Abductive Thinking, Sensemaking and the Meaning of Life

Design Synthesis

Abductive thinking and Sensemaking were  terms that I had been struggling with until I stumbled upon Jon Kolko’s writing that has begun to put it all into context. Thanks Jon, my mind is gently being blown. Jon is prolific and appears to be in the process of completing the design trifecta: worked at frog, spoke at TED, and now in the education as as a founder and director of the Austin Center for Design.

In an article written for  Core77 and then published in The Alpine Review – a delightful critical thinking and art mag that I am currently obsessing over – Jon outlines why systems thinking is crucial and how “sensemaking” is a bona fide practice of generating tangible actions out of large and often incongruous observations.

As I begin to explore more of his writing, I am seeing an obsession with “synthesis” as a design activity that needs further unpacking, development and practice with clear purpose. This is so deeply aligned with questions I have been bouncing around that it proves to me that designers are all trapped inside a singular brain space, like some kind of weird black t-shirt, jeans wearing ant colony.

Jon defines “sensemaking” as:

“the ability to synthesize large quantities of often incomplete or conflicting information… connecting discrete insights… depth of thinking, rigor of connections and strategic and creative reasoning.”

More specifically the challenge is bringing clarity to messy investigations that are a natural outcome of any systems research.

“[The topic is] a system, and so our critique of it should be systemic, and so too should be our strategies for change. But most of us can’t think of systems, because they are too big of which to think.”

The output that Jon Kolko calls for is intriguing, as most tools or process I have seen to date has generally been large, sweeping proposals, with many spinning elements and difficult to define boundaries. Anyone who has taught has experienced brilliant, powerful presentation into topics like the broken healthcare system, problems with education or the failure of architecture and sustainability, and where the final deliverable is a thick report outlining a frantic array of possible starting points, ambitious criteria and doomsday scenarios of failure .

The author of the work is generally sleep deprived, frustrated and unlikely to pick up their report again for at least a year or two after it is completed. This all to say that, the “sensemaking” has been limited to crafting a compelling narrative, and limited synthesis has occurred that might generate tangible starting points. Most recently I have been reading ideas for making the tools we use to communicate these situations even more complex and dynamic, and so it was refreshing that Jon Kolko calls for a different scale of intervention:

“We need to think smaller, not bigger, and with more attention to craft of execution. The craft of synthesis through sensemaking is not in visual details, as most designers have been trained, and it’s not in the application of our talents for the corporate machine, as most designers have accepted. It’s in intellectual details, specificity, and rigor; it’s in directives towards the focused and local, and it manifests as hard, hard work.”

This makes me think of many of my successfully practicing friends  who are not “thinking smaller”, as that sounds mildly offensive when put in this context, but who are able to make small, digestible and playful steps within larger complex social challenges. Where I fall into the trap of overlooking these projects and hunger for bigger and bigger discussions, the people getting their hands dirty on discrete activities while following the broader thread are people I truly look up to.

Jon Kolko’s essay on Design Synthesis echoes an obsession of mine. So much of the work discussed above is invisible to those outside of the process. This is made worse if the work is being explored by a lone practitioner.

Mid 20th Century, when Designers were hailed as magical creatures – a myth that they each self perpetuated deliberately (I’m looking at you Raymond Loewy and Frank Lloyd Wright) – it was once a benefit for design practice to operate as a magical black box. But as the projects become bigger and more complex, the budgets balloon, the timelines lengthen and the people investing their money into these projects want more specificity regarding what they are paying for and what is going to emerge.

This is a problem, as complex design practice is a very new thing. Disciplinary boundaries have only recently been truly eroded in the past couple of decades, and most processes of design are not matured enough to respond to the many specific, often quantified, demands placed upon it. Designers are poor at describing processes that are not visual. Therefore the design audience is expecting sexy drawings and gorgeous models, not an essay, abstract presentation or “business model” (whatever that means). I have personally been in a series of situations where highly valuable design research has gone underfunded or been discontinued due to a client’s lack of belief in the process. I would say that much of their fear is understandable. Jon Kolko puts it this way:

“If the beginning state (the research data) is compared to the end state (the design idea), it is not immediately clear how one derived the latter from the former. It can be argued that the more innovative the output, the more difficult it is to identify how the idea was developed at all.”

This puts the entire process into a negative causality loop (is that english). The innovation case study that celebrates a “Eureka moment” undersells the hard work and qualitative research that generated the many discrete insights that made the large synthesis possible. The big “ah-ha” is only possible because of the research process, but that is a boring story, that lacks the sensational wow-factor that many hunger for.

Jon is writing about Abductive Thinking and Sensemaking in a way that is triggering my own ah-ha moments to emerge, and so I am very thankful for him. I really encourage you dive into his writing, I’m about to go and order some of his books. I look forward swapping notes with anyone who is heading down a similar path.

More Reading:

Heart of Darkness: A Mild Polemic, by Jon Kolko

Abductive Thinking and Sensemaking: The Drivers of Design Synthesis

Wicked Problems – Problems Worth Solving


2 Comments on “Abductive Thinking, Sensemaking and the Meaning of Life”

  1. Ian Clakre says:

    Great Post Carl.

    I have been thinking along very similar lines vis-à-vis the two themes of making process visible, or at least less opaque, and effective actions when working in very complex systems. As a scientist it infuriates me when solutions are presented as magical insights rather than as the results of thoughtful, well articulated processes. I often wonder why in design we sometimes seem afraid to show or publish our process by which we arrived a solutions. In science, we publish our methodologies, often in excruciating detail. Do we then dismiss the brilliance of the scientists? No, we admire the elegance and beauty of their solutions to complex problems; we are inspired to learn and emulate their thinking, and we are able to criticize them if they deserve it. I think this would be a very productive model for design collaboration.

    I agree with your thoughts about concrete actions within complex systems. Biological systems always self assemble in response to very local actions as well as larger ecological parameters. By studying complex systems we may try to understand how the system may respond to various scenarios, but our knowledge will always be imperfect as the system will inevitably be more complicated than we can model and it will be undergoing dynamic changes as we study it. This is why I think as designers we should accept that our job continues well after a “solution” in that we need to study and understand how our solutions affect the overall system. We need to wait to see how our children grow up.

    Getting clients to accept this idea will certainly be made easier by more clearly explaining our research and methodologies. How to present this complex information to clients who would probably be overwhelmed by the information is a worthy challenge. People respect brilliance but in my experience are often Jealous as they feel solutions come easily. However, people always respect brilliance AND hard work, so in my mind the myth of the solitary genius does us a disservice.

    • Carl Hastrich says:

      Some really superb points, Ian!
      There is something really important to unpack around discrete actions being mapped over long periods of time. That is definitely something we’ve spoken about a bunch of times… The idea of scientists publishing their methodology is interesting. Design would struggle to be that detailed, but even a diagram with some key data points would be really important. The best design consultancy that does this is Ziba, whose case studies often include distinct moments of research that informed their outcomes. It is not surprising that they sell themselves on the strength of their process…

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