Thinking through making: An analysis of design visualization methods through the lens of cognitive theory

Presented by: Dana Vaux, Robert Krikac, Jeff Nordhues, Sarah Urquhart

Problem/Context Design with a capital "D" is distinctive from scientific and scholarly ways of knowing due to the way designers approach problems and seek solutions. A unique way of thinking, designers problem solve by synthesis, applying a "solution-focused" strategy, while their science counterparts problem solve by analysis, applying a "problem-focused" strategy (Cross, 1982). Both Cross (1982) and Archer (1984) suggest that design thinking involves innovation and originality, resulting in new knowledge synthesized into prescriptions, models, or artifacts. However, despite the theoretical work done over the last 40 years, little is known about the cognitive mechanisms behind design thinking. This panel analyzes design thinking through the lens of three cognitive theories, each paired with a specific visualization method used by designers in the activity of “making”: hand drawing, REVIT computer modeling, and 3D fabricated and hand modeling. The intent of this presentation is to provide theoretically grounded insights into instructional methods aimed at teaching “making” in the interior design curriculum. Method Four interior design faculty from three universities will each present a short paper, six to seven minutes in length, followed by a participatory activity. During the first half of the session, presenters analyze design thinking relative to design visualization methods through the lens of seminal cognitive theory. The first paper establishes the theoretical context for the broader discussion, introducing the highlighted cognitive theories and connecting them to design thinking. The following three papers each examine one method of design visualization relative to a grounding cognitive theory. These three papers explore the cognitive theories as they relate to the development of design thinking through the process of "making," each focusing on a different mode of "making" relative to a specific theory: hand drawing vis-à-vis Vygotsky's scaffolding theory; REVIT digital modeling vis-à-vis cognitive load theory; and 3D fabricated and hand modeling vis-à-vis Piaget's model of learning and cognitive development (Kolb, 1984; Mawson, 2003). The remainder of the session engages the audience with the panel topic through a directed think-pair-share dialogue on the presentation content that evaluates the application of each design "making" method with insights for instruction in interior design courses. Outcomes The paper presentations will establish relationships between cognitive theory, design thinking, and design "making." The ensuing participatory dialogue will explore connections between cognitive theory and design visualization instructional methods. It is anticipated that the conversation will raise questions and concerns surrounding the sequencing and integration of design visualization methods and related issues in interior design education. Advancement of Design Knowledge The panel session will provide a theoretical context for course content delivery that participants can use to inform their instructional methods. Wells (2013) argues for the necessity of “the inclusion and recognition of distinctive forms of thinking that occurs naturally in designing as essential elements in technological literacy (p 623).” Understanding design thinking enables designers to understand their own processes of "making," adding to the design body of knowledge, and strengthening the design profession. This session advances design thinking by furthering the understanding of design "making" methods through the lens of cognitive theory with potential insights into appropriate applications and instructional methods for interior design curriculum.


  • Archer, L. Bruce. (1984). Systematic method for designers. In N. Cross (Ed.), Developments in design methodology. NY: John Wiley & Sons.
  • Cross, Nigel. (1982). Designerly ways of knowing. Design Studies, (3) 4, 221-227.
  • Kolb, D.A. (1984). Experiential learning: Experience as the source of learning and development. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.
  • Mawson, B. (2003). Beyond 'The design process': An alternative pedagogy for technology education. The International Journal of Technology and Design Education, 13(2), 201-207.
  • Wells, Alastair. (2013). The importance of design thinking for technological literacy: a phenomenological perspective. The International Journal of Technology and Design Education, 23:623-636.
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