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Metaprocessing is the reflective awareness of one’s design process in action. It describes a mindset and a strategy that deepens creativity, builds confidence, and promotes continuous learning. It is the subject of this thesis. — Karin Storm Wood

Metaprocessing or, How I Learned to Embrace the Unknown by Karin Storm Wood Bachelor of Arts, English Yale University May 1994 Š 2013 Karin Storm Wood

A thesis submitted in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of Master of Fine Arts, Communications Design, School of Art and Design, Pratt Institute, May 2013

Metaprocessing or, How I Learned to Embrace the Unknown by Karin Storm Wood

Received and approved:

Edvin Yegir Primary Thesis Advisor

May 2013

Jennifer Bernstein Secondary Thesis Advisor

May 2013

Jean Brennan Secondary Thesis Advisor

May 2013

Jeff Bellantoni Chairperson

May 2013

Karin Storm Wood MFA Candidate

May 2013

Acknowledgments At its best moments, the work of this thesis was more personally rewarding than I ever expected: a paradigm-shifting experience and a true labor of love. For all those other moments, I held on with the support and encouragement of my professors, friends, and family. To my brilliant advisors — Jennifer Bernstein, Jean Brennan, and Edvin Yegir — and professors — Jeff Bellantoni, Ned Drew, David Frisco, Alex Liebergesell, Gala Narezo, Alan Rapp, Ryan Waller, and Pirco Wolfframm: You allowed me to push when I needed to, and you pushed me the many times I needed to be pushed. From each of you, I’ve learned something I didn’t know before, and I gratefully take those lessons with me. To my classmates André de Castro, Joseph Cuillier, Maura Frana, Robert Gonzalez, Devin Grosz, Will Hoffmann, Yanwen Hu, Leigh Mignogna, Greg Riestenberg, and Liz Seibert: You’ve been a huge part of this experience. Thanks for your camaraderie, input, and support. To my studiomates Bárbara Abbês and Jonathan Frey: Thanks for your well-timed feedback, and for many interesting and funny conversations. To my friends near and far: Thank you for all your generosity and thoughtfulness, not to mention your interest in my work. To the Brooklyn parenting village, thanks for pinch-hitting on mornings and weekends. To Jeannie Forrest: Your intuition and advice have been measureless, far beyond their influence on this thesis. Thanks for helping me lift the curtain. To my parents: Your love and support — emotional, logistical, and otherwise — helped make this achievement possible. Your presence in my life is a huge gift, one I appreciate more as I grow older. To Kirsten: I can always count on you for the perfect combination of perspective and cheerleading. Thanks for the big-sister boosterism. To my sweet Amelie: Watching you grow and learn over the past two years has been breathtaking. Thanks for your amazing drawings, funny phone messages, and goofy video chats. They cheered me on through many late nights. I hope I am teaching you well; I learn from you every day. To Ricky: Getting an MFA would still be just a hazy dream if it hadn’t been for you. I could never have done this, much less enjoyed it, without your tirelessness, your fantastic parenting, your daily encouragement, your faith in me, your indomitable humor, your songs, and your love. I am a lucky, lucky woman.


3 7 13 15 18 22 123 139 143 147

Introduction Justification Delimitations Hypothesis Theoretical Context Process + Methodology Design Precedents Conclusions + Further Directions Works Cited Bibliography

Contents 3 7 13 15

Introduction Justification Delimitations Hypothesis

Theoretical Context / Process + Methodology 18 22 28 34 38 44 46 54 60 62 68 70 76 82 86 92 102 107 112 123 139 143 147

The History of Learning Theory metaprocessing Compu-Tutor

confessions of the left brain A Good Morning

what sticks Play Phone

how design school (maybe) saved my soul

Learning as a Kind of Making Make More

discomfort zone Things That Have Meaning to Me / Everything Else Draw to Learn

Understanding Motivation 10000 Hours

Demystifying Creativity Apple : Apple ::

Deconstructing Play How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Process

Design Precedents Conclusions + Further Directions Works Cited Bibliography



Conscious learning requires the willingness to suffer an injury to one’s self-esteem. That is why young children, before they are aware of their own self-importance, learn so easily. — Thomas Szasz


Letterpress poster (detail), Cross-Disciplinary Design Studio, Spring 2012

Spend time with a very young child and you will witness a constant state of learning. At every moment, she is building new skills — feeding herself, manipulating objects, crawling, walking, talking. And in an average child, this process culminates in success 100 percent of the time. Yet it’s difficult to imagine a fifth grader, or a high school student — or the average adult for that matter — as fiercely dedicated to learning as a toddler. But why does learning become more complicated as we develop? On one hand, learning is inherently complicated at any age because it depends on the coordination of highly complex neurological and psychological systems. Furthermore, learning is susceptible to interference by any number of competing factors, be they environmental, social, biological, cognitive, or emotional. On the other hand, a toddler’s learning seems straightforward for one very significant reason: Her motivation is extreme. Her hunger for new skills gives her a strong stomach for the effort she will need to master those skills. With motivation as strong as hers, the learning apparatus works pretty flawlessly. But for the rest of us, the proposition of learning is less straightforward, even when we are voluntarily committed to learning. So what accounts for the difference between the toddler and everyone else? And what can we do about it? Moreover, what does any of this have to do with design?




Deep into my research, that last question dogged me. I wondered what it meant that my interest lay so deeply in learning. After all, I was in an MFA program in graphic design, not in education or psychology. My professors and classmates chalked it up to my having been a highschool teacher before becoming a designer. Certainly that experience played a role. But my intense motivation to examine and understand learning had more to do with my being a student — specifically a highly verbal, left-brain thinker at an art and design school. Yet I still couldn’t put my finger on the exact source of my fascination with these issues, nor could I completely justify them as a thesis topic. And then, after months of focusing solely on learning, in a bolt-fromthe-blue epiphany, I realized something: the learning process is closely related to the creative process. At first, I saw the relationship between learning and creativity from a personal standpoint: as a designer, I have a stake in mastering the creative process, and as a student, I have a stake in mastering learning. And while I consider myself a good learner, the areas I had excelled in as a liberal arts student and touted as a professional graphic designer — verbal communication and analytical thinking — were not entirely helping me with the key requirement of design school: making. In fact, those strengths sometimes seemed to get in the way. Where my thesis landed feels not only inevitable but necessary: I needed to go to design school to develop a stronger sense of what it means to be a creative person and a maker, and how to go about being both. In other words, I am not interested in emerging from this program as an expert in a particular area of design or medium. I am interested in fostering a reflective and self-aware design practice and in developing tactics for successfully approaching all kinds of learning, creative, and design challenges.

To set the groundwork for the research laid out in this thesis, it may be useful to offer an overview of the connections I have identified between learning and creativity: All creative breakthroughs begin with learning, by achieving mastery in a particular domain. The notion that creativity is innate is a common misperception. Instead, it is a cognitive practice, just like learning. Both learning and creativity are processes that take place over time, and both require effort. The essential basis of creativity is making. If learning is the process by which we build ideas into networks of meaning, then learning can also be seen as a form of making.

In creative practices such as graphic design, meaning-making is externalized. In learning, meaning-making is internalized. (This thesis, as well as the design of the thesis book itself, seeks to integrate my internal learning process with my external design process.) Learning and creativity require an embrace of the new and the unknown. This means that a new learning endeavor, just like a new creative endeavor, requires one to forge new territory. Success is not guaranteed. Therefore, learning something new or creating something new usually requires confidence in our ability to make progress. Without that confidence, we experience the fear of failure. This often manifests in anxiety and discomfort, which inhibit learning and creativity. Anxiety and discomfort are heightened in social contexts where our failure will be witnessed by others; even further when one’s learning or creative performance is assessed by peers, teachers, advisors, bosses, or clients; and further still if that assessment carries rewards and punishments.← Great achievements in learning depend on the same habits of mind as great achievements in creativity: commitment to effort, confidence in one’s ability, tolerance of discomfort, willingness to fail, and perseverance.

But even after figuring out these connections, things still weren’t adding up. Where did motivation fit in? I was highly motivated in my MFA work. I wasn’t disaffected, bored, or here against my will. Yet I knew that my learning and creative processes were, paradoxically, far from optimal sometimes. For instance: I don’t always do the things I know I should. I don’t always pursue experiences that I know will expand my learning. I sometimes persist with design “solutions” that I intuitively sense will fall short of my goals or my ability.

I found these paradoxes fascinating and troubling, and I wanted to explore design methodologies that direct address them. I wanted to figure out strategies so that my design work and creative output really matched my motivation and my ability. Though it took a long time to put my finger on it, I realized there’s a strong correlation between creativity and confidence — and a strong correlation between the paradoxes above and creative anxiety. Could a particular methodology serve to sidestep anxiety and remove other obstacles to making? Both learning and creativity require an embrace of the unknown. But paradoxically, engagement with unfamiliar ideas, skills, and activities

5 introduction

Humans are social creatures, and most of us feel social pressures in some form. I would therefore contend that only the most private, self-regulated, and consequence-free learning and creative endeavors operate independently of social pressure. For this reason, a social context is presumed throughout this thesis. However, I do not intend to investigate its implications any further.



— particularly at work, school, or other social contexts — can provoke anxiety that inhibits the ability to learn and create. Informed by research on motivation, metacognition, play, and the nature of learning and creativity, my thesis (1) examines the nature of this anxiety and (2) explores whether a “metaprocessing” methodology can mitigate and sidestep anxiety, yielding more productive design processes and more creative outcomes. I define my ideal approach to design as metaprocessing, or fostering an objective and real-time awareness of one’s design process so that the designer can develop and deploy a repertoire of tactics for mitigating anxiety and nurturing greater creativity. Though closely related to metacognition, metaprocessing refers to more than thinking about one’s thinking. It is mindful reflection on one’s design process. It means deploying diverse idea-generating approaches to maximize creativity. It means monitoring one’s approach to the task so that coursecorrections can be made when process stagnates or when confidence flags. And by drawing attention to the ongoing process, metaprocessing is intended to take pressure temporarily off the design outcome so that productive momentum is easier to achieve and maintain. If metaprocessing is a methodology or design strategy, then the specific tactics I have used to achieve a metaprocessing mindset include play, role play, constraints, and reflection.


Albert Bandura, “Self-Efficacy and the Construction of an Optimistic Self,” CYC-Online 140 (2010), The International Child and Youth Care Network, accessed April 2, 2013. http:// cyconline-oct2010-bandura. html.

Sources of self-efficacy feelings, i.e., confidence in one’s abilities, are well documented and understood. The most effective is a “mastery experience,” or the experience of success. Another is the constructive interpretation of one’s emotional state. See Albert Bandura, “SelfEfficacy: Toward a Unifying Theory of Behavioral Change,” Psychological Review, Vol. 84, No. 2 (1997), 195-215.

At the risk of stating the obvious, learning and creativity are perhaps the most fundamental tasks of any student of art or design, and therefore make worthy subjects for an MFA thesis. In my view, an investigation of learning and creativity that is informed by cognitive psychology goes further: it helps reveal the benefit of (and need for) design tactics that sidestep creative inhibition, mitigate anxiety, and encourage making. It should be said that this thesis extends from the view that people are limited by their perceptions of their abilities more than by the actual limits of those abilities. Decades of research by pioneering psychologist Albert Bandura in “perceived self-efficacy” — one’s beliefs about one’s capabilities — bear out this view.← Therefore I believe that a practice-based pedagogy such as design education ought to emphasize more explicitly the importance of developing adaptable skills that allow designers to engage confidently in making and fulfill their creative potential.← Furthermore, a more engaged discourse about strategic design practice will prepare students for ever-diversifying creative challenges in the professional world, and perhaps contribute to a more sustainable, nimble, and innovative design industry overall. That said, I’ve certainly benefited from external encouragement and internal confidence boosts throughout this program. My professors have advised me well, specifically encouraging me to embrace constraints and leave my comfort zone. I also acknowledge that process is a topic of discussion in many studio classes. Occasionally it is even reified in the form of a “process book” that documents one’s iterative path toward a final design solution. However, in my experience at least, conversations


and assignments that assert the importance of iteration do not necessarily teach designers effective methods of iteration.



Understanding the Work That Designers Do A further justification for this study relates to how designers might better understand and inhabit their roles as makers and creators. The false notion that creativity is innate seems unlikely to be as widespread among designers as it is among the general public. Nevertheless, if my experience in this MFA program is any guide, conversations about what creativity is, and how to develop it, are extremely rare. This seems unfortunate given that creativity is central to design work. Does talking about creativity feel too much like an assessment of our design ability writ large? If so, that would indeed make conversations about creative ability feel risky. In that respect, this thesis represents my small effort to begin to take the risk out of such conversations. By reviewing the evidence that creativity is a learned set of habits and skills, not an innate gift, and by exploring the psychology behind creative inhibition, I hope to demystify creativity for myself and others. Furthermore, the latest research on mindset, persistence, motivation, productivity and creativity is regularly pored over in business and education circles, but not, it seems to me, in design pedagogy or design criticism. But I would argue that a basic understanding of human motivation strikes me as pertinent for all designers — especially those engaged in human-centered design and in design education. The knowledge I have gained about humans’ basic emotional and cognitive functioning has revolutionized how I think about myself and the people around me. It has also redefined empathy and given me a more tangible sense of why empathy is so necessary in most design practice. Designers are involved in creative practice every day, but many may be unconscious of its workings or unable to approach their own making in ways that optimize their creative potential. For me, developing a nuanced understanding of the connections between creativity and learning has strengthened my practice of design by changing my approach to new challenges. Graphic design, as an inherently hybrid discipline, does attract its share of intellectual polyglots. Yet inquisitive and well-read designers do not automatically develop tolerance for operating at the bottom of the learning curve in other disciplines. As graphic designers, we therefore need to view and understand ourselves as learners and thinkers as well as creators. We need to understand and embrace the unknown in order to learn and to design effectively. In our work with clients, we often occupy both ends of the mastery spectrum: we are masters of design, of making

The Value of Synthesis in New Contexts

One example is the Clinton Global Initiative, host of an annual conference on major economic and social issues whose 2012 theme was “Designing for Impact.” http:// ourmeetings/2012. Accessed December 20, 2012.

A secondary goal of this thesis is to build a theoretical bridge between the left-brain thinking dominant in the liberal arts and mainstream culture and the right-brain sensibilities associated with the “capital A” arts. I propose that the twin subjects of this thesis — learning and creativity — reflect in some ways this left-brain/right-brain dichotomy. However, I seek to present the constructs of left-brain and right-brain not as polar opposites but as intersecting axes, ideally. Logical analysis and creative synthesis are complementary modalities that, when engaged simultaneously, bring greater dimension, resonance, and potential to our thinking and making. I discuss the personal evolution of this perspective, as well as its ramifications, in the pages ahead. My thinking on the unique nature of synthesis — which is intrinsic to making and creativity — has been influenced by people who, despite being outside the design field, eloquently champion the importance of these skills in the 21st century.← Many business experts and political leaders agree that the challenges we face today require unprecedented levels of creativity and

9 justification

and form-giving, yet we are often neophytes vis-à-vis the disciplines we collaborate with. As Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and others have shown, that master-neophyte paradox has creative benefits (see page 97). Knowing why can keep designers open to new challenges that will allow for growth and a deeper creative practice. Furthermore, explicit tactics for addressing facing the occupation hazard of creative anxiety can allow designers to forge new territory. I should note that I am not suggesting that understanding the connections between learning and creativity will guarantee an increase in the caliber of one’s design output, or that such an increase is empirically quantifiable. Rather, an understanding of the connections between learning and creativity might deepen designers’ awareness of how their habits of thinking and making can affect their practice in constructive or destructive ways, and (re)empower them — us — creatively. It’s worth pointing out that my metaprocessing methodology makes use of constraints. Indeed, constraint-driven design runs through design history (see pages 121 to 126 for design precedents). However, while my capstone shares with these precedents the use of constraints as a concerted design tactic, I arrived at the use of constraints from a rather different angle from most of them. By considering design practice in terms of what psychologists know about human motivation, I have developed an understanding of why constraints often prove productive for designers.



innovation. In A Whole New Mind, Daniel Pink argues that the demand for left-brain aptitudes of analysis, critique, and knowledge-mastery (and the routine “algorithmic” tasks associated with them) is in decline in the West. As we move from the Information Age to the “Conceptual Age” there’s a new premium on the opposite aptitude: putting the pieces together. What’s in greatest demand today isn’t analysis but synthesis — seeing the big picture and, crossing boundaries, being able to combine disparate pieces into an arresting new whole.→

Today’s growing demand is for “heuristic” work: tasks for which there are many possible solutions. Rather than analyzing received information with existing formulas (the basis of algorithmic work), heuristic work generates information and develops new formulas. What does this avalanche of heuristic work require? A new generation of thinkers versed in ideageneration and hands-on creative and innovative practice.→ In a similar vein, Harvard psychologist Howard Gardner, renowned in educational circles for his theory of multiple intelligences, argues that interdisciplinary synthesis is required to find meaning in the deluge of data that characterizes modern life: The synthesizing mind takes information from disparate sources, understands and evaluates that information objectively, and puts it together in ways that make sense to the synthesizer and also to other persons. Valuable in the past, the capacity to synthesize becomes ever more crucial as information continues to mount at dizzying rates.→

Gardner’s description of the “synthesizing mind” certainly maps onto the skills of communication designers. An increasing number of experts echo this sentiment. Roger Martin, former dean of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management, is credited with bringing design thinking into business practice. Creativity-evangelist Sir Ken Robinson, is the author of the most-watched TED talk, “Schools Kill Creativity.”→ An articulate champion of synthesis within the design community is Meredith Davis, AIGA Medalist and chair of design at North Carolina State. Davis has argued for almost two decades that synthesis-based design skills, specifically problem-solving and creativity, are increasingly critical to traditional education as well as disciplines outside design.→ It’s important to emphasize that these pioneers value design not so much as a source of discrete products but as a source of newly-significant competencies — namely, synthesis, creativity, and interdisciplinarity. If they are correct, a deeper understanding of these competencies, which this thesis aims to develop, may help designers market themselves more

Daniel H. Pink, A Whole New Mind (Riverhead Trade, New York: 2006), 66; emphasis mine.

Daniel H. Pink, Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us (Riverhead Books, New York: 2011), 27.

Howard Gardner, Five Minds for the Future (Harvard Business School Press, Cambridge, MA: 2009), 33; emphasis mine.

Sir Ken Robinson, “Schools Kill Creativity,” February 2006, ken_robinson_says_schools_ kill_creativity.html. Accessed April 21, 2012. Meredith Davis et al., Design as a Catalyst for Learning. (Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, Alexandria, VA: 1997).

11 justification

successfully to those outside the design professions. It may also help designers ensure the sustainability and quality of their own creative output. After all, designers’ innovative potential is only as good as the strategies they turn to when faced with external and internal challenges. In short, I seek to explore the nature of creative synthesis as compared to the critical thinking emphasized in the liberal arts tradition, and to expand my creativity ability through strategic tactics and reflective practice. In that way, I intend to bring a more fully realized design practice with me when I return to the professional realm.


This study addresses learning deliberately undertaken to achieve a quantifiable goal, be it a good grade, improved work prospects, regard in the eyes of others, or other forms of advancement. In other words, an outcome beyond the learned knowledge or skill itself is at stake in the learning I explore here. And failure is one possible outcome. Therefore, this study does not address incidental learning. Similarly, this study addresses acts of creation that are intended to achieve quantifiable goals. Here too, failure is a possible outcome. Therefore, this study does not address incidental, “no-stakes” making or creativity. This study explores fear of failure as occupational hazards of learning and creativity for many people. But it does not attempt to speak to, for, or about all learners or designers. This study contrasts a liberal-arts construct favoring traditional “leftbrain” cognition, analytical thinking, and knowledge mastery with an arts construct favoring “right-brain” cognition, thinking-through-making, synthesis, and skill mastery. While “right-brain” and “left-brain” labels are sometimes reductive, they are nonetheless useful for expressing important differences. But this study is not an attack on the liberal arts or on the leftbrain mindset, nor does it examine the debate surrounding the biological basis of right- versus left-brain aptitudes. Finally, this study does not explore the research literature on pedagogy (i.e., teaching), education policy, or the use of games in learning.



Paul Tough describes Duckworth’s research in detail in How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, New York: 2012). Jonah Lehrer writes about the marshmallow test in “Don’t! The Secret of Self-Control,” The New Yorker, May 18, 2009. reporting/2009/05/18/ 090518fa_fact_lehrer, accessed February 12, 2012. Carol Dweck describes several decades of her own research in Mindset: The New Psychology of Success (Ballantine Books, New York: 2007).

The research paths I have pursued over the past year have led me to investigate the optimal mindset for productivity and creativity in design. I am influenced by several research areas in cognitive psychology that suggest that neither talent nor intelligence determines success in academics, career, or even life satisfaction. Rather, those outcomes are more accurately predicted by a metacognitive approach to challenges. Two areas of cognitive psychology currently receiving significant media attention inspired my metaprocessing methodology. Students’ levels of grit, or perseverance plus passion, is the focus of University of Pennsylvania psychologist Angela Duckworth. Grit is related to aspects of character associated with lifelong thriving, which were first identified in the famous 1960s “marshmallow test,” which measured young children’s ability to delay gratification. The growth mindset is how Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck dubs the metacognitive skill of seeing challenges and setbacks as opportunities. In contrast to this is the risk-averse “fixed” mindset that perceives effort itself as form of failure.← Albert Bandura’s research on self-efficacy, or confidence in one’s abilities (see page 7), goes hand in hand with the work of Duckworth and Dweck. “Gritty” students who demonstrate the growth mindset deeply believe in their ability to learn and improve. Bandura showed that students who lose or lack faith in their ability to learn and improve are unlikely to take the risks that real learning requires. For these reasons, I believe that metacognitive tactics for bolstering one’s confidence will foster more authentic learning and deeper creativity in design students — namely, me.


When creative endeavors are viewed as fluid processes in which challenges are inherent, there may be less discomfort. The acceptance that one will experience ebbs and flows in the creative process, that one will experience some failures, may lead to more accurate reflection and stronger, more enjoyable iteration. In other words, acceptance of setbacks (if not actual detachment) reduces frustration that can lead to defeatism. Another form of metacognition is self-awareness around strengths and weaknesses in one’s creative practice. For example, if you are not confident in your typographic skills, you must be constructive in your learning strategy and reasonable in your self-criticism if you want to improve. A generous selfregard in this respect may mitigate frustration and failure. When one has a consistent feeling of confidence — in spite of setbacks — there is greater willingness to endure and pursue discomfort. The essential goals of a play-infused design methodology are to develop this confidence and to create opportunities for low-stakes making. Finding the motivation to learn or create isn’t the same thing as preventing demotivation. Therefore motivated learning and making should anticipate and actively deflect or diminish the challenges inherent in both processes.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention (New York: Harper Perennial, 1997).

Richard Saul Wurman, “Hats,” Design Quarterly 145 (MIT Press, Cambridge, MA: 1989), 14.



In making the case that this education-centric realm of cognitive psychology is relevant to design practice, I also turn to the research of a pre-eminent psychologist of creativity. In his 1996 study of exceptionally creative individuals, Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi discovered essentially the same metacognitive abilities as Duckworth and Dweck. He found that “flow,” the seemingly effortless but intense focus that yields most creative breakthroughs, is achieved precisely through the same disciplined metacognitive approach as grit and the growth mindset.→ In other words, outstanding learning and outstanding creativity reflect consistent effort, not superior skill. In this study I investigate my own mindset as I attempt to expand and diversify my design tactics in action. As a result, my observations are largely of a personal nature: my own metacognitive experiences inform the work and are deeply integrated into my writing and making. While this is admittedly a self-study, my research suggests that the challenges I explore here are relevant to most people engaged in challenging creative or learning endeavors. In my experimental capstone project, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Process (see page 110), metaprocessing is a methodology that employs play tactics and emphasizes process and reflection in order to sidestep creative anxiety. That experiment reflects several related hypotheses that merge the psychology literature with design practice:

— Richard Saul Wurman

17 xxx

When youTheoretical approachContext a problem, you must go backward to find the beginning before going forward to find the solution. You must be a few steps behind where others usually start when solving a problem if you want to discover the forces behind the problem. Only then can you ask yourself the questions that will lead to productive solutions.

Theoretical Context

The History of Learning Theory 18

Learning is typically defined as the acquisition or transformation of knowledge.→ In its narrowest interpretation, this kind of learning involves facts, perspectives, attitudes, and logic, and it occurs in the mind. It is achieved largely through study: reading, observing, listening, and thinking. I think of it as learning by receiving, and in traditional education, it is associated with the liberal arts and sciences. Learning also encompasses the acquisition of skills and abilities. This kind of learning involves actions and behaviors, and often occupies the senses or the physical realm more than the acquisition of knowledge does. It is largely achieved through practice: performing, repeating, refining, and experimenting. This kind of skill-oriented learning is learning by doing. In traditional education, one could say that is it associated with arts, music, and athletic education. That said, the mechanisms of learning are by no means completely understood. Our understanding of learning remains largely theoretical due to the complexity of the learning process and the many different disciplinary lenses through which people study it. Until fairly recently, the effort to define how knowledge comes about was the province of philosophers. Even learning theories of the modern era — though typically located within psychology instead — trace their lineage back to ancient Greece.→ In the Meno, Socrates appears to demonstrate a priori knowledge of the Pythagorean theorem in an uneducated boy, thereby concluding that understanding resides “in the soul.”→ Though he employed the inquirybased teaching method now named after him, he denied that knowledge could in fact be imparted or bestowed: instead, he claimed, “all enquiry and

James G. Greeno, Allan M. Collins, Lauren B. Resnick, "Cognition and Learning," in The Handbook of Educational Psychology, David C. Berliner and Robert C. Calfee, Eds. (Macmillan, New York: 1996), 21.

Linda Darling-Hammond et al, How People Learn: Introduction to Learning Theories (Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University, 2001), 2.

Plato, Meno. http://classics., accessed March 21, 2013.


Darling-Hammond et al, 2.

Darling-Hammond et al, 4. One notable exception is linguist Noam Chomsky. The discrepancy between the grammar that children are taught and the language expertise they achieve led him to posit the existence of an innate “universal grammar.” See David Lightfoot, “Plato’s Problem, UG, and the Language Organ,” The Cambridge Companion to Chomsky, James McGilvray, Ed. (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005) 42-59.

Gardner, 7. John D. Bransford et al, Eds. How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School (Washington, DC: National Academy of Sciences, 2004), 6.

Jerome Bruner, “A Short History of Learning Theories,” Daedalus, Winter 2004, 19-20.

Gardner, 7.

19 The History of Learning Theory

Howard Gardner, “What We Do and Don’t Know About Learning,” Daedalus, Winter 2004, 5.

all learning is but recollection” that discourse brings to the surface.← Plato, too, was a rationalist: he felt that knowledge was gained through internal reflection. It was Aristotle, an empiricist, who stood in contrast, arguing that knowledge is gained through investigation of the external world.← These two viewpoints — rationalism and empiricism — evolved during the Renaissance and Enlightenment. In the vein of Socrates and Plato, René Descartes held that the key to understanding resided in the mind, which was “stocked with innate ideas.”← His dualistic view posited a sharp distinction between superior reason and inferior emotion, a distinction that has held long and influential sway over Western cultural and intellectual history. Enlightenment-era empiricists posited the opposite view. John Locke, in An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, held that the mind was a tabula rasa, or blank slate. Only experience made any meaningful impression in the mind, and connections that were made among such impressions yielded knowledge. Jean-Jacques Rousseau noted children’s capacity for unexpected genius and argued that knowledge should not be imposed on a child from without but instead allowed to flourish from within.↖ For the most part, the learning theories of the modern era hark back to the empiricist influences of Aristotle, Locke, and Rousseau.← In the first half of the twentieth century, psychologists investigating learning reflected the impact of Darwin’s theory of evolution, published in 1859. Behaviorism, with its emphasis on a continuum of learning across the animal kingdom, downplayed humans’ higher-order thinking. Researchers such as American researcher B. F. Skinner, whose research originated in animal conditioning, argued that learning was the result of automatic stimulus response, such as the trial-and-error behavior seen in lab mice.← This interpretation reveals behaviorists’ view that inquiries into consciousness were unscientific, and that only observable actions could be considered proof of learning. As a result, behaviorist pedagogy was often rigid, teacher-centric, and predicated on punishment and reward.← That said, one redeeming aspect of behaviorism’s now-tarnished legacy is its emphasis on action, or learning by doing. Learning theory might have continued in this simplistic vein but for two developments: the rise of linguists such as Noam Chomsky, who argued that language acquisition could not be explained by behaviorism’s stimulusresponse construct; and the development of high-speed computers capable of complex problem-solving.← In other words, computer processing did not emerge from our understanding of learning; instead, a new understanding of learning — and the 1960s’ “cognitive revolution” itself — emerged from the paradigm of computer processing.←

theoretical context


Cognitivism defines learning as the outcome of the brain’s informationprocessing functions. Cognitivists therefore tend to focus on the mech­ anisms of thought and memory: reasoning, problem solving, mental mapping, encoding, and retrieval. In this respect, the analogy between the human mind and the workings of a computer remains apt. In the first half of the last century, Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget and Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky dramatically shifted the landscape by considering how the learner’s conscious experience influences learning. Piaget, the grandfather of progressive learning theory, held that people gain knowledge through direct experiences. Influenced by Rousseau’s perspectives on children, Piaget was the first modern psychologist to investigate how children experience the world at specific developmental stages.→ Vygotsky pointed out that learners successfully bridge the gap between existing knowledge and new knowledge through interpersonal interactions, particularly with teachers and peers. His emphasis on the inherent sociocultural context of learning underscores the idea that learning never occurs in a neutral void. Piaget’s and Vygotsky’s research provided the basis for constructivism, which holds that learning is an active, experiential process of “constructing” associations between existing knowledge and new information.→ Progressive pedagogy, which tends to espouse student-centered teaching, expands on the paradigm shift ushered in by Vygotsky and Piaget. American progressive John Dewey, trained as a philosopher and psychologist, described the role of the teacher not as a didactic expert but as a facilitator of real-life learning experiences that allow students to make their own discoveries. Italian early-childhood educator Maria Montessori went further, advocating loosely structured play as the most effective and appropriate method for encouraging student-centered exploration, at least in early-childhood classrooms.→ Today, most Western educational models are informed by cognitivism’s paradigm of information encoding, processing, and retrieval as well as by constructivism’s paradigm of associations built between existing knowledge and new information. Progressive pedagogy sounds extremely sensible to me. However, I can’t point to anything in my own education that reflected it (except for two years of Montessori pre-school that I don’t remember very well). And as a teacher at a private school, I wasn’t required to know anything about learning theory.

Gardner, 7.

Darling-Hammond et al, 7.

Gardner, 7.

The only thing I remember about West Side Montessori was that my kindergarten class had a pet rabbit and that we did a lot of cooking projects. New York City, 1976.




’m not sure when it happened, or which adult’s remark it was, but at some point in my childhood I was declared intelligent. I must have responded favorably to the idea because “intelligent” became the pillar of my identity for the next 20 years. Perhaps this declaration was fortunate because I grew up a family where intelligence was the main currency. Verbal jousting and quick-wittedness were rewarded with attention. Being persuasive, accumulating knowledge, having a ready retort — these were ways of being that I learned to value.

It probably won’t come as a surprise that a couple of years after that, I became an English teacher (or that I prized verbal jousting and quick-wittedness in my students). For these reasons, my decision to pursue learning as the topic of my MFA thesis probably seems predictable. But in fact, I came to this thesis topic not because it was familiar but because design school felt so unfamiliar. Being a design student disrupted fundamental assumptions I’ve had my whole life about learning, intelligence, and achievement. Design school led me to reevaluate the leftbrain verbal and analytical skills I honed in myself so intently — which are precisely the skills most valued by traditional education. It also led me to reevaluate the worker-bee mentality that had fueled my successes in school up to that point.

23 metaprocessing

At school I was praised for these skills. To maintain that praise, I became a worker bee: I never skipped a homework, cut class, or half-assed an assignment. My singleminded dedication to doing well in school helped get me into Yale, where I majored in English. Four years later, I got the first job I applied to, as an editorial assistant at Random House.

I’ll let you guess how progressive my high school was. Nightingale-Bamford School Commencement, New York City, 1990.

The experiences I was having as a design student — so different from those in the liberal arts — struck me as promising responses to student-motivation challenges in K-12. I believed that practices that are central to design and design education — making, self-expression, participation, co-creation, and attention to process — had the potential to increase the relevance and authenticity of kids’ learning experiences. Therefore those same practices had the potential to increase kids’ motivation in school. I had a lot of conviction on this point, and I set out to develop pragmatic, “real-world” design solutions.

25 metaprocessing

Presenting my initial thesis research for review, I declared my intention to address K-12 education explicitly. Because K-12 education is an involuntary learning experience (unlike graduate school), I reasoned that it inherently poses significant challenges to student motivation.

I made endless lists of the psychological, environmental, cognitive, and social issues that impact learning. I developed grand metaphors. I drew up checklists. I attempted countless flowcharts.

But I had a nagging feeling that pursuing a thesis that focused on learning meant that I wasn’t venturing very far into new territory.

process + methodology 28



It’s intuitive that having a supportive and empathetic teacher is highly conducive to learning. Yet the frustrations common to teaching can directly impede a teacher’s ability and desire to create such an environment. Witness the extreme example of a math professor at Michigan State who reportedly had a mental collapse during class, stripping naked while shouting, “God… how can no one do anything right?” 1 Consider this anecdote in light of current frontiers of educational technology. Existing computerized 2 tutors such as ASSISTMents improve a student’s 3 learning by adaptively responding to his or her academic work and embodying empathetic behaviors. Onscreen avatars have been shown to improve learning outcomes (including avatars that play no role in the delivery of educational content). This is apparently because a human presence, real or not, increases engagement — and thereby attention, comprehension, and retention.4 These findings suggest that technology can improve learning outcomes through onscreen avatars that convey empathy. One way such avatars might function would be to play the role of metacognitive coach for each individual student. In this respect, face-recognition and engagementdetection technology in the emerging domain of “affective computing”5 could prove to exceed the empathetic capacity of human teachers. The merging of such technology to provide personalized emotional and cognitive support for every student seems probable to me.

process + methodology


Compu-Tutor is a three-minute video depicting interactive software that monitors and coaches an intransigent high schooler via real-time affective data about the student, captured via sensors. By imagining how such technology might play out in a single student-avatar dynamic, Compu-Tutor is intended to spark dialogue about how such a product might affect high-school learning and teaching, even if the avatar supplements rather than replaces human teachers as is the case here. In this regard, I was inspired by Carl DiSalvo’s 6 notion of reconfiguring the remainder. Though confident in the potential of software like CompuTutor to induce greater engagement in students, I wonder about the unforeseeable consequences of children interacting with human facsimiles that embody infinite awareness of those children’s emotions. What might be the consequences if children’s interactions with consistently benign and responsive avatar-adults outnumbered their interactions with real (and imperfect) adults? What might be the long-term social and interpersonal impact of a generation of young people accustomed to relationships with “people” who, by effortlessly reading their emotional state, and perhaps even their minds, essentially penetrate the borders of personhood? In my piece, which depicts the software interface monitored by an unseen human teacher, the student Jessica seems completely at ease with the idea of avatar interaction. In fact, when Jessica

learns that her regular avatar Sam has suddenly been replaced by the prim Angela, Jessica’s anger suggests that she has developed personal affection for Sam. (Too much affection, perhaps: Angela tells her, “Your teacher feels that a female Compu-Tutor is better for you right now.”) The interaction that unfolds, combined with realtime monitoring of Jessica’s rapidly fluctuating emotional state, seeks to demonstrate the formidable influence of emotion on cognition and engagement. As her anger thaws, in response to Angela’s solicitous overtures, her engagement, focus, and malleability increase. Originally the goal of this project was to critically explore current directions in empathic educational technology. Though not an example of a metacognitive design methodology per se, it reveals the role of metacognition — awareness of one’s thinking and of one’s behavior around thinking — in learning. In this case, however, the metacognition is located not within the student but in the Compu-Tutor software. Though I created this piece before I had landed on the idea that play can be part of a metaprocessing design strategy, it takes a “playful” approach to these issues through role play. Role play — adopting the character and circumstances of another person — is a powerful tool for learning for adults as well as for children. For that reason, role play has relevance to design practice,

31 Compu-Tutor

particularly as it brings empathy into the research process. IDEO’s Tim Brown has spoken about role play as a research methodology: It’s worth taking role playing seriously… [As adults,] we’re very good, when acting out a solution, at spotting whether something lacks authenticity. So role play is… quite valuable when it comes to thinking about experiences. Another way for us, as designers, to explore role play is to… project ourselves into an experience.7

However, in this project, my use of role play in this project solved a casting problem more than it provided a methodology for embracing a difficult creative challenge. That said, I learned that role play, used directly in a design project, offers a useful way of expressing bold opinions with a “protective” veneer of fiction. That veneer prevents others from necessarily identifying the designer with those opinions. Furthermore, playing roles on both sides of a relationship, issue, or concept can make it more comfortable to play either. (This was my approach in Apple : Apple :: as well. See page 102.) In this way, role play is another way of lowering the stakes, which is my primary reason for pursuing play after all.

1. Lilly Keyes, “MSU professor reportedly suffered mental breakdown, stripped naked,” The State News, October 1, 2012. http:// Accessed October 1, 2012. 2. 3. Annie Murphy Paul, “The Machines Are Taking Over,” The New York Times, September 14, 2012. magazine/how-computerized-tutors-are-learning-to-teach-humans. html. Accessed September 15, 2012. 4. Daniel Willingham, “The ‘Human Touch’ in Computer-Based Instruction,” September 12, 2012, http://www.danielwillingham. com/1/post/2012/09/the-human-touch-in-computer-basedinstruction.html. Accessed September 15, 2012. 5. The emotion-monitoring technology in Compu-Tutor — Emoti-Q and Focu-Sensor — are modeled after consumer products marketed by Affectiva, an affective computing company founded by MIT researcher Rosalind Picard. Accessed October 4, 2012. 6. Carl DiSalvo, Adversarial Design (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2012), 72-75. 7. Tim Brown, “Tales of Creativity and Play,” TED Talks, http://www. Accessed December 11, 2012. See page 130.

process + methodology 32





s a kid, I understood one form of intelligence: knowing the answers to the questions my teachers asked. I worked hard and got good grades. Kids who didn’t get great grades at school were often called creative. I thought that was the teachers’ code for less intelligent. To me, creativity even carried a tinge of superficiality. If anyone had ever called me “creative,” I would have expected a sympathetic pat on the shoulder. Once past grade school, the only kind of formal learning I ever experienced was a pretty internal and private affair. Even my best friend in the seat next to me didn’t know what I

Up until this program, not once in my educational history can I recall being encouraged to leave my comfort zone. No one ever said, Try it, take a risk. Certainly no one explained why I should.

35 confessions of the left brain

was writing my final essay on. The ideas I expressed in class discussion and on paper seemed to be all that mattered to my teachers. If I could produce good ideas in those two contexts, how I produced them didn’t seem to interest anyone.



In sum:

Things I learned to value: Ideas Analysis Argumentation Critical Opinions Knowledge Having the right answers

Things I did not learn to value: The forms that ideas come in* Creativity Exploration Originality Wonder Asking good questions *I’m lying a little: as a Yale undergrad, I took two fantastic graphic design classes — for fun, I told myself. And I spent more time on my design assignments than on my senior thesis in English. But the things I had learned to value stopped me from examining the significance of that fact.

process + methodology 38

A Good Morning


The first assignment I completed in the MFA program was for Alex Liebergesell’s Visual Language studio: a book project on the theme of journey. I wanted to focus on parenthood, specifically the experience of life with a threeyear-old: wonderful yet maddening. Initially I tried to capture that paradox through cleverly juxtaposed turns of phrase. My design followed suit: editorial in feel, with large color photographs, spare type, and generous white space. The consensus in my class critique was that this approach was a bit slick and clinical. I agreed: that approach was far from the mark. Thinking a bit more about my regular routines with my daughter, I decided to try to capture the gymnastics I have to resort to get us both ready for school. Suddenly it occurred to me that I could show these gymnastics by sharing them directly. The next morning I recorded three hours of conversation at home and on the way to school. Saddled with an unexpectedly long typescript (13,000 words), it seemed pretty clear that type would drive the new design. Initially I was selfconscious about pursuing something as “basic” as a purely typographic book. But since I had never actually designed one before, I forged ahead.

process + methodology


In A Good Morning I treated each spread as a single canvas, without paying attention to verso, recto, and gutter in the conventional ways. Finding ways to dramatize our conversation — its varying pace, pitch, and volume, as well as the endless repetitions (hers and mine) — was a wonderful kind of design game. Once I got started, it didn’t feel basic at all. It was challenging — and fun. Now with an understanding of the connections between motivation, effort, and creativity, I see the significance of the subject I had chosen. Because the subject had major personal significance to me, getting the design right mattered intensely. As a result I had nearly limitless energy to expend on the project. This serves as an important reminder that intrinsic motivation can fuel intense bouts of creative work. This kind of work defines a labor of love.


A Good Morning

process + methodology 42


A Good Morning



t’s instructive that almost none of the information in “The History of Learning Theory” (pages 18 to 20) resonates with me. Only constructivist learning theory offers me a satisfying interpretation of how we learn. It asks, What does each individual learn and why? In doing so, it seems to acknowledge the complexity and uniqueness of individual experience. Behaviorism and cognitivism, on the other hand, describe the mechanistic processes that power learning. They ask impersonally, How does learning happen?

In contrast, my interest in constructivism, my research into motivation, my contemplation of right- and left-brain modalities, and my examination of creativity are inextricably integrated into this thesis. Those topics have intrigued me from the beginning. Because of that interest, they motivated me to pursue the hard work of figuring out the connections among them. This entire thesis — not just the designed artifact before you but the entire process of its generation — could be seen as an example of constructivist learning theory in practice. It strongly reflects the questions I’m drawn to, whereas it weakly (or not at all) reflects suggestions that were made to me but that didn’t resonate with what I really wanted to understand.

45 what sticks

True, cognitivism’s central metaphor of brain-as-dataprocessor fascinates and inspires lots of people (including some of my classmates). But it doesn’t resonate with me. So while I’ve included it in my thesis, I basically leave it alone.

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Play Phone


At midterm reviews in the fall of my first year, the faculty told my class that we were doing too much thinking and not enough making. In response, Jean Brennan adjusted our final assignment in Transformation Design to put making first. For an iterative series of interactive public installations, she set parameters that encouraged us to pay attention to, and play with, form: Experiment with formal considerations of making in public. Design thinking through making. Rapid iterations. Reverse the process. Reflect on process. This was probably the first time that I ever set out to design something a project without any content. Certainly it was the first design project I had ever done that contained zero text. No concept? No idea to put forward? No content-driven reason for being? It felt more like an art assignment than a design assignment — a strange, disorienting experience. And yet, it opened up a new realm for me, a realm in which form and aesthetics lead the way, and intellectual notions sit back. The analogy may be silly, but I imagine my left brain — usually at the steering wheel — forced to hold its tongue in the passenger seat while the novice driver lurches hesitatingly but enthusiastically forward. I think this project was the beginning of my rightbrain awakening.

process + methodology 48

49 Play Phone

Initially, a purely pragmatic environmental consideration drove my decision-making. My firstfloor apartment overlooks a corner pay phone, giving me the perfect unobtrusive vantage point from which to document the project. For the first iteration (at left), I wanted to wrap the pay phone, Christo-style perhaps. I chose materials I had lying around: old Tiffany-window wrapping paper from the Met, some wrinkly fabric-like paper from India, and a bit of ribbon. From those materials emerged the notion that the pay phone was transformed into a grandmotherly, chintz-filled living room. The public response was good. All kinds of people stopped to examine and interact with the first iteration, and it lasted undisturbed almost a week. For the second iteration, I wanted to articulate something about the decline of public pay phones and the loss of conversations, both coin-powered ones and ones between passersby now too absorbed in their smartphones to stop and chat. So, to encourage use of the phone to foster both oral and written dialogues, I covered the entire phone booth in bright yellow paper and attached real quarters and a Sharpie (plus sanitizing wipes to encourage actual handling of the phone). I was initially pleased with this iteration (page 50). I hoped the quarters and exhortations to call

someone or write a message, would communicate the purpose of my project and therefore add value to it. However, while the expanses of blank yellow paper did elicit some interesting responses, there was no indication that the quarters had been used to make any calls (not to mention yield meaningful conversations). Jean and my classmates felt that this iteration was in some ways a step backwards: I had narrowed the possibilities for playful interactions with the public by overdetermining the purpose of the installation. This feedback led me to I began to consider how a piece of design (or art) can have value to the community without needing to have a stated or even fully known purpose. Now I see how my leftbrain impulse to impose meaning on that second iteration had unwittingly diminished the sense of mystery and delight. The final iteration (pages 51 and 52) was intended to create for the public the kind of play and experimentation that I had been experimenting with. I made two significant decisions: to remove all suggestion of purpose and context, and to push further my use of the physical space. But most of all I wanted to invite people to experience a sense of wonder simply by playing with a curtain of ribbons on a street corner in Brooklyn.

process + methodology 50


Play Phone

process + methodology 52


Play Phone



ight years after college, I did something that I’m a little amazed I had the guts to do: without almost no training in design, I quit my teaching job to become a graphic designer. I enrolled in a bunch of graphic design classes, tutoring kids in writing on the side. Two years later I was working full-time at a design studio. For someone with my background, I think I was a pretty good designer. In fact, I wore my verbal and analytical skills as a badge of honor. But on some level I was aware that those strengths existed in the absence of real confidence in a purely visual realm.

So in my late thirties, I went to graduate school. It’s been harder than I expected, but also much richer. metaprocessing


Over the past two years, I’ve come to recognize a number of features specific to design school that present opportunities for more authentic learning than I have ever experienced. If my earlier education has offered some of these learning opportunities, I might never have developed such a narrow view of learning, intelligence, and achievement. Design school is studio based. Because we work side by side and share our work with classmates and teachers on a weekly basis, learning is externalized. It’s harder for people and their ideas to hide. Design school is process based. Because we show our work at every stage, the focus of crits tends to be on how to make the work better, not on how good the finished product is. This helps demystify how to learn. It also helps deconstruct the notion that good design “just comes easily” to some people. Design school is open-ended. Having the freedom to choose the themes and format of our projects gives us the opportunity to figure out what we’re really interested in. This freedom encourages a certain degree of self-reflection and awareness.

It also helps ensure personal investment in the work, which may increase our willingness to work harder. 57 how design school (maybe) saved my soul

I started to wonder if these experiences were so integral to design education but not the liberal arts because designers make things. Designers create artifacts that themselves are intended to engage an audience beyond the classroom — an audience “in the real world,� if you will.

This led to more questions:

What is it about making that’s so different from thinking? Why is making valuable in and of itself?

Is making a form of thinking? Is making a form of learning?

Theoretical Context

Learning as a Kind of Making 60

Constructivist learning theory suggests that learning is fundamentally a deeply personal and internal form of engagement. It suggests that learning is a reflection of past and present experience. What you learn reflects of who you are and what drives you. Conversely, who you are and what drives you are reflections of what you have learned. Humans are drawn to meaning because meaning is what creates relevance. Meaning is what motivates us to learn. However, constructivism reminds us that meaning is in the eye of the beholder. In other words, what’s meaningful to me may not be meaningful to you. And what’s meaningful to me now is certainly not what was meaningful to me when I was 15. This concept may be easier to grasp in the inverse, i.e.: we have little inclination to assimilate information that has no significance or resonance for us. To put it another way: an idea that has little meaning for me isn’t likely to find a home in my mental construct (1) because I lack other ideas to which it relates and (2) because I am not motivated to incorporate it into any existing meaning. This helps explain why students find it difficult and even unpleasant to attempt to learn things that have no meaning for them. (K-12 educators take note.) I would argue that this point is critical not only to teachers, but also to communication designers. For instance, I have sought out knowledge of social psychology throughout my adult life, but credit-default swaps, despite their having been explained to me a dozen times, I do not understand. I could add, “…try as I might,” but that would be disingenuous: I haven’t tried to understand credit-default swaps, not really. Frankly, they hold little meaning for me, and therefore I feel little motivation to

Is learning really a form of making? Design students make what they are interested in. They make things that have meaning to them. Through that making, they learn. If learning is a form of making, are they twin processes, where learning is an internalized form of meaning-making, and making is an externalized form of meaning-making?

61 Learning as a Kind of Making

understand them. And so that piece of information floats past me, never becoming incorporated into my existing knowledge. Constructivism views learning as a process of making associations between new and existing ideas, and through those associations building knowledge. The paradigm of knowledge being constructed, of being built, lends itself to some interesting metaphors — a house with different wings, a composite sculpture, a network, a city. And it raises some interesting questions for designers. For instance:

process + methodology 62

Make More


My second assignment in Visual Language studio was entitled “ritual.” I knew I wanted to explore the lack of ritual in my own life, so I set out to understand what makes rituals valuable to most other people. I was struck that many rituals are defined by what is essentially process — sequences of gestures experienced in the moment. I was also drawn to the idea that many rituals offer practitioners some kind of transcendence. One vivid example is trance, which I felt was related to the flow state. Meanwhile, in Technology studio with David Frisco, I had been thinking about the role that hand-writing (i.e., writing by hand) plays in one’s thought process. For instance, the practice of freewriting by hand, like other low-stakes repetitive-motion activities, can open up and even breed new thoughts. The trance state, freewriting, and flow all share a connection between physical action and cognition. Around that time, we first-years headed into midterm review, where my classmates and I received the advice to make more. Returning to the ritual assignment, that advice sparked an idea: Does hand-making interact with and generate thoughts similarly to hand-writing? After that moment, the concept for this piece developed quickly. I decided on stop motion

because I wanted to reveal process in action. More importantly I needed the activity to be very much about process, to see if the experience offered me any transcendence (or at least ideas I didn’t have access to otherwise). It was important to design a fairly rote activity, something not too taxing or stressful, allowing for a “disengaged attention” through which interesting thoughts might bubble up. I decided that my ritual would entail constructing a three-dimensional typographic piece, at a scale appropriate for aerial shots. I designed the action to delay the final reveal as long as possible. My idea to destroy the letters as soon as they were built came very suddenly. After all, many rituals conclude with the destruction of the ritual object. Furthermore, destroying the object, especially one that took so long to create, seemed a strong way to convey a mindset that values process as much as (if not more than) product. The value of the exercise ended when the process ended. Was the four-hour process of constructing the letterforms transcendent? Unfortunately, but not surprisingly, no. Nor was the activity (filmed and under pressure) a ritual strictly speaking. But I can say that I achieved the “disengaged attention” that can occur when making by hand. It is a transporting headspace especially conducive to creativity — and rarely achieved at a computer.

process + methodology 64


Make More

process + methodology 66

Anni Albers, On Designing (Middleton, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1971), 31.

Artwork‌ teaches the process of all creating, the shaping out of the shapeless. No picture exists before it is done, no form before it is shaped. Things take shape in material and in the process of working it, and no imagination is great enough to know before the works are done what they will be like.

— Anni Albers



ast fall I had another designschool experience that was never a part of my liberal arts education. My advisors were telling me to get out of my comfort zone.

I didn’t really understand what they meant. They were talking about discomfort like it was magic sauce for making thesis projects. I didn’t get it. Were they trying to get me to change my topic? For a month I was extremely uncomfortable. But not in the way they had intended. I stewed. Creatively, I froze. I don’t

think I made a thing, certainly not anything that I thought was good. It felt like my motivation had abandoned me. Then I had a major epiphany.

Finally it was clear to me: I didn’t have to focus on K-12 education to explore the mysteries of demotivation. There was plenty of discomfort and anxiety in grad school. Then another epiphany. One purpose of discomfort may be making thesis projects, but before that, the purpose of discomfort is learning. Authentic learning is about breaking out of known territory and into new territory. In fact discomfort is a signal that you’re really learning. Discomfort as a learning methodology. Eureka! Then I realized something: that meant I would have to skate closer to failure than I ever had. Yikes.

discomfort zone

We are wired to avoid the unknown, not to embrace it. Fear of the unknown isn’t a theoretical fear: the anxiety it creates has the potential to demotivate even deeply committed learners. And both learning and creativity — the two endeavors I’m intimately engaged in as a design student — require an embrace of the unknown.


process + methodology


Things That Have Meaning to Me/ Everything Else


Things that Have Meaning to Me /Everything Else is a personal project exploring my own history as a student. In two bound books, the project juxtaposes the school notes I’ve taken at two different times in my life. The first book, Things that Have Meaning to Me, contains handwritten notes, scrawls, and sketches that I made during the past year while thinking through this thesis. Many pages were cut down from large sheets of butcher paper, craft paper, and card stock I had pinned to my studio wall. About a hundred pages long, the book is overprinted with three “looping” pages that read Things that have meaning to me/I examine/and build on. The second book, Everything Else, is closer to a thousand pages, all excised from the painstakingly neat and comprehensive notebooks I kept in high school. Those pages are overprinted with the message Everything else/I ignore/or forget. As a kid, my goal was to master the information I was given. My own thoughts and experiences did play much role in my learning or my motivation. A part of me is proud of the labor represented in those endless perfect pages. But I’m struck by their colorless automaticity, in contrast to the looser, more colorful, more dynamic (and yes, messier) notes I took while working on this thesis. To me, Things that Have Meaning represents how authentic learning should look (and feel).

process + methodology


Draw to Learn


Ned Drew’s image-making assignment in the second year of Visual Language was deeply process-oriented. He required that we begin by developing a three-dimensional image matrix and that we document our work in a process book. But the ultimate direction, theme, and content were completely open. In class he referred to the process book as a “learning book” that “should capture how you approached this assignment when you didn’t get it at all.” Even though that last aspect lent itself to my thesis topic, the image-making requirement was difficult for me. The looseness of the these parameters made me feel surprisingly unmoored and uncomfortable. For a few weeks I felt stuck in a cycle of seemingly futile note-taking and halfhearted Google image searches. With the ultimate purpose of the final artifact eluding me, I had no idea how to jump in productively. The assignment specified that our image matrix should reflect three modes: instruct, evoke, and educe. Many of us had trouble the concept of educe despite Ned’s clear definition (“drawing out something latent or potential”). Most of my classmates opted out of educe altogether, but I really felt I couldn’t: “educe” is the root of “education.”

process + methodology


Eventually this coincidence gave me the idea of just diving in headlong, and approaching the project explicitly as a learning journey. I realized that my matrix’s three modes needed to be very simple. I settled on cognition, emotion, and creation. I would explore each of these in three different locations on a value spectrum: best-case, neutral, and worst-case. Now I had to make sense of instruct, evoke, and educe. I interpreted instruct as the most straightforward modality — a literal, direct representations of an idea. That tier of the matrix would be filled with images found through Google. Next came evoke, which I interpreted as figurative and metaphorical representations. There, the form would be illustration, and I would have to draw the images myself. Finally, I decided I could fulfill the slippery educe with tertiary images built from the first two modalities. In other words, by sampling the previous sets of images, I would “draw out something latent or potential” from them.

There was a degree of masochism in this decision, as I had little confidence in my figure-drawing ability. Nor had I ever done any collage-based image-building like that, surprisingly. Frankly, it felt a bit scary. (I wrote in my notes, How do you do something that scares you? — You just do it! Take it on and inhabit the discomfort. Observe it. Easier said than done, of course.) I layered and juxtaposed elements from my drawings and the Google images to create new images. In the final book ­— a hybrid of a personal narrative and a document of my image-building process — I wanted to capture in a plainspoken form the vulnerable feelings this project caused for me. The text I wrote for the book was a combination of an internal monologue and observations on learning when learning is hard. The final product is unpolished, but I think that reflects my discomfort fairly well. Convincing myself to base the piece on skills I am not particularly confident in not only exorcised some of the accompanying anxiety; it also embodied learning as a conscious and deliberate act.


Draw to Learn

process + methodology 80

81 Draw to Learn

Retrospectively, I see that my methodology was, in part, play: I didn’t know where I was going, or quite what I was hoping to create, but play allowed for a discovery process, allowing the images themselves to drive me in the absence of a clear design goal. Play let me stay open to experimental making when my ego was protesting, Don’t make me do something I’m not good at. This experience helped me see why play is a good form of learning to turn to in the absence of mastery. Furthermore, it suggested to me that a special kind of creativity, unforeseeable and unpredictable, emerges through play. This project allowed me to engage in an unfamiliar and experimental process without knowing or even understanding the outcome. Without that pressure, I was able to get making, finally, and to experiment with images in a new way. I credit my experience with this project for leading me to the concept of metaprocessing.

Theoretical Context

Understanding Motivation 82

For me, design school offers a stark and liberating contrast to much of the liberal arts. Because design education is skill based and practice-driven, it offers hands-on, experiential learning. Because it requires students to generate and synthesize their own ideas, it is participatory and offers personal relevance. For these reasons, I think of design education as making one’s own learning from within. This line of reasoning has led me to view learning — authentic learning — as a kind of making: it is an act of creation. This strikes me as notably different from my experience of the liberal arts, which emphasize critical analysis and knowledge received from without. While the liberal arts make sense of the world we live in — whether through history, literature, philosophy, or other disciplines — it doesn’t extend the same invitation for learners to participate as design does. In my experience, constructing one’s own learning in a deep and resonant way is harder for a student of the liberal arts. (At least I feel that way retrospectively. One depressing aspect of my liberal arts education is that the curiosity it encouraged was so limited. It encouraged me to question the things I saw, but not to question what I didn’t see.)

This line of thinking suggests that design school is in many ways an ideal example of constructivist learning in practice. Design education affords two key constructivist features: hands-on practice and the personal relevance of self-expression. Initiatives that bring design and design thinking into traditional K-12 education seek to capitalize on these affordances.→ Yet whether or not this assertion is accurate, it fails to shed light on the paradox I described in the Introduction: that the great motivation I brought to graduate school didn’t automatically translate in my developing great strategies for designing, making, and being creative. But why didn’t it?

In the early stages of my thesis research, I has a superficial grasp of these affordances, and was enthusiastic about pragmatic applications of design to the K-12 classroom. As it turned out, I was not the first person to have this idea, In 1996, design educator (and former middle school teacher) Meredith Davis co-authored a major study of design in K-12 education. In 2010, Riverdale Country School in New York City partnered with IDEO to develop a resource to encourage teachers to bring design thinking into students’ learning experiences. Riverdale is the school where I taught high school English for six years, but unfortunately for me I left before its design initiatives began.[See Meredith Davis et al., Design as a Catalyst for Learning. (Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, 1997) and Design Thinking for Educators. http:// designthinkingforeducators. com.]

Richard M. Ryan and Edward L. Deci. “Self-Determination Theory and the Facilitation of Intrinsic Motivation, Social Development, and Well-Being.” American Psychologist 55.1 (2000): 68.

Ryan and Deci, 69. Kennon M. Sheldon et al, “The Independent Effects of Goal Contents and Motives on Well-Being: It’s Both What You Pursue and Why You Pursue It,” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, Vol. 30 No. 4 (2004), 475-476. I can’t resist: “People for whom it is highly important to amass wealth, present an attractive image, and become popular or famous tend to report ill-being, including greater anxiety, depression, narcissism, psychosomatic symptoms, conduct disorder, and high-risk behaviors, as well as poorer self-actualization, self-esteem, vitality, and social functioning.” Ibid, 483; emphasis mine.

Ryan and Deci, 70.

So why aren’t we all like that all the time? Why don’t we simply maintain the toddler’s predisposition toward exploration and learning? By explaining the circumstances in which we flourish, SDT also reveals the circumstances in which we become dysfunctional. Intrinsic motivation is a delicate flower that “can be fairly readily disrupted by various nonsupportive conditions.”← What is noteworthy is not the innateness of intrinsic motivation so much as the factors that can undermine it. That is, motivation is a function of those needs — competence, autonomy, and relatedness — being met. When those needs are not met, we cease to function optimally, and our natural self-motivation shuts down. When

83 Understanding Motivation


Motivation describes our willingness to expend energy on a task. Motivational theories “[come] down to a central question of what… individuals want and whether there are basic needs that define what people want.”← Self-determination theory (SDT) is a widely accepted theory of human motivation that makes specific claims about what humans need and want. SDT acknowledges the influence of the unconscious and of one’s emotional outlook.← It posits that people have an intrinsic propensity to grow and evolve, i.e., to learn, when three innate psychological needs are met: competence, autonomy, and relatedness. In other words, humans’ emotional well-being depends on three essential perceptions: (1) that we have some degree of ability and agency, (2) that we can exercise some control over our circumstances; and (3) that we have a sense of belonging. Richard Ryan and Edward Deci, who defined and have researched SDT extensively for several decades, consider that intrinsic propensity a “manifestation of the human tendency toward learning and creativity,” and have identified it as intrinsic motivation.← When those needs are met, we can thrive: our intrinsic propensity “to seek out novelty and [manageable] challenges, to extend and exercise [our] capacities, to explore, and to learn” flourishes.← In other words, when we experience competence, autonomy, and relatedness, we are wired to be create and to learn. Intrinsic motivation drives activities that we pursue for their own sake, such as emotional intimacy, community-building, and “personal growth.”← Extrinsic motivation, on the other hand, drives activities that we pursue for their by-products, such as money, prestige, attractiveness, and power. Unfortunately modern life is disproportionately skewed to the latter kind. Intrinsic motivation explains labors of love; it explains why humans willingly expend effort on tasks not directly related to survival. It explains why a toddler is so tirelessly motivated to walk, without any promise of reward: she is hardwired to want to explore, test, and extend the limit of her skills. When humans feel competence, control, and a sense of belonging, we are innately inclined toward curiosity, discovery, and understanding. ←

Paul R. Pintrich, “A Motivational Science Perspective on the Role of Student Motivation in Learning and Teaching Contexts,” Journal of Educational Psychology, Vol. 95, No. 4, 669.

John Dewey, Democracy and Education, 1916.

theoretical context


that happens, our natural drive to learn and create shuts down too. This paradigm helps explain why even a person who is highly motivated toward a particular endeavor can become demotivated: the endeavor itself — or the idea of it — threatens his innate need for the perception of competence, and, to a lesser extent perhaps, the perception of control. The theory of self-determination begs an interesting question: how are we supposed to be able to learn (much less have an intrinsic drive for learning) if we unconsciously also demand competence at all times? Doesn’t learning by definition require an embrace of information or aptitudes we aren’t competent in? It turns out that the thought I know nothing about this is not what threatens motivation. In fact, if the “this” in question has relevance for the individual, not knowing anything about it is precisely what fuels the motivation. (In my case, not knowing anything about social psychology, but feeling an interest in it and believing I could learn, fueled my motivation to pursue it.) However, the thought I cannot learn this or I won’t be able to do this can be deeply disabling and demotivating. These thoughts fuel the fear of failure.

Education is not an affair of “telling” and being told, but an active, constructive process. — John Dewey

process + methodology 86

10000 Hours


10000 Hours is game that introduces 11-to13-year-olds to metacognitive strategies that contribute to more effective learning. The title is a nod to the research popularized by Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink: namely, that skill-mastery requires ten thousand hours of study. In this case, the skill is mindful learning: developing awareness of one’s emotional responses to learning challenges and managing those responses through conscious tactics. 10000 Hours was initially conceived as a toolkit that aims to “describe methods and processes, deliver messages, articulate goals, and prompt desired action,” to use the words from Alex Liebergesell’s assignment for Transformation Design. From a learning perspective, the toolkit’s most important feature is that it offers intrinsic motivation: the fun of game play. When I was a fifth grader, my entire class fell under the spell of Mille Bornes. A French game from the 1950s, Mille Bornes is in Games Magazine’s Hall of Fame alongside Monopoly and Trivial Pursuit. A four- or six-person team-based game, its only physical artifact is a deck of 110 cards in a car-shaped plastic tray; there are no game pieces, figurines, or game board. Play consists of two-member teams embarking on a journey whose goal is to reach 1000 bornes (a “borne” is a roadside distance marker along French autoroutes). However, progress is regularly halted by empty gas tanks, accidents, flat tires, and speed traps dealt by one’s opponents — that is,

process + methodology


halted until the required remedy (gas, repair, etc.) is drawn from the card pile. Most coveted are four unique cards that grant total immunity from one of the four setbacks. My key breakthrough was discovering that I could adapt Mille Bornes’s original context of a difficult road race to the learning process itself — a metaphorical journey with its own formidable challenges. In my version, the goal of the learning journey is engagement; specifically, the ten thousand hours of engagement that are required for mastery. The challenges that interfere with engagement (collectively referred to as “hazards”) are: setbacks (negative feedback, failure); negativity (self-doubt and other destructive mindsets); obstacles (situations and problems that impede learning); and two straightforward cognitive pitfalls, boredom and distraction. The remedy cards (“fixes”) offer tactics to get the player back on track following each type of setback. “Mastery” cards bestow four broad metacognitive strengths: spirit, strategy, grit, and drive. My greatest challenge was to make the game’s complex taxonomy visually transparent and easy to grasp. The cards had to distinguish clearly between hazards, fixes, and mastery skills as well as unite each hazard-fix-mastery trio. And given how abstract (and potentially uninteresting) notions like grit and drive might be for a 12-year-

old, I needed to personify them somehow. But how would I show a young person grappling with these abstract problems without (a) having to resort to hand or digital illustration, or (b) specifying sex or race in ways that might exclude members of my audience? My image-making approach ventured into territory that was entirely new to me: I cut androgynous silhouette figures from black construction paper and craft paper, and posed them with three-dimensional objects in simple vignettes. I felt that depicting metaphysical struggles in physical space would lend them more visceral communicative power. These scenes evolved directly from the imagemaking exercises I was simultaneously (and painfully) creating in Visual Language studio (see Draw to Learn, pages 76 to 81). From those exercises I determined how I might convey the rather abstract learning hazards. Negativity became a tangled string in the head and the heart; boredom became a silhouetted head full of crumpled bits of paper; a setback became a partially toppled house of cards. I gave each hazard-fix-mastery trio a designated color from a simple and bright constructionpaper palette. I then photographed the vignettes at close range: the hazards against dark backgrounds, the fixes against light backgrounds, and the masteries against their designated colors.

Students must suspend hazards (dark cards) by drawing and playing the corresponding fixes (light cards). Mastery cards grant full immunity against their corresponding hazards. (“Drive� prevents two hazards: confusion and distraction.)

process + methodology


Though my photography was mostly praised, the feedback on the imagery itself was mixed. The fact that I had generated completely original images was well-received, but some of the faculty felt that my visual language needed to be connotative rather than denotative. I countered that my young audience might not be able to grasp connotation. Even if they could, I felt pretty strongly the images shouldn’t require much brain power to be deciphered, lest the larger learning goals of the game be lost. Granted, to a more sophisticated audience, some of the visual metaphors I used — a paper airplane flying out of a person’s head; the figure with arms raised triumphantly — may seem cliché. Nevertheless, I feel that personifying abstract emotional and mental states builds a useful mini-narrative for each hazard-fix-mastery trio and gives students a character to identify with. Assessing the game’s overall effectiveness with a sample audience is an ongoing process. This spring I was able to test the current iteration with fifth and sixth graders at Poly Prep, an independent school in Brooklyn. The feedback was enthusiastic and helpful. For instance, the students felt that the four mastery cards tipped the game too steeply in one team’s favor. Could there be more mastery cards, they wondered? Also, watching them play, I noticed that the game’s rapid pace and dependence on luck didn’t really encourage or reward reflection, so I am exploring how to make metacognitive strategizing part of the game play. And when asked directly,

the students said liked the visual metaphors. From observing them, my sense was that they understood most of the images intuitively. A final note on my own metacognition: the critical feedback on the imagery bothered me more because I was more invested in this project than in many others. But my reaction lifted once I recognized what the project symbolized in terms of my own growth and learning. Pursuing the imagery the way I did was a form of play, and it allowed me to stretch myself creatively. Psychologist Carol Dweck, whose research on metacognition informed this project from the beginning, describes the ideal learning mindset as the willingness to see challenges as opportunities for growth. “Why seek out the tried and true,” she writes, “instead of experiences that will stretch you?” My approach to this project attempted to embody that mindset. 1. Carol Dweck. Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. (New York: Ballantine Books, 2007), 25. I discuss Dweck’s work on mindset, as well as Angela Duckworth’s research on grit, in the Hypothesis. See page 15.

Sixth graders at Poly Prep take 10000 Hours for a test drive. Brooklyn, 2013.

Theoretical Context

Demystifying Creativity 92

As I noted in the Introduction, my research on the factors that make learning flourish or flounder led me to view learning as analogous to creativity. To set the stage for the remainder of this thesis, I will review the parallels between learning and creativity that I have touched on so far: All creative breakthroughs begin with learning, by achieving mastery in a particular domain. The notion that creativity is innate is a common misperception. Instead, it is a cognitive practice, just like learning. Both learning and creativity are processes that take place over time, and both require effort. The essential basis of creativity is making. If learning is the process by which we build ideas into networks of meaning, then learning can also be seen as a form of making. In creative practices such as graphic design, meaning-making is externalized. In learning, meaning-making is internalized. (This thesis, as well as the design of the thesis book itself, seeks to integrate my internal learning process with my external design process.) Learning and creativity require an embrace of the new and the unknown. This means that a new learning endeavor, just like a new creative endeavor, requires one to forge new territory. Success is not guaranteed. Therefore, learning something new or creating something new usually requires confidence in our ability to make progress.

Without that confidence, we experience the fear of failure. This often manifests in anxiety and discomfort, which inhibit learning and creativity.

Great achievements in learning depend on the same habits of mind as great achievements in creativity: commitment to effort, confidence in one’s ability, tolerance of discomfort, willingness to fail, and perseverance.

What Qualifies as Creative? Robert J. Sternberg and Todd I. Lubart “The Concept of Creativity: Prospects and Paradigms” in Robert J. Sternberg, Ed., The Creativity Handbook (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990), 3. Daniel Goleman, Paul Kaufman, and Michael L. Ray. The Creative Spirit (New York: Dutton, 1992), 26-27. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Creativity, 28.

Teresa Amabile as quoted in Daniel Goleman, Paul Kaufman, and Michael L. Ray, The Creative Spirit. (New York: Dutton, 1992), 28. Ibid.

Our present-day understanding of creativity emerges from the domains of cognitive psychology and, more recently, neuroscience. The two broadest requirements tend to be novelty and appropriateness. Something defined as creative cannot be a replica of something that already exists, and it has to “work” or be apt in some way.← Another dimension of creativity, first articulated by Howard Gardner, is domain. He holds that creativity usually manifests itself in a single domain, such as music, motion, logic, or language, and does not necessarily exist in, or transfer to, other domains.← Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, whose creativity studies of the 1990s brought the concept of “flow” into the mainstream, adds a further requirement: audience.← Often referred to as “Big C” creativity, this is the special strain of creativity that wins renown — and research grants. While all creativity researchers admit the existence of “little c” creativity, few study it. A notable exception is Harvard psychologist Teresa Amabile, who acknowledges the creativity of the “chef in her kitchen… invent[ing] a variation on a recipe” and the “bricklayer… devis[ing] a new way of laying bricks”.← Amabile also holds that creativity is a response to a heuristic (openended) task or problem, not one that has a readily apparent solution.← It is “little c” creativity that I take up here. My interest stems from the simple but profound act of bringing something into being. To me, all acts of making, as designers typically use the term, qualify as creativity. Therefore I tend to speak of creativity and making interchangeably. I define making as bringing forth an idea by giving it tangible form. By giving an idea shape, making extends beyond thinking. And unlike thinking, which is invisible and internal, making is visible and external, even if only to the maker. This is why I argue that making, that the act of creation, has tremendous value, even if it cannot be judged a “novel or appropriate solution to a problem.”

93 Demystifying Creativity

Anxiety and discomfort are heightened in social contexts where our failure will be witnessed by others; even further when one’s learning or creative performance is assessed by peers, teachers, advisors, bosses, or clients; and further still if that assessment carries rewards and punishments.←

The Conceptual Essence of Creativity

theoretical context


Those who approach creativity from an epistemological standpoint clarify an important nuance of novelty: The creative act is not novel per se but is rather a novel combination of existing ideas. As the writer and philosopher Arthur Koestler explains: The creative act is not an act of creation from the Old Testament. It does not create something out of nothing; it uncovers, selects, reshuffles, combines, synthesizes already existing facts, ideas, faculties, skills.→

That is, something truly creative is in fact not new but is made new through recombination. And the more creative it is, the more unforeseen, hard to grasp, and even heretical it will appear to most people: “The more familiar the [recombined] parts, the more striking the new whole.”→ This combinatorial novelty explains why many psychometric measures of creativity simply test people’s capacity for generating unusual ideas. One reputable “creativity test” counts the number of atypical uses for a brick — or cardboard box, or wire hanger, or other typical object — that the subject can name in a fixed amount of time.→ Those who rate high on creativity tests prove less susceptible to “functional fixedness,” a psychological phenomenon in which an object’s typical use elicits such strong associations as to effectively blind us to uncommon (but technically possible) uses.→ Many popular writers have recounted the evolution of the Post-it note, Swiffer mop, and other business-world legends in which a familiar product is vaulted into a new context, when old function is put to completely novel use. As Koestler puts it: “Discovery often means simply the uncovering of something which is always been there but was hidden from the eye by blinkers and habits.”→ He also identifies a related phenomenon: the most ground-breaking creative breakthroughs seem the most obvious — after the fact.→ In his book The Act of Creation, a rich, cross-disciplinary exploration of creativity, Koestler proposes an elaborate conceptual model for understanding the essence of creativity. “Bisociation” describes how two previously unrelated frames of reference, or matrices, coincide in a single novel idea — in other words, in a creative act. Creative acts supersede the “silent codes” that exist outside our conscious awareness but that nonetheless shape our everyday understanding of things. “The creative act, by connecting previously unrelated dimensions of experience,” breaks free of that understanding and “enables [us] to obtain to a higher level of mental evolution.”→ He presents a compelling case for this combinatorial framework in three rarely associated realms: the arts, science, and humor. In the design world, this facility is often referred to as lateral thinking, a term popularized in the late 1960s by creativity guru Edward de Bono.

Arthur Koestler, The Act of Creation (New York: Macmillan, 1964), 120.


Sternberg and Lubart, 3. Richard Griffiths, “Problem-Solving Phenomena.” Accessed April 2, 2013. http:// staff/rng/teaching/ notes/ProbSolvPhenom. html.

Koestler, 96. Ibid.


95 Demystifying Creativity

In Koestler’s view, creative acts involve the bisociation of two apparently incompatible frames of thought governed by fixed rules.

Edward de Bono, New Think (Avon Books, New York: 1967).

Csikszentmihalyi, 60.

Mark Beeman, “Research: Solving Problems with Insight” http://groups.psych. research.htm#Insight.

Whereas convergent thinking tends to lead one’s thoughts logically from one conceptual sphere to neighboring spheres, creativity involves divergent, boundary-leaping transfers across one’s mental landscape.← In short, lateral thinking bypasses default associations in favor of unexpected ones. Though not immediately obvious, these leaps make sense or are apt or satisfying in some way. (This is why “appropriate to the context” is widely accepted as a criterion for creativity.) Czikszentmihalyi found that those who exhibit “Big C” creativity are masters of both convergent and divergent thinking modes: People who bring about an acceptable novelty in the domain seemed able to use well two opposite ways of thinking: the convergent and the divergent… Convergent thinking is measured by IQ test, and it involves solving well-defined, rational problems that have one correct answer. Divergent thinking… involves fluency, or the ability to generate a great quantity of ideas; flexibility, or the ability to switch from one perspective to another; and originality in picking unusual associations of ideas.←

This dichotomy between convergent and divergent thinking correlates with the distinction Teresa Amabile and others have made between algorithmic and heuristic problem-solving (see page 10). It also maps onto the loose constructs of left-brain logic versus right-brain creativity. Without delving too deeply into neuroscience, recent evidence supports the historically controversial claim that the brain’s right hemisphere is the seat of divergent thinking. Mark Beeman, a cognitive neuroscientist at Northwestern University, has found that the ability to connect unrelated ideas resides in the right brain. When given challenging puzzles that required flashes of insight, subjects’ right-brain activity spiked at the moment they solved the puzzles. Beeman reports that “no insight effect was observed anywhere within the temporal lobe of the left hemisphere.”←

theoretical context 96

The Mystique of Creativity

Csikszentmihalyi, 58-73.

The Creative Mindset Creativity expert Edward de Bono held that creativity is the result of a habit of lateral, or divergent, thinking — and that it can be strengthened through practice. At left, I work through one of de Bono’s lateralthinking puzzles: balancing knives on bottles placed at distances of more than one knife’s length, such that a glass of water can rest on the knives. See The Five-Day Course in Thinking (New York: Penguin Books, 1971).

Warren Berger, Glimmer: How Design Can Transform Your Life, and Maybe Even the World (New York: The Penguin Press, 2009), 54.

Csikszentmihalyi’s research has revealed the importance of domain mastery in “Big C” creativity. The role of mastery is intuitively obvious. It’s impossible to imagine the achievements of Mozart, O’Keefe, Newton, or Turing emanating from anything other than a deep skill and conceptual facility with music, painting, physics, or programming, respectively. However, less obvious is the reason why it is also useful to adopt a naïve, outsider perspective. When the contours of a problem — or the ostensible tools for solving that problem — become too familiar, it becomes harder to make mental leaps toward innovative solutions. The principle of functional fixedness, which operates strongly here, is the enemy of divergent thinking. In fact, innovation pundits now refer to the “curse of knowledge,” which holds that as expertise increases, creativity tapers off. Innovation expert Cynthia Barton Reid has helped popularize the notion that breakthrough ideas are more likely to come from “zero gravity thinkers,” i.e., those not weighed down by conventional wisdom.← To use Koestler’s terminology, such thinkers can “bisociate” ideas more readily because they more easily break free from everyday assumptions that typically limit thinking.

97 Demystifying Creativity

Sternberg and Lubart, 5.

Creativity’s mystique as an innate talent may stem from deep cultural and religious beliefs that associate creativity with divine inspiration. According to psychologists Robert Sternberg and Todd Lubart, “the study of creativity has always been tinged — some might say tainted — with associations to mystical beliefs.”← Such ideas have made creativity difficult to pursue through scientific inquiry, and that movement took shape only 60 years ago, as the so-called cognitive revolution. Csikszentmihalyi may have done the most to puncture the creativity mystique. After years of interviews and research, he found that the aptitudes of creative people across the arts, the sciences, and business were essentially the same, and distinctly paradoxical: smart yet naïve; playful yet disciplined; imaginative yet realistic; extroverted yet introverted.← He established that there is no single mode, nor even a collection of single, polar extremes, that foster creativity. Furthermore, creativity emerges not just from considerable temperamental flexibility but also from selfawareness and control. In other words, Csikszentmihalyi convincingly argues, highly creative people know when and how to deploy specific behaviors and mindsets for optimal productivity. In other words, they approach their creative endeavors strategically, with metacognition.

theoretical context


But to be clear: expertise is not the enemy of creativity. Rather, the problem is the mental entrenchment that arises when experts don’t make an effort to see the problem from different perspectives. Notably, adopting a naïve perspective often requires some courage, particularly for experts. Stages of the Creative Process One remarkable feature of creativity is that it consistently emerges as the result of a distinct cognitive pattern. Perhaps this is because divergent thinking is counter-logical and only reached by a circuitous sequence. Csikszentmihalyi defined five stages of creative achievement: Immersion in the ideas and context of a particular challenge, often ending in frustration that the solution remains elusive Incubation, when ideas churn unconsciously, often a seemingly inactive stage Insight, when a possible solution is suddenly reached; the eureka moment Evaluation, when one must decide whether to pursue the solution, and how Elaboration, when the solution is developed and fully realized.→

The final stage, elaboration ­— often the most difficult and time-consuming of all ­— is when the act of creation itself actually occurs. And with more complex problems, these stages are less likely to be linear than recursive. However, not all creative processes set out to solve a unique problem (such as the formula for calculating the volume of irregular solids; see next page). Many creative people, including designers, look to the creative process to generate lots of ideas rather than seek a single highquality insight. In this case, an ideation/brainstorming stage usually follows immersion, and incubation may not be necessary for them to occur. That said, the eureka moment — when an insight presents itself seemingly out of the blue and “solves” the design challenge — is often quite palpable. The ideation/brainstorming stage is followed by iteration/ prototyping, when multiple ideas are developed and tested. The most mysterious stage in the creative process, theoretically and practically, is incubation. Incubation is the seemingly passive fallow period that occurs after the diligent and effortful mental activity of immersion, the learning stage. That suspension of effort makes sense, however, when one considers that creativity relies on divergent associations. The immersion stage depends on convergent associations that allow us to construct a logical understanding of the problem and its context. That thinking is rarely a useful stage-setting for insight.→ Only incubation, which suspends convergent thinking, lowers the barriers between realms, making leaps across realms possible.

Csikszentmihalyi, 79-81.

Pharmaceutical attentionenhancers such as Adderall, widely prescribed to children, induce strong outward concentration, thereby dampening the capacity for divergent thinking and insight. Margaret Talbot, “Brain Gain: The Underground World of “Neuroenhancing” Drugs.” The New Yorker, April 27, 2009. reporting/2009/04/27/ 090427fa_fact_talbot.

Incubation requires restful inward attention. This helps explain why we sometimes close our eyes when trying to make difficult mental connections or retrieve “distant” information. (It also helps explain why insights often occur in the shower.) Koestler describes the mythic moment of Archimedes gaining insight into measuring the volume of irregular solids:

Here we see the paradoxical value of a naïve mindset: presumably Archimedes’s mind was not consciously steeped in his dilemma at that moment, allowing his perception to be absorbed by the physical sensation of stepping into a warm bath. Then with fresh eyes he was able to see, literally, the answer before him. Similarly, dreams and the liminal moments between sleep and wakefulness often yield insights because conscious thought is suspended. The incubation stage is also noteworthy for its emotional dimension. Because little happens during this stage to give us evidence of forward momentum, it’s often a highly frustrating period. Koestler vividly describes the mental discomfort that a stubborn creative impasse can cause:

Koestler, 118; italics mine.

When all hopeful attempts at solving the problem by traditional methods have been exhausted, thought runs around in circles in the blocked matrix like rats in a cage. Next, tantrums and attacks of despair [and failure]… [or] the distracted absentmindedness of the creative obsession [and insight].←

Interestingly, such frustration is at times adaptive. That is, when a frustrated individual throws up his hands at his work and retreats in disgust, he unwittingly makes room for incubation, when the unconscious mind takes over the problem.


At this stage — ­ the “period of incubation” — the whole personality, down to the unverbalized and unconscious layers, has become saturated with the problem, so that on some level of the mind it remains active, even while attention is occupied in a quite different field… until either chance or [insight] provides a link to a quite different matrix, which bears down on the problem... and the two previously separate matrices fuse.←

An understanding of how the brain works at these critical stages in the creative process may make it easier to heed one’s creative blocks by taking a break, and cognitive step back, from the problem.

Demystifying Creativity

Koestler, 106.

It occurred to him in a flash that the volume of water displaced was equal to the volume of the immersed parts of his own body…. The matter is childishly simple after the fact — but let us try to put ourselves in Archimedes’s place. He was in the habit of taking a daily bath, but the experiences and ideas associated with it moved along habit-beaten tracks…. No doubt he observed many times that the level of the water rose whenever he got into it; but this fact, and the distance between two levels, was totally irrelevant to him— until it suddenly became bisociated with this problem.←



theoretical context


The holy grail of creativity is flow, a state first identified by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. He defines flow as an “effortless yet highly focused state of consciousness” that often occurs in unusually creative people under the following conditions: Clear goals and immediate feedback A sense of challenge balanced with a sense of skill Action merged with awareness Freedom from distractions, self-consciousness, and worry of failure “Autotelic” activity, i.e., an activity that offers intrinsic motivation→

Csikszentmihalyi first identified these factors not while researching creativity or flow but rather human enjoyment. Given what he saw as the “vague, unfocused, constantly distracted condition of the normal mind,” he wanted to understand the circumstances that allow people to achieve intense, sustained focus over a prolonged time, and that inoculate them against fatigue, doubt, and other factors that typically undermine motivation and decrease effort.→ Only later, when studying creative people and looking for the characteristics of the flow state, did he realize that those characteristics were nearly identical to those of deep enjoyment. Csikszentmihalyi’s research echoes the work of Richard Ryan and Edward Deci, whose research reveals the role that motivation plays in human achievement of all kinds (see page 83). Humans thrive when working toward meaningful goals. In other words, intrinsically motivating activities (which are meaningful by definition) give us a desire — ­ and stomach — for work, including the hard work of learning and creativity. Humans are wired to be learn and be creative, but we only reach our full learning potential and creative potential when we experience strong motivation. And that requires freedom from self-consciousness and worry of failure, as Csikszentmihalyi found. In flow, we feel that our abilities are well matched to the opportunities for action. In everyday life we sometimes feel that the challenges are too high in relation to our skills, and then we feel frustrated and anxious. Or we feel that our potential is greater than the opportunities to express it, and then we feel bored. Playing tennis or chess against a much better opponent leads to frustration; against a much weaker opponent, to boredom. In a really enjoyable game, the players are balanced on the fine line between boredom and anxiety. When the challenges become too great for the person to cope with, a sense of frustration rather than joy creeps in — at least for a while.→

This notion that flow lies between anxiety and boredom is, I would argue, easier to grasp when expressed in terms of high- and low-stakes

Csikszentmihalyi, 110-113.

Csikszentmihalyi, 351.

Csikszentmihalyi, 118.




n an

ow fl




endeavors. High-stakes endeavors, this thesis for example, tend to focus one’s mind and energies, but the vastness and importance of the endeavor can overwhelming, even paralyzing. A low-stakes endeavor tends to be approachable and nonthreatening, but its relative unimportance makes motivation hard to come by. However, there are two “sweet spots,” i.e., tasks that are neither anxiety-producing nor boring: low-stakes tasks that are rewarding, and high-stakes tasks that one consistently feels competent enough to achieve. Indeed, flow is imbued with a feeling of competence. Whether it’s learning to walk, discovering the laws of physics, or designing a master’s thesis, any endeavor flourishes when in flow. Flow exists only in the absence of anxieties that often surround significant challenges, be they learning challenges or creative challenges. If the flow state allows for deeper creativity and allows for “safer” excursions into discomfort, how might a metaprocessing design methodology encourage the conditions that allow for flow?

Demystifying Creativity


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Apple : Apple ::


Apple : Apple :: is the culmination of a Visual Language studio assignment for Ryan Waller in which I presented the visual history of the apple. My starting point was the traditional “apple for the teacher.” I knew that the apple had a rich visual symbolism, but I didn’t fully realize how widely divergent the context can be. Research led me in many directions: mythology, Genesis, Snow White, Isaac Newton, William Tell, Steve Jobs, and my hometown. American lore suggests that students traditionally gave apples to their teachers because teachers (often single women) tended to be impoverished and therefore malnourished. The symbol of the apple has since evolved to represent teachers and teaching. However, the apple also operates as a symbol in a very different context: temptation and the fall from grace. (Note that the fruit of the tree of knowledge in the Garden of Eden is unlikely to have been an actual apple: the Old Testament Hebrew word simply denotes “fruit.”) Nevertheless, images of women biting into apples, often while making eye contact with the viewer, have become visual shorthand for female sexuality — and the supposed danger it represents. Unsurprisingly then, the apple is almost always an offering made by a girl or woman. This explains why Googling “apple for the teacher” turns up no pictures of a female student giving an apple to a male teacher. In fact, such an exchange would probably require a NSFW shift of context, too, from innocent student to underage sex object.

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Struck by the unusual shapeshifting that allows the apple to accommodate two diametrically opposed meanings — innocence and experience — I decided to respond by shapeshifting myself. I posed with both versions of the apple. In the thesis show, I placed the resulting portraits back to back so that viewers would not be able see the two apples simultaneously. I felt this juxtaposition embodied the mutually exclusive nature of the two meanings. In this project as well as in Compu-Tutor (pages 28 to 33), I discovered something interesting about role play: it let me appear in my own images without feeling exposed. From a strategic standpoint, the distance that role play created between reality and fiction made it easier to take creative risks that might not occur to me (or seem feasible) otherwise. And it helped to play opposing roles: I might not have had the guts to display sexylady, as I called her, without the portrait of that sweet little girl to balance her out.

Theoretical Context

Deconstructing Play My investigations into the research on learning, motivation, and creativity have explored: analogies between learning and creativity the interconnectedness of learning and making the interconnectedness of cognition and creativity making as an opportunity to explore and reflect ideas of personal relevance the nature of intrinsic motivation, which is the fuels of the deepest kind of learning and creativity the boost in confidence, energy, and anxiety-resilience that is conferred by intrinsically motivated activities the central role of intrinsic motivation in authentic learning, creativity, and flow

If learning and making are both hampered by fear of failure and discomfort with the unknown, might play offer a useful construct for a metaprocessing approach to design? For my thesis capstone, I set out to explore play as a tactic that might sidestep that fear as well as foster intrinsic motivation. Play as a Mode of Learning Why do we play? Generally we think of play as a way to have fun, to be entertained. But from a biological standpoint, it’s actually something quite profound. Picture a child digging in the sand at the edge of the surf, or two children playing make-believe, or even bear cubs wrestling with their mother. Play is learning made fun.


theoretical context


The power of play in learning environments is not new. Armies of “edtech” companies supplying schools with game software are just the latest wave of learning-game enthusiasts. With good reason too: the participation, accessibility, interaction, scalability, and customization that technology affords all make digital learning games an educational juggernaut. Reflecting this is the growing gamification of pedagogy today. New York City’s Quest to Learn School, co-founded by game designer Katie Salen, is one renowned example, but smaller play initiatives launch at traditional schools every day. Too often, however, play is (rightfully) regarded skeptically as fun arbitrarily overlaid on learning that is otherwise boring. In order to understand why play is such a powerful construct for learning, I set out to understand the defining features of play. Play is an activity that is desirable in and of itself rather than as a means to end. Its value lies in its status as a process or ongoing activity. Even when it has a goal, that is not the sole source of play’s value. Play is intrinsically motivating. In other words, we play because play is inherently enjoyable. In fact, there are seven distinct properties of play activities, according to researcher Stuart Brown. Play is done for its own sake is voluntary is inherently attractive

brings freedom from time brings diminished consciousness of self

offers improvisational potential offers continuation desire →

Stuart Brown, M.D., with Christopher Vaughan. Play: How it Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul (New York: Avery Trade, 2010), 17.

What’s especially striking about the research on play is how much play resembles the flow state. Both involve intense absorption and the sensation of unlimited energy to devote to the activity at hand. As we have seen, that kind of tireless attention is closely linked to intrinsic motivation. Another reason why play resembles flow lies in the protection that play offers from incompetence, vulnerability, and other feelings that dilute intrinsic motivation: In play, most of the time we are able to try out things without threatening our physical or emotional well-being. We are safe precisely because we are just playing…. We can learn lessons and skills without being directly at risk.→

What seems to make play a safe activity is that it establishes a context of low stakes. We can see that play between wrestling bear cubs operates

Brown, 34.

as a simulation of a life-and-death situation. By removing real-world consequences, play evolved into a means of training for survival in the real world. In other words, play not only offers a path to flow (and therefore to achievement), it also expands creativity by opening up a “safe space.” Play makes it possible to open windows onto the new and the unknown:

Brown, 34, 37.

The genius of play is that, in playing, we create imaginative new cognitive combinations. And in creating those novel combinations we find what works.←

Brown’s research supports the convergence between learning and creativity that also occurs in play. It also supports the view that the danger of anxiety lies in its tendency to dilute or destroy intrinsic motivation. That last point is significant. When anxiety arises in a person who is engaged in a labor of love, that anxiety will evaporate all the benefits of being intrinsically motivated: the sense of absorption, the sense of confidence in one’s ability — not to mention the flow state that makes deep learning and creativity possible. Play as a Process-Based Mindset Play can be loosely categorized according to context. All of these categories of play have applications to design practice: Free play This is the kind of play that children naturally engage in, and it is where learning is most evident. Free play is unstructured, experimental, discovery based, and open-ended. It is imposes no expectations or inhibitions. The methodology I used in Play Phone is an example, as are some aspects of my approach to Draw to Learn, Apple : Apple ::, and 10000 Hours. Structured play Another category is play that engages with an artificial narrative construct — often a challenge — that is designed to provide compelling entertainment. In short: games. In this kind of play, explicit rules establish not only the concept but also the parameters of the actions allowed. Winning and losing may be an aspect of this form of play, but losing does not amount to a failure at playing.

Deconstructing Play

For humans, creating such simulations of life may be play’s most valuable benefits. In play we can imagine and experience situations we have never encountered before and learn from them. We can create possibilities that never existed….


My capstone experiment in metaprocessing, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Process, intentionally borrowed elements of all of these constructs.

Quoted in Jonah Lehrer, “The Virtues of Play,� Wired. March 16, 2011.

theoretical context


Improvisational play A third form of play is improvisational, and it typically operates within fairly loose constraints. Rather than confining, these constraints are enabling: by preventing the sense of overwhelm that absolute freedom can cause, they make improvisation possible. As with any improvisation, the play evolves continuously and is dynamically responsive. In other words, the way it moves forward reflects and responds to the path it has taken.

The struggle of maturity is to recover the seriousness of a child at play. — Friedrich Nietzsche

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How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Process


How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Process is the documentation of my experiment in metaprocessing. The project was a response to the difficulty I felt deciding on a capstone project and my hesitation to begin making. I designed the experiment to jumpstart the design process despite not feeling ready to start and not knowing what I would do with the results. The project began with a learning paradox I was frustrated by. Thesis class runs the whole second year of the MFA program. In contrast to our studio classes, where our professors’ assignments set parameters and deadlines, thesis projects are self-initiated and mostly self-directed. In other words, thesis class offers complete freedom to develop and pursue projects perfectly tailored to our research. One might think such freedom would launch a flurry of creation. But for most of us, it didn’t. We talked about projects, we came up with plenty of interesting ideas, but we took a long time to get around to making — despite exhortations from our advisors. Every day that passed, the prospect of figuring out and starting the capstone become more and more high-stakes, exacerbating the problem in a vicious cycle. Needless to say, the idea of actually enjoying my capstone had vanished from my mind. It became clear to me that I needed to manage this freedom more productively by lowering the stakes. Drawing on my research on the benefits

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of a metacognitive approach — specifically perseverance and resilience — to learning outcomes, I began to wonder: Could a deliberately metacognitive and process-focused design methodology mitigate those inhibiting feelings and restore a sense of fun, even under pressure? Because of my research on intrinsic motivation — that experiential delight we get from inherently enjoyable activities — I was suddenly inspired by the construct of play. Play is, after all, enjoyable by definition. It occurred to me that the construct of play could inspire a design methodology that sidesteps anxiety, ignites making, and even expands the bounds of creativity. Why play? Not only is play enjoyable, it also makes daunting tasks less so. According to play researcher Stuart Brown, play allows experimentation “without threatening our physical or emotional well-being.... We can learn lessons and skills without being directly at risk.” Play fundamentally depends on parameters that shape positive experiences while preventing risky ones. For instance, when play becomes stressful or dangerous, it doesn’t feel like play. What distinguishes play, then, is how effectively it moderates risk. Because it is intrinsically a lowstakes activity, play is a powerful form of learning, and perhaps unique. If learning (or making) is daunting under normal circumstances because of the chance of failure, play sidesteps that anxiety

by making failure an impossibility. After all, losing a game is not the same thing as failure. Understanding how play is a learning tool and how it promotes a process-based mindset helped me articulate three constructs of play that shaped my metaprocessing methodology. Free play offered a model for open-ended discovery that sets aside expectations and the notion of failure. Structured play provided strict parameters that prescribe particular courses of action, often by chance, sparking action and eliminating indecision. And improvisational play inspired loose metacognitive constraints to encourage awareness of the process, and dynamic responsiveness, through reflection. (See pages 109 to 110.) With these constructs in mind, I developed the following parameters for my experiment: For content [A], write down the central themes of your thesis. On that basis, determine X number of projects and a time limit for each. For format [B], write down X possible forms/ kinds of projects. For procedures [C], write down X procedures that encourage reflection on process (for example, breaks to take a walk or to freewrite). Put the As, Bs, and Cs in separate containers, then draw one A+B+C combination. Set a timer and get making. Repeat until done.


1 Miniature installation Play motivates. Start with a 15-minute brainstorming collaboration.

6 Computer-free anything The biggest killer of both learning and creativity is the fear of failure. Get feedback after 2 hours.

2 Life-sized installation Learning is the merging of new ideas. Creativity is the merging of old ideas in new ways. Work for 40 minutes, take transporting 10-minute break; 40/10; 40/10; 30/stop.

7 Public Art Learning is internal meaning-making. Creativity is external meaning-making. Work for 40 minutes, take 10-minute break to assess in writing; 40/10; 40/10; 30/[10].

3 Miniature book Flow lies between anxiety and boredom. Take a 15-minute walk after 1 hour.

8 Notebook cover Both learning and creativity require an embrace of the unknown. 2 hours for first prototype, then 1 hour on revision to prototype.

4 Image-only poster Play sets learning and creativity free from anxiety. Start with a 15-minute walk. 5 Image and type poster Constraints make play possible. Take a 15-minute writing session after 2 hours.

Using this methodology, I completed ten threehour design projects over 16 days.

9 Paper-based anything Intrinsic motivation puts the love in labor. Start with a 15-minute writing session. 10 Experience for others A crisis-of-confidence that suspends making has only one cure: making. Get feedback after 1 hour.

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Process

I pulled the following A+B+C combinations:

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The goal of metaprocessing is to have a consistent awareness of my process and of my thoughts and feelings about my process, and the ability to take strategic action based on those observations. Therefore, I wanted the book documenting my experiment to reflect my inner experience of each of the ten projects: various cycles of focus, flow, calm, anxiety, pressure, confidence, frustration. Long sequences of photos of myself thinking, writing, sketching, and making, are layered with the notes, commentary, and sketches I was working on at that time. The layout and use of color highlights moments of creative insight and of frustration — frustration that was usually due to my inability to obey the three-hour time limit. To manifest the goal of embracing process (over product), images of the finished projects are limited to gatefolded pages at the end of each project. A reader flipping through the book will not see the finished products at all, but rather a chronicle of a whole lot of work. This decision reflects my belief, supported by Csikszentmihalyi and others, that the simple investment of time and effort determines one’s creative output more than intrinsic skill. Breakthroughs do not happen unless you do the time, so to speak.


How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Process

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How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Process

process + methodology 120


How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Process

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Perhaps one unexpected advantage of completing ten projects — a solid 50 hours of work — was that I accumulated enough experience with metaprocessing to reach some conclusions about its effectiveness. Allowing chance to determine all ten A+B+C combinations got me making immediately. Focusing so closely on process, and suspending judgment on the finished products, decreased my creative inhibitions and made it possible to enjoy the sense of play, despite the pressure. Metaprocessing not only made me more aware of my creative process as it unfolded, it also allowed me to dispassionately observe my ideas rather than immediately judge (and reject) them. This objective stance made the decision between continuing or course-correcting more intuitive and more rational. In other words, I wasn’t basing design decisions on self-consciousness or other feelings extraneous to the design project. What I didn’t foresee was how this experiment would increase my creativity. In the 16-day course of this project, I had palpable moments of creative insight. They manifested themselves in formal explorations that were novel to me. While these creative insights were not all fully realized or explored in my ten projects, I returned to some of these formal breakthroughs in subsequent projects in the sequence, as well as in this book. Without metaprocessing, I am pretty certain I

wouldn’t have had those moments of insight or, more importantly, the mindset to pursue them despite not knowing if they would “work.” That said, this methodology didn’t make me immune to negative thoughts. Most often I felt frustration for exceeding my three-hour time limit, which I did all but one time. Sometimes I realized, too late, that my design idea didn’t merit the time-consuming production method (i.e., the duplicator in project 3 ) or format (i.e., stop-motion video in project 7) that I had chosen. It’s notable that those questionable production decisions; they were not prescribed by the given parameters. My tendency to stick stubbornly to an idea even when I’m aware of its flaws was frustrating. It demonstrated just how important it is to listen objectively to the inner dialogue between myself and the process. Nor was I completely free of anxiety. I noticed myself imagining other peoples’ reactions to my projects. In a few cases I even dodged the prescribed parameters out of discomfort with showing the final products. On the other hand, I did make some pieces public that I didn’t have to. In brief but real flashes, How I Learned to Stop Worrying built my faith in process. This was especially valuable in those critical moments when I had little sense of where I was going. In the past, such moments would threaten to seize up my creative ability.

Design Precedents

Constraint-Driven Design The use of constraints is not new to design practice. Many designers embrace constraints; fewer use constraints as a concerted response to the psychological demands of creative work. Yet the psychology at work in creative endeavors, which I explored in the section titled “Demystifying Creativity,” is helpful regardless, for it explains the counterintuitive fact that imposing constraints often frees the creative process. When I developed the metaprocessing methodology for How I Learned to Stop Worrying, I was unaware of the three following precedents, all of which resemble the rules-based structured play construct.

Luna Maurer et al, Conditional Design, www.conditionaldesign. org/manifesto.

Helen Armstrong and Zvezdana Stojmirovic, Participate: Designing with User-Centered Content (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2011), 70. Maurer et al.

Conditional Design “The process is the product,” according to the Amsterdam-based design collective Conditional Design.← Collaborators Luna Maurer, Edo Paulus, Jonathan Puckey, and Roel Wouters first came together around a common interest in programming and design processes whose input comes from humans rather than from code. Though they eschew the labels “generative design” and “code art,” there is an algorithmic aspect to their work.← The designers create each piece in turns according to strict rules they have devised, just as in a game. As they explain in their manifesto, “constraints sharpen the perspective on the process and stimulate play within the limitations.”← The Conditional Design methodology has much in common with my play tactic. The use of constraints jumpstarts the design process by prescribing specific actions, which dramatically reduces the available


design precedents


design methods and formal possibilities. And as the experience of the “game” itself is fun, process is the driving concept. In fact, the group initially hit upon the concept in a designers’ version of game night: regular Tuesday-night sessions around Luna Maurer’s kitchen table.→ Chance also plays a strong role in their methodology. Because the rules they establish are arbitrary, each discrete design move is largely a matter of chance, i.e., the design moves that have come before. Uncharted and entirely unforeseeable forms result. The designers themselves don’t themselves know what to expect. The collective developed this process-based design tactic partly for practical reasons, as Jonathan Puckey relates in a 2011 interview:

Helen Armstrong and Zvezdana Stojmirovic, Participate: Designing with User-Centered Content (Princeton Architectural Press, New York: 2011), 70

After writing our [Conditional Design] manifesto, we decided to use these evenings to create work. Through these workshops we could define better what we were trying to talk about. Every week one of us have to come up with an idea, and then within that evening we had to do it. We built a system where we could document it easily and presented to the outside world directly [i.e., photographs shots from above]. Both the failures and successes of the evenings were sent to the outside world. It was difficult to keep this going… Quickly after starting the workshops, we began getting questions about exhibitions. Somehow we started becoming professional with the space, which was meant to be an amateur place where we could just play around. We are trying to find a balance right now.→

To me, what’s remarkable about the Conditional Design methodology is that it seems to harness intrinsic motivation unwittingly. In other words, they talk about human programming being the inspiration for Conditional Design, yet they developed a tactic that they continuously pursued for its own intrinsic delight. In that light, it’s not surprising to learn that their casual Tuesday-night tactic yielded paying work after they developed and reified it as conditional design. Similarly, Puckey’s admission that they are being compensated (“becoming professional with the space”) and need to “find a balance right now” is consistent with motivation research showing that extrinsic reward diminishes our intrinsic enjoyment of an activity.→ Despite these affinities between their tactic and mine, their embrace of logic marks a significant conceptual difference. Their manifesto articulates a left-brain ethos: “Logic is our tool. Logic is our method for accentuating the ungraspable. Avoid arbitrary randomness. Difference should have a reason.” Their adherence to logic yields interesting forms, but to me, it almost seems to reduce design to a math problem. Given their interest in human programming, it’s interesting that they encourage only one human modality: rationality. Yet I wonder if that is at odds with an embrace of

Ibid., 68-70.

Why? Extrinsic rewards change our perception of autonomy: if financial gain is a possible explanation for the successful achievement of our task, we feel a loss of true autonomy, and as a result intrinsic motivation suffers. (Ryan and Deci, 70.). Intrinsic motivation tends to operate intact and undisturbed when we engage in a task under our own steam, according to our own wishes. This has major implications for learning tasks in evaluative contexts — aka, education — as well as for achievement tasks in remunerative contexts — aka, employment.

125 Constraint-Driven Design

A rather simple example of Conditional Design’s work is “Cellular Relationships.” The process involved drawing circles according to the following directions: Draw a cell that intersects one or two cells of another color. The center point of the cell must be outside the intersected cells. Find the points where your circle intersects with other cells and connect them with straight lines. Erase all enclosed cell segments that result from the intersection. If your cell intersects two cells, draw a baby cell within one of them. Cells can only be impregnated once. Repeat.

“Drop Fringe Garland Red Green Blue,” a piece commissioned by Items magazine in the Netherlands, was governed by more complex rules. Draw a continuous periodic line from left to right. The line is defined by its period and its amplitude. Each period consists of max. 6 line-segments until it repeats. The line-segments are constructed from: red = diagonal lines; green = diagonal lines and vertical/horizontal lines; blue = vertical/horizontal lines. The period of each new line is either the same size, double the size, or half the size of its predecessor. The amplitude of each line is the same and overlaps half of the previous line. Color the smallest fields that emerge from intersections. Repeat.

process? Perhaps not, though it certainly represents a departure from my emphasis on the affective dimension of the creative process.

design precedents


The Morphological Box Karl Gerstner, a student of Emil Ruder in Basel in the early 1950s, may be best known for his embrace of programmed constraint as a design methodology.→ In Designing Programmes, a 1964 book that quickly became a classic among modernist designers, Gerstner argued for creative decisions reached not by “feeling” but by the systematic application of “intellectual criteria”: Designing means: to pick out determining elements and combine them. Seen in these terms, designing calls for method. The most suitable I know is the [morphological box] Fritz Zwicky has developed, although actually his is intended for scientists rather than designers. The creative process is to be reduced to an act of selection.→

Gerstner’s “morphological box of the typogram” is a matrix of criteria by which a designer can methodically develop a logotype.→ Gerstner’s hyperlogical design tactic reveals a modernist taste for rational design orthodoxy. Yet he acknowledges another rationale for this morphological approach: conserving creative energy.

Bryan Kulba, “Karl Gerstner and Design Programmes,” http://carlosfiorentino.files. karl_gerstner_and_design_ programmes.pdf. Accessed April 3, 2013.

Karl Gerstner, “Designing Programmes” in Graphic Design Theory: Readings from the Field, Helen Armstrong, Ed. (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2009), 58.


The strength of this pro­gramme is that it… keeps the designer from hav­ing to randomly think of type vari­at­ ions for develop­ing... a word­mark. The pro­gramme is not a replace­ment for creativ­ity, how­ever. Once a designer gen­er­ates a ver­sion that has some­thing interest­ing about it... they can then focus on refin­ing that idea. The pro­gramme allows the designer to expend their cre­ative energy on the refine­ment of a good idea instead of a large num­ ber of ideas which may not address the problem.→

It seems that Gerstner developed this tactic in response to his own metaprocessing as a designer. Without directly addressing the psychological factors that can thwart creativity, he uses constraints preventatively to optimize design practice. Oblique Strategies Developed by composer Brian Eno and painter Peter Schmidt, Oblique Strategies is a deck of simple cards offering guidance in the creative process. The project was born when Eno and Schmidt discovered that they both kept lists of strategies for responding to mental blocks, time pressures, and other dampers on creativity. In a 1980 interview, Brian Eno described the counterproductive emotional reactions that made Oblique Strategies a vital part of his creative methodology:

Bryan Kulba, “Celebrating Karl Gerstner,” http://www.aisleone. net/2010/design/celebratingkarl-gerstner. July 7, 2010. Accessed April 7, 2013.

127 Constraint-Driven Design

Gerstner’s word mark for intermöbel is an expression of the thirteen blue-shaded criteria in this morphological box. Notably, Gerstner acknowledges, “Not all of the components are of equal importance; only two [criteria, in darker blue] are actually decisive... combined shades and something replaced.” Gerstner, in Armstrong, 58.

Oblique Strategies contains simple directions such as “Do something boring,” “Just carry on,” “Listen to the quiet voice,” and “Only one element of each kind.”

design precedents


The panic of the situation — particularly in studios — tended to make me quickly forget that there were others ways of working, and that there were tangential ways of attacking problems that were in many senses more interesting than the direct head-on approach. If you’re in a panic, you tend to take the head-on approach because it seems to be the one that’s going to yield the best results. Of course, that often isn’t the case — it’s just the most obvious and — apparently — reliable method. The function of the Oblique Strategies was, initially, to serve as a series of prompts which said, “Don’t forget that you could adopt this attitude,” or “Don’t forget you could adopt that attitude.” →

The Oblique Strategies Website, ObliqueStrategies/OSintro.html, accessed April 3, 2013.

A more targeted tactic than metaprocessing, Oblique Strategies shares the same origin: creative “panic,” to use Eno’s word. By offering alternate, unexpected pathways for moving forward, Oblique Strategies offers way to dismantle the deer-in-the-headlights mindset that undermines creativity. It is curative whereas Gerstner’s morphological box is preventative. Play as a Design Strategy There’s no shortage of designers who talk about play in their practice. Here are three for whom view play is a key design practice, but in different ways and to different ends. Playing within structure “There are many ways in which the play-principle serves as a base for serious problem-solving,” writes Paul Rand in his essay, “Design and the Play Instinct.” He describes play as establishing a set of formal structures to allow for exploration and creativity. In this respect, Rand’s version of play is based in the strategy of improvisation, where constraints free up creativity. In theory this approach resembles that of Conditional Design. A problem with defined limits, with an implied or stated discipline (system of rules) that in turn is conducive to the instinct of play, will most likely yield… a meaningful and novel solution.

It’s not surprising that Rand, a classic modernist, espouses a rigorous and highly rational design methodology. Though his talk of “discipline” and “rules” may sound strict, his goal is generous: to shape design assignments that help students express their own creative voices while adhering to the tenets of modernism. Without the basic rules or disciplines, however, there is no motivation, test of skill, or ultimate reward—in short, no game. The rules are the means to the end...

Paul Rand, “Design and the Play Instinct.” http://www.paul-rand. com/foundation/thoughts_ designAndthePlayInstinct/#. UbGp4Ov3hYg, accessed March 12, 2013. All quotations in this section refer to this version of Rand’s essay.

129 Play as a Design Strategy

Though less renowned, Rand’s children’s books display the same sense of play that went into the IBM rebus logo.

There are badly stated problems in basic design that stress pure aesthetics and free expression without any restraints or practical goals…. The student has the illusion of creating great art in an atmosphere of freedom, when in fact he is handicapped by the absence of certain disciplines which would evoke ideas, make playing with those ideas possible, work absorbing, and results interesting. Rigorous and pragmatic, Rand’s tactic is also based in structured play. He

seeks to develop specific design skills in his students (within a presumably narrow modernist aesthetic), whereas I view play as a tactic for making creative ventures into unknown places easier.

Paula Scher, “Paula Scher Gets Serious,” TED Talks, http://www. gets_serious.html. Accessed February 9, 2013. All quotations in this section refer to Scher’s TED Talk.

Uninhibited Play In her 2008 TED Talk, the Pentagram partner begins with the declaration: “My work is play. And I play when I design.” She describes “solemn” design as “important,” “effective,” “socially correct,” and desired by “all the clients.”← In this she includes her renowned Citibank umbrella logo. Scher admits to only four experiences of “serious design, serious play.” They include her identity work for the Public Theater and her obsessively labeled map paintings that have made her popular outside the design world.

design precedents


Scher considers her Public Theater identity and her obsessively and minutely labeled map paintings among rare examples of “serious play” in her long career. By contrast, her logo for Citibank is “solemn.” Paula Scher, Make it Bigger, (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2005). Paula Scher, Maps (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2011).



+ –

Tim Brown describes how self-doubt and other negative feelings are inherent to the creative process. Play is one way to remove doubt and other creative obstacles, build confidence, and bring creative teams together.


For one thing, it often happens spontaneously, intuitively, accidentally or incidentally. It can be achieved out of innocence, or arrogance, or out of selfishness, sometimes out of carelessness. But mostly, it’s achieved through all those kind of crazy parts of human behavior that don’t really make any sense.

Scher suggests that “serious play” is a labor of love. It only occurs when she feels a wholehearted “passion” for the project and doesn’t know what she’s doing, which I take to mean that she is working without a highly determined communication goal. If so, her description fits the definitions of intrinsic motivation and play. Further, is serious play is not about “perfection,” that suggests that a mindset detached from imagined ideal outcomes is useful. For Scher, play becomes possible when she seeks out the unknown: Find out what the next thing is that you can push, that you can invent, that you can be ignorant about, that you can be arrogant about, that you can fail with, and that you can be a fool with. Because in the end, that’s how you grow, and that’s all that matters.

Without directly saying so, Scher suggests that the most valuable design is possible only when one puts aside self-consciousness, self-doubt, and fear of failure. Her version of play doesn’t directly correlate with my free play construct, but it echoes the sense of uninhibited discovery. Play as a Psychological Tactic In his 2008 TED Talk entitled “Tales of Creativity and Play,” Tim Brown describes the central role of play at IDEO, which he co-founded: Tim Brown, “Tales of Creativity and Play,” talks/tim_brown_on_creativity_ and_play.html. Accessed December 11, 2012. All quotations in this section refer to Brown’s TED Talk.

We think maybe playfulness is important. But why is it important? We use it in a pretty pragmatic way, to be honest. We think playfulness helps us get to better creative solutions. Helps us do our jobs better, and helps us feel better when we do them.←

At one point, Brown asks the audience to shoot foam darts at him. Their hesitation to do so is revealing, as is the cathartic laughter that occurs once they let the darts fly. Claiming that IDEO designers shoot these darts regularly, he makes the point that intentionally adopting play behavior can ward off the fear and self-consciousness that dampen creativity: We fear the judgment of our peers, and... we’re embarrassed about showing our ideas to people we think of as our peers, to those around us. And this fear is what causes us to be conservative in our thinking.…

131 Play as a Design Strategy

Serious design is imperfect. It’s… also often quite unsuccessful from the solemn point of view. That’s because the art of serious play is about invention, change, rebellion — not perfection.

design precedents


And if you’re starting a design firm, let’s say, then you probably also want to create a place where people have the same kind of security. Where they have the same kind of security to take risks. Maybe have the same kind of security to play.… We need trust to play, and we need trust to be creative.

Given that IDEO is a firm dedicated to empathetic, human-centered design, it is apt that its internal protocols for nurturing creativity reflect an institutional awareness of affect and human motivation. To be sure, this injection of play in creative environments is not exclusive to IDEO: I don’t think I’ve ever read a profile of a startup that doesn’t mention the presence of a ping pong or foosball table. What seems unusual is Brown’s explicit acknowledgement of the psychology endemic to creative endeavors — specifically insecurity and embarrassment ­­­­— even among IDEO’s own world-class designer teams. With creativity (as with learning), trust is conducive and fear is deadly. In fact, Brown directly connects childlike behaviors to greater creativity: There are a series of behaviors that we’ve learnt as kids, and that turn out to be quite useful to us as designers. They include exploration, which is about going for quantity; building, and thinking with your hands; and role play, where acting it out helps us both to have more empathy for the situations in which we’re designing, and to create services and experiences that are seamless and authentic.

However, he acknowledges that play isn’t the only mode designers operate in. There is a place for “seriousness” too: We go through these two very distinctive modes of operation. We go through a sort of generative mode, where we’re exploring many ideas; and then we come back together again, and come back looking for that solution, and developing that solution. I think they’re two quite different modes: divergence and convergence. And I think it’s probably in the divergent mode that we most need playfulness. Perhaps in convergent mode we need to be more serious.... Being able to move between those modes is really quite important....

Like Brown, Arthur Koestler, Edward de Bono, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and others note that alternating cycles of generative and analytical thinking are most beneficial to creative endeavors, the former to synthesize the ideas and the latter to put aside all but the most promising. This is a useful reminder that my own excursions into play need to be counterbalanced with periodic analytical assessments of the success of my design methodology and its outcomes. In How I Learned to Stop Worrying, there weren’t enough reflective moments built in to keep me from pursuing questionable ideas for too long.

See page 30 for more discussion of Brown and the use of role play in design.


On the anxiety that accompanies learning: The decision to shoot a film instead of designing a book or billboards was made in a gutsy moment simply because this was the form I knew the least about…. Even though the results were fine, I remember the process as being incredibly anxiety-ridden.… Every time I passed the [catering table] I had to resist the longing to hide underneath. Whenever I do overcome my fears, it comes out great. But strangely, with all this positive experience behind me, I still have to talk myself into it again every single time… I have to learn this particular point anew, over and over. On our default resistance to learning new things: I find it difficult to work on anything new while exposed to regular day-to-day pressure. It seems so much easier to let my brain slip into previously formed grooves and allow it to function in ways that have proved to work before.

133 Metaprocessing

A general note — and caveat: I have the impression that “serious” designers don’t take Sagmeister very seriously. It’s not hard to come up with theories as to why: He has too much fun to have that much fame and success. His earnestness is fake. His tropical sabbaticals irk our workaday existences. He’s into self-help. He’s a selfpromoting exhibitionist. That said, I suspect that some of the resistance to him reflects a general discomfort with the questions that he, with unusual candor, openly engages. I find his unguarded expressiveness refreshing, rare, and inspiring. On the other hand, tucked almost invisibly inside the slipcase of Things I Have Learned So Far is the admission that his habit of inserting himself in his work “might just be simple vanity after all.”

Reflection as Practice, Reflection on Practice Stefan Sagmeister is more open about creative (and personal) struggles in his work than any other designer I have come across. In fact, those struggles have recently been the subject of his work. Sagmeister has made a success of putting himself in his projects — whether in his infamous self-inflicted typography for the AIGA or in his adaptation of personal aphorisms into public installations. My sense is that his self-referential design methodology is a reflection of a sincere attempt to work and live more reflectively. Like myself, Sagmeister finds this easier said than done, according to his 2008 book Things I Have Learned in My Life So Far. Based on a series of public installations by the same name, the book embodies the introspection and self-awareness of someone striving to transcend common human foibles. Sagmeister writes that this body of work is directly drawn from his diary. “All the maxims were meant exactly as written, and though some might be banal, they contain no cynicism or mockery.” The very existence of these maxims, not to mention his decision to make them the basis of design projects, reveals a designer openly committed to integrating introspective reflection as well as personal values into his practice. His is an optimistic standpoint, and in my opinion an admirable one. In the published collection, which I read only while finishing this thesis, Sagmeister’s accompanying commentary is surprisingly candid on a number of subjects pertinent to this thesis. Below are excerpts revealing common interests and concerns:

On chinks in his creative confidence:

design precedents


My own problem is not overzealous perfectionism. My problem is the assumption of failure. Self-censorship — the little voice in my brain whispering, It won’t work — tends to reduce the possibilities of many things I do. On the power of intrinsic motivation versus extrinsic motivation: After seven years of running a studio, I decided in the year 2000 not to take on any client projects for a full year. While on the surface the previous year had been the most successful to date…. Underneath it I was having less and less fun in the office, and the work was becoming mechanical and repetitive. On creative experimentation and freedom from extrinsic pressures: I thought I really needed space to experiment and dream up bigger pictures…. I wanted some room to reevaluate what we were doing, decide what I wanted to say, and indulge in some labor-intensive design obsessions… Most musicians, designers, and architects whose work I enjoy have instituted a scheduled experimentation period into their practice. The keyword here appears to be scheduled. I have found unscheduled experimentation sessions are easily crowded out by deadline-driven projects. I decided to do a sabbatical — a year in which I would design no projects for clients but investigate how the work would change with no outside briefs or deadlines attached.

In all of these observations, Sagmeister reflects on his process and responds with strategic adjustments intended to preserve (and improve) his creativity, output, and personal satisfaction. His conclusions about motivation, self-efficacy, and creative achievement mirror my research remarkably closely. This makes sense in light of his recent collaboration with cognitive psychologist David Nettle on “The Happiness Project,” a film and exhibition that build on Things I Have Learned. Reflective Practice MIT philosopher Donald Schön is the author of Educating the Reflective Practitioner, an influential book making a case for reflective practice across disciplines. Though not an architect, Schön advocates the studio training model he sees in architecture education (which closely resembles the studio model of design education). In studio, students learn through active practice in conjunction with ongoing conversations with professormentors. This ideal design practicum he calls reflection-in-action. It is a kind of tactical nimbleness that, when used by active professionals in any discipline, allows for continuous learning and growth. Similar to the research of Albert Bandura, Angela Duckworth, and Carol Dweck, Schön’s book argues that a particular mindset, not a particular skill, is most advantageous for growth. (See page 15.)

135 Metaprocessing

Stefan Sagmeister’s series of public art installations were drawn from reflective diary musings on principles he tries to live by.

Embracing the Unknown

design precedents


In Designing Design, Japanese designer Kenya Hara vividly raises awareness of our discomfort with the unknown. Although “what constantly invigorates the human mind is the unknown…, we are eager to make the world known.” → Therefore in casual conversation, when one makes a reference to general information — a new restaurant, a newspaper article, a foreign city, an art exhibit — we often and unthinkingly spout the response, “I know, I know.” Hara’s argument is that such a response effectively shuts down true discourse: “We have become devoted to a game of ‘information catch.’” → This reflexive tendency reveals a culture of discomfort with not-knowing, Hara contends. He considers inquiry more essential to our intellectual life than knowledge possession: “Raising questions is more important than giving answers. Creativity is to discover a question that has never been asked.” → In an effort to restore a healthier relationship with the unknown, Hara defines “exformation” as “understanding how little we know.” → At Tokyo’s Musashino Art University, Hara has developed an exformation design project, in which students must communicate visually the unknown qualities of the Shimanto, a river visited by few but widely renowned in Japan for its unusually clean water. In one response, students related the river’s meandering twists and sudden and dramatic expansion at the foot of a dam — information that is difficult to quantify — to a physical system we are exceedingly familiar with: roadways and parking lots. Appealing to our sense of wonder with a taste of surrealism, their version of exformation succeeds at revealing how little is known about the Shimanto, without being didactic or raising our defenses. Hara’s work here reflects our intrinsic discomfort with the unknown — the starting point for much of this thesis — and the harm that comfort does to our creative potential if left unaddressed.

Kenya Hara, Designing Design, (Lars Muller Publishers: New York, 2007) 370.

Ibid, 374.

Ibid, 372. Ibid, 371.

Making and Thinking Andrea Kantrowitz studies the connection between thinking and making, specifically the cognition of drawing. An art educator and scholar of art education at Columbia University Teachers College, her work extends from research in psychology and neuroscience that shows that what we considered regular cognition — brain-based perception — is significantly less accurate than we realize.→ In the practice of drawing, she and others find evidence for “grounded cognition,” that is, non-verbal perceptions based in physical interactions with the environment. An example of grounded cognition is how physical gestures can bring forth ideas for which we lack (or cannot retrieve) words. Further, drawing can itself be a

This idea relates to the research on the connection between physical gestures and thought, which inspired my piece Make More. See Andrea Kantrowitz, “The Man Behind the Curtain: What Cognitive Science Reveals about Drawing,” The Journal of Aesthetic Education, Volume 46, Number 1, Spring 2012, 4.


What perceptions and inner awareness rise up when we dare to feel our way forward, noticing the specific qualities of things, which can be experienced so differently when words are left behind? Drawing requires us to slow down, and in the process we encounter new possibilities and unexpected points of contact. And in the “virtual space” created by marks on a flat surface, discovery happens. ←

Ibid, 3.

Andrea Kantrowitz, TRACEY Journal: Drawing Knowledge May 2012, 2. http://www.lboro. tracey/journal/edu/images/ Andrea_Kantrowitz-TRACEYJournal-DK-2012.pdf.

As we have seen in the research on creativity, disengaged attention correlates more closely with insight into a problem than does a precise focus on that problem. Kantrowitz makes the related argument that when the process of drawing or making is removed from hard and fast goals, spontaneous diversions and discoveries are more likely. The emphasis on process not only helps mitigate creative anxiety, it opens the mind to boundary-leaping associations that form the basis of creative recombination. Furthermore, the confidence that process is valuable and enjoyable in and of itself, and not just a means to an end, helps make process intrinsically motivating — and therefore, self-sustaining.

137 Making and Thinking


means of idea-creation. This reflects the experience of many artists, that drawing is not only a form of thinking but a form of problem-solving.← The view that making can be a form of thinking extends from this. When an artist appreciates drawing (a designer appreciates making) as a valuable process in and of itself and not just a means to an end, it disengages the effort from a specific purpose. “Drawing is often experienced as a journey without a known destination.”← Sketching becomes a conscious method of leaving space for the “unexpected,” for creating deliberate “indeterminacies” and “courting of the accidental and incidental.”←

Conclusions + Further Directions

Looking at the two-year arc of my design work and research, I am satisfied with where this thesis landed. Had I turned away from the uncertainty I felt at various stages, I surely wouldn’t have explored new territory. But by recognizing the significance of my discomfort — and the opportunity for authentic learning that it pointed me toward — ­ I can say I made major strides in how I think about and practice creativity. I am also satisfied that my thesis doesn’t just report on learning theory, metacognition, and creativity, or even report my own experiences and thoughts on those subjects; I believe this thesis embodies those subjects. In these pages, it’s been my intention to “lift the curtain” on my own learning, metacognition, and creativity, laying bare every aspect of the process. At times this intention was daunting. But my interest in the “how” of design practice prevailed, and I knew I had not only to examine but reveal my own process to be truly reflective about it. The first-person nature of my thesis also inevitably reflects my current perspective on learning: what we learn is a function of who we are. In light of this, it would be hard for me to discuss and explore all that I have learned without contextualizing it in my experiences of the past two years. Just as I grew up with a fixed mindset, a student who judged herself on performance and praise rather than on authentic growth, I had that tendency as a designer. I probably wanted to be deemed good more than I wanted to grow through the process of becoming — good, decent, creative, outstanding, eclectic, whatever. Now I have a distinctly different mindset: I’ve learned first-hand that staying open to discomfort is the best way for me to grow and improve as a designer, maker, and thinker.


conclusions + further directions


I think I have developed considerably in my practice, my outlook, and my priorities as a designer as a result of this newfound comfort with discomfort. For instance, until the critical point at the end of my third semester, I don’t think I ever considered the notion that my mindset influenced my creativity as a designer. Nor did I ever seek out creativity as a desirable goal in itself, or value making for the sake of making. In fact, until recently I viewed both creativity and making as vaguely indulgent and inconsequential pursuits. In the aggregate, the thinking, writing, and design projects I pursued in this thesis represent a seachange for me. I now see an inherent value in design (and art) that I didn’t before, simply because they are acts of creation. I now appreciate creativity as a precious and adaptive capacity: I understand the importance of attentively nurturing it. In my capstone, I watched myself make small but significant creative leaps that I don’t think I would have made without the supports of metaprocessing. Most of all, I am much more at ease with process than before. Though process can be messy, fitful, and confounding, I recognize the importance of having faith in it through frustrating moments. In my capstone, I found that faith in process does wonders for quieting the internal doubts that inevitably hamper creativity and true learning. I look forward to my next major design project because I know I have so many more tactics for managing the challenges than I ever have before. How designers do their work, be they college freshmen or design royalty, will always be a fascinating subject to me. I am eager to learn how others “go about process” through further conversations with mentors, colleagues, and students of my own. I also intend to apply this experience is toward design education. In this thesis, I avoided trying to translate my experiences into prescriptions for others. I think that was the right decision, as I’m still actively processing the experience myself. But I can say with certainty that creativity — what it is and how it is nurtured — and metacognition around learning and design practive will be subjects of conversations in my classroom. I do have one regret about the path I’ve taken over the past two years. My design projects were primarily solo projects. (A few exceptions are not included in this thesis.) Like learning, creativity has a strong social dimension, be it through the relationship with one’s audience, with clients, or with colleagues. Yet most of my projects were developed and completed in greater isolation than is ideal for my creativity, my learning, or the design outcomes. Therefore I am resolved to seek out collaborative opportunities in the next stage of my journey. Finally, if I’ve learned anything about process and reflection, it’s that “conclusions” are rarely end points, nor do I want to lay claim to any very firmly. One is always at a beginning: That is how I view this moment.

Conditions for creativity are: to be puzzled; to concentrate; to accept conflict and tension; to be born every day; to feel a sense of self.

141 xxx

— Erich Fromm

Works Cited

Albers, Anni. On Designing. Middleton, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1971. Armstrong, Helen, and Zvezdana Stojmirovic. Participate: Designing with User-Centered Content. New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2011. Bandura, Albert. “Self-Efficacy and the Construction of an Optimistic Self.” CYC-Online 140 (2010), Accessed April 2, 2013, http:// cyc-online/ cyconline-oct2010-bandura.html. Bandura, Albert. “Self-Efficacy: Toward a Unifying Theory of Behavioral Change,” Psychological Review, Vol. 84, No. 2 (1997): 195-215. Beeman, Mark. “Research: Solving Problems with Insight.” Accessed April 10, 2013. http://groups.psych. htm#Insight. Berger, Warren. Glimmer: How Design Can Transform Your Life, and Maybe Even the World. New York: The Penguin Press, 2009. Bransford, John D., et al, Eds. How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School. Washington, DC: National Academy of Sciences, 2004. Bruner, Jerome. “A Short History of Learning Theories,” Daedalus, Winter 2004, 13-20. Brown, M.D., Stuart, with Christopher Vaughan. Play: How it Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul. New York, Avery Trade, 2010.


Brown, Tim. “Tales of Creativity and Play.” TED Talks. November 2008. Accessed December 11, 2012. http://www.ted. com/talks/tim_brown_on_creativity_and_play.html.

works cited


Clinton Global Initiative. Accessed December 20, 2012, http:// ourmeetings/2012. Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly. Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention. New York: Harper Perennial, 1997. Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly. Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. New York: Harper & Row, 1990. Darling-Hammond, Linda et al, How People Learn: Introduction to Learning Theories. Stanford University, Palo Alto, CA: 2001. Davis, Meredith, et al. Design as a Catalyst for Learning. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, 1997. “Design Thinking for Educators.” Accessed April 2, 2012. http:// designthinkingforeducators. com. de Bono, Edward. The Five-Day Course in Thinking. New York: Penguin Books, 1971. de Bono, Edward. New Think. New York: Avon Books, 1967. DiSalvo, Carl. Adversarial Design. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2012. Dweck, Carol. Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. New York: Ballantine Books, 2007. Gardner, Howard. Five Minds for the Future. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Business School Press, 2009. Gardner, Howard. “What We Do and Don’t Know About Learning.” Daedalus, Winter 2004, 5-12. Gerstner, Karl. “Designing Programmes.” In Graphic Design Theory: Readings from the Field, edited by Helen Armstrong. New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2009. Goleman, Daniel, Paul Kaufman, and Michael L. Ray. The Creative Spirit. New York: Dutton, 1992. Greeno, James G., Allan M. Collins, and Lauren B. Resnick. “Cognition and Learning,” in Handbook of Educational Psychology, edited by David C. Berliner and Robert C. Calfee, 15-46. New York: Macmillan, 1996. Hara, Kenya. Designing Design, Lars Muller Publishers: New York, 2007.

Kantrowitz, Andrea. “The Man behind the Curtain: What Cognitive Science Reveals about Drawing.” The Journal of Aesthetic Education, Volume 46, Number 1, Spring 2012, 1-14.

Keyes, Lilly. “MSU Professor Reportedly Suffered Mental Breakdown, Stripped Naked.” The State News. Accessed October 1, 2012. 2012/10/professor-hospitalized-reportedly-strips-nakedafterbout- in-engineering-building. Koestler, Arthur. The Act of Creation. New York: Macmillan, 1964. Kulba, Bryan. “Celebrating Karl Gerstner.” July 7, 2010. Accessed April 7, 2013. http://www.aisleone. net/2010/design/celebratingkarl-gerstner. Kulba, Bryan. “Karl Gerstner and Design Programmes.” Accessed April 3, 2013. http://carlosfiorentino.files. karl_gerstner_and_design_ programmes.pdf. Lightfoot, David. “Plato’s Problem, UG, and the Language Organ.” The Cambridge Companion to Chomsky, edited by James McGilvray, 42-59. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005. Maurer, Luna, et al. Conditional Design. Accessed April 1, 2013. http://www. conditionaldesign. org/manifesto. Paul, Annie Murphy. “The Machines Are Taking Over.” The New York Times, September 14, 2012. Accessed September 16, 2012. http://www.nytimes. com/2012/09/16/ magazine/how-computerized-tutors-are-learning-toteach-humans.html Pink, Daniel H. A Whole New Mind New York: Riverhead Trade, 2006. Pink, Daniel H. Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us. New York: Riverhead Books, 2011. Pintrich, Paul R. “A Motivational Science Perspective on the Role of Student Motivation in Learning and Teaching Contexts.” Journal of Educational Psychology, Vol. 95, No. 4, 667-686. Rand, Paul. A Designer`s Art. New York: Yale University Press, 2000 (second edition). Robinson, Sir Ken. “Schools Kill Creativity.” TED Talks. June 2006. Accessed April 21, 2012, ken_robinson_says_ schools_ kill_creativity.html.

145 works cited

Kantrowitz, Andrea. “Drawn to Discover: A Cognitive Perspective.” TRACEY Journal: Drawing Knowledge. May 2012, Accessed January 23, 2013. http:// www. tracey/journal/edu/images/ Andrea_ Kantrowitz-TRACEYJournal-DK-2012.pdf

Ryan, Richard M. and Edward L. Deci. “Self-Determination Theory and the Facilitation of Intrinsic Motivation, Social Development, and Well-Being.” American Psychologist 55.1 (2000): 68.

works cited


Sagmeister, Stefan. Things I Have Learned in My Life So Far. New York: Abrams, 2008. Scher, Paula. Make it Bigger. New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2005. Scher, Paula. Maps. New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2011. Scher, Paula. “Paula Scher Gets Serious,” TED Talks. January 2009. Accessed February 9, 2013. Schön, Donald A. Educating the Reflective Practitioner. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1987. Sternberg, Robert J. and Todd I. Lubart. “The Concept of Creativity: Prospects and Paradigms” in The Creativity Handbook edited by Robert J. Sternberg. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990. Tough, Paul. How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012. Margaret Talbot, “Brain Gain: The Underground World of “Neuroenhancing” Drugs.” The New Yorker, April 27, 2009. Accessed March 13, 2013. Willingham, Daniel. “The ‘Human Touch’ in Computer-Based Instruction.” September 12, 2012. Accessed September 25, 2012. Wurman, Richard Saul. “Hats.” Design Quarterly 145 (1989): 1-32.


Design Practice Armstrong, Helen, and Zvezdana Stojmirovic. Participate: Designing with User-Centered Content. New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2011. An anthology of professional and academic design projects featuring audience participation and input in the creative process.

Gerstner, Karl. “Designing Programmes.” In Graphic Design Theory: Readings from the Field, edited by Helen Armstrong. New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2009. An excerpt of the Swiss designer’s essay on the benefit of constraints in design, specifically the morphological box.

Hara, Kenya. Designing Design, Lars Muller Publishers: New York, 2007. A series of mostly self-contained chapters in which the Japanese designer explores his design philosophy, most notably the importance of engaging the unknown.

Maurer, Luna, et al. Conditional Design. http://www.conditionaldesign. org. The website of the Amsterdam-based design collaborative Conditional Design, whose members pursue game-based, often participatory, design strategies in which constraints strictly delimit possible outcomes.

“Oblique Strategies Website.” OSintro.html. “Oblique Strategies” is a deck of cards containing abstract suggestions for dismantling creative blocks, developed by Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt.


Rand, Paul. A Designer’s Art. New York: Yale University Press, 2000 (second edition).



A series of essays on design practice, most notably “Design and the Play Instinct,” in which Rand argues for a design methodology of rigorous constraints (e.g., a high-modernist approach to the grid) as a means of enhancing play and creativity.

Sagmeister, Stefan. Things I Have Learned in My Life So Far. New York: Abrams, 2008. The designer’s post-sabbatical series of public-art installations based on metacognitive reflections on how to live life well and to best support his creative output.

Scher, Paula. “Paula Scher Gets Serious,” TED Talks. January 2009. Accessed February 9, 2013. serious.html. In this talk, Scher suggests that only a tiny minority of her work has been the result of “serious play,” yet it represents her most rewarding, motivating, and meaningful creative output.

Schön, Donald A. Educating the Reflective Practitioner. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1987. Schön was a philosophy and organizational behavior expert at MIT who suggests that studio critiques of architecture education offer a useful model for “reflection-in-action” applicable to all professions.

Design and Learning Berger, Warren. Glimmer: How Design Can Transform Your Life, and Maybe Even the World. New York: The Penguin Press, 2009. An introduction to designers who view design as a catalyst for large-scale social change, including Bruce Mau and David Kelley and Tim Brown of IDEO.

Davis, Meredith, et al. Design as a Catalyst for Learning. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, 1997. A major study of design-infused curricula in K-12 education across the United States, published by a committee led by the Chair of the Ph.D. program in Design at North Carolina State.

Design Thinking for Educators. http:// designthinkingforeducators. com. A detailed design-thinking protocol for teachers to bring creative problemsolving into schools and classrooms through team-based brainstorming, ideation, and rapid prototyping. A joint venture of IDEO and Riverdale Country School in New York City.

Learning Theories and Sciences Bransford, John D., et al, Eds. How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School. Washington, DC: National Academy of Sciences, 2004.

Darling-Hammond, Linda et al, How People Learn: Introduction to Learning Theories. Stanford University, Palo Alto, CA: 2001. A jargon-free narrative of the history of learning theory in the West.

Greeno, James G., Allan M. Collins, and Lauren B. Resnick. “Cognition and Learning,” in Handbook of Educational Psychology, edited by David C. Berliner and Robert C. Calfee, 15-46. New York: Macmillan, 1996. A comprehensive look at three major learning theories as they relate to specific cognitive functions.

Willingham, Daniel. Science and Education Blog. http://www. A neuroscientist’s informed, often skeptical perspective on the growing application of neuroscience research to learning and teaching.

Mindsets and Metacognition Bandura, Albert. “Self-Efficacy: Toward a Unifying Theory of Behavioral Change,” Psychological Review, Vol. 84, No. 2 (1997): 195-215. The seminal study on the central role that feelings of self-confidence play in one’s actual achievements.

Barker, Eric. Barking Up the Wrong Tree. A popular psychology blog focusing on motivation, achievement, and mindset, mined from contemporary psychology research. Barker draws frequently from the research of Teresa Amabile, Dan Ariely (Predictably Irrational), Daniel Gilbert (Stumbling Toward Happiness), and Daniel Kahneman (Thinking, Fast and Slow).

Brown, M.D., Stuart, with Christopher Vaughan. Play: How it Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul. New York, Avery Trade, 2010. A science-based introduction to the psychology of play.

Dweck, Carol. Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. New York: Ballantine Books, 2007. An introduction to Dweck’s career of research tracing the direct connection between the growth mindset, which views challenges as apportunities for growth, and academic and personal achievement and fulfillment.

149 bibliography

A comprehensive review of the latest findings in neuroscience as they apply to learning and teaching.

Tough, Paul. How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012.



This look at Angela Duckworth’s research on “grit” — passion plus perseverance — reveals how grit correlates with achievement in a variety of educational contexts.

Pintrich, Paul R. “A Motivational Science Perspective on the Role of Student Motivation in Learning and Teaching Contexts.” Journal of Educational Psychology, Vol. 95, No. 4, 667-686. A rich and finely grained examination of the role that motivation plays in the practical experiences of students.

Ryan, Richard M. and Edward L. Deci. “Self-Determination Theory and the Facilitation of Intrinsic Motivation, Social Development, and Well-Being.” American Psychologist 55.1 (2000): 68. A seminal study on the distrinction between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation, as well as the impact of each on academic, professional, and personal achievement.

Creativity in Theory and Practice Brown, Tim. “Tales of Creativity and Play.” TED Talks. November 2008. Accessed December 11, 2012. http://www.ted. com/talks/tim_brown_on_ creativity_and_play.html. An overview of how design consultancy IDEO fosters an internal culture of play to optimize designers’ creativity.

Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly. Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention. New York: Harper Perennial, 1997. A comprehensive review of the psychology and habits of outstanding creative achievers across diverse fields, including the sciences. Csikszentmihalyi coined the term “flow” to describe the seemingly effortless state of focus that is correlated with creative breakthroughs.

de Bono, Edward. The Five-Day Course in Thinking. New York: Penguin Books, 1971. Three five-stepchallenges for increasing one’s creative — or lateral thinking — abilities, involving arranging objects and shapes in space according to given parameters.

de Bono, Edward. New Think. New York: Avon Books, 1967. An introduction to the concept of lateral thinking, the hallmark and source of novel ideas.

Goleman, Daniel, Paul Kaufman, and Michael L. Ray. The Creative Spirit. New York: Dutton, 1992. A companion book to the 1992 PBS series, this book offers a substantive introduction to creativity research, including the role of motivation, and the fear of failure.

One of several articles linking psychology and neuroscience to the act of drawing specifically and the act of creation generally.

Koestler, Arthur. The Act of Creation. New York: Macmillan, 1964. A rich, cross-disciplinary exploration of creativity. Koestler, a novelist and philosopher, argues that “bisociation,” in which two previously unrelated frames of reference coincide in a single idea, is the core of creativity, in realms often seen as dramatically unrelated: science, the arts, and humor

Rethinked...* Blog. A useful resource for research at the intersection of creativity, design thinking, and other right-brain aptitudes on one hand and education and learning on the other.

Robinson, Sir Ken. “Schools Kill Creativity.” TED Talks. June 2006. http:// ken_robinson_says_schools_ kill_creativity.html. The most-watched TED Talk ever, this is Robinson’s manifesto on the ways in which traditional education in the West is based on a one-size-fits-all, Industrial Revolution-era factory model that quashes individuality and therefore the motivation to learn.

Sternberg, Robert J., Ed. The Creativity Handbook. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990. This anthology on the psychology of creativity introduces variations on the definition of creativity (Robert J. Sternberg and Todd I. Lubart,“The Concept of Creativity: Prospects and Paradigms”) and reviews evidence for the relationship between motivation and creativity (Mary Ann Collins and Teresa M. Amabile, “Motivation and Creativity”).

Wurman, Richard Saul. “Hats.” Design Quarterly 145 (1989): 1-32. A provocative essay on ways of thinking befitting designers, most notably the imperative to ask probing questions (rather than provide answers) to best embody a learning stance.


Kantrowitz, Andrea. “The Man behind the Curtain: What Cognitive Science Reveals about Drawing.” The Journal of Aesthetic Education, Volume 46, Number 1, Spring 2012, 1-14.


Designed by Karin Storm Wood. Typeset in National and Newzald typefaces, designed by Kris Sowersby of Klim Foundry. Printed by Full Circle Color on Rolland Opaque 50% recycled paper.

Metaprocessing, Or How I Learned to Embrace the Unknown  

Both learning and creativity require an embrace of the unknown. But engaging with unfamiliar ideas, skills, and activities — particularly in...

Metaprocessing, Or How I Learned to Embrace the Unknown  

Both learning and creativity require an embrace of the unknown. But engaging with unfamiliar ideas, skills, and activities — particularly in...