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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    To make designs that make sense marine designers must have sea sense

    In A seaman’s pocket-book 1 from 1943 the Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty wrote that

    The seaman must develop sea sense, just as the driver of a motor vehicle develops ‘road sense’. He must be alert continually to visualize what is happening, and to anticipate what might happen next.

    In a recent paper2 presented at RINA's Marine Design conference Kjetil Norby and I argue that marine designers3 must acquire their own kind of sea sense to be able to make good design judgements when designing for the maritime domain.

    Characteristics of designers sea sense

    Designers’ sea sense deals with tacit and explicit knowledge about work and life at sea. Having sea sense in design means to have general insight into maritime operations, what they consist of, and what demands they place on the crew. Designers’ sea sense further involves having an embodied understanding of what it is like to be a mariner. Such experiences can help designers develop a tacit understanding of physical and mental aspects of being in a ship environment, as well as enhance the designer’s ability to empathise with the mariners. Last having sea sense implies having a personal repertoire4 of possible designs for a marine context.

    Developing sea sense

    Just as a mariner cannot develop sea sense without going to sea, neither can a designer. To acquire sea sense we argue in our paper that the designer should do field research. As those who have followed this blog have noticed, field research has played an important part of my PhD research and also in the the Ulstein Bridge Concept (UBC) design research project. The UBC team spent 1800 hours doing field research at sea, while I spent a total of 19 days (450 hours) aboard. As discussed in another paper5 and in a previous blog post, in the UBC research project we found that field research was essential for designers to

    • get a holistic understanding of the system we designed (the ship’s bridge)
    • gain insight into the operations, users and tasks at the level necessary for design
    • understand how our users (the crew) communicates and interacts
    • get a spatial understanding of the context of use
    • understand temporal aspects of operations and tasks
    • get an embodied understanding of being at sea
    • identify the appropriateness of emerging designs in the context of current use

    The guide for design-driven field research at sea

    Field research has traditionally not been used to inform design in the maritime industries, and little practical advice can be found on how to carry out field research to inform marine design. Based on our substantial experience with field research in the UBC project, we have therefore developed a guide for design-driven field research at sea. The guide provides concrete advice on how to plan and prepare a field study, how to conduct the field study, and how to interpret and analyse the findings of field research for design.

    To learn more about designers’ sea sense, read our paper Shaping designers’ sea sense. If you plan to go to sea, check out the guide for design-driven field research at sea.

    Doing field research onboard a platform supply vessel, September 2012.


    1 Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty. 1943. A Seaman’s Pocket-Book. London: Conway.

    2 Lurås, Sigrun, and Kjetil Nordby. 2015. “Shaping Designers’ Sea Sense: A Guide for Design-Driven Field Research at Sea.” In Marine Design 2015, 2-3 September 2015, London, UK, 53-63. London: The Royal Institution of Naval Architects. Available online.

    3 Marine design is a multidisciplinary approach to design for the maritime domain, based on the principles of industrial design and ‘a holistic design process with a strong focus on the end users as well as stakeholders in the design process’. McCartan, Sean, Don Harris, Bob Verheijden, Monica Lundh, Margareta Lützhöft, Dario Boote, Hans (J J) Hopman, Frido E H M Smulders, Sigrun Lurås, and Kjetil Nordby. 2014. “European Boat Design Innovation Group: The Marine Design Manifesto.” The Transactions of the Royal Institution of Naval Architects: International Journal of Marine Design 156 Part C: 1–28.

    4 According to Schön, designers’ repertoire is their collection of images, ideas, examples, and actions they can draw upon in their work and thus use to find answers to the question of what to do. Schön, Donald A. 1983. The Reflective Practitioner: How Professionals Think in Action. New York: Basic Books.

    5 Lurås, Sigrun, and Kjetil Nordby. 2014. “Field Studies Informing Ship’s Bridge Design at the Ocean Industries Concept Lab.” In Human Factors in Ship Design and Operation, 26-27 February 2014, London, UK, 27–35. London: The Royal Institution of Naval Architects. Available online.

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