Intuition and disciplined sensing

Intuition and disciplined sensing

This article is part of THNK VIEWS. We bridge theory and practice on organizing imagination and innovation by extracting key implications and offering new insights to innovation practitioners from a rich database of research papers. This article builds on research conducted by Marc StierandViktor Dörfler and Jillian MacBrydeCreativity and Innovation in Haute Cuisine: Towards a Systemic Model. We further explore the role of intuition on creativity in the context of architectural design, arguing that intuition requires disciplined sensing to produce creative and innovative ideas.


The military world has a special word for it: coup d’oeil – the power of a single glance. “The ability to immediately see and make sense of the battlefield”, and base your subsequent strategy on that. For birdwatchers it is all about developing “giss”, allowing you to recognize a bird’s essence in a mere blink of an eye, before it flies away. Those that have experienced it, describe it as a gut-feeling, a sudden surge of instinct and insight. While the experience probably sounds familiar to many, intuitive insight is not often seen as a sound basis for decision-making.


The cited study seeks to close this gap, examining the role of intuition on creativity and innovation among creative professionals. It finds that intuition is of crucial importance to creativity and innovation. To us, three findings stand out:


  • Intuition provides an inner ‘guiding force’ that helps respond to experiences and interpret them into creative ideas that carry an emotional quality.
  • The creative process is an embodied experience that is often guided by intuition and involves a large degree of bodily sensations and sensory knowing.
  • Sometimes, new ideas are developed when engaged in habitual, everyday activities.


We agree that intuition and creativity are highly personal experiences that provide us with inner guiding forces in everyday life and decision-making. What is more, we see intuition as a form of disciplined sensing: by developing and mastering intuitive expertise, people become better in coming up with novel ideas, and in anticipating what may become an innovation.

intuition and disciplined sensing
The creative process is an embodied experience that is often guided by intuition. Click To Tweet

Consider the discipline of architecture. Architecture is visionary and therefore intuitive by nature, something that can never be done by simply looking at information at hand about the current state of things. Architects create something out of nothing. Combining deep analytical skills and mathematics with big, creative vision is innate to architecture. Research suggests that the most creative architects, are highly intuitive “without exception”. To explain how intuition is used in creative design, Tadao Ando and Ben van Berkel shed light on their creative design process.

Japanese architect Tadao Ando never attended design school, but taught himself. Before going to the drawing board, he visits the physical space, sits down, and simply listens. For Ando, architecture is all about discovering the essence of a thing – its true nature. His work is heavily influenced by Japanese zen tradition, which sees nature as encompassing all of life: an indivisible whole. Ando believes the world is ready to disclose itself to anyone willing to listen. It is up to the architect to discover what the site itself is seeking by tapping into nature. His Water Temple is a prime example of this. The temple and surrounding gardens are simple and serene, integrating and unifying the inside and outside of the building harmoniously with its natural surroundings. According to Ando, “if we were to close the doors of perception, everything would appear to man as it is.”  Similar to what the cited study suggests: Ando uses his intuition as the starting point and guiding force of his creative process, using generated ideas and insights to turn them into design.

intuition and disciplined sensing
Combining deep analytical skills and mathematics with big, creative vision is innate to architecture. Click To Tweet

To explain how intuition and creativity are at the core of a systematic process, UNStudio founder Ben van Berkel offers insight, often talking about the vital role of intuition on his creative process. He describes the first step of designing as sensing. Sensing requires unlimited curiosity, openness, and the ability to re-think the world around you. To do so Van Berkel, too, trusts his inner compass. Don’t confuse this with pure subjective feeling or clairvoyance: the Dutch architect emphasizes that while sensing indeed requires experiences that go beyond knowledge, intuition does not mean that you transcend all form of reasonable judgment. In fact, Van Berkel sees intuition as trained judgment, requiring a certain amount of professional mastery: “You learn to trust your gut through failure. Slowly, it then becomes trained judgment, as you train yourself to envision and see the important stuff.”

Only after having closed himself off from the outside world and its limitations, Van Berkel turns to his clients’ needs and information at hand. He says this avoids his mind from becoming clouded by all the information and constraints at hand. The key is to bring your imagined ideas back down to reality and use your acquired imaginative insights to come to creative design. Hence, intuition may appear to be a gut feeling, but it actually is a culmination of acquired knowledge, imagination, and experience that should be combined with rational analysis after the intuitive insight.

intuition and disciplined sensing
The first step of designing is sensing. Sensing requires unlimited curiosity, openness, and the ability to re-think the world around you. Click To Tweet

Only structured sensing enables creative design. Yet, due to the fact that your intuitive mind uses vast amounts of cognition and analysis that occurs below awareness, it might be hard to uncover these patterns, and the linked activities that underlie intuitive thinking. Some have referred to intuition as thin-slicing: “the ability of our unconscious mind to find patterns in situations and behavior based on very narrow slices of experience”. German psychologist Gerd Gigerenzer simply calls it unconscious intelligence, “especially well-equipped to deal with complex problems”. In many ways, the human brain is the best tool of analysis and a quick learner – discovering patterns, trends without our conscious mind even realizing it our trying to catch up.

In this light, the study’s third finding finds new meaning, too. One of the study’s respondents mentions that intuitive and creative ideas often spring to mind when doing habitual, everyday activities. This makes sense: when engaged in habitual tasks, the mind is allowed some rest from the situation at hand: it does not have to think hard about what the person is doing. This allows your mind to run free course, process all obtained knowledge and experience unconsciously, and come to surface to your conscious mind. It echoes Van Berkel’s view that is intuition is a form of trained judgment or disciplined sensing. Only when a person has obtained a certain level of knowledge and professional mastery, can the brain linger, creating space for creative and innovative ideas and insight to emerge. While this may appear to be a sudden, lucky hunch, as is often assumed, the above findings imply that is is actually the product of much deeper thought processes. Military coup d’oeil and birdwatcher’s giss are examples of this, too: vast amounts of personal experience and acquired knowledge allow experienced military minds and birdwatchers to quickly assess the situation at hand.

To find out how you can use intuition and disciplined sensing to cultivate your creativity skills, join the THNK Executive Leadership Program.