Saying the Unsayable: Intersections of Tacit Knowing and Explicit Knowledge Within an Expanded Definition of Design Thinking (Dorland, 2016) explores the origins of the term “design thinking” and proposes that the term can be best understood as a method of knowledge conversion, rather than as either a tacit, or an explicit way of knowing. This paper (submitted in partial fulfillment of my candidacy examinations) examines how conceptions of ‘knowledge conversion’ as a way of transferring design thinking between creative workers, and outside of the studio, can help us understand the link between design thinking and design doing.

Saying the Unsayable: Intersections of Tacit Knowing and Explicit Knowledge Within an Expanded Definition of Design Thinking.

AnneMarie Dorland
April 21, 2016

Candidacy Examination
Supervisor: Dr. Brian Rusted
University of Calgary
Department of Communication, Media and Film


Interest in design thinking as a tool for innovation, and as a mysteriously-applied art practiced by designers, has recently reached new heights within the field of design studies. But for all the attention paid to design thinking – from events such as the Design Thinkers 2016 conference in Toronto (Association of Registered Graphic Designers, 2016) to a list of over 1,500 publications since 2010 alone (Amazon, 2016), the practice of how designers come to know how, and what, to design remains hotly-contested. Throughout the history of design studies, design thinking has been understood as a knowledge practice unique to design culture. However, the location and definition of design thinking as either a tacit form of knowing, or an explicit form of visual knowledge has remained a point of debate throughout the movements in the field. Based on a review of design thinking within the historical context of design studies, this paper will propose that design thinking is a form of both tacit and explicit knowledge – a knowledge creation practice with porous and flexible boundaries that can be best understood using Nonaka’s continuum of dynamic knowledge conversion (1994). The proposal that tacit and explicit forms of design thinking can be combined, overlapped, or even that they may form a generative circuit of new knowledge production runs contrary to the desire of individual designers to preserve the “mystery” of their practice using tacit descriptors for designing. But it is by expanding an epistemological definition of design practice to include the new knowledge created at the intersections of its tacit and explicit aspects that we are able to fully account for the new ways that design thinking is being positioned as a unique quality, proprietary aspect and competitive edge of design culture.

Design Thinking: Method, Process, Mindset and Practice Movements

Exactly how designers create innovative and surprising solutions to undefined and multifaceted material and social problems remains one of the major debates within the field of design studies. The designer’s process of imagining, proposing and creating change in our world is inspiring to many, but mysterious to most ­– including design practitioners and researchers. Over time, understandings of what it means to use ‘design thinking’ have shifted to reflect the changing understandings of the designer’s role and function within society, while continually focusing on examinations of design as a social act (Papanek, 1971), explorations of the creative thinking practices of designers (Cross, 2011) and the material enactment of design as conception and planning of the artificial (Buchanan, 1992; Margolin, 2002).[1]

To better understand their field, designers and design theorists alike rely on Simon’s distinction between design and the social sciences. In his oft-quoted passage from The Sciences of the Artificial (1969) Simon proposes design as a practice of action and change, undertaken by a wide variety of professionals:

Everyone designs who devises courses of action aimed at changing existing situations into preferred ones. … Schools of engineering, as well as schools of architecture, business, education, law, and medicine, are all centrally concerned with the process of design  (p. 55).

At the crossroads of design practice and creativity lays a field of research focused on design thinking as a form of knowledge and a way of knowing. First proposed by Archer in 1965, and popularized by Rowe in 1987, design thinking is understood to be a mode of inquiry: both a way of knowing and a form of knowledge. This proposal, as Kimbell explains, prompts examinations into “describing how designers do design, how they think, and what they know”, asking us “to examine our assumptions about what constitutes design; it forces us to define design itself” (2011, p. 299). As the dominant epistemological position within both contemporary and historical design studies, design thinking has long been understood to be the basis for all innovative, creative and cultural production conducted by designers (Cross, 2001).

A review of the relatively short history of design studies reveals four key movements or eras of focus in the discipline, each of which locates and defines design thinking in a different manner, repositioning the term through an expanding cycle culminating in our contemporary understanding of design thinking as a collaborative, socially-informed, creative process.

Design Thinking as a Method

Design thinking’s roots are planted at the beginning of design studies – an era marked by the “methods movement” (Margolin, 2002) that focused on developing a scientific approach to the practice of design. Beginning in the early 1960s, scholars such as Archer (1965), Simon (1969), De Bono (1968) and Osborn (1957) focused on systems, scientific analysis and use of pattern in creative thinking, outlining the concern at the time with the designer’s knowledge about methods and how to employ them in a scientific manner. Design thinking was understood at the time to encompass a unique knowledge of design methods, and though the term is often attributed to Rowe (1987), Archer’s Systematic Method for Designers (1965) serves as the true birthplace of “design thinking” as a unique description for a designer’s process. In his examination of industrial design, Archer defined a series of phases within design methods, proposing that:

“… there has been a world wide shift in emphasis from the sculptural to the technological. Ways had to be found to incorporate the knowledge of ergonomics, cybernetics, marketing and management science into design thinking” (p. 57).

The methods movement in design studies was further defined by Simon’s development of design thinking as a unique, methods based approach to a commonly defined and understood problem (Simon, 1969) and by Papanek’s (1971) call for sustainable design practice.[2] It was at the intersection between Simon’s scientific notion of design thinking as an attempt to shift the possible to the preferable, Archer’s identification and definition of design thinking as unique aspect of design practice and Papanek’s identification of the social role of designers that the modern approach to design thinking was initiated.

Design Thinking as a Mindset

The subsequent turn toward creative practice and ability as a mindset marked the second movement in design thinking. Initiated in the early 1980s, the process-movement within design studies developed out of examinations into what Cross termed “process-creativity” (1997, p. 427), and presented design thinking as a way of knowing: a general resource for design characterized by the cognitive aspects of design practice and creative process (Cross, 1982). Of particular note in this movement was Lawson’s study of design cognition in the context of architecture and urban planning (1979) which provided the vocabulary used by Cross in his proposal of “designerly ways of knowing” (1982). This idea that “there are things to know, ways of knowing them, and ways of finding out about them that are specific to the design area” (Cross, 1982, p. 22) situated design thinking as a cognitive practice firmly based in instinct and forms of intuition that are unique to designers.

As Buchanan suggested, this positioned design thinking as a “neoteric art” – a new systemic discipline of practical reasoning and argumentation (1992, p. 22). Suggesting that design thinking was indeed ‘designerly’ shaped understandings of the methodology as both an explicit process in which creative practice could be vocalized and shared (Bucciarelli, 1984; Schön, 1983) and as an intuitive and tacit way of knowing based on an extension of visual thinking (McKim, 1972), ambidextrous thinking (Faste, 1994) and creative practices of leaping and bridge building (Cross, 1997). As Kimbell suggests, this era of design thinking focused on “what designers do, think and know, implying that this is different to what non-designers do” (2011, p. 298). The mindset movement also introduced a new understanding of design problems – positioning them as “swampy lowlands” (Schön, 1983, p. 42), or the widely-used “wicked problems”  (Buchanan, 1992, originally proposed in Rittell & Webber, 1973). With the redefinition of design thinking as a mindset, and a methodological response to the wicked problems presented in practice, conceptions of design thinking as a way of knowing specific to designers began to evolve into a ‘process’ approach to innovative problem-solving that focused more clearly on the teachable and transferable aspects of the practice.

Design Thinking as Process

The third movement of design studies presented design thinking as a process, defined by researchers who grounded logic and criteria in studies of innovation from inside and outside the design studio. This shift of perspectives, marked in the early 2000s by the adoption of design thinking as a marketable skill set by innovation and management studies (T. Brown, 2009; T. Kelley, 2005; Martin, 2009; Pink, 2006) positioned design thinking as a “way of looking” (D. Kelley, 2013) rather than an ability or “designerly way of knowing” (Cross, 1982). Suggesting that a design thinker is one who knows there is never a right answer to a problem, researchers such as Tim Brown proposed that by following a proprietary, non-linear and iterative process that he called “inspiration, ideation and implementation”, the design process itself can convert problems into opportunities (T. Brown, 2009). Design thinking was increasingly held ransom by theorists focused on its application outside of the studio, despite desperate calls for its return from theorists focused on the epistemic modes within design process  (Bauer & Eagan, 2008). The positioning of design thinking as a resource for organizations – an inherently empathetic and innovative act, distanced from the culture, education or community context of design practice and useful for anyone willing to adopt the theoretical approach – resulted in a call for the death of the term itself with Nussbaum’s declaration of design thinking as a failed experiment (2011).

Design Thinking as Practice

In what can be seen as a rejection of design thinking’s movement towards applied innovation,[3] new understandings of design thinking have re-positioned the term as a form of embodied, socially and materially informed practice  (Kimbell, 2012; Shove, Watson, Hand, & Ingram, 2007). This latest movement within studies of design thinking studies has sensitized theorists to

“the embodied nature of professional design work, how designers and stakeholders involved in design processes move, what they think, what they do and how it feels” (Kimbell, 2009, p. 12)

This opened the door to considerations of the role of organizations and social context in design thinking practice, and redefined design thinking as a service-oriented, human-centered, user-focused and participatory approach within the work of designers  (Rodgers & Yee, 2015). As Julier has noted, this turn from design as problem-solving activity to design as problem-processing activity mirrors the shifts in design practice from multi-disciplinary approaches to interdisciplinary approaches (2000). A contemporary definition of design thinking encompasses the practices through which designers examine and understand what people do in their daily life, as well as the social implications of the designer’s impact on material culture and the people with which they are engaged (Murphy, 2015; Yaneva, 2013). In this way, design thinking has been reframed to include not only the methods, mindset and process of creative practice, but also the co-production of knowledge and material experience through participation and collaboration.

Tacit and Explicit Forms of Knowledge Creation

As Crouch and Pearce suggest, design thinking is both practice and praxis: both a socially-constructed phenomenon and a manner of conceptualization (2012, p. 43). Despite various turns toward method, mindset, process and practice in the field, the nature of design thinking as either tacit and embedded, or explicit and visible continues to polarize the debate. Design thinking is, in many forms, understood as an embedded and embodied way through which “we can know more than we can tell” (Polanyi, 1966b, p. 4) – a position held in contrast to the idea of design thinking as a form of explicit codified knowledge which is both generated and made durable through discourse. The explicit form of design thinking is made most visible in Schön’s proposal of reflective practice (1983) – a theoretical description of the professional practices of reflection on and in the process of knowledge creation that has become foundational to understandings of design thinking as an explicit and visible form of knowledge. As Nonaka suggests in his work on knowledge creation in organizational settings (1994), this is essentially an epistemological differentiation with far reaching effects: each proposal presents a different understanding of the location of knowledge, and its actualization, resulting in differing positions on how design thinking can be shared, learned and known.

Tacit and Embedded Understandings of Design Thinking

For Polanyi, tacit knowledge is an embodied way of knowing tied to “the senses, tactile experiences, movement skills, intuition, unarticulated mental models, or implicit rules of thumb”  (Nonaka & von Krogh, 2009, p. 636). Summarizing the concept he first introduced in 1958, Polanyi’s The Tacit Dimension and The Logic of Tacit Inference (1966a; 1966b) outline a form of knowing that, for him, was the basis of all praxis – a unique form of knowing that “indwells” in the confluence of mind and body and which is based on both focal and subsidiary awareness of context and haptic experience (p. 55). Using his most often cited example, Polanyi suggested that the successful “practice” of riding a bicycle is based on both a focal awareness of the steps of successful balancing, steering, navigating and pedalling, and the subsidiary awareness of the embodied experience of riding (1966a). For Polanyi, expertise in a practice (including those of design and creative thought) is dependent on the loss of focal awareness – in the same way as the practice riding a bicycle is one of “feeling” how to ride rather than explicitly mapping the steps required to stay upright.

This distinction between focal and subsidiary awareness as instruments of our attention, rather than objects of our attention, defines what constitutes tacit knowledge. Polanyi’s contention is that action is disrupted entirely if a practitioner’s focus is shifted to “particulars of which they were previously aware in a subsidiary manner” (Hildreth & Kimble, 2002, quoted in Nonaka & von Krough, 2009). For this reason, tacit knowledge cannot be represented in discourse, or codified in writing, or made material in tools without discarding its tacit status.[4]

For Polanyi and others from the fields of practice, organization and knowledge theory, tacit knowledge is the beginning of “knowing in practice” (Orlikowski, 2002, p. 21). This is an important aspect of how tacit knowledge is created and shared: Polanyi suggests that tacit knowledge is socialized, in keeping with Bourdieu’s conception of habitus (1984), and that the acquisition of subsidiary awareness can be used to think critically and evaluate forms of proximal awareness (1966b).[5] Tacit knowing is located in the doing and resides in practice – as Polanyi suggests to us, the “art of doing”  (1952, p. 393) – rather than in discourse or codified knowledge and is deeply rooted in action and commitment in a specific context. This form of knowledge production can be theorized, and understood, but as Polanyi suggests, is defined by its very nature as unsayable. Through participation in social practices, practitioners learn “how to be” members of the community, taking on the values and norms that constitute a form of behaviour and refining their tacit knowing until they are able to intuitively recognize when the parameters of a practice have been met or breached, and are able to engage in a practice as a recognized expert (Tsoukas, 2003).

Because, as Hildreth and Kimble (2002) suggest, tacit knowledge is acquired through, and resides within, social practice, acts of mentorship and legitimated forms of peripheral participation  (Lave & Wenger, 1991) are key to its dissemination. Designers learn and share their tacit design thinking through immersion in the design community, its events and “tournaments of value” (Appadurai, 1986, p. 63) and through their roles as apprentices in the professional studio. In this way, the embodiment of tacit knowledge is acquisition of a critical awareness – learning “to be” in contrast with “learning about” practice as a designer (Duguid, 2007, p. 113).[6] This process of immersion, or of “indwelling” as suggested by Polanyi (1966a, p. 148), takes into account the experience of the designer’s body in cognition, and the way that tacit knowing is incorporated into the designer’s feel for type, form, or solution. Ericsson echoes the importance of this process of immersion, or incorporating tacit forms of knowing in the designer’s body, in his examination of the methods through which design thinking is acquired in deliberate application and practice, and the ways in which this enables the transformation from design novice to expert (Ericsson, 2001).

How then is design thinking understood as a tacit way of knowing? Defining design thinking as tacit requires prioritizing the ‘feel for the game’ – the expertise developed though an iterative social practice. Polanyi’s concept of tacit knowing has shaped many approaches to design thinking, including Cross’ proposal of “design ability” as an “exploratory and emergent” method based on a “designerly way of knowing”  – a proposal that privileges the “unique feel for design” possessed only by community members and developed through tacit knowing in context (2011). Conceptions of design thinking as an act of abductive reasoning (Dorst, 2011; Peirce, 1958) or productive reasoning (March, 1976) also rely on the tacit definition of knowledge: a designer knows how to make those leaps of logic simply because they know what feels right. If, as Bryan Lawson suggests, the ‘doing’ of design is a balance between divergent and convergent modes of thinking that ‘does not end’ (2006), then perhaps Polanyi’s metaphor of the bicycle is particularly apt: using the parameters of tacit knowing to define design thinking allows design studies to engage with the act of balance rather than the mode of thinking itself.

Some theorists of design thinking go so far as to position the practice itself as entirely tacit, including Daley who suggests that:

“the way that designers work may be inexplicable, not for some romantic or mystical reason, but simply because these processes lie outside the bounds of verbal discourse: they are literally indescribable in linguistic terms” (1982, p. 134).

This categorization of design thinking as a tacit form of knowledge extends to descriptions of how new knowledge is created as well: Cross (2006) and Michlewski (2008) both describe the comfort with ambiguity and uncertainty essential to knowledge production in design, and Brown (2008) and Dunne and Martin (2006) each propose that knowledge production through design thinking is based on empathy, or a tacit understanding of the lived experience of users. The role of embodiment as a way of knowing that forms such a key component of Polanyi’s original proposal also plays a clear role in the design thinking discourse, most notably in Fulton-Suri and Hendrix’s promotion of design sensitivities and sensibilities both inside and outside the studio (2010) and Mau’s call for the playful and iterative ways of feeling through a design as a generative form of practice (2004).

Explicit and Visible Forms of Design Thinking

As Polanyi suggests, the codified form of tacit knowing is explicit knowledge: knowledge made transmittable in a formal systemic language.[7] Nonaka and von Krough clarify this distinction, defining explicit knowledge as that which is:

“…uttered, formulated in sentences and captured in drawings and writing. Explicit knowledge has a universal character, supporting the capacity to act across contexts. Explicit knowledge is accessible through consciousness” (2009, p. 636).

In the creation of explicit knowledge, expertise is not “the unsayable” but rather is created through codification in spoken or visual language. In the creation of explicit knowledge, individuals reflect on practice, use discourse to frame both proximal and distal awareness, and discuss the “art of doing” with co-practitioners (Tsoukas, 2003). When understood as an explicit process, knowledge creation remains a social construct, but emphasis is placed on the manner in which it is “objective, rational and created in the ‘then and there’, whereas a tacit form is actionable, subjective, experiential and created in the ‘here and now’”  (Leonard & Sensiper, 1998, quoted in Nonaka & von Krough, p. 641). Explicit knowledge is not only that which can be communicated to others, but becomes actualized through communication to others.

Schön’s The Reflective Practitioner (1983) presents perhaps the clearest conception of expert knowledge creation in the field of design studies. Building on his earlier examinations of learning systems and organizational learning, Schön proposed the term “reflective practice” to identify a unique practice of explicit knowledge creation in the professional practice of designers. Schön sought to understand how professionals ‘think on their feet’ to build understandings of situations in action (p. 68) – how professionals create through verbalization (in both physical sketches and discourse) and reflection both in and on action, and how this knowledge creation process allows them to negotiate dilemmas presented in their work and to reframe problems using judgement. Using case studies of problem-solving professionals in action from a variety of industry contexts, Schön proposed that knowledge is not only codified and demonstrated through these acts of reflection, but that the explicit knowledge is created in the act of reflection itself (p. 128). Schön’s proposal of reflective practice thus reconceptualises design thinking, suggesting that “the skilful practice exhibited by the professionals did not consist of applying some a priori knowledge to a specific decision or action, but rather of a kind of knowing that was inherent in their action” (Orlikowski, 2002, p. 251).

Of key importance to understandings of reflective practice as a component of design thinking is the dual nature of the knowledge creation proposed in the model: Schön suggested both “reflection-on” and “reflection-in” to accommodate for the ways that individuals learn and disseminate the knowledge created during and after their practice in an explicit manner (1983). As Crouch and Pearce suggest, this two-part theory of praxis is contingent on the understanding that knowledge is created both by the time spent verbalizing the decisions that resulted in a successful completed project, and time spent making explicit the steps of decision-making during a project in apprenticeship and teaching situations (2012, p. 45). Schön proposed that reflective practice was a cumulative form of learning, and that reflection-in-practice implied an understanding of how an “unfamiliar, unique situation” could be understood as “both similar and different from the familiar one, without at first being able to say similar or different in respect to what” (1983, p. 148). In contrast to tacit knowing, reflective practice requires the ability to verbalize and maintain awareness of knowing “that” even when engaged with expert forms of knowing “how” (Duguid, 2007).

Though Schön’s proposal of reflective practice is based on case studies of a variety of professionals, his notion of how knowledge can be made explicit through practice has served as a strong foundation for a wide variety of theories of design thinking. Many studies of design thinking as an acquired and explicit form of expertise find their roots in Schön’s work, including examinations of the codified and verbalized cognitive patterns of framing and frame creation (Dorst, 2011) and Lawson and Dorst’s phases of formulating, representing, moving, evaluating and managing design practice (2009). The conceptualization of reflective practice has opened a door for design thinkers to examine practice as dialectical, reasoning-focused, participatory processes (Oxman, 1999), focused on the accumulation of practice-based knowledge rather than a way or feel for the use of type, form or problem-solving approach.

By creating a space for the explicit nature of design thinking, Schön’s proposal of reflective practice has allowed researchers such as Dunne and Martin (2006) to examine the explicit and visible ways in which design thinking (or, as they call it, a design attitude) can be applied to business settings. Understanding its explicit functions has also been important to framing design thinking as a form of innovation, as demonstrated by Brown’s examination of design research methods and integrative thinking practices (2009). In addition, by uncovering explicit forms of knowledge in engineering design, Braha and Reich have demonstrated the dynamic mapping between design functions and parameters that define design processes and activity (2003). The explicit nature of design thinking has also been examined through its codification in material form most notably in examinations of prototypes, visual maps and brainstorm documents (Lupton, 2011), experience prototyping (Fulton Suri, 2011) and the increasingly crucial role of design research methods  (Rodgers & Yee, 2015).

Formal education and studio-based learning models common to the field of design are also highly dependent on an understanding of design thinking as an explicit form of knowledge creation (Oxman, 1999). Though Schön held that “professional education, hewing to the technical rational philosophy, did not and could not prepare practitioners to always know what to do in practice prior to entering into it” (Cameron, 2009, p. 129), the heuristically driven model of reflective practice forms a key component of studio-based learning.[8] In a pedagogical setting characterized by verbalized modeling, student designers are continually asked to reflect upon their practice through written statements and justifications of their work in presentations, and through oral critiques of their finished projects with other students and their instructors. This model extends to the professional studio setting, with apprentice designers presenting and justifying their work first to senior designers, or expert mentors (Schön, 1983, p. 339) before the team then presents it to a client.

The Fallacy of Polarization

The polarized positions of tacit and explicit approaches to conceptualizing design thinking belie the commonalities of the two forms of knowledge creation. As Brown and Duguid remind us, “Polanyi’s ‘tacit’ and ‘explicit’… are dimensions, not types, of knowledge”, dimensions that together form the basis of practices of knowledge and their circulation (2001, p. 204). As Abel suggests, tacit forms of knowing are at the very core of all explicit forms of design thinking, and “the largely tacit processes by which all knowledge emerges and evolves, the transference and development of knowledge between individuals will always be mostly by tacit means” (1981, p. 13). Within many current understandings of knowledge creation, the tacit and the explicit are understood to be inherently inseparable, existing on a continuum and grounded in social context and interactions  (Adler, 1995; Hildreth & Kimble, 2002; Nonaka, 1994). Even Schön does not deny the existence of a tacit component to knowledge, but does differentiate between “knowing-in-action, the characteristic mode of ordinary practical knowledge” and “reflecting-in-action” which recognizes a tacit basis, but is extended to describe an expert’s ability to “think about what we are doing” (1983, p. 54). Nor does Polanyi deny the extension of the tacit knowing into explicit knowledge – suggesting instead that this extension is a conversion of knowledge from tacit to explicit, not an additional facet of its tacit nature (1966a).[9] The embedded and the visible can also be understood as two roads to the same destination – in gaining expertise both internalization of the rules of performance, and technical knowledge or learning on the job can be routes to success (Tsoukas, 2003). However, despite the fluidity proposed by both Polanyi and Schön, design thinking is continually subjected to what Reber calls “the polarity fallacy” (Reber 1993) – the positioning of design thinking as a form of knowledge that is either entirely tacit, or entirely explicit – either unsayable or achieved through the saying – rather than as a collection of practices that generate new forms of knowledge at their intersections and collisions.

In spite of the evident continuum of knowledge, it continues to serve the design community well to position their ‘designerly way of knowing’ as grounded in tacit knowledge, and to downplay the explicit manner through which they learn and share expertise  (Sasser & Koslow, 2008). By advocating for a tacit definition of design thinking, designers are able to preserve the mythology of the creative process – accommodating somewhat for the difficulties faced by any creative practitioner in justifying, explaining and evaluating creative work.[10] A reliance on the tacit to describe design thinking in industry jargon and in design discourse allows designers to draw what Nonaka calls:

“boundaries around their social practice, [through which] they regulate membership. Membership can only be attained if people behave according to overt or covert “rules” of performance in that practice” (2009, p. 644).

By defining design thinking as tacit and embedded, designers are able to describe their creative process as entirely intuitive in nature  (Davies & Talbot, 1987), allowing for a collective imagining of functions of design thinking as abilities “embedded in particular communities of practice” (J. S. Brown & Duguid, 2001, p. 95). This distinction between the tacit and the explicit extends beyond the discourse of practitioners to the work of design theorists who use such distinctions as “design as practice” and “design in practice” (Kimbell, 2011) and “how designers think” and “how designers work” (Cross, 2006) as analytical categories. This privileging of the tacit within design discourse suggests that current theoretical understandings of design thinking as a socially-informed and collaborative practice may be misaligned with the ways in which practitioners are required to justify, promote and validate their work. Next, I will suggest that by reframing design thinking as an outcome of knowledge conversion (Nonaka, 1994) generated by the intersection of both the tacit characteristics of practice favoured by designers, and the explicit aspects of design thinking made material in codified practice and design research, we are able to expand the parameters of design thinking to encompass contemporary concerns identified by the practice movement.

Design Thinking as a Continuum of Knowledge

How then can we form a new understanding of knowledge creation that privileges the intersections of forms of knowledge, rather than their polarized definitions? And are we able to make use of notions of tacit and explicit knowledge forms and their combinatory possibilities within a re-imagined definition of design thinking as form of embodied, socially and materially informed practice (Kimbell, 2012)? If so, an expanded definition of design thinking could be understood as a continuum of dynamic knowledge, upon which aspects of practice morph from embodied to visible, and back again through social interaction and contextual activities  (Nonaka & von Krogh, 2009). As Nonaka has proposed in his dynamic theory of knowledge creation, “the notion of ‘continuum’ refers to knowledge ranging from tacit to explicit and vice versa… Each property of knowledge makes up for that which is lacking in the other properties, and therefore allow us to theorize about and research various characteristics of action and cognition” (2009, p. 637). Nonaka suggests that knowledge is “created through a continuous dialogue between tacit and explicit knowledge” on a continuum of “knowledge ranging from tacit to explicit and vice versa” (2009, p. 637), and that the creation of new knowledge, or new ways of knowing, occurs at the intersections of the unsayable and the spoken. By applying Nonaka’s proposed theory of organizational knowledge creation to an examination of design thinking it is clear that the epistemology is then constituted of tacit and explicit beliefs about practice, material conditions, or social contexts at the same time (1994, p. 19). In his proposal of a continuum of knowledge, Nonaka allows for an understanding of the boundary between the conscious and the unconscious nature of design thinking to be made “somewhat porous and flexible” (Bennet & Bennet, 2008, p. 75).

Building a Bigger Tent: an Expanded Definition of Design Thinking

In his dynamic theory of knowledge creation, Nonaka suggests that it is at the intersection of the explicit and tacit aspects of knowledge on a continuum that enhanced understandings, enhanced capacity to act, and new social practices are generated (1994). New knowledge is thus created dynamically through a process of conversion, using four creative methods or modes – socialization, externalization, internalization and combination (p. 19). Nonaka’s proposal of a continuum of knowledge creation defined at its intersections rather than its poles allows us to position design thinking as the outcome of conversions between of forms of tacit knowing, forms of explicit knowledge, and tacit and explicit aspects of a practice. By positioning explicit and tacit knowledge as “mutually complementary [forms that] dynamically interact with each other in creative activities by individuals and groups” (2009, p. 638), Nonaka’s proposal of knowledge conversion allows for the process by which an individual’s knowledge can be expanded and socially justified through interaction  (Massey & Montoya-Weiss, 2006), as well as for the manner in which ways of knowing can “adopt alternating forms so as to mutually enhance tacit and explicit elements” (Nonaka, 2009, p. 638).

Tacit Explicit
Tacit Socialization Externalization
Explicit Internalization Combination

Figure 1. Modes of the Knowledge Creation. (Nonaka, 1994, p. 19)

Using Nonaka’s model to understand how new practices of thinking are generated allows us to account for the outcomes of knowledge conversion, which include enhanced understandings and an enhanced capacity to act (Nonaka, 2009, p. 646). In order to apply Nonaka’s model of knowledge conversion (see fig.1) to the creation of an expanded definition of design thinking – one that aligns with the goals in the field of a practice focused on participation, collaboration and the intersection of tacit and explicit forms of knowledge – I propose adapting the existing categories of socialization, externalization, internalization and combination to reflect design thinking outcomes of participation, designerly ways of knowing, problem-solving and design research (see fig.2)

Tacit Explicit
Tacit Participation Problem- solving
Explicit Designerly ways of knowing Design research

Figure 2. Modes of knowledge creation in design thinking (adapted from Nonaka, 1994, p. 19)

The first form of conversion proposed in the original modes of knowledge creation model (fig.1) is that of tacit knowledge to new forms of tacit knowledge through processes of ‘socialization’.[11] In the proposed model of modes of design thinking (fig.2), this can be understood as ‘participation’. Expanding our parameters of design thinking to include practices of participation allows us to accommodate a practice-focused view of “being a designer” into our larger definition  (Kimbell, 2009; Lave & Wenger, 1991; Shove et al., 2007), and to better understand practices of legitimate peripheral participation that are so important to the transferring and sharing of design thinking. Understanding design thinking as an act of ‘participation’ of ‘socialization’ conducted in interactions between individuals provides a way of describing the aspects of design thinking that are transferred without codification or language, including the acquisition of membership within the community through “observation, imitation and practice” (Nonaka, 1994, p. 19).

The second mode of knowledge creation proposed by Nonaka in his original model is that of mixing forms of explicit knowledge through ‘combination’ (fig.1): specifically through the use of discourse, verbalization and codification to combine explicit knowledge to create new understandings and practices (1994, p. 19). In an adapted model of design thinking, this can be understood as ‘design research’ – the use of explicit methods to access and collaborate with members of the wider community (fig.2). When design thinking is described as an assembly of methods – using terms such as brainstorming, sketching, role-playing and prototyping – it is this form of knowledge creation that is being described. Positioning the ways that explicit forms of knowledge are created and converted through ‘combination’ as ‘design research’ allows us to describe the aspects of design thinking that combined and embodied in social, explicit practices (Laurel, 2003).

Both the third and fourth conversion processes proposed by Nonaka allow for the ways in which knowledge and practice outcomes are generated on the continuum through the interaction between the tacit and the explicit. In Nonaka’s third proposed act of conversion, new tacit dimensions of knowing can be understood to be generated from explicit knowledge practices through ‘internalization’ (1994, p. 19) – a process of learning, developing and acquiring expertise until one has the ‘feel for the game’ proposed by Bourdieu (1977) (fig.1). Expanding the definition of design thinking to include practices of ‘internalization’ allows us to encompass the acquisition of a designerly “habitus” (Bourdieu, 1977) into our understanding of design thinking practices. Within an adapted model of knowledge creation, this can be understood as the use of a ‘designerly way of knowing’ as suggested by Cross (2006) to generate new forms of knowledge (fig.2).

Finally, in Nonaka’s fourth conversion mode, new explicit knowledge is converted from its tacit groundings through ‘externalization’ (1994, p. 19) – a process proposed by Schön in his definition of reflective practice, and made visible through forms of instruction and mentorship in the classroom and in the studio (fig.1). As has been described, many of the ways that design thinking is described already take this process of ‘externalization’ into account, including Dorst’s proposal of design thinking as a process of “naming and framing” (2011), itself a mirror of Schön’s proposal that we “name the things to which we will attend, and frame the context in which we will attend to them” (1983, p. 40). Externalization in this way can also be, as proposed by Kogut and Zander (1992), the process of codification of knowledge: the writing of design texts and guides, handbooks and canonized practices. This process of ‘externalization’ is also understood as a key aspect of problem definition – a component of the design process equated with design thinking by Gunther et al (Cross, 2011, p. 122). By including externalization practices in our expanded understanding of design thinking, and re-positioning them as the use of ‘problem-solving’ to generate new forms of knowledge by making the tacit explicit, we are able to fill in key questions of education, mentorship, and knowledge transfer left unanswered by a prioritization of the tacit (fig.2).

By proposing an adaptation of Nonaka’s quadrant model of knowledge creation that mobilizes the different perspectives of design thinking, and that includes the strengths of both tacit and explicit definitions of creative design practice, an expanded definition of design thinking is made possible. It is this larger and expanded definition of design thinking that is in alignment with the practice movement within design studies. And it is the expansion of design thinking to include the modes of participation, design research, a designerly way of knowing, and problem-solving that allows design culture to position this epistemological perspective as a unique quality, proprietary aspect, and competitive edge of design culture. The unique quality of a ‘designerly way of knowing’ (Cross, 1982), formerly understood as tacit and transferred only through immersion and indwelling (Polanyi, 1966b), when understood as convertible to explicit forms of knowledge through Nonaka’s proposed act of ‘externalization’ can be taught at design boot camps (Hasso Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford, 2016), applied in settings outside the design studio by non-designers (Creativity at work, 2016) and even made material in the form of patented Design Method Cards (IDEO, 2016). Conversely, the unique explicit knowledge created through reflective practice (Schön, 1983) and shared through the insular worlds of design education and the design community can, when converted into other forms of explicit knowledge, or into a tacit “way of being in the world”  (Bennet & Bennet, 2008), be commodified through inspirational and innovation-focused literature generated by design culture on design thinking as a ‘way of seeing’ or ‘sensibility’ encouraged and nurtured in all forms of thinkers  (Fulton Suri & Hendrix, 2010; Fulton Suri, 2011; IDEO, 2014), and through “insider access” to the ways designers work presented in TED talks (TED, 2015) and studio-based design immersion courses (IIT Institute of Design, 2016). In this way, both being a designer and its tacit dimensions, and learning to use design thinking and its explicit connotations can be mobilized as unique and competitive properties of the community of practice.

Though both Polanyi and Schön highlighted the ways in which forms of tacit and explicit knowledge reside in individuals, and cannot be accumulated in organizations (and therefore cannot be considered unique, proprietary or competitive quality of a design culture beyond the strength of its membership), it is the new forms of knowledge generated at the intersections of tacit and explicit aspects of design thinking that are positioned as a unique quality of the community and the industry, and it is here that design thinking is truly becoming a multi and inter disciplinary approach.


As a unique form of knowledge, design thinking has been understood as method, process, mindset and socially-embodied practice, with each historical movement granting privilege to components of tacit and explicit forms of knowledge. However, by viewing design thinking as positioned on a continuum of flexible, porous and overlapping forms of knowledge creation (Nonaka, 1994), we are able to propose an expanded definition of design thinking. This expanded understanding of design thinking as a series of four proposed modes of knowledge creation (specifically participation, design research, a designerly way of knowing, and problem-solving) allows for a new explanation of the outcomes of knowledge conversion (including enhanced understandings and enhanced capacity to act) while rejecting the polarity of the tacit and the explicit. This expanded definition of design thinking as generated within the intersections of tacit and explicit forms of practice can be positioned as a unique quality, proprietary aspect and competitive edge of design culture, and it is the further exploration of this expanded definition of design thinking that will contribute to the field of research on the emergence of social practices of knowledge creation (Nonaka, 2009). In addition, further research in this area will respond to Strickler’s call for investigations from within the field of design studies into “how we know what we purport to know in order to better understand the role of design in research” (1999, p. 28). As Kimbell has suggested, “Design thinking does, however, remain under-theorized and understudied; indeed, the critical rethinking of design thinking has only just begun” (2011, p. 301).


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[1] Valuable contributions to design studies are also found in examinations of the material world. Design theorists have variously found it helpful to reduce design to its product of “things with attitude” (Attfield, 1989) in order to position the output of design practice as the link between the economic and the cultural (Bourdieu, 1984), as a demonstration of a specific logic or language practiced in the design community (Chaney, 1996), or as cultural reconstruction for the meaning of what is consumed (Fine & Leopold, 1993).

[2] The design methods movement of the decades following 1960, and its focus on design as a unique, nearly scientific practice is reflected the human-centered, user-focused and sustainable design movements that define the field today.

[3] In fact, design theorists such as Shove challenged the association of design thinking with “thinking” at all (Shove, Watson, Hand, & Ingram, 2007).

[4] As Reber explains, the “embodied” aspect of tacit knowledge in this sense refers to its defining parameters as automatic, non-directed and non-intentional (Reber, 1993).

[5] According to Abel, methods common to studio based learning and the creation of a body of knowledge about, in his case study, architectural practice, are inherently tacit and are best disseminated through participation in practical and social engagement with experts in the professional field (1981).

[6] Additional conceptions of this distinction are found in Ryle’s analysis of Aristotelian epistêmê and technê as forms of ‘know how’ and ‘know that’ applied in social interactions (1949).

[7] This does not suggest that the tacit and the explicit are opposites, in fact this polarization of knowledge forms was problematic to many, including Polanyi who suggested that “the tacit cooperates with the explicit, the personal with the formal” (Polanyi, 1962, p. 87) and Schön, who proposed that “the best professionals know more than they can put in words” (1983, book cover).

[8] The exclusive reliance on explicit knowledge forms in design thinking can present a blind spot in the field. As Strickler has suggested, “this emphasis on aesthetic and technical knowledge transmitted through a master/apprentice relationship has created a discipline subtly lacking in reflection on how we know what we purport to know” (1999, p. 28).

[9] As an additional note, both Schön and Polanyi reject the notion that practice of any creative form must be rooted in science, and understandings of both tacit and explicit practice forms take into account the paradox of the sociality of knowledge, and the role of embodied learning (Polanyi, 1966b, Schön, 1983).

[10] For a further discussion of the difficulties faced by designers and other creative industry workers in explaining, justifying, valuing and promoting their work, see Martin (2012) and Lupton (1996, 2011).

[11] This process is also suggested by Polanyi in his initial definition of the term (1966b, p. 19).

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