Design Behaviour and Distributed Cognition: A Protocol Study on the Effect of Design Tools on Architectural Design Thinking

Mina Tahsiri

Research output: ThesisDoctoral Thesis


This thesis, is an explorative research, manifesting factors that influence the relationship between a designer and their design tool. The interest of the thesis is in the epistemic role of a design tool and how it can influence a designer's thinking in the concept development phase of architectural design. A diversity of views regarding the effect of design tools on design thinking led the thesis to propose a new protocol think-aloud study framework for studying design behaviour based on the theory of Distributed Cognition, where cognition is seen to be distributed between the internal space of the mind and the external space provided by the medium of the design tool.

The new framework used in this study, enables the protocol data from the design processes to be categorised and analysed based on the cognitive space they are associated with. It is applied to a case of six architecture students executing three design tasks using a different design tool each time; namely pencil and paper, and 3D modelling software Sketch Up and Rhinoceros 3D. The analysis is carried out qualitatively using a combination of ethnographic observations and representational graphs of the designers’ distributed cognitive activity.

The results show that although a difference in design tool may not significantly affect the designer’s productivity in terms of number of ideas created, it affects their management of the task and the dynamics of their design activities. Three factors are identified that can influence a design tool’s effect on design thinking: 1- the amount of information a designer has to deal with in each frame of their design process, 2- the immediate availability of certain functions of a design tool and 3- the cost designers associate with retrieving from errors and mistakes when using a particular design tool. The thesis concludes by recommending further empirical research that use other methods such as brain imaging to complement findings of this study and examine the effect of each of the aforementioned factors on cognitive demand as the next step in the enhancement of design tools as supports for design thinking.
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • University of Nottingham
  • Hale, Jonathan, Supervisor, External person
  • Niblock, Chantelle, Supervisor, External person
Place of PublicationNottingham
Publication statusPublished - 2018
Externally publishedYes


  • design behaviour
  • design tools
  • architectural design
  • distributed cognition

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