Design Thinking as Sensemaking: Developing a Pragmatist Theory of Practice to (Re)Introduce Sensibil

Digital Machines, Space, and Time

Design Thinking as Sensemaking: Developing a Pragmatist Theory of Practice to (Re)Introduce Sensibility

Anna Rylander Eklund, Ulises Navarro Aguiar, and Ariana Amacker

kHUB post date: December 8, 2022
Originally published: September 29, 2021 (PDMA JPIM • Vol 39, Issue 1 • January 2022)
Read time: 75 minutes

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Design thinking is based on designers’ creative ways of working and is defined as a formal method for creative problem solving aimed at fostering innovation by harnessing “the designer's sensibility and methods.” The basic premise is that design “thinking” can be extracted and separated from the situated practice of designing in the studio. This approach has given rise to a widely accepted nomenclature for describing design which has improved communication between designers and managers, leading to massive interest in adoption of design thinking in management settings. However, due to a widespread implicit cognitivism in the literature, scholars find it difficult to explain the cultural and experiential qualities of design thinking and it tends to be presented as a fundamentally cognitive, problem-solving activity. We argue that these cognitivist tendencies preclude proper attention to and theorization of designers’ creative practice. We contend that the absence of a theory of practice prevents a deeper understanding of the contribution of design thinking to innovation, loses sight of the sensibility on which it relies, and hampers realization of the promise of design thinking. We develop an alternative theoretical perspective, grounded in a pragmatist theory of practice and the studio culture from which designers’ creative practice developed. This theoretical perspective allows design thinking to be understood as sensemaking, foregrounds imagination and improvisation as its core activities, and explains how sensibility is developed and nurtured. We review the design thinking literature through this pragmatist lens and discuss the implications for theory and practice of conceptualizing design thinking as sensemaking.

Practitioner Points

  • Sensibility tends to be neglected in design thinking initiatives, yet it is critical for successful implementation of design thinking.
  • Sensibility needs to be recognized as an essential skill and disposition honed and cultivated through practice.
  • Organizations seeking to implement design thinking should not rely solely on methods and tools but also:
    • Build on current practices and assist co-workers by offering flexible structures and cultivating supporting cultures.
    • Nurture sensibility by training improvisation and imagination skills and developing a local design thinking vernacular.
    • Involve professional designers in design thinking teams to offer team members the opportunity to learn with professional designers by imitating their sensibility.

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