigm.
  3. Political implications: Upstream explorations often reveal political implications that many clients are reluctant to touch. They might have to question the policies, practices and power structures that benefit them or their organizations. This can involve taking risks and challenging vested interests, which many clients are unwilling or unprepared to do.
  4. Ideological conditioning: Many clients, particularly those who are beneficiaries of capitalism, might be ideologically conditioned to see the world in certain ways. They might hold certain beliefs about the virtues of competition, growth and meritocracy and might be resistant to ideas that challenge these beliefs.
  5. Comfort zone: Finally, dealing with wicked problems and systemic issues often requires stepping out of one’s comfort zone, and many clients, often older and wealthy conservative men, are unwilling or unable to do this. They are more comfortable with solutions that maintain the status quo, rather than those that challenge it.


The adoption of upstream design certainly poses a challenge. It disrupts familiar processes and resists easy metrics, necessitating a level of ambiguity and complexity that can feel unsettling. More than anything, it requires a significant process of unlearning. Conventional management and leadership paradigms, driven by speed, visibility and linear thinking, must be unlearned to make space for the new.

Unlearning allows us to shed the restrictive frameworks that confine us to downstream thinking. It means abandoning the comfort of well-trodden paths to venture into the uncertainty of systemic exploration. It involves replacing the reductive, symptom-focused mindset with a more holistic, empathetic and politically sensitive one – an often uncomfortable but necessary process.

Embracing this unlearning journey is crucial as we navigate an increasingly complex and interconnected world. Upstream design, with its emphasis on addressing root causes and systemic issues, offers a promising approach to tackle the grand challenges of our era. But to truly embody this approach, we need to challenge and unlearn deeply ingrained assumptions, rethink our roles as designers, managers and leaders, and embrace the nuance and complexity that such a transformation requires.

It’s not an easy journey, but the rewards—creating transformative and sustainable solutions that address the very fabric of our problems—are more than worth the struggle. This commitment to unlearning and relearning represents not only a change in practice but a fundamental evolution in our understanding of what design, management and leadership can and should be.

1. The Other Design Thinking - Humantific (2013)
2. Making Sense of Design Thinking & "Agile"​ Method - GK VanPatter (2016)