Ethnographic strategies: framework for sensemaking and creative synthesis in design studio

Presented by: Genell Ebbini, Kathleen Ryan

It is an ongoing challenge, in interior design education, for student designers’ to find meaning and relevance in the complexity of information gathering resulting in novel design solutions. A lack of creative synthesis illustrated a disconnect between the students’ design solution and the information gathering process. Information gathering is an integral component of design thinking, demonstrated by the exploration process of research that evolves to inform the design output. Comprehensive design synthesis methods of “abductive sensemaking process,” of data gathered, are imperative in how designers approach design thinking for creative solutions (Kolko, 2010). Synthesis makes sense of discoveries in the early design process and evolves to creative design. The value of information collected was not evident in students’ work in previous studio courses. This void revealed a missing link between understanding of data gathered and the development of creative outcomes. The complexity of this issue provided a perspective for identifying how to raise the level of students’ cognitive design thinking skills while developing a comprehensive method for information building. The approach was to evaluate the insular activity of students’ ability to synthesize information to inform design as a result (Kolko, 2010; Guiette & Vandenbempt, 2015). In response, a pedagogical framework was developed that applied ethnographic strategies to advance interior design students’ competencies in design thinking. The strategies focused on using creative synthesis and inductive reasoning in a holistic sensemaking approach through integrative learning. Integrative learning theory suggests that learners who make connections across disciplinary boundaries successfully synthesize concepts. The course structure included multiple creative activities to create visual artifacts of the internal activity of sensemaking. Several methods of synthesis were introduced. Each of the methods emphasized specific approaches to creative design: discussions with global design practitioners; case study development of precedence; peer sharing work; interviews with global mentors; cultural music exploration; ideation sketches based on topic readings, and development of infographics and videos. Students were able to “forge connections” (Kolko, 2010, p.18) through processes of internalization and externalization for deeper understanding and reflection of information gathered (Cornu, 2009). Students applied these approaches in their studio project. Creative synthesis is an important part of the design process. The process of synthesis of information is evident in student work showing creative connections made between multiple influences. Given the integrative learning position assumed in this exploration and the nature of the inquiry, ethnographic processes involving participatory design work provided insights for design strategy (Barab, 2004). Sensemaking of ethnographic data were used to innovate new design concepts through cultural variations of discovery. The resulting artifact analysis of participant, ideation sketches, case studies analysis and reporting, resulted in creative outcomes. As a result, students’ designs demonstrated synthesis of ideas through abductive reasoning by the integration of internal and external sensemaking.


  • Barab, S. A. (2004). Critical Design Ethnography: Designing for Change. Anthropology Education Quarterly ANTHROPOLOGY & EDUCATION QUARTERLY, 35(2), 254-268.
  • Cornu, A. L. (2009). Meaning, Internalization, and Externalization: Toward a Fuller Understanding of the Process of Reflection and Its Role in the Construction of the Self. Adult Education Quarterly, 59(4), 279-297.
  • Guiette, A., & Vandenbempt, K. (2015). Learning in times of dynamic complexity through balancing phenomenal qualities of sensemaking. Management Learning, 47(1), 83-99.
  • Kolko, J. (2010). Abductive Thinking and Sensemaking: The Drivers of Design Synthesis. Design Issues, 26(1), 15-28.
Join Renew Instagram Twitter Facebook LinkedIn
image widget