How do designers “think” with “things?"

If you visit a design school or studio, you are likely to notice a lot of stuff. Are designers just really messy people?


The things you see lying around in many design spaces reflect the central role that physical objects play in the way most designers work. Handling things, making things, and externalizing your ideas does a few crucial things for your creative work. Research illustrates how these actions provide inspiration, emotional satisfaction that you’re getting your ideas across, and even expand your cognitive reach by allowing your ideas to temporarily rest outside of your brain.

Commentary from the

The space is designed to push people to think outwardly —to use visuals, tools, and objects, not just to build, but to think. We like to "confront" students with materials to tinker with, vertical surfaces to write on, and room to move around. When it works well, it's almost like watching a choreographed dance.


A scholar’s perspective

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Reading List


A pragmatic perspective on visual representation and creative thinking

Lee Martin & Daniel L. Schwartz in Visual Studies, 2014.

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Our take

Seeing things: how visualization increases the chance of a creative moment

It’s worth going out of your way to visualize a problem, even for people who don’t like to draw. This paper explains four ways visualization helps people understand how to solve a problem: reinterpret by removing constraints, prioritize what matters through abstraction, combine multiple sources, and borrow structures from elsewhere. For example, physical rearranging is one way to reinterpret—imagine children using tiles to solve a fraction problem or moving around letters in Scrabble.


Discovery-oriented behavior and the originality of creative products: A study with artists

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 1972.

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Our take

Handling things: the case for picking up objects

This behavior-focused study suggests physical exploring may aid in creative work. The study observed 31 student artists completing a still life drawing work with no time constraints. The study finds that “discovery-oriented behaviors”–like observing a variety of objects and picking them up—are linked with “originality” ratings in the final product.


Distributed Cognition: Toward a New Foundation for Human-Computer Interaction Research

James Hollan, Edwin Hutchins, and David Kirsh in Transactions on Computer Human Interaction, 2000.

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Our take

Cognition takes place not just in our heads, but across people, objects, and machines.

The paper explains three types of perception and understanding: social cognition, embodied cognition, and cognition and culture. These are the three principles underpinning distributed cognition: the relationship between things around us and how we think. This paper suggests that the two are deeply related, requiring “coordination at many different time scales between internal resources—memory, attention, executive function—and external resources—the objects, artifacts, and at-hand materials constantly surrounding us.”

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