An Investigation into Uncovering and Understanding Tacit Knowledge


Author: Saskia van Kampen
The complex nature of visual culture demands that designers, design students as well as design instructors engage both on a theoretical and practical level with their design practice in order to stay current, avoid complacency and develop innovative ways of seeing and functioning. Theory and practice must work together and inform each other (Schön, 37). However, practical knowledge is often deemed inferior to theoretical knowledge, leading to a focus on the latter within the classroom environment. The divide between theory and practice in institutions of “higher” education as well as in the industry needs to be eliminated since both forms of knowledge are integral components of creative thinking. How can design educators participate in this task?

Tacit knowledge and intuitive responses are a large part of practical knowledge. Their importance within this form of knowledge explains the tendency to keep theory from practice, as well as the common perception that the former is a “lower” form of knowledge. Effectively, as social scientist Donald Schön explains in The Reflective Practitioner, tacit knowledge is not perceived as rigorous or rational due to its lack of scientific grounding and the difficulty individuals have in explaining tacit responses.(Schön, 102). Psychology professor Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi however suggests that although tacit knowledge does not come from rational thinking, it follows patterns that have been learned in the past (Csikszentmihalyi, 102). This notion implies that our tacit reactions can be rationalized through a greater sensitivity and awareness of our unconscious responses. Design instructors could thus participate in elevating practical knowledge and reducing the gap existing between theory and practice by stimulating a better understanding of tacit knowledge and intuitive responses amongst their students. The question remains, how can instructors foster that improved understanding?

David and Alex Bennet suggest that tacit knowledge can be broken down into four aspects: embodied, intuitive, affective and spiritual. Their dissection of these aspects has lead to the elaboration of methods that can build an “extraordinary consciousness” (Bennet, 81) within the industry through the fostering of tacit knowledge sharing. Some of these methods can be used in the classroom to help students and instructors bring their tacit knowledge from the unconscious into the conscious level, thus elevating the level of discourse surrounding practical knowledge and bringing its importance to the forefront.

For example, Schöns’ method for uncovering tacit knowledge includes a process of “reflection in action.” More precisely, he has students reflect upon and record specific aspects of a project or process. He describes the method as a “conversation” throughout the cycle of action and reflection of a project (Schön, 130). The activity of reflection developed by Schön may help students develop on many different levels as they not only learn to write about their tacit decisions, but also become better prepared for rigorous class critiques and improve their design vocabulary. 

Other methods include the Bennets’ study group method, which involves people working together on a regular basis to discuss projects, share ideas and brainstorm together. Through the discussions and group work, “resonance” may occur, —resonance phenomena is the recognition of a similar understanding of a problem as another individual— which may trigger latent knowledge and bring this knowledge closer to conscious levels of understanding (Bennet, 90). Political Scientist David Laws reinforces the positive effect of this activity by stating: “to see reflection as constituted in the solitary relationship between actor and object … is a distortion that neglects the importance of conversation—social interaction,” or “listening to one another and to themselves” (Laws, 599). This activity thus not only creates a participatory environment in the classroom, but might also help generate dynamic partnerships between students, a broader understanding of working methodologies and hopefully allow the students to grasp hold of how to talk about their processes.

Both Schöns’ and the Bennets’ activities share similar approaches in which the students are engaged in active listening and learning to help locate the unconscious mechanisms behind their tacit reactions. Their methods not only improve the students’ understanding of their own tacit knowledge, but also support an environment of understanding versus recall within the classroom. Effectively, by encouraging students to write using the vocabulary of design, their methods help the students develop a firm grasp of the many complex concepts found in colour theory, communication and design. The knowledge acquired allows the students to shift from a state of recall or rote memorization to one of deep understanding and application, thus improving the practical aspect of their creative thinking.

The methods described above may help students articulate their tacit knowledge, but what about the instructors? In A Critical Pedagogy, Henry A. Giroux suggests that the objectivity and neutrality of Technical Rationality (the positivist epistemology of practice in which rational steps are used to solve problems) thwarts what expert knowledge offers (Giroux, 25-26). Many teachers approach projects by giving examples, “correcting” roughs using tracing paper overlays and many other action based teaching methods. However, expert knowledge through demonstration does not explain the why of making. Chris Argyris and Schön term this problem as “mystery and mastery,” where an instructor is able to “demonstrate his mastery of the material, but he keeps the source of his performance mysterious" (Schön, 126). Common teaching practices are thus often lacking the explanations and rationalization necessary for students to fully grasp the reasons behind the success of the visual component of a work. This suggests that instructors need to develop strategies to articulate their own tacit responses in order to help students understand the reasons behind their actions. 

Utilizing the theories and methods illustrated by the above mentioned authors I am designing strategies specifically for the design studio that engage both student and teacher in recognizing and articulating tacit knowledge and intuitive responses. The methods are self-reflective writing components to activity-based projects. Questions are carefully crafted to help students familiarize themselves with the vocabulary of design, and become cognizant of the why of their making. These strategies are developed to begin eliminating the divide between theory and practice. They represent an attempt to elevate the level of discourse surrounding practical knowledge through an improved rationalization of both students’ and instuctors’ tacit responses.


  1. David Laws, “Practicing ‘Beyond the Stable State’,” Planning Theory and Practice 11.4 (December 2010).
  2. Donal A. Schön, The Reflective Practitioner: How Professionals Think in Action (New York: Basic Books, 1982.  
  3. David Bennet and Alex Bennet, “Engaging Tacit Knowledge in Support of Organizational Learning,” VINE: The Journal of Information and Knowledge Management Systems, 38.1 (2008)
  4. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Creativity : flow and the psychology of discovery and invention (New York: Harper Collins, 1996).
  5. Henry A. Giroux, On Critical Pedagogy (New York: Bloomsbury, 2011).