The descriptive purpose of this study was to explore and describe the manner in which expert designers transform and represent knowledge in the early phases of the design process. This was done by investigating the interaction between stored knowledge and direct perception in the early phases of the design process. The methodological purpose of the study was to explore innovative ways of extending current interactive design cognition theory on research methodology in design contexts, against the underlying context of conventional protocol studies. Theoretically, the study conceptualised extended design cognition theory. In this manner, the study adds to available literature on one sided computational theory and biased ecological approaches. The practical value lies in documenting ways of mirroring expert design behaviour in learning environments and problem solving spaces in higher education design curricula. The study furthermore may inform the design profession concerning expert practices that can improve the quality of design solutions through the consideration of expert design reasoning. Finally, the study provides methodological knowledge on the potential value of employing protocol studies within the context of creative problem solving by studying both verbal and visual representations.
The conceptual framework of the study integrates a computational approach with embodiment-related principles. I followed a mixed methods approach and employed a case study design applying critical realist principles. I purposefully selected expert designers from three different design domains, with four of them working in pairs and three others as a team. Data collection consisted of three separately video recorded protocol studies (one architectural, one mechanical engineering and one industrial design task), during which verbal protocols and free hand conceptual sketches were produced. Observation and a field journal also formed part of the data collection and documentation strategies. Data analysis was guided by constructs derived from theory embedded in my conceptual framework.
Five themes emerged subsequent to qualitative data analysis. The first theme revolved around the hierarchical order in which expert designers tended to think about various things. They considered abstract design aspects which they then linked with functional intentions as required by the client, or that they reversed and formulated into their own preferred functional ideas. They incrementally concretised their abstract aspectual and functional thoughts by connecting them with physical elements. Once expert designers had exhausted their aspectual and functional intentions, they moved onto considering implementation intentions, which involved practical plans to satisfy their intentions. The second theme which emerged relates to the dominant role that the personalisation of intentions played in the design processes. Intentions served as internal cognitive mechanisms and their functions in the various cognitive phases of the design process. Participants’ awareness of intentions and their subsequent alignment of decisions, activities and objects, played a dominant role. When they disagreed with intentions articulated by the client, they formulated their own preferred intentions, whereby they reversed the direction of transformation. The third emerging theme centred on the incremental development of artefacts. This was made possible by the dual nature of the participants’ design sketches. The internal nature of sketches allowed the participants to instantiate mental states (e.g. intentions). The fourth theme relates to the multi-directional nature of participants’ thinking. Participants transformed their ideas by integrating new perceived information. Existing internal knowledge resulted in their sketches connecting their internal and external worlds. Finally, the fifth theme that emerged concerns participants’ transformations, constructing and manipulating models. In this regard a close connection between participants’ involvement in their sketches, making and propagating commitments, visualisation knowledge, lateral and vertical transformations, and subsequent prolonged duration of attention spans was evident.
Quantitative analysis of the data on task environments and problem solving space of expert designers indicate the participants’ distinct and overlapping cognitive phases. During these overlaps ‘leaky phases’ created cognitive links between the experts’ problem structuring and problem solving activities as they clarified the various intentions at hand. Secondly, the tendency of experts to extensively use external resources came to the fore. External resources played an important role in influencing the participants’ conduct controlling attitudes, as seen in the decisions they took and commitments they made. Thirdly, the synergetic interaction between the participants’ internal and external processes and use of resources was evident. This tendency of expert design behaviour emphasised the complex relations between the various intentions which were held together by their ability to synergistically align their ideas with their intentions in a Gestalt manner.
Based on the findings I obtained, I conceptualised ‘intention-permeation’ by defining this construct as the penetration of objectively, subjectively or opportunistically selected intentions and their alignment with designers’ subsequent behaviour. I propose ‘intention-permeation’ as one possibility of accounting for the way expert designers build conceptual and practical bridges between their inner and outer worlds when they solve complex real world design problems.