Sensemaking as a Design Enabler

Humans, in general, are natural problem solvers. Everyday mundane things such as getting out of bed, making coffee, ordering food, or getting from point A to point B are obstacles that we have already figured out and have been consigned to muscle memory. When a new obstacle comes along or when the constancy is disrupted, our problem-solving brain tries to make sense of it. That momentary spark when something clicks and we work it out is called sensemaking.

Sensemaking is an integral part of our cognitive function that enables us to understand our connections to our experiences of people, places, and events so that we can respond accordingly. It is so intrinsic to our thought process and happens fleetingly that we often overlook and undervalue its importance.

In the world of marketing and communication, designers like me need to be attuned to our sensemaking abilities to use both our analytical skills and innate aesthetic sense to create something powerful and effective.  Let’s have a closer look at how sensemaking works and how it can be used in business to solve problems and create better outcomes.

What is Sensemaking?
Jon Kolko, in his book Abductive Thinking and Sensemaking: The Drivers of Design, describes sensemaking perfectly as, “making sense of a situation taking into account unique experiences and discerning connections.” It is both: a personal internal and reflective activity informed by the individual’s unique perspectives and frames; and, an external collaborative activity resulting in a pooling of ideas informed by meanings made by different individuals.  In the context of design, sensemaking has a critical role in bridging the gap between the creative brief and the ideation and conceptualisation stage.

The Value of Sensemaking
Designers are familiar with the value of sensemaking in the design process since they are often immersed in it. However, because sensemaking is intrinsic to the design process, this aspect is not always shared with clients, often leading to a lower perception of its value.

I believe a well-developed sensemaking ability helps improve a designer’s confidence in their capabilites to problem-solve. Having this confidence enables designers to make sense of an enormous amount of intangibles at the beginning of a creative process — this is often the most daunting time for a design professional. This confidence, paired with intuition gained from experience, impacts the way we make informed and meaningful decisions.

Defining a designer’s sensemaking tools
On the individual level of personal sensemaking, designers create different strategic focal points informed by their own unique experiences and perspectives. These are brought to life by tangible sensemaking artefacts such as sketches, diagrams, mind maps and post it notes that helps delineate the design space. These artefacts help the designer to develop critical insights that go on to inspire working/creative artefacts of ideas, concepts, and strategies.

The collaborative nature of an agency environment means these working artefacts come from different designers and this activity generates what can be defined as shared sensemaking. During this collaborative activity, designers have a common understanding of data which results in a collective outcome generation. The collective result is informed by each individual’s set of working artefacts and these can be compared against one another and also against the collective outcome generated.

Enabling Design
Sensemaking is integral to problem solving, problem solving is a foundation of the design process, and the design process is the DNA of design. The value that the design process outcomes deliver to the client can be quantified in terms of how it resonates with its audience, creates business efficiencies, leads to increased revenue, and most importantly, improves the customer’s experience with the brand.

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