Design thinking and sensemaking: two notions that recently receive more and more managerial and business attention. For most these two notions may seem to have little in common. But some years ago, based on a research I conducted, I came to believe that designing –and therefore also design thinking- is about sensemaking, and sensemaking is about designing. Sensemaking provides a powerful framework to understand design (thinking), explaining e.g. why Jobs understood the potential of a mouse and a GUI, and Parc Xerox did not – even though the latter invented it. And ever since I’m trying to sort out what this implies. To be honest, at first studying sensemaking felt like studying Chinese, as the ideas, the language deployed and empirical findings seem to have nothing in common with my daily design practice, nor with my design education. But eventually it fully overthrew my worldviews on designing and design thinking. Below I will provide some first insights.
Understanding design thinking and sensemaking
Designing is pictured as an activity to turn situations into preferred ones. It is about imagining and innovating. It is about the future. It is about thinking about others, and for others. It seems to be a specific kind of problem solving, opposed to analysis and decision making, whereby creating solutions and experimenting are core. This kind of problem solving can just as well be used outside the context of e.g. product development, architecture, web design or fashion. It can be used to deal with managerial problems, to invent new business opportunities or to develop services. This is what nowadays is designated as design thinking; thinking as a designer on problems designers are not expected to deal with.
Sensemaking is pictured as an activity to understand the situations we are in, to grasp the world we live in and the effects of our doings in this world. The world is a steady stream of events, and every now and then something happens which was unexpected. Meaningful cues are discerned, and a conscious thinking process starts to explain what happened and why. It is about explaining things in hindsight. It is about plausibility, as we do not need to know exactly as long as we feel confident we are in control. Sensemaking stops once a feeling of order and clarity arises. Crucial is that it is about constructing rational explanations after things happened; we explain to ourselves what we are doing. And we do so by means of narratives, rules of thumb, images and so. Karl Weick is accredited as the ‘master of sensemaking’ and he (after years of publishing books and papers!) eventually defined:
“sensemaking involves the ongoing retrospective development of plausible images that rationalize what we are doing”. (Weick et al. 2005)
Design thinking and sensemaking are both cognitive processes, but whereas the first is about the future, the latter is about the past. Whereas the first is about experimenting in order to learn, the latter is about learning from what already happened. And whereas the first is about ‘the other’, the latter is about ‘me’ / ‘ us’. Yet designing in many ways is about making sense of things.
Why designing is related to sensemaking
Let’s consider a designerly activity: sketching. Probably the most iconic activity for designing. Often designers seem to be ‘freely sketching’ without much direction. Sketches overlap each other, texts are put in later, parts of ideas are circled. Sometimes designer sketches resemble arbitrary blotches and lines, that mysteriously seem to mean a lot for the designer, but to be honest: it could just as well have been a Rorschach inkblot test. Since the famous description of Quist and Petra sketching and reflection on the sketches (Schon1984) we know that basically this kind of sketching is putting forward possible directions to explore. The sketch enables to reflect on a framing he considers. The designer is following a train of thought, cannot possibly fully oversee the consequences and therefore puts it to paper. This experiment enables him to reflect, to make sense of the problem and the possible solution simultaneously. A deep understanding does not emerge by questioning again and again the problem at hand; it arises as a result of putting forward possible solutions and reflecting on the consequences. The problem and solution are co developed. It is not hard to recognize sensemaking process: the sketches are attempts to create plausible images to explain the problem at hand and how it can be solved. Once in an idea ‘things come together’, the designer sees instantly its value: it makes sense. He will discern it from the rest by circling it, putting an “!” next to it.
Team design = sensemaking
Site Map The activity of designing can be explained as sensemaking, but one may ask: so what? Indeed for an individual designer the sensemaking perspective is not terribly important. It gets interesting once products and services are developed that require specialists collaborating on one product / service, simply because it gets too complex to be understood by an individual. Consider a team of a marketer, an engineer and a designer, all three knowledgeable persons. It is well possible that the marketer made the ‘perfect brief’ –according to himself, but that the designer eventually shows a proposal that make much sense for himself, but that only lifts the eyebrows of the others. Similarly it is well possible that e.g. engineer puts forward an idea for production that makes much sense to him, but which the designer considers devastating for his ideas. The point is that we assume that we all speak the same language, mean the same thing and see the same things. In reality language is generic, ambiguous, equivocal: what is meant with e.g. ‘good performance’ is a priori uncertain. In reality we ‘see’ the world differently: other things are noted, depending on your considerations and expertise. As a result specialists do not truly understand each other. And they need to find ways to orchestrate their activities , to reconcile their aims. Effectively this happens in a classic (team) sensemaking process: only by means of concrete proposals the others can understand the consequences in their domain. By looking in hindsight. Only by means of images or prototypes that are understood by all, consequences can be reflected on cross functional: ‘enacted ideas’. Only as the collaborative project develops, it becomes clear what the perfect brief really is, it is ‘an ongoing process’. Only by a iterative / cyclic process of putting forward ideas and discussing it, a shared ‘plausible image that rationalize what we are doing’ can be created.
Why Jobs discovered the mouse, and not Xerox Parc
An example what the ‘designing is making sense of things’ framing can lead to, is provided by the well known example of Steve Jobs discovering the mouse and GUI. As is widely known it is Xerox Parc who invented the mouse and the GUI and first commercialized it, in the Xerox Star. And actually even before Xerx Parc others did attempts that retrospectively can me named predecessors of the mouse. But these early mice were part of larger projects with other aims, like research projects or for military purposes. It merely was meant to solve a particular problem. Steve Jobs at that time had a vision of bringing computers to households. And that effectively had many problems, amongst others the impoverished usability, requiring education. Seeing a mouse and a GUI must have been an ‘aha erlebnis’ for Jobs, the discovery of the missing link. A plausible image that explains it all. Finally it all made sense. Xerox did not had the same vision, and simply did not see it. The lesson to be learned according to me, is not that Xerox Parc is stupid (as many business analysts did / do); the lesson to be learned is that design and product development are a sensemaking processes; and need to be managed as such.