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The design phenomenon


This thesis opens in the context of the professional field, where designers work in collaboration with other professionals but encounter multiple challenges. From placing their role in the company, passing by unexpected results in collaborative work with non-designers, to integrating a design practice with multiple disciplines. All of them with the common root of “the unclear distinction of the practice of design from non-designers.” This will be the spark that conduces to the train of thought that structure the research question:

It is perceived that non-designers have an unclear distinction of the practice of design, one could say maybe because they cannot design; However, it has been stablished that everyone can design, then does everyone have design ability? In case, all of us have design ability, do we understand it differently? Thus, probably each profession understands design ability differently, so the main inquiry is; how is design ability present across professions?


The mandatory question to start this research has been, what is design? The definition that I will present will be an ostensive meaning, not as a formulation but as an ostensive realization: Design is a natural phenomenon. One that shapes our world unintentionally but driven by a strong causality. So, does not need a conscious or intention to be produced, I understand that could be controversial, but is an instance to recognize design over the living beings.

However, it is thanks through its transmigration to the living world, design acquires many plugins, some of them are easy to identify and so highlighted that could be mistaken with the phenomenon itself, like creativity and aesthetic. Many times, associated as an equivalence or even treated as synonyms.

Naturally, the design phenomenon manifests itself in human activity; humans, consciously, appropriate it to a point where it has become a discipline in its own right. To master this discipline, humans had to acquire and perfect specific skills and knowledge. This know-how is addressed by various research as design ability since the start of the previous century and the belief of its presence in all the population is the focus on this thesis.

The answer is a cornerstone in the construction of all the conceptions of a design profession. Moreover, it is thanks to this elusive answer that we acquire a perspective of the design field where we stand our professional practice. After that we will move forward to the framework of this thesis, and its main issue: Describe how design ability is shared among different professions in special with non-design related disciplines.

2. DAS PROJEKT (Hauptteil)

The purpose of this study is to understand design ability. Thus, the study will identify the presence of a potential design ability shared by different disciplines practices and explain the similarities and differences between designers and non-designer professionals. Although it takes the validity of use non-designers as main sample, to improve the comprehension of the design practice and the collaboration with other disciplines.

Through the process of building the answer to the research question, it will be required to achieve certain goals, that are defined as sub-objectives. The following three sub-objectives has been selected and will be completed trough the research progress:

1. Identify a model of design ability ideal to establish a common understanding between professional designers and non-design professionals.

2. Describe how design ability is present in non-design professionals and professional designers.

3. Compare the understanding of design ability between design and non-design professionals using the model.

The first sub-objective is establishing a construct of the variable design ability that will be used to develop the instruments of research and analyze the results of the samplings. The main population to conduct the study will be the non-design professionals. It is expected that they present a practice of design ability, but it will not be clear unless a solid framework is applied in the sampling.

In this manner, the second sub-objective will be achieved identifying similarities and differences. It is worth noting that as a study based in an activity, it is necessary to validate the theorical model that will be used. For that reason, a reference of the design ability develops at its fullest will be contrasted. This base measure will be obtained from professional designers with work experience.

Through the identification of their characteristics and comparing with the non-design professionals using the model, the third sub-objective will be accomplished which consist in determine why and how the design ability is differently understood from the populations studied.


The creative reasoning presented in this thesis is a theoretical model of cognitive process that uses a sequence of disparate skills through a body of knowledge, based in the background and the construct developed for design ability. The reason to call it creative reasoning, started in one of the literature selections that the author finds more related to the research question of this thesis, called “Scientific discovery and creative reasoning” from Herbert Simon and Peter Cheng, a document which is also used two years later in the book “The creative cognition approach” (Finke et al, 1995).

In that research the use of diagrams is presented as a potential design ability to complement the other abilities necessary to solve mathematical theorems inferred from the physical field. Simon is the precursor of the ideas that design is present in other activities as the base of a problem-solving activity and for that reason not related to what traditionally is consider design, to the point that propose be studied as a field by itself calling it “the science of the artificial”, his most important book related to that published in 1969.

On the other hand, as a coincidence the term is also used to present a description that is close, bridging distances, to the construct that has been developed; “Design is the process by which we devise courses of action aimed at changing existing situations into preferred ones through the creation of artifacts – objects created by humans through creative reasoning.” (Simon in Graham M. Winch et al, 2023). It has to be considered that Simon was not any close to the circle of design, so the polysemic use of the word is strong in him. So, at least it can infer that what he means as design was design practice, and from the study of his work can be understood as basis for the primal idea of design ability.

In that way, what is called in this study as “creative reasoning”. It is an approach that has been developed by multiple researchers to understand the way in which design practice is performed in the mind. It dates from the theory of visual thinking associated with Robert McKim. Although previously studied by other authors (as Rudolf Arnheim), was McKim book “Experiences in visual thinking” from 1972, that was used as the source for most of the latter studies. In his work the idea of visual thinking was proposed as a complex phenomenon that transcends the limits of the cognition directly related to the visual perception. Presented in all human beings, it has different levels of development, and manifest in multiple situations.



Considering the type of research and the objectives, the method for this research starts with literature research about the practice of design. This brought the elements to narrow the study and guide for the literature selection. After a review of this, the design ability is taking as the start for the framework research. The delimitation is based on the use of a construct with a solid structure to implement a theorical model in the process of sampling. As a result, the instrument background will be selected and adapted to be used after a preliminary testing. They will be used in a population chosen considering the requirements of the previous stages and the results acquired will be threshed. This information will be used to trace the bases in their design ability and identify which ones are shared with non-design disciplines. The data will be examined through formal protocols selected from past successful studies and compilate to elaborate a descriptive analysis that would help to identify the results and verify the hypothesis. Finally, the crystallization of this understanding will be expressed in the conclusion section.



The hypothesis of this study raises as an answer to the research question of how design ability is present across design and non-design professionals. The statement is based on the model built in the framework and the theorical foundations. It is considered that everyone possesses the design ability, however, is clear that is not developed equally and not presented in the same kind of tasks. Also, it has been verified that the principles of the creative reasoning model are present in everyone, but there is high probability that each category of the model has its own way of being implementing depending on the practitioner and specially their professions.

Although the way in which ideas are born and nurtured apparently should be the biggest difference between designer and non-designers. The author consider that is not the case and propose that the reason that could cause this misconception is due the partial different input that is received as contextual knowledge and due a faster and more intensive iteration of the creative reasoning model. This naturally produces a totally different developed knowledge and creates the impression that the components of projection are different. So, considering all the paragraphs above, the synthesis of the hypothesis will be:

“The design ability is common between professional designers and non-design professionals as projection skills and partial contextual knowledge used to materialize a medium that achieves a desired change in a situation.”

The answer proposed is represented in the graphic below, it shows how each group of professionals possesses its own type of design ability, as each one completes his own model of their creative reasoning model in their non-intersected area. However, as was explained the “Project” category is common to both groups and the category “Perceive” is partially shared with the type of knowledge that is produced there. These elements that are shared in the design ability by the different populations could serve to achieve a common understanding of the design practice.



The model of design ability proposed has been accepted by the participants and used in the hypothesis evaluation showing that everyone possesses the design ability in a very similar way, but due to what is the element that orients their use the identification of the design practice changes significantly. Designers can recognize the total extension of their design ability, in contrast, non-designers only recognize part of it, which is equivalent to what they recognize ostensibly in the designers.

Through the experience of the present work, the author can provide three suggestions. One related to doing the research, another related to the practice, and one last to the education of design. In detail, the first one is about exploring design ability and concerns the fieldwork. The use of concurrent and retrospective protocols mixed with the think-aloud method is an excellent way to understand the manifestation of the design practice. But the management of the data could be a big challenge as it’s a heavy workload in the different parts of its development.

The second suggestion is about the solution to the problem statement, as can be remembered; “the unclear distinction of the practice of design from non-designers.” This is translated as the capacity to identify what is design ability and when is present. As has been stated, thanks to studies based on extreme cases, everyone possesses design ability. Being able to know that what one is doing; is design based on the use of the ability would change dramatically the different effects that have been mentioned in the context.

This led to the third suggestion, that goes around the design education of professional designers but also non-designers, Design ability needs to be understood for the practitioners to make a manifestation of design able to establish a fruitful dialogue whit the other disciplines. To do it, any curriculum from a design program should be improved considering as one of its main, formal, specific, and explicit axes to the design ability. Moreover, it must be part of the educational objectives if we consider the use of a healthy systemic curriculum.

final model.giffinal model.gif


This work is the product of the help of an uncountable number of people, some of them maybe will not be mentioned directly due to my carelessness, to them I express my apologies and ask for your understanding. Four overarching thanks are warranted: The first one is my biggest gratitude to my family. My second thanks are owed to my dear friends, and overall, my best friends. The third thanks are given to all my professors of the MAID program, and I would like to also include the professionals that have been referenced in this document as well as the subjects of the study. Last but not least, I want to give my gratitude to my assessors. I hope this work will be a brick that helps others to build their knowledge and improve our design discipline.




Additional original material is listed, questionnaires, test, presentations.


Persönliche Reflexion

This research has been a great opportunity to address many ideas that have been seeded during the professional and educational career of the author. Now after these pages, he has a clear route of how to conduct his adventure in research, and how relates to his practice. We were always eternal students in this life, but you can't always be self-taught. Sometimes we need teachers to “teach the route”, the time in the MAID program gives the orientation needed and is crystalized in this document.

Thus, this thesis ended up presenting the most valuable knowledge acquired by the author until today, the result of its reflection on practice and its education; “Design is a natural phenomenon that shapes our world unintentionally but driven by a strong causality” translated to the human performance would be; “design practice as the use of the design ability in a design situation” and design ability is defined as “creative reasoning applied to a specific task.”

The present work aligns with these precepts, but recognizes that “all human knowledge is uncertain, inexact, and partial” (Bertrand Russell, 1948) so this thesis is a stance to present a paradigm of the design cognition, but at the same time it recognizes the author best lesson from his years in his art faculty, “everything is perfectible” … always.


International Integrated Design

Art des Projekts



foto: Michael Hohl foto: Juan Montalvan


WiSe 22 / 23 – SoSe 23


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