How intuition influences design decisions

5 Jul 23

The more confidence a designer has in a concept narrative, the greater the risk that they will overlook potential problems or the need for additional information, according to research by Diana Osmólska from the University of Manchester.

In the second of GIRI’s Getting the Design Right webinars, Diana shared her research into the role played by intuition in site analysis and early-stage design. “At this stage, designers are trying to work out the feasibility of the project. The design problems are ill-defined. You have a brief, but you don’t know whether it is suitable. To explore what will sit on a given site, often designers start by developing solutions and then assessing whether these will work, what the problems might be, or what additional information may be required. This is an iterative process that repeats until an idea is chosen that marries the problem with the solution.”

There is, she said, an assumption that during this feasibility process, designers know when they need to gather more information, or when they need to redevelop the brief, and that they also know when they reach the point at which their solution will work and can be taken forward for design development.

Diana explored how designers select a particular solution and what prompts them to look for additional information. She drew on the principles of cognitive psychology, which assumes everyone has two types of thinking: type one, which is quick, intuitive, and efficient, and type two, which is slow, deliberate and thoughtful. Type one thinking is deployed first, but the shift between the two depends on a feeling of ‘rightness’.

She gave a quick example. We all know 2 + 2 = 4. It instinctively feels right. However, 2 + 2 = 5 feels wrong. It prompts you to think more deeply and deliberate about why.

“I used this theory to explore what happens during the initial design stages. I interviewed a number of architects and asked them to talk me through these stages, and I found that one of the characteristics of these stages and the decision-making process is a lack of information.”

Diana explained that this is frequently because the budget doesn’t allow for a long time to be spent on analysis or commissioning surveys because feasibility hasn’t yet been established. “A lot of decisions are based on assumptions and caveats, and as designers iterate between solution and problem to reach an idea to take forward, narratives are developed.”

These narratives, or rationales, develop alongside solutions. Diana found that once a designer feels they have a coherent narrative, they place more confidence in the narrative than the solution. “If the narrative feels good, there is less inclination to detect problems or collect additional information. Confidence in the narrative replaces confidence in the solution to the extent that even if there is a low quality and quantity of supporting information, this might not be noticed because the narrative feels good.”

The bias that emerges as a result can lead to errors. Diana shared examples of designers developing concepts only to run into issues such as site topography that render their solution unworkable. “These errors don’t just happen to designers, or to individuals, they also happen in collaboration.”

Designers often reach the point where they are satisfied with the information supporting their solution through a process of substitution, she said. “Instead of thinking carefully about whether they have done enough analysis, they may instead consider easier questions such as what the planners or the client want, or benchmark against a project that already has planning permission. While this is a good approach, it ignores the fact that some of these stakeholders have different values and priorities.”

The problem with confidence in a narrative replacing confidence in the solution, she added, is that unless the designer has sufficient knowledge or access to relevant information, they will not be able to detect problems with the solution. And, when new information does become available, often later in the project, it is the solution that is tested rather than the information.

“This means that even if there are aspects that don’t quite work, these may not be noticed because you are constantly checking whether your idea still works with the new information, rather than the other way around. In doing so, errors may be continuously repeated or go undetected.”

To view the full research:

Diana Osmólska and Alan Lewis, ‘Architects’ Use of Intuition in Site Analysis: Information Gathering in Solution Development’, Design Studies, 87 (2023), 101189

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