Volume 6 Issue 2 (2010): Research Practice in Art and Design: Experiential Knowledge and Organised Inquiry
Experiential Knowledge in Organised Inquiry

Naturalistic Cognition: A Research Paradigm for Human-Centered Design

Peter Storkerson
University of Illinois Urbana Champaign
Published December 5, 2010
  • formal reason,
  • naturalistic cognition,
  • phenomenological knowing,
  • situated cognition,
  • human-centered design,
  • vicarious function,
  • Brunswik's lens model
  • ...More


Naturalistic thinking and knowing, the tacit, experiential, and intuitive reasoning of everyday interaction, have long been regarded as inferior to formal reason and labeled primitive, fallible, subjective, superstitious, and in some cases ineffable. But, naturalistic thinking is more rational and definable than it appears. It is also relevant to design. Inquiry into the mechanisms of naturalistic thinking and knowledge can bring its resources into focus and enable designers to create better, human-centered designs for use in real-world settings. This article makes a case for the explicit, formal study of implicit, naturalistic thinking within the fields of design. It develops a framework for defining and studying naturalistic thinking and knowledge, for integrating them into design research and practice, and for developing a more integrated, consistent theory of knowledge in design. It will (a) outline historical definitions of knowledge, attitudes toward formal and naturalistic thinking, and the difficulties presented by the co-presence of formal and naturalistic thinking in design, (b) define and contrast formal and naturalistic thinking as two distinct human cognitive systems, (c) demonstrate the importance of naturalistic cognition in formal thinking and real-world judgment, (d) demonstrate methods for researching naturalistic thinking that can be of use in design, and (e) briefly discuss the impact on design theory of admitting naturalistic thinking as valid, systematic, and knowable.