How should designers approach the task of designing for complex high-risk contexts, like the bridge of an offshore service vessel?

What do we need to make sense of to make good design judgements?

In what ways can systems thinking be of help when designing for such environments?

This PhD blog addresses these and other questions and is about my search for and research on design for sensemaking.

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    Chasing Aha! moments in design and research

    I've recently been reading an interesting and inspiring book about generative moments in research1. Generative moments are "moments of deep inspiration, connectedness, burst of insight and expansion of thought". These are moments that have the power to radically expand our thinking and really makes research worth doing. Acquiring generative (or Aha!) moments is a challenge for designers as well as researchers. And for us design researchers we have a double challenge: We need to chase these Aha! moments both in our doing of design and in our doing of research.

    The creative process

    We've all heard the story about Archimedes and the moment when he shouted out "Eureka" ("I have found it") after suddenly understanding the connection between water displacement and the volume of a submerged body. As the story about Archimedes shows, awareness of Aha! moments have been around since ancient times. But the description of the stages preceding and following such a moment wasn't developed until the late 19th and early 20th century.2  The German physician and physicist Hermann von Helmholtz was the first to describe that the creative process starts with a phase of saturation, where the you explore the "problem" you're trying to solve in depth. According to von Helmholtz saturation is followed by incubation. Incubation is when you have a break from the problem solving activity and the unconscious mind is working on the issue. Then comes the illumination stage (the actual Aha!-moment), where a solution comes to mind. The French mathematician Henri Poincaré supplemented Helmholtz' model with a last stage for verification, where the solution is checked and concretised. In the 1960s the American psychologist Jacob Getzels proposed a stage proceeding saturation. The first insight stage is where you find and formulate the problem. According to Getzels, this may include identifying problems never considered before.

    The creative process as described by Getzels.

    Facilitating generative moments

    It has been said that a research process and a design process isn't that different. In both we are trying to come up with something completely new. In research we seek new knowledge, in design we strive for new designs. In both we are depending on generative moments.

    In research

    Traditionally the creative problem solving process hasn't been given a lot of attention in research methodology books. These book are usually more concerned with issues like strategies of inquiry, method choices, use of theory etc. The book1 that inspired me to write this blog post stands out by making the process of achieving generative moments in research more transparent. The editors does this through presenting 40 stories about "seeding, growing and harvesting" generative moments. Referring to Karl Weick, the editors say that processes of imagination in research are usually black boxes of inquiry. Through the 40 stories the editors make the research process more transparent and try to capture some of the tacit knowledge involved in doing qualitative research.

    In design

    Creative problem solving is emphasized in design practice, especially the use of different idea generation techniques. But a deeper awareness on how to cater for the generative moments in which the good ideas occur may still be needed.

    As designers we often have a thorough research phase where we dig into the situations we design for. We also have design exemplars3 from previous design work (own or other's) that we draw on that help us in coming up with new ideas. But do we recognise which of the activities in our design process that made us come up with the really good solutions?

    In Systems Oriented Design GIGA-mapping is proposed as one technique that can be used to dig deep into the "design problematique" you work with. GIGA-mapping is an "extensive mapping across multiple layers and scales, investigating relations between seemingly separated categories and so implementing boundary critique to the conception and framing of systems".4 My experience with GIGA-mapping is so far limited, I designed my first GIGA-map a few months ago. But I believe that the technique, in combination with other techniques, is fruitful for the saturation stage of the creative process.

    GIGA-mapping is creating an “information cloud” from which the designer can derive innovative solutions.

    Birger Sevaldson4

    The concept of the Rich Design/Research Space is also emphasized in Systems Oriented Design, acknowledging that complex design/research tasks demand an equally rich and non-reductive process.5 The Rich Design/Research Space includes "the physical space of the design studio or research environment, the multiples of digital and analogue design media, the virtual information space, and the social, cultural and aesthetic spaces. The aim is to engage a holistic research approach and to nurture it as a skill rather than a method."

    In Design Research

    When doing Research by Design the exploratory and generative aspects of designing play an important part in the research. Through practical design work we as researchers shall develop new knowledge that fulfils the requirements of good research. We need generative moments both in our designing and in our researching. Whether these generative moments are the same in research and design I guess will depend on the research objectives and the role of the design work in the research.

    Turning to ourselves

    To actively facilitate generative moments, it is useful to be aware of how we as individuals achieve such moments in our individual creative processes. By noting down when an idea appears and reflecting upon what kind of preconditions were present at the time, I believe we can be better prepared for setting up the stage for generative moments in the future. In my opinion it is just as valuable to be aware of this as a practicing designer as it is for design researchers.

    As designers we always strive for coming up with new and improved solutions. If we are conscious of what we can do that leads up to successful ideas, we become better designers. In research we have to show how we know what we know. One means of doing this is through transparency. In order for our reseach to be trustworthy, we need to describe what we did to reach our conclusions.

    I keep a research diary where I reflect upon my own design and research process. This way I document my generative moments and hope to become more aware of how to facilitate generative moments in my future work. Drawing from previous experiences I know that I need to alternate between different activities in order to come up with new ideas. I switch between reading, writing, doing field studies and designing. And between working alone and working with others. Often I get my Aha! moments through talking to people after a period of concentrated work on my own.

    What about you? How do you chase those Aha! moments in your work?



    1 Carlsen, A., & Dutton, J. E. (2011). Research alive : exploring generative moments in doing qualitative research. Malmö: Liber.

    2 Edwards, B. (1987). Drawing on the Artist Within. Touchstone.

    3 Schön, D. A. (1982). The reflective practitioner: how professionals think in action. Aldershot: Avebury.

    4 Sevaldson, B. (2011). Giga-mapping: visualisation for complexity and systems thinking in design. In I. Koskinen, T. Härkäsalmi, R. Mazé, B. Matthews, & J.-J. Lee (Eds.), Nordes  ’11, the 4th Nordic Design Research Conference.

    5 Sevaldson, B. (2008). Rich Design Research Space. Form Akademisk, 1(1).

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