This week marks exactly a year since I became a full-time director of Creative Data, a design practice that facilitates personal engagement with complex issues. This anniversary has got me thinking about what it is exactly about helping people to make sense of some biggest challenges of our time, that makes me love the work we do so much.
Many of my professional peers came to this public engagement work as campaigners, as people who are motivated by one big issue that defines the way they think about the world. For me, it was a bit different. So this is it; the story of how I fell in love with firstly, making sense of my own world, and then later, the process of sense-making and helping others make sense of theirs.
I am someone who is moulded by important moments, by significant interactions that shape the way I think about things, by meetings and conversations. These chances to explore an idea, help me recognise that I have something to say. These moments have played an important role in developing me into the person I am today.
Whilst I was at school I sought out spaces like the school council and newspaper where I could mould my thoughts in discussions and develop a sense of myself through the way I chose to voice my opinions. Later, more by luck than by judgement, I found myself, as an undergraduate in a philosophy department, being encouraged to articulate my thoughts as part of the process of understanding.
During this time at university I began to understand that, for me to make sense of something, to locate it in my own life, and to feel a real connection to it, I needed to talk about it with others. It wasn’t just the talking I found helpful, it was the laughing and the playing with ideas, the taking them apart and putting them back together that really sparked my imagination. I found I needed to locate my own thoughts amongst other’s opinions, in order to make judgements and decisions. This mental exercise was fun and it was challenging. It made me feel alive, and engaged. It made me feel part of something.
I became fascinated by how the way that thinking emerged and evolved, in my own thoughts and the thoughts of the people around me. I saw clearly the importance of this process of making sense. However, in my experience of academia this process seemed somehow neglected. Behavioural and attitudinal change was the order of the day. All of the beauty and complexity of the process that goes into sense-making seemed less of an opportunity or a welcome challenge to those academics around me, but more of a problem to be solved.
In the course of my recently completed PhD, the academic discipline of cultural geography, which uses narrative to understand cultural responses to space and place, offered me new ways of thinking and writing about this process. Inspirational Geographers such as John Wylie, Hayden Lorimer and Caitlin DeSilvey helped me to understand the embodied nature of sense-making through experience.
Hilary Geoghegan taught me the value of enthusiasm in making sense of the world. Whilst the work of sociologist John Law helped me to embrace the messiness of research in the human world. These researchers and so many others helped me to begin to understand some of the complexity of how we make sense of issues with both global and local dimensions.
What really fired my imagination were the stories of how and why people behaved as they did in response to climate change. How did people try to make sense of something so complex and contradictory when there can be no simple story or response to justify a particular position or behaviour?
I followed the threads of the stories towards experiences, everyday actions bound up with meaning, emotion and identity to find the complex, beautiful and bizarre ways that we reconcile a subject so complicated that it defies a simple truth or description.
In one such narrative a research participant explained to me how they agonised over the need to dry their washing to meet the demands of family life. They were filled with guilt every time they switched on the tumble dryer on a sunny day, yet felt beholden to the unknown shifts in the southwest weather and the inevitable time constraints of a busy family timetable.
Their actions and emotional responses to how and where they dried their washing fuelled their understanding of climate change as a problem or challenge, and their struggle to understand how they could ever reconcile their desire to change their behaviour with other demands. I was, and continue to be fascinated by the way that these tiny details are so significant to the way that people make sense of big global issues.
Through my interest in other people’s stories of understanding climate change, I became aware that the valuable process of making sense is not always so easy for others. Some people haven’t had opportunities to articulate their ideas, to present them in conversation, or to value them. For many the sense-making process is a struggle, not a joy. I wanted to change this and help people find their voice in making sense of the world.
Leonora Oppenheim, my co-director at Creative Data, has been on quite a different journey, through a design degree and a career writing about design and the environment, but she has reached the same essential point. When we met, Leonora was using her own term ‘design storytelling’ to help people make sense of complex contemporary problems in a way that was both beautiful and meaningful.
Since 2009, Leonora and I have worked under the moniker of Creative Data, combining our skills from very different backgrounds. Together, we began producing projects and engagement spaces that help people express their ideas, position their thoughts in relation to others, and relate large scale problems to their own lives.
Our projects create spaces that enable people to say and explore things they think and feel in response to particular issues. These chances for people to articulate, develop and be challenged on their perspectives, help them understand better and make sense of them, while also helping others, ourselves included, see the world from their point of view.
We have worked with researchers, scientists, educators and curators to engage participants in the production of complex personal data. For example, we worked with the University of Exeter to ask patients how elderly care should be delivered in semi-rural Cornwall. Most recently we worked with parents, pupils and staff at The Collett School, a special needs school in Hemel Hempstead, to communicate their personal perspectives on the complexities of living with learning difficulties.
Through my own personal reflection, I can see how I’ve moved from being someone who relishes the spaces that enable me to better think, feel and make sense for myself alone, to someone who also wants to make those spaces for others through dynamic exhibitions, interactive installations and playful workshops.
At Creative Data we continue to explore this complex and gorgeous sense-making process, through which we come to know the world and make sense of some of the issues which shape and challenge it. In a society operating at full pelt, Creative Data creates spaces for reflection and expression.
We are tackling some of the real challenges that affect all our lives; in exploring what we already know and what we want to know; in thinking about how this ‘knowing’ can be put to collective work; in bringing new meaning and action in response; in developing the way people think about complex and seemingly distant issues; in making sense.