How to become a design metacognition ninja

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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!

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.

  • 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 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.

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.

“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.

  • 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.

Reading list

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

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