Abductive Thinking, Sensemaking and the Meaning of LifePosted: May 24, 2013
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.