How to become a design metacognition ninja

Lady ninja!! (Well, samurai)

The need for creativity at work

Creativity has been hailed as the most important economic resource of the 21st century. Change is everywhere, disruption is everywhere, complexity is everywhere — we get it!

This is driving the demand for creative individuals who can help companies to innovate and adapt. Business leaders increasingly highlight the desire for staff to be skilled creative problem solvers and entrepreneurial thinkers. The explosion of the Human Centred Design industry is indicative of the growing demand for sustainable workplace creativity.

The key question has become:
“how can we be more creative at work?”

There is SO MUCH research and knowledge that has been built around creativity over the last hundred years. One of the key things I have learned as part of my research into the field, is that there ARE techniques you can apply to develop your creative thinking abilities. Yes, some people are gifted, but EVERYONE can learn to be an expert. In this article, I’ll talk about how professional designers can utilise “metacognitive techniques” to extend their practice.

What is metacognition?

The importance of metacognitive skills for creative thinking and design is well known among academics. However, many practitioners don’t really spend much time reading academic research — they’re busy, and academic papers can be a bit dense.

The term “metacognition” was coined by a guy named Flavell in 1976 to refer to “an individual’s own awareness and consideration of his or her cognitive processes and strategies”.

Flavell also explained metacognition as:

  • Thinking about thinking rather than just remembering facts and recalling events
  • Someone’s awareness of the different processes involved in thinking
  • The ability to take out our thinking, examine it, and put it back (rearranged if necessary)
  • The act of consciously applying a process to a solve a problem and being able to evaluate our success
  • Being able to “unpick” a strategy, connect actions to consequences and derive valid insights from our experiences

Why is metacognition important for designers?

Most designers know that they rely on both convergent and divergent thinking to do their work. Yes, designers are creative but we are also good critical thinkers.

‘‘The control and combination of rational and imaginative thought is one of the designer’s most important skills.’’
Lawson, 2006

Doing design involves oscillating between a variety of thinking techniques — analysis/ synthesis, convergent/ divergent, generative /evaluative, creative/critical.

The book Critical and Creative Thinking (a great resource) illustrates how both convergent and divergent thinking guides even the most artistic forms of creation. The book gives the example of a painter, who puts a small dab of paint on her canvas and then steps back to critically appraise the painting as a whole. This enables her to adjust how she applies the paint to keep working towards the desired effect.

“The creative process relies upon an intimate interrelation between the intellectual making of things and the ongoing critique of that making.”
Paul & Elder, 2004

But knowing when to move from one thinking mode to another is tricky. Creativity researchers argue that the ability to “monitor progress towards a goal” is what allows designers to know when to switch between thinking techniques. This is a metacognitive skill that can be learned and mastered with experience and is important in operating a design process that flows efficiently and effectively towards a solution. Kaufman and Beghetto talk about creative practitioners as if they were Clark Kent and Superman — you need to know when to use your “disruptive powers” and when to simply conform if you are to get by. The judgement to do this, they argue, is made possible when your “design metacognition” is developed.

So how do we develop design metacognition?

Make your thinking conscious

One way to improve your “design metacognition” is to make your thinking conscious. Once you have a greater awareness of your thinking, you can think more strategically, knowing when, where and why to switch between convergent and divergent thinking.

I am writing on the shoulders of giants here:

Vygotsky (1962) was one of the first to realise that conscious, reflective control and deliberate mastery were essential factors in creative thinking. He suggested we create knowledge initially in an automatic, unconscious way. Then, when we begin to master a field, we experience a gradual increase in conscious control over that knowledge.

Later, Karmiloff-Smith referred to learning as the “succession of representations” that become progressively more manipulable and flexible due to the emergence of our conscious access to our own knowledge structures. (What a sentence!)

It’s worth noting that many education specialists have contributed to this field. Flavell (he was such an over-achiever) argued that if we can help learning to be a more conscious process, children might be more aware of their thinking, which would help them to gain control or mastery over what they are learning.

So, these insights can be applied to people in professional design roles.

There are a number of strategies designers can use to make their thinking more conscious.

If you are still reading, I’ll now explain how modelling the design process, developing a design thinking language and externalising your thinking strategies can help. Not to bang on about reflective practice too much (it’s one of my favourite topics) but reflection is the fastest way to learn from your past experiences.


1. Model the design process
Consider your personal creative process from beginning to end and create a visual model that represents your thinking. This will force you to synthesise your thoughts, and reflect upon the order in which you apply thinking strategies. The goal is to externalise the thinking processes that are typically intuitive or automatic. By modelling the design process, you can compare different approaches and build a deeper understanding of how to tailor your creative thinking in different contexts.

“In order to reason about how I reason, I need access to a model of my reasoning performance.”
Vygotsky & von Wright, 1992

2. Get comfortable with the language of thinking
To develop conscious expertise, it helps to get better at speaking clearly about thinking. For example, the word “analysis” is defined by particular things: identifying an issue, breaking it down into parts, uncovering how the individual parts are connected, and then drawing conclusions. Knowing this, and helping others to understand what exactly you mean by “analysis” is just a good idea.

It is also important to infuse thinking language into design discussions. You might say to a colleague “we need to EVALUATE the feasibility of this idea” or “our goal is to SYNTHESISE these two concepts”. Verbalising and being able to communicate your thinking techniques is pretty critical.

3. Build thinking tools
Be Edward de Bono. He was all about conscious thinking. He built so many different tools and wrote so many different books on thinking and metacognition. He wrote that his famous Six Thinking Hats were intended as “direction labels for thinking”. Learn from this approach — build little tools and record your pro tips after you do something new so that it’s all a bit easier next time (The IDEO method cards are another great example of a thinking tool).

4. Reflect
Reflection helps us to develop, question, and extend our conscious creative thinking. I think it is the single most important aspect of a creative practice. Speaking on behalf of another clever guy (Donald Schon), I recommend you use two types of reflection to build your design metacognition. First, practice “reflection-in-action”. This is about stepping back every so often while you work so that you can reshape what you are doing while you are doing it. Second, practice “reflection-on-action”. This involves thinking back AFTER you have finished something to evaluate your work and to figure out HOW and WHY you were successful. Again, this helps us to pinpoint successful strategies and to create little thinking tools.

To start reflecting, consider the following practices:

  • Draw attention to thinking techniques as you work
    Develop a design practice at work where people are comfortable thinking out aloud. Ask questions to challenge yourself to become conscious of your thoughts, before, during or after an activity. You might ask “Am I struggling to define the problem?” or “What criteria am I using to evaluate this solution?”
  • Keep a process journal
    Document your design process to extend your theoretical understanding of creative thinking. Having a record can also provide a memory prompt for an end of project evaluation and reflection discussion with others.
  • Host a process reflection
    Collaborative reflection on creative thinking strategies at the end of a design project makes it possible for you to look back on your initial expectations, compare them with experience, and evaluate your successes and failures, building knowledge about what works and why.

SO!! There is a lot of great work out there. Don’t reinvent the wheel, look into creativity research if you are interested in becoming a better designer.

Until next time,


(I’m the Service and Business Design Lead at Thick during daylight hours.)

Reading list

Azevedo, R., & Aleven, V. A. (2013). International handbook of metacognition and learning technologies (Vol. 26). Springer.

Beckman, S. L., Barry, M. (2007) Innovation as a learning process: Embedding design thinking. California Management Review, Vol 50:1

Flavell, J. H. (1999). Cognitive development: Children’s knowledge about the mind. Annual review of psychology, 50(1), 21–45.

Kaufman, J. C., & Beghetto, R. A. (2013). In praise of Clark Kent: Creative metacognition and the importance of teaching kids when (not) to be creative. Roeper Review, 35(3), 155–165.

Lawson, B (2006). How designers think: the design process demystified. New York, New York: Architectural Press.

Paul, R., & Elder, L. (2004). Critical and creative thinking. Dillon Beach, CA: The Foundation for Critical Thinking.

Schön, D. A. (1983). The reflective practitioner: How professionals think in action (Vol. 5126). Basic books.

Sternberg, R. J., & Lubart, T. I. (1999). The concept of creativity: Prospects and paradigms. Handbook of creativity, 1, 3–15.

Vygotsky, L.S. von Wright J. (1992) Reflections on reflection. Learning and Instruction, 2, 1, p59–68