(Information) designers approach problems and go through the problem-solving process using diverse methods, but eventually they all arrive to (different degrees of successful) solutions. Some designers seem to go through the conceptual design process with no apparent method, others take longer or need many iterative stages to decide how to start the process, and others seem to solve problems in a very systematic and rational way. This range of approaches is mainly because the process of making sense of a situation and solving problems is highly complex, involving a wide range of factors from experience, and cognitive skills to personality types. Both the sensemaking process and the factors involved in that process have been widely documented in previous studies (e.g. Arnheim, 1995; Reymen et al., 2005; Dorst, 2004; Klein et al., 2002; Cross et al., 1996).
A closer look to some of those factors may help understand the complexity of the design process, and our own way, as designers, of approaching a problem-situation and why we tend to decide on one method instead of the other. Based on prior studies, I compiled a list of 10 factors that have a strong influence on the way information designers make sense of a problem situation:
1. Personality types: Based on behavioural tendencies, designers have specific patterns of thought and emotion, which determine how they gain knowledge and the way they do things, choosing more creative or more rational strategies. In addition, based on this factor, designers respond in a more positive or negative way to collaborative projects, to work in in-house roles or as freelancers.
2. Approach: Broadly, there are three types of problem-solving approaches: rational, creative, and mixed approaches. Rational approaches involved externalising each process phase, and proceed with analytical and systematic actions until a solution is achieved. On the other hand, designers using a more creative approach often go through the entirely thinking process inside their heads and without being aware that they are doing so. Designers adopting a mixed approach combine the best of both approaches.
3. Experiences: Previous experiences can strongly alter the process of designing, as designers often rely on their own (design and non-design related) experiences to conceive design ideas (Arnheim, 1995), e.g. different context, similar problem-situation. This explains why some designers are able to create more suitable solutions for issues where they have the appropriate knowledge, but cannot figure out how they have made the appropriate decisions.
4. Task characteristics: According to how hard a task is perceived to be by the designer, their performance may vary. Some designers respond to goal-oriented and very specific tasks more positively than to ill-defined and more conceptual or open tasks. But for others, the opposite is true.
5. Theories & Principles: Theoretical frameworks and principles provide reference to assist the decision-making process, indicate what steps to follow, and guide the practical application of the field. Information design studios are increasingly looking for conceptual models to back up their decisions and generate more effective solutions.
6. Critical thinking and reflection. Theories and principles do give structure, but they don’t indicate which the appropriate solutions are. Thus, critical analysis, ability to make inferences and draw conclusions are essential to thoroughly understand theories and get the most of them. This factor is an essential information design skill.
7. Domain knowledge: When designers are highly familiar with the subject matter of the problem, their background knowledge has a key role in how they make sense of that problem. However, in other cases, designers are domain outsiders and cannot rely on specific aspects of their background knowledge to draw conclusions. In those cases, sensemaking demands external help, becoming inter/multi-disciplinary.
8. Technical skills: Technical knowledge for specialised tools and equipment is often learnt in education, from peers or in professional practice. These skills are closely related to the visual translation and making phases of the design process (the how stage of the process), as they are essential to prototype ideas. Information designers tend to highly rely on books, theories and principles to put into practice this set of skills.
9. Workplace: The context surrounding or place where designers work is a key factor involved in the knowledge gaining process. Designers can waste an enormous amount of time until they feel comfortable enough to start working. During some stages of the process, information designers need wall boards, panels, (loads of) post-its, colour pens/markers and big open spaces where they can externalise thoughts, visualise ideas, and make sense of data. But during other stages of the process, designers may feel that their creativity can be enhanced when working in public places instead of their daily workplaces.
10. Expertise: This factor is related to how much or how little experience designers have on solving similar problems. Both the years of experience and level of expertise in a particular domain can have a considerable effect on the way a problem is solved. Expertise is associated with the level of pattern recognition and the way domain-specific knowledge is organised in memory (Cooke, 1999). This can also be understood as the capacity to transfer a problem-solving structure from different contexts to a particular problem situation. Expertise provides designers the ability to link external situations with corresponding internal models for those situations.
Some of the factors discussed here are closely related and in some cases even interwoven, making hard the analysis of them as independent entities. However, they evidence that having a diverse set of technical skills, a varied range of previous experiences, or many yeas of experience alone is not enough to deal successfully with the complexity of current problems. Information designers’ problem-solving methods are determined by a combination of all above factors. Knowing the factors in which we tend to depend confidently on may help us choose the most suitable problem-solving method and, therefore, move more smoothly through the sensemaking process.
– Arnheim, R., 1995. Sketching and the psychology of design. In Margolin, V. & B.
– Cooke, N. J. (1999). Knowledge elicitation. In. F.T. Durso, (Ed.), Handbook of Applied Cognition, pp. 479-509.
– Cross, N., 1990. The nature and nurture of design ability. Design Studies, 11(3), pp.127-140.
– Cross, N., Christiaans, H. & Dorst, K., 1996. Analysing design activity. England: John Wiley & Sons.
– Dorst, K., 2004. The problem of design problems – problem solving and design expertise. Journal of Design Research, 4(2).
– Dorst, K. & Reymen, I., 2004. Levels of expertise in design education. International Engineering and Product Design Education Conference. Delft, The Netherlands, 2-3 September 2004.
– Dreyfus, H.L., 2004. Can there be a better source of meaning than everyday practices? Unpublished lecture notes of the second 2003 Spinoza Lecture at the University of Amsterdam.
– Klein, G., Phillips, J. K., Rall, E. L. & Peluso, D. A. (2007) A Data-Frame Theory of Sensemaking. In Expertise Out of Context: Proceedings of the Sixth International Conference on Naturalistic Decision Making (Expertise: Research and Applications Series). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 113-155