Beneath the Surface – June 1, 2021
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As Above, So Below

By Phil Oweida

What lies beneath the surface in design? In a word, everything. As designers, we embrace process; we understand that process is not just the means of arriving at an end, but that it is an end. Simply put, “every design project is an iteration on a much greater process” (Gonsher). Through my own practice I have come to view the convergence of design thinking and metacognition as the foundation upon which a design process is built. In this context, design thinking can be understood as the application of the scientific method to the creative process (Gonsher), and metacognition refers to the ability to think about and understand our own thought processes (Chick, 2013). This foundation “consists of cycles of focus shifts and continuous thoughts, which are related and defined from a metacognitive perspective” (Kavousi et al, 2019). However, it is not the cycles of shifts and thoughts that determine what is manifested above the surface, it is the ways in which we engage – either intentionally or unintentionally – with our awareness of them.

As I reflect on my own design process, I recognize that intentionality in engagement can be arbitrary. Various factors – both internal and external – influence engagement; we are all human and therefore subject to our own set of cognitive abilities, biases, and limitations. The ultimate goal is, of course, to understand the implications that each of these have on our design process and how we can begin to gain some level of control over them. I first discovered this aspect of my design process in the spring 2020 design studio with Professor and Director of Graduate Programs at North Carolina State University, Denise Gonzales Crisp. This studio was particularly fast-paced and emphasized design inquiry through making, something I had unintentionally neglected. I came to realize that “thinking doesn’t happen just inside the brain…it occurs as fleeting ideas become tangible things: words, sketches, prototypes, and proposals” (Lupton, 2011). The seemingly constant cycle of making, reflecting, and adjusting proved to be exceptionally powerful as I was able to contextualize my engagement with the cycles of shifts and thoughts that are inherent to my design process. This heightened awareness of the factors that influence our thinking and engagement, or hyper metacognition, is the invisible influence that is made visible through the differences we see all around us in the world of design.

Understanding the current state of design – as well as its future trajectory – is a prerequisite to further contextualizing the hidden factors that influence my own design process. According to a research project conducted by AIGA, the professional association for design, designers today are most commonly responsible for addressing wicked problems. These problems are defined as “unique, having potential to be described in multiple ways, often a symptom of another problem, and lacking a clear rule for stopping work or testing a solution” (Davis). In essence, design is a process that deals with continuously changing, complex systems and relies on a multidisciplinary approach (Tan, 2017). I experienced the potentiality of a multidisciplinary approach in the Spring of 2021 when the MGD Studio, led by Associate Professor Helen Armstrong, partnered with the Laboratory for Analytic Sciences to address a wicked problem. The primary research question was as follows: How might the design of an intelligent interface enable an analyst to collaborate with a knowledge graph to understand relevant data and forge useful insights? The project required collaboration among experts in various disciplines including data science, machine learning, engineering, intelligence analysis, design, and education. The process necessitated a deep understanding of the diverse perspectives, experiences, processes, and modes of inquiry among contributors. The complexity of such wicked problems has become inescapable: “small changes ripple throughout larger systems that are physical, psychological, social, cultural, technological, and economic in their effects” (Davis). When you consider this perspective, it is no wonder that design increasingly relies on “the use of research findings or theories from another field” (Davis).

So, if the design process “consists of cycles of focus shifts and continuous thoughts, which are related and defined from a metacognitive perspective” (Kavousi et al, 2019), and this process is used to address wicked problems that require a multidisciplinary approach, then how can we understand the implications that our unique cognitive abilities, biases, and limitations have on our process? I believe the answer to this can be found above the surface. Whether it takes a graphical, experiential, or physical form, there are significant variations to be seen all around us in the world of design. “A complicated social and technological landscape of interdependent elements and dynamic forces characterizes contemporary problems. Designers, therefore, must think in terms of ecologies, communities, and variety in developing systems that deliver integrated information, products, and services to people whose needs and wants differ” (Davis). Although we may not be able to fully understand the direct relationships between that which is above the surface and that which is below, we know that a relationship exists. “Just as a knowledge of the Principles of Geometry enables Man to measure distant suns and their movements…so a knowledge of the Principle of Correspondence enables Man to reason intelligently from the Known to the Unknown” (Atkinson, 1908). This relationship cannot be fully comprehended, but it can be acknowledged. After all, there is great power in embodying the observable differences that exist above the surface and using them to better understand the factors that lie beneath the surface and influence our own design processes.

Phil Oweida (MGD ‘22) is a Master of Graphic Design Candidate at North Carolina State University. His research interests include urban innovation, sustainability, and human centered design.

Works Cited

  • Atkinson, William W. The Kybalion: A Study of the Hermetic Philosophy of Ancient Egypt and Greece. A.F. Seward & Co., 1908.
  • Chick, Nancy. “Metacognition.” Center for Teaching, Vanderbilt University, 2013,
  • Davis, Meredith. “Design Futures Research.” AIGA,
  • Gonsher, Ian. “Beyond Design Thinking: An Incomplete Design Taxonomy.” Critical Design Critical Futures,
  • Kavousi, Shabnam, et al. “Modeling Metacognition in Design Thinking and Design Making.” International Journal of Technology and Design Education, vol. 30, no. 4, 2019, pp. 709–735., doi:10.1007/s10798-019-09521-9.
  • Lupton, Ellen. Graphic Design Thinking: Beyond Brainstorming. Princeton Architectural Press, 2011.
  • Tan, Ai-Girl. “Cross-Disciplinary Creativity and Design Thinking.” Creativity in the Twenty First Century, 2017, pp. 69–82., doi:10.1007/978-981-10-7524-7_5.

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