Constructing deep understanding

To construct an understanding we need both knowledge bricks and how to connect them, in order to build a knowledge structure.

To construct an understanding we need both knowledge bricks and how to connect them, in order to build a knowledge structure.

Information designers make sense of situations. To achieve that goal, they first need to gain an understanding of those situations. Poor understanding results in ineffective outcomes that fail in communicating a message with clarity. To ensure the creation of well-conceived solutions, at the very beginning of a new project, information designers aim to construct an understanding in order to identify the areas that need improvement. However, in some cases, the process doesn’t go as planned: e.g. some clients find difficult to clearly communicate what it is in their minds or provide the appropriate information to let us construct that necessary knowledge (learn!).

This means that to achieve that initial understanding, we go through a learning process. This post gives an overview of that process, and discusses how our attitude and commitment can influence the way we make sense of a situation (and ultimately the quality of our outcomes).

Construct understanding by learning

Individuals aren’t good at memorising information because we possess short-term memory. Although each of us has a different view for the same situation, our learning process is based on associations: “we connect new and unknown information with old and known information” stored in memory. (In this post, I will keep the analysis to each piece of information seen as a brick of knowledge, but there are many types of information, that could be represented with bricks of different colours.) When we combine new and old bricks of knowledge, we are building knowledge. Often we place new bricks on top of old bricks, which allows us to expand and enrich what we already know (stored bricks).
Theoretical components (e.g. explanations, theories and frameworks) provide us the glue to connect one brick with another, and new information with information we already are familiar with, until we create a knowledge structure. Deep understanding is obtained when we can build a solid knowledge structure, but when that structure has missing bricks (knowledge gaps), we have only achieved a surface understanding.

Information design learning approaches

Even though we learn in similar ways, our attitudes to learning and constructing understanding vary. In addition, we may have different goals or ideas of what we would be interested in learning, or how much time we may have to spend on a particular situation. Based on that, we can find two types of information designers:

  • Active learners: This approach to information design aims to get to the bottom of the problem until understanding is reached. These designers are also concerned with understanding the implications and consequences of not solving the problem. Reaching this level of understanding results from deep learning and high levels of engagement with all stakeholders involved in the project. Consequently, it demands high cognitive processes.
  • Passive learners: This approach to information design has a different goal. In this case, designers aim to gain the minimum understanding in order to be able to produce a solution. They are not fully committed with achieving full understanding. This lower level of engagement is related to surface learning and to finding short cuts to achieve goals with minimum effort. It demands lower cognitive processes.

Understanding, misunderstanding, and not understanding


When we reach deep understanding we have constructed a solid knowledge structure: we collected all the necessary knowledge bricks and learnt how to connect them in the appropriate way.

Early in the process, information designers need to actively construct understanding through specific activities (learning activities), such as brainstorming, dynamic meetings, visual thinking, drawing, creating diagrams, workshops. Having only telephone or Skype meetings with clients won’t provide the necessary information to achieve deep learning. Understanding is gained through an iterative process of questioning and research, and re-questioning between clients, audience and information designers.

To be productive, the each cycle of the learning process needs to provide new bricks and guidance on how to connect the bricks to help information designers construct the adequate knowledge structure for each problem. Only after the information designer has achieved a solid knowledge structure (deep understanding), they can start working on the development of solutions. Lack of understanding occurs when key bricks are missing, or we don’t know how to connect the bricks we do have (unorganised bricks), and misunderstandings are the consequence of connecting bricks in the wrong way.

Not understanding or actually misunderstanding something should not have negative connotations, as they can be extremely enriching situations. The key is acknowledging when we need further explanation or clarification (more or different bricks). When we make the other person (e.g. a client) aware of that need, they can provide us with the extra information we need, and they will also learn how to improve the way they communicate (identify the key bricks to communicate an idea).

Information designers don’t have to construct a deep understanding of each problem straight away. Their skills are in the ways they elicit the information bricks they need to actively construct the understanding they require.


This post is inspired by “Teaching Teaching & Understanding Understanding.” This is a 19-minute film about teaching at higher education universities based on the Constructive Alignment theory developed by John Biggs. 


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