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.

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Beginning to Learn Systems Thinking

I'm getting a little self conscious about how much time I spend thinking about thinking...

I’m getting a little self conscious about how much time I spend thinking about thinking…

I don’t think I’ve explained that I’m currently doing a masters in design. It is a program called “Strategic Foresight and Innovation” which is a vague and ambitious title that allows me to answer differently every time someone asks what it is. An Austrian friend asked me if we get given crystal balls when we sign up. I’m very disappointed that we didn’t.

This semester one of my classes is titled: “Understanding Systems & Systemic Design”. Anyone reading my bouncing thoughts would clearly recognize this as a topic I really enjoy. The readings are great, ranging from incomprehensibly dense to “forehead-slap” worthy. If you haven’t heard that before, it’s when you realize something that makes you hit your own forehead thinking: “oh yeah, that’s what I’ve been thinking but couldn’t say”. I’ll share some of the content as I make sense of it.

Anyway… being the keener that I am, I recently attended a systems dialogue event co-hosted by my instructor; Peter Jones and systems expert David Ing. David and Peter set up a space at OCAD University where brilliant people came and shared their knowledge and experience with newbies such as myself.  There was a paper that a few people debriefed insights to the group and then we broke out and started a discussion around the question:

Is systems thinking a science or a compliment to science? 

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