Sensemaking, Framing & Design Synthesis

First, a few definitions:

Sensemaking is a constant process of acquisition, reflection, and action. It is an action-oriented cycle that people continually and fairly automatically go through in order to integrate experiences into their understanding of the world around them

A frame is an active perspective that both describes and perceptually changes a given situation.

Design synthesis is an abductive sensemaking process of manipulating, organizing, pruning and filtering data in an effort to produce information and knowledge.

Synthesis is an opportunity to become aware of frames and sensemaking—to make them explicit, through various forms of externalization and modelling—and to delve deeper into the causality that is found in these ways of thinking.

Reframing is a method of shifting semantic perspective in order to see things in a new way. The new frame “re-embeds” a product, system, or service in a new (and not necessarily logical) context, allowing the designer to explore associations and hidden links to and from the center of focus.


Next, a bit of background:

Karl Weick introduced the concept of sense-making in the 1970s. Weick, as an organizational behaviour theorist, focused his work on sensemaking in organizing and his work has been built on by subsequent scholars to give a detailed account of how sensemaking occurs within organizations. Jörgen Sandberg and Haridimos Tsoukas provide a detailed account of the process actors engage in once they have been interrupted by a planned or unplanned ambiguous event. The event triggers sensemaking episodes by interrupting actors’ ongoing activities and “forcing” them to retrospectively make sense of the disrupted activity. To restore their interrupted activity, the actors create an interpretation or narrative of what is going on, generally by interacting with one another.


Now, how do sensemaking and design connect?

As Jon Kolko identifies, designers collaboratively, purposefully and knowingly enact the sensemaking process. Rather than being interrupted and forced to engage in sensemaking as a means of returning to their prior organizational activities, “[d]esigners make explicit,” Kolko writes, “the normally implicit processes of sensemaking and framing during design synthesis, as they attempt to make meaning out of data through interpretation and modelling. It is because designers engage in sensemaking with an awareness of their actions and the process in which they are engaged that designers can also make explicit their mental maps, or frames, through various forms of externalization and modelling.”

Frames provide designers with a place to begin; an entry point to understanding the complexity of the problem they seek to solve.  As the design team collaborates, “frames shape and define the relevant data, and data mandate that frames change in nontrivial ways.” Klein et al note that “the commitment to a frame must be coupled with a motive to test the frame to discover when it’s inaccurate.” The design team may attempt to see the problem in a new way by explicitly questioning their frame or reframing their perspective. The reframed design context may lead to new constraints or uncover constraints and implications that were overlooked.  The design process will ultimately produce a proposed solution that has been arrived at within boundaries formed by the designers’ frames and reframes. Kolko identifies that “during synthesis, a designer simultaneously attempts to embrace their own unique experiences, emotions, and history—and to embrace someone else’s unique experiences, emotions, and history. These are the elements that are crucial to making sense of the complicated design problem. Two designers may approach the same design problem in the same way and follow the same methods and steps, yet end up with a very different solution.”


Notes for Designers:

The sensemaking activity is the story we create to understand the context in which we find ourselves. Designers engage in sensemaking so with the potential of awareness. Meaning that designers can be aware of the stories they craft to make sense and consequently can experiment with alternate understandings by reframing and exploring alternate stories. In design synthesis, we attempt to be aware of the stories we have crafted that pertain to our personal experience, not to eliminate our unique perceptions, but to recognize them and their impact so that we can then, purposefully, refine, challenge, change, or adapt as new information becomes known.

TEDxCreativeCoast – Jon Kolko – The Phenomenon of Synthesis

In this video, Jon Kolko expands on insight combination and reframing as methods to “do” design synthesis.


Glynn, A. & Watkiss, L. (2020). Of Organizing and Sensemaking: From Action to Meaning and Back Again in a Half-Century of Weick’s Theorizing. Journal of Management Studies, 57(7), 1331–1354. https://doi.org/10.1111/joms.12613

Klein, Moon, & Hoffman. (2006). Making Sense of Sensemaking 2: A Macrocognitive Model. IEEE Intelligent Systems, 21(5), 88–92. https://doi.org/10.1109/MIS.2006.100

Kolko, Jon (2010), “Abductive Thinking and Sensemaking: The Drivers of Design Synthesis”. In MIT’s Design Issues: Volume 26, Number 1 Winter 2010.

Kolko, Jon (2010), “Sensemaking and Framing: A Theoretical Reflection on Perspective in Design Synthesis”. In the 2010 Design Research Society conference proceedings.

Sandberg, J., & Tsoukas, H. (2015). Making sense of the sensemaking perspective: Its constituents, limitations, and opportunities for further development. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 36(S1), S6–S32. https://doi.org/10.1002/job.1937

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