Towards a shared ontology: a generic classification of cognitive processes in conceptual design

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Towards addressing ontological issues in design cognition research, this paper presents the first generic classification of cognitive processes investigated in protocol studies on conceptual design cognition. The classification is based on a systematic review of 47 studies published over the past 30 years. Three viewpoints on the nature of design cognition are outlined (search, exploration, and design activities), highlighting considerable differences in the concepts and terminology applied to describe cognition. To provide a more unified view of the cognitive processes fundamentally under study, we map specific descriptions of cognitive processes provided in protocol studies to more generic, established definitions in the cognitive psychology literature. This reveals a set of 6 categories of cognitive process that appear to be commonly studied and are therefore likely to be prevalent in conceptual design: (1) long term memory; (2) semantic processing; (3) visual perception; (4) mental imagery processing; (5) creative output production; and (6) executive functions. The categories and their constituent processes are formalised in the generic classification. The classification provides the basis for a generic, shared ontology of cognitive processes in design that is conceptually and terminologically consistent with the ontology of cognitive psychology and neuroscience. Additionally, the work highlights 6 key avenues for future empirical research: (1) the role of episodic and semantic memory; (2) consistent definitions of semantic processes; (3) the role of sketching from alternative theoretical perspectives on perception and mental imagery; (4) the role of working memory; (5) the meaning and nature of synthesis; and (6) unidentified cognitive processes implicated in conceptual design elsewhere in the literature.
Original languageEnglish
Article numbere7
Number of pages42
JournalDesign Science
Publication statusPublished - 22 May 2017


  • conceptual design
  • design cognition
  • cognitive processes
  • psychology
  • protocol analysis

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