Hermeneutic Circles, Sandcastles & the Future of the Design of Things to Come

Zenful Inquiry: Towards An Ontology of Active Learning & Creative Innovation (i.e. — digging in to the meta-physics of intelligent systems design)

by Brinkley Warren

During the holidays my Pops and I sat on Miami beach and talked about the future of design. Fittingly, we also made sandcastles. My Dad is the complete embodiment of an imminent designer and great mentor. He has had a long and stellar career as an interior designer, design consultant and architect of large corporate space as a founder and partner of his Atlanta firm — Idea-Span; and so growing up I would see and we would discuss the new designs of the innovative offices he was designing for companies like Porshe, Georgia-Pacific, Accenture, and BBDO; and why he was designing in certain ways.

We would sit around the dinner table when I was a kid and he would tell of the secret passage-ways built to connect the office of the CEO in one big project, or how he was transforming the atrium of another office to resemble the inside of a futuristic space ship (The biggest lesson though was in absorbing ‘how’ my Dad thinks — which I have learned over the years is similar to how many great designers and artists think).  I was grateful to spend time with the Warren clan building sandcastles on the eves of Christmas 2013, and I wanted to reflect and to share some thoughts about design and put some of my ideas out there to see what kind of response it gets since I’ve been thinking and talking about it for a while now. In terms of my integral and ontological approach,  much of it is owed to the influence of a great dad who also happens to be a great designer.

The Warren Clan -- 3 Generations of the Best Sandcastle Builders on the Beach

The Warren Clan — 3 Generations of the Best Sandcastle Builders on the Beach
(Chef Dean, little Zev and Pops the Wise)

I have a unique perspective on both design and corporate culture because of what I learned from my Dad as a mentor; because what he does so wonderfully is to translate and absorb culture from his clients, and inspire them to take that culture further by ensconcing it, signifying it, and imbuing the physical environment so that the hive and the bee colony are more aligned around innovative objectives and outcomes. More honey, better honey.

I have always viewed design as being the way to produce human experience as if it was sand and clay in our hands, and Pops taught me that there are many ways to more completely deep-dive culture and bring it to life to bear fruit for the corporate environment and the people working there; in fact, I learned from Dad that the layers are infinite and often contradictory, and in this dichotomy of Ying and Yang is where the magic really comes from. You see, innovation and culture strive in stride. My Dad has seen the Design Field morph and he himself has helped to push design forward; and so it was interesting to hear his perspective on it’s current trajectory, and I really enjoyed our conversation.

Here’s some of what we discussed:

Hermeneutics:  During my Fulbright, I produced an autobiography of an Exegesis — which is to say, I really tried to explode (simultaneously embody and disembody) the idea of the Exegesis; the idea that any design outcome we may produce (including ideas expressed) requires also an interpretation, and that to properly interpret ideas, the creator often leaves documentation that sheds light onto historical or other nuanced characterizations of the creation itself, and where there is none; the viewer or participant in the design outcome will interpret the work however they can or choose through a spiraling ontological structure of understanding — to clarify the conditions in which understanding takes place is the key process to which we, as artists or creative leaders, we must anticipate. Understanding comes from both emptiness and fullness, the ying and the yang. As Gadamer explains, “The anticipation of meaning in which the whole is envisaged becomes actual understanding when the parts that are determined by the whole themselves also determine this whole.”


The Hermeneutic Circle is an ancient and fundamental meta-physical concept addressed by Hermes, Spinoza, and other great philosophers, and the Hermeneutic Circle is harnessed by many modern-day methodologies including Lean Startup, Agile Software, Customer Development, and Human Centered Design.


Theories are abstract maps that we use to traverse our daily or imagined realities — but who is the mapmaker?  Are we interpreting the map correctly or are we completely blind to its significance and nuanced meanings?  Aren’t we all simply re-interpreting the maps and writing our own maps and theories in every moment? If theories are the maps, then our own personal experience is the terrain — it’s where we must practice, where the rubber meets the road of spirit in action, philosophy in action, learning in action. Where we take the abstract idea, and we try to bring it to life to hold and touch and feel — it’s where we produce experience, simply by discovering it. 

The maps we use are often passed on to us by our parents, our school, our media, our society, our personal experiences, our religions, our historical paradigms. Any methodology that we decide to use or frame reality with must be interpreted by us to match our own unique path; and so we are all mapmakers and we are also all travelers on a sojourn of constant and never-ending discovery, or of improvement if we’re doing it right. Making maps is about planning ideas, whereas the traversing territory is about implementing ideas; but what if you’re doing both simultaneously? This ‘oneness’ is the reality, and yet it’s hard to interpret.

Creators, Innovators, and Entrepreneurs must master both, our augment ourselves accordingly. We are the creators of human experience and the wayfarers of our collective consciousness. It is not enough to master the method if we are not mastering a practice of some kind, and why be an explorer if we are not helping to create the maps of tommorrowland.  Our practice informs theory, and theory informs practice. This is the hermeneutic circle evident in all truth, and all method. 

As an example, before hacking became synonymous with digital criminals, the term was used to describe ingenious individuals who pushed the boundaries, often-times helping to build better systems and improving, rebuilding, and reframing them in the process. Hackers are trailblazers — they often don’t care about the map. They help the rest of humanity traverse new territory, and often the reason hackers represent criminality is because the new frontiers they are exploring are often lawless and mapless. By hacking, they can simultaneously explore the territory, and reveal some of the map.

In my opinion, it’s why Martin Heidegger and his pupil, Hans-Georg Gadamer’s contribution to meta-physics is the most noteworthy since transcendentalism. It is their ontological tradition that I follow in because I am a systems thinker born of the Internet age, and I can see clearly that hermeneutics is not only about symbolic communication, but about the very foundations of human existence and human experience. It is in this form, as an interrogation into the deepest conditions for symbolic interaction and culture in general, that hermeneutics has provided the critical horizon for many of the most intriguing discussions of contemporary philosophy, both within an Anglo-American context (Rorty, McDowell, Davidson) and within a more Continental discourse (Habermas, Apel, Ricoeur, and Derrida). Ricoeur’s in particular has been useful to my approach.

The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy eloquently sums it up by saying, “Appreciating hermeneutics as a living tradition is not, in the end, a matter of identifying a theory or a family of theories. It is fundamentally a matter of perceiving a moving horizon, engaging a strand of dialogue that is an on-going re-articulation of the dynamically historical nature of all human thought.”

The truth is that we must adapt each map to meet our own practice, our own experience. We are often creating the map as we go! This act of interpretation on each of our parts — this exegesis — is happening in every moment, in every person’s head, millions of times a day.  THIS is the space of human experience where you will find magic and the future of Design; flourishing.

So this idea of design as a hermeneutic process — of embodying and disembodying, of writing and reading abstract maps of our realities, of practicing and achieving flow — this process is aligned perfectly with most popular innovation methods such as the lean startup process, customer development, agile development, and of course, the future of design. All are loops of experimentation.

I would argue that ALL hermeneutic circles represent active learning. It is the ontology of active learning that underlies almost all innovation methodologies. Therefore, I propose that if one is to master the method, they must first master the ontology, and this is part of what I call ZENFUL Innovation. All of these feedback loops that help to guide methodology include a process of discovery — which is both active and passive; the explorers are writing and reading the maps as they go; simultaneously, and in real-time.

Open innovation uses the same circle, agile uses the same circle, and even the Six Sigma cycles (Plan-Do-Check-Act) and empathy maps embody this same fundamental hermeneutic circle. In the end, there is only one infinite loop which we are seeing in each of these spiraling processes, and this is what me must realize. This is BEING ZENFUL. It is creative and active and vulnerable all at once. To master any of these tools, one must master the ontology, or else lose the forrest for the trees.

Lean Startup Build>Measure>Learn loop is definitely a Hermeneutic circle

Lean Startup Build>Measure>Learn loop is definitely a Hermeneutic circle


six sigma circle

The Plan Do Act Check circle in Six-Sigma is a Hermeneutic Circle too


In Agile software, for instance, more emphasis is put on the practice — on working software instead of comprehensive documentation, focused on collaborating with customers instead of negotiating with them, working to adapt to change instead of keep to a strict plan. The territory is, afterall, the source. It is reality. To become a great basketball player, we must actually practice, we cannot just plan to become great.

The Agile Development Loop is also a Hermeneutic Circle

The Agile Development Loop is also a Hermeneutic Circle


Clearly then, whilst we all revolve around this hermeneutic process all the time, we must learn when to let go, and when to turn on our ability to pre-interpret our own reality. This is the essence of what I call ZENFUL Innovation which connects the generative and evaluative phases of design to my favorite phase, the exploratory phase. Before generation or evaluation, there is exploration where emphasis is on disembodiment, no mind, only observe, giving in to the flow; meditate.

This power to disembody yourself from your own reality is what allows you to channel the divine from the universe, and thus master the generative and evaluative modes of design so that the best alternatives float like cream to the top. The World’s top creative directors have often mastered not just generation and evaluation, but exploration also, and thus — a fourth phase emerges for these masters which encompasses it all. This is but one of the secrets of the eminent designers.

My Dad wonders if too many people are missing the point when it comes to the iterative nature of the evaluative research and design methods which are gaining in popularity in parallel with more customer-driven approaches in business model design. He sees it as a trend where more and more designers of all kinds are obsessed more and more with the process and with translating the needs of customers into solutions in obvious and non-obtuse ways. If this is all design is, then a robot should just do it. He’s a believer in the Steve Jobs approach which says that most of the time customers have no idea what they want until you’ve shown it to them; and if you just build what they ask for, it will usually be shit because most people are not designers and they therefore have terrible aesthetic taste. By the time you give them what they asked for , they’ll want something else, something that moves their taste. The job of the designer is not to listen to the needs of customers, but to envision a better way altogether. I agree with Pops.

As a serial-entrepreneur myself, I understand that ultimately the startup leader must learn to both embody and disembody reality all the time. As a leader in a startup, you must absorb risk and uncertainty and turn it into magic through self-belief, hard work, process implementation and a bit of luck. As a startup leader, you are often a combination of the Visionary Leader and the Executive Manager — you’re the handyman with a dream; a ship and her captain. Maps give us direction — they give us what I call the Visionary Leadership Frame.

After all, the leader’s core role is to point. The Captain has command. Territory gives us traction — the territory orients us to what I call the Executive Management Frame. The manager’s core role is to get us from here to the place where the leader pointed, to steer the ship and traverse the terrain.  The Chief Officer has the wheel. The velocity of iteration around the Hermeneutic circle is critical if any person or organization wants to achieve flow in any creative and innovative goal. The outcomes depend on the strength of both Ying and Yang; and there is, as it were, a leader and a manager inside of each of us — and the secret is that you must learn to master both, and to channel them in a unified way.

Gadamer's Truth and Method, Hermeneutic Circle

Agile Development Example from Jesse Schell’s “The Art of Game Design”


So…my point is that the Hermeneutic circle is the focal point by which we must harmonize practice and theory, and that means that psychology is a useful frame, because the leader and the manager inside of each of us is basically the left and right brain function, the conscious and subconscious acting in optimized harmony — hopefully achieving flow. In traditional design process and in other qualitative fields, this Hermeneutic process is oft-described as being generative and evaluative.

For instance the great design firm IDEO approaches design problems in two steps — the generative phase followed by the evaluative phase. The beginning step is always generative — it is a creative act. This is the wheelhouse of the visionary leader role.  It’s about framing the problem and proposing leap-of-faith assumptions and giving common purpose to a small team. It’s the spark of an idea, the inspired imagination, the intuition in tune with flow. These are the floodgates of ideas.

The next phases are evaluative — it’s about executing a learning process. This is the wheelhouse of the executive manager role. It’s about testing. It’s about being a lean startup. It’s about gaining deep empathy for people, questioning assumptions, and learning quickly about people’s responses and reactions to the different ideas and proposed solutions; it’s about prototyping, it’s about discovering if there is a business model that can scale the idea, or not. This testing phase must always begin by focusing on deep understanding. This is where designers or entrepreneurs dig into the problem they’re trying to solve, and for who. It’s about deep understanding, not broad coverage.

As any good designer knows, switching between generative and evaluative modes is easier for some whereas others prefer one or the other phase or have a knack for one or the other. This is the same with startup founders — some are better at ideation, some are better at execution aspects of the venture. To do both, and know when to read and when to write is like playing jazz — it is methodology under the hypnotic power of a human’s flow state — universal existential angst bottled and sold. It’s incredibly difficult, but it’s magic. explore, generate, evaluate Look at these other methods to see the Hermeneutic circle in action 🙂

Future Leadership Capabilities Circle

Future Leadership Capabilities Circle


The Open Innovation Spiral also includes Hermenutics

The Open Innovation Spiral also includes Hermenutics



So, where does ZENFUL innovation relate to this? Is Spinoza rolling in his grave? What kind of circle will a Zenful method form? It’s the exploratory mode — the ability to absorb and to channel creative energy and to speed up the cycle time of the entire process. It is….dun, dun, daaa — the ontology my friends. It’s about mindfulness, inner-engineering, searching inside yourself, channeling your energy, hacking your attitude, optimizing your flow. Being more ZENFUL and mindful is a path towards enlightenment, and towards infinite innovation. It speeds up innovation while dissolving and rewiring your mental models.

Like my Pops, the future of design is still grounded in the 1960s counter-culture but combined with the new Millenium — a new style of DJ-Bohemian Startup Capitalism imbued with imagination and visionary belief in the role of designers — as the students of design — to mass produce and define the Zeitgeist of human experience. As a leader of innovation, your identity and approach have lots to learn from the art & science of imminent design.

One thing is for certain, the leaders who understand hermeneutics will be the leaders best suited to build sandcastles for generations to come. Integral thinkers, systems thinkers, holistic thinkers. We live in times of a great synthesis of human knowledge, and it behooves us to never forget the impermanence that we experience every moment. Just as the sand mandalas of Tibet are meticulously created by many people over many weeks, only to be destroyed.

The lesson is before our eyes. At the beach my 4 year old nephew Zev took great pride in helping to create the Sandcastles. I asked him, “How did we make this?” He paused and looked out at our creation and then said, “Teamwork.” And after the sun was kissing the ocean and the chairs were getting packed up, Zev added his final touch on the great sandcastles — he destroyed them. He jumped and rolled and thrusted his body all over it while smiling and laughing, immersed in the joy of creative destruction. The Tibetan monks share the same knowledge we all have access to as children — the final act of creation, is destruction, and the first act of destruction is creation. Sandcastles are built, and then they are destroyed.

So cheers to creative destruction, the ontology of Zenful learning, and the future of design. And cheers to my awesome and creative family.  Life is in the making, and making is in demand. ~Love Brink