The Art of Abductive Reasoning: what designers notice

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In this post, Marika Moriyama discusses designers, detectives, and Sherlock Holmes. Leading up to the Degree Show, she shares her perspective of the Nouveau Flâneur as an Innovation Manager.

‘Van Coon was left-handed.’
‘Left-handed?’
‘I’m amazed you didn’t notice. All you have to do is look around this flat… Tea stains from the bottom of mugs, where he’s been resting them on the arm of that chair – the left arm. Pad and paper on the left side of his phone, means he could hold it in his right hand and take messages with his left…’
(BBC Sherlock – The Blind Banker, Season 1 Episode 2)


Sherlock Holmes’s natural ability to observe and synthesise unique details from crime scenes has kept us captivated for many years. Every element in the field – however large or small – is treated as an intricate puzzle piece, each telling its own story about the victim and their murderer. Holmes’s approach to first-hand investigation indicates a rather personal and intimate relationship between himself and the scene of the crime; similar to the ways in which culture-driven innovation (CDI) consultants conduct their field research.

As a reaction to our growingly homogenised product world, the innovation landscape has seen the emergence of CDI consultancies using social research to seek unique and nuanced cultural insights from the field. Through immersive field research, CDI consultancies propose innovative ways of positioning brands and their products in the consumer’s cultural landscape. This newly established area of practice demands for a new type of practitioner who, like Holmes, has the ability to seek powerful things from the field that would otherwise remain unnoticed. The MAIM class of 2015 have created 5 different innovation manager roles of the future, one of which fits well in this emerging space: the Nouveau Flâneur.

Referencing the literary figure of 19th century France, the Flâneur is a wanderer and explorer of undiscovered areas. Driven by curiousity, the Flâneur has the ability to identify unique insights from the field, and translate them into opportunities for innovation. Based on my research around how designers can be positioned in CDI consultancies, the Flâneur is essentially a designer at heart.

In the field of innovation, designers are highly valued for their intuitive and explorative ways of conducting field research, allowing their areas of enquiry to be observed from unique perspectives. Fulton Suri (2011) from IDEO explores the importance of enabling designers to explore, see, and sense the world in their own ways. She believes designers make ‘poetic’ observations during their field research – things of personal resonance, that helps spark innovative outcomes.

However if I were to say that intuition, exploration, and personal approaches to field research were the three key elements to innovation, how would designers differ from Holmes – a practitioner who seems to be equally capable of championing these characteristics?

The answer lies in their different forms of cognitive reasoning. Practitioners situated around logic and the sciences embody what is known as deductive reasoning, which reasons from the general to the specific, proving that something must be. Designers on the other hand embrace abductive reasoning, which according to philosopher C.S. Peirce proves that something may be, and therefore highlights the speculative nature of design practice.

Mathematician and architect Lionel March (1976) also examined this difference, stating ‘Logic has interests in abstract forms. Science investigates extant forms. Design initiates novel forms’. This sensibility of embracing ‘novel forms’ through abductive reasoning is what positions designers (and not detectives) so appropriately in the innovation landscape.

To learn more about the Nouveau Flâneur and Marika’s research, stay tuned for the upcoming MAIM 2015 Degree Show, taking place at Central Saint Martins in the week starting on the 23rd of June.

*Fulton Suri, J. (2011) Poetic Observation: what designers make of what they see. In: Clarke, A.J. ed. Design Anthropology – object culture in the 21st century, Vienna, Springer-Verlag Wien
*March, L. (1976) The Logic of Design, in The Architecture of Form, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press