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AN ONTOLOGY OF DONALD SCHÖN’S REFLECTION IN DESIGNING

JOHN S GERO AND UDO KANNENGIESSER Key Centre of Design Computing and Cognition University of Sydney

Abstract. This paper proposes an ontological account of Donald Schön’s notion of reflection in the domain of designing. We address two views of this notion: a functional view, describing reflection as the basis of a model of designing as an interactive process, and a mechanistic view, modelling reflection as a precursor of changes in the design. We use the function-behaviour-structure (FBS) ontology to represent both these views.

1. The Notion of Reflection in Designing Donald Schön’s notion of “reflection-in-action” (Schön 1983; Schön 1987) describes how most professional practice is based on the interconnection of thinking and action. Quoting Schön (1987, p. xi), reflection-in-action of practitioners is “the thinking what they are doing while they are doing it”. Reflection allows practitioners to change the way they go about solving problems; or as Schön (1987, p. 26) puts it:
“In an action-present – a period of time, variable with the context, during which we can still make a difference to the situation at hand – our thinking serves to reshape what we are doing while we are doing it. I shall say, in cases like this, that we reflect- in-action.”

Designing is one of the fields to which Schön applies his notion of reflection-in-action (or in short: reflection). He describes designing as a “reflective conversation with the materials of a design situation” (Schön 1992, p. 3), in which designers interact with their intermediate design representations. Specifically, designers change their view of the current design as a result of them generating and interpreting representations of the design. Schön and Wiggins (1992) illustrate this concept using the following excerpt from the design protocol of a school design task, performed by a first-year architecture student they refer to as Petra:

and five to six grades. Her “moving”. and the creation of a “home base” and of two kinds of spaces (“outside/inside” and “outside/outside”). Figure 1. intended or unintended.” The example shows that “reflective” designing can be schematised as “seeing-moving-seeing” (Schön 1992.e. The upper part of Figure 1. It also includes the recognition of a set of unintended. resulting in the recognition that the classroom units were “too small to do much with”. aims to solve this problem. that the initial problem has now been solved. 5): The first “seeing” allows Petra to observe and evaluate her current design. What I have here is a space which is more of a home base. I’ll have an outside/inside which can be used and an outside/outside which can be used – then that opens into your resource library/language thing. p. So I changed them to this more significant layout (the L-shapes). design concepts are the consequences. i. Petra’s repeated “seeing” of the results of this drawing finally includes a second judgment.S. of the designer moving through the state space of .2 J. three to four. GERO AND U. taken from Schön and Wiggins (1992). which is more what I wanted to do educationally anyway. Petra’s drawings of the layout of a classroom (taken from Schön and Wiggins (1992)) According to Schön’s model. her act of drawing a modified design representation (lower part of Figure 1). namely the spatial grouping of proximate grades. It relates grade one to two. desirable consequences of her “move”. KANNENGIESSER “I had six of these classroom units but they were too small to do much with. shows Petra’s initial drawing.

Clancey 1997. Reflection is a cognitive process that is the driver of this “interaction of making and seeing” (Schön and Wiggins 1992. We call this a functional view of reflection.1. we define a mechanistic view of reflection. In this paper. Section 2 adopts the functional view. p. 1999).e. which we apply to the above design example. Here we derive an ontological model of reflective designing from our earlier work on the situated function-behaviour-structure (FBS) framework. We show how this description allows delineating reflection from other processes in designing. 135). The external world is the world that is composed of representations outside the designer.AN ONTOLOGY OF SCHÖN’S REFLECTION IN DESIGNING 3 possible designs. Every step of the designer through that space is seen as a “move experiment”. regarding reflection as a cognitive process with a well-defined set of distinct properties. i. Section 4 concludes this paper with a summary of the benefits of our approach. Gero and Kannengiesser (2004) have modelled situated designing as the recursive interaction between three different worlds: the external world.e. i. caused by reflective activity within the designer. Figure 2(a). concentrating on the observable phenomena. Bartlett 1932. Schön’s choice of the term “reflection-in-action” fits well with where we see the focus of his work: on the role that reflection plays “in action”. its effect on subsequent decisions during the design process. we will present an ontological model of reflection that accounts for both the functional and the mechanistic view. It provides a framework for understanding how a designer’s interactions affect both what is designed and the designer’s experience (Gero 1999). Little work has been done in identifying these properties and studying reflection as an underpinning mechanism rather than a descriptor for the interactive nature of designing. On the other hand. 2. This world is the designer’s medium for communication. drawing on models of situated cognition (Dewey 1896. Section 3 provides an ontological description of reflection from the mechanistic point of view. A FRAMEWORK OF SITUATED DESIGNING Situatedness is a paradigm that can account for the central role of Schön’s reflection-in-action and related phenomena reported in empirical studies of designers (Suwa et al. The latter kind of communication corresponds to Schön’s concept of . the designer’s interactions. Ziemke 1999). which is then taken as the basis for both evaluating previous design concepts and generating new design concepts. either with other designers or with the designer themselves. A Functional View of Reflection 2. the interpreted world and the expected world.

Situated designing as the interaction of three worlds: (a) general model. the state space of all potential design solutions currently considered by the designer. in which the objects and relationships of a design are constructed and reconstructed by the designer. p. For example. The expected world is the world the imagined actions of the designer is expected to produce.4 J. The expected world corresponds to the designer’s current design state space. Figure 2. The interpreted world corresponds to what Schön (1992.S. (b) specialised model for design representations (after Gero and Kannengiesser (2004)) The interpreted world is the world that is built up inside the designer in terms of sensory experiences. The “materials” are represented in the external world and typically include iconic and symbolic representations of the design object. GERO AND U. Schön (1992) points out that Petra’s judgments of her designs as being “too small to do much with” or “more significant” are fundamentally subjective. and other designers might not necessarily agree with her. This world is located within the . It is the environment in which the effects of actions are predicted according to current goals and interpretations of the current state of the world. i. It is the internal representation of that part of the external world that the designer interacts with. such as the drawings shown in Figure 1. This has the implication that all aspects of the design depend on the unique experience of the individual designer. KANNENGIESSER “reflective conversation with the materials of a design situation”. percepts and concepts. 9) denotes as the “design world”.e.

Constructive memory is best exemplified by a paraphrase of Dewey by Clancey (1997): “Sequences of acts are composed such that subsequent experiences categorize and hence give meaning to what was experienced before”. The set of expected design representations (Xei) corresponds to the notion of a design state space. uses them as goals in the expected world and suggests actions. as all goals and expectations can be viewed as interpreted representations of potential future designs. everything that has happened since the original experience determines the result of memory . based on the original experience as well as the situation pertaining at the time of the demand for this memory. changing the interpreted world. of her projections of a larger layout. the act of drawing. focussing integrates that interpretation into the design state space. Figure 2(b) presents a specialised form of this view with the designer (as the internal world) located within the external world and placing general classes of design representations into the resultant nested model. This process uses the results of qualitative judgments or “appreciations” (Schön quoting Vickers (1965)) of the design. which. In Schön’s design example. in the expected world. represented in the external world. which may then be used as a basis for re-interpretation. The three worlds are linked together by three classes of connections: interpretation. Interpretation transforms variables which are sensed in the external world into the interpretations of sensory experiences. if executed in the external world should produce states that reach the goals. Focussing takes some aspects of the interpreted world. focussing and action. percepts and concepts that compose the interpreted world. Novel interpreted design representations (Xi) may also be the result of constructive memory. This leads to changes in external design representations (Xe). This state space can be modified during the process of designing by transferring new interpreted design representations (Xi) into the expected world and/or transferring some of the expected design representations (Xei) out of the expected world. Action is an effect which brings about a change in the external world according to the goals in the expected world. Memories can therefore be viewed as being constructed in response to a specific demand. If the interpretation is judged to be useful or required for the current design task. The implication of this is that memory is not laid down and fixed at the time of the original sensate experience but is a function of what comes later as well. which can be viewed as a process of interaction among design representations within the interpreted world rather than across the interpreted and the external world. Therefore. including. This process corresponds to what Schön calls “moving”. Petra’s L-shapes are the effects. for instance. This process includes Schön’s notions of “seeing” and “worldmaking” (Schön quoting Goodman (1978)).AN ONTOLOGY OF SCHÖN’S REFLECTION IN DESIGNING 5 interpreted world.

They are defined as follows: • Function (F) of an object is defined as its teleology. KANNENGIESSER construction. These notions are the basic constituents of the function-behaviour-structure (FBS) ontology (Gero 1990). “to provide daylight” and “to provide rain protection”. B and S. GERO AND U.6 J. Examples of structure properties of a window include “glazing length”. “glazing height” and “type of glass”. These new memories can be viewed as new interpretations of the augmented knowledge. both interpretation and constructive memory are represented as “push-pull” processes. • Behaviour (B) of an object is defined as the attributes that are derived or expected to be derived from its structure (S). This framework serves as a model of designing as a reflective conversation at three levels: • reflective conversation with design function • reflective conversation with design behaviour • reflective conversation with design structure The three levels of reflective conversation are connected to one another by a set of processes that transform interpreted structure (Si) into interpreted behaviour (Bi) (process 13. Using the window example. when new demands require the construction of further memories. Using the FBS ontology. is added to the existing knowledge (and becomes part of a new situation) and is now available to be used later.e. This results in a simplified version of Gero and Kannengiesser’s (2004) situated FBS framework. In Figure 2. with the more specific representations F. This emphasises the role of the designer’s individual experience that constructs or “pulls” new design concepts to match first-person knowledge rather than just replicates or “pushes” what can be seen as third-person knowledge (Gero and Fujii 2000). behaviour (B) and structure (S).e. 2. “what the object does”. some of the functions of a window include “to provide view”. Each memory. THE FBS ONTOLOGY IN REFLECTIVE DESIGNING Design representations can be viewed as describing any of three aspects of the design: function (F). labelled in Figure 3). “what the object consists of”. we can specialise the model of situated designing shown in Figure 2(b) by replacing the variable X.S. which stands for design representations in general. some behaviours include “thermal conduction” and “light transmission”. i. after it has been constructed. i. For example. Figure 3. “what the object is for”. i.e. interpreted behaviour (Bi) into interpreted function (Fi) (process 14). expected function (Fei) into . • Structure (S) of an object is defined as its components and their relationships.2.

after finding her initial school layout as too small. Figure 4 highlights process 6 to represent this design step. Table 1 shows that what Petra describes as a simple change in her design (from the six classroom units to the three L-shapes) can be modelled as a sequence of four design steps: 1. Constructive memory: Petra. Focussing: Petra decides to take the new design candidate as a basis for her future design moves. which includes this candidate in the current design state space.AN ONTOLOGY OF SCHÖN’S REFLECTION IN DESIGNING 7 expected behaviour (Bei) (process 10). These interconnections allow for reflective conversation at any level to drive further reflective conversation at any other level. Figure 5 represents this design step as process 9. uses her design knowledge to generate a new design candidate based on three L-shapes. Figure 3. 2. Reflective designing as the interconnection of three levels of reflective conversation (adapted from Gero and Kannengiesser (2004)) 2. . AN ONTOLOGICAL ACCOUNT OF SCHÖN’S EXAMPLE We can use the processes described in Figure 3 to model the design activities in Schön and Wiggins’ (1992) example presented in Section 1. and expected behaviour (Bei) into expected structure (Sei) (process 11).3.

unintended consequences of the new structure. which can be viewed as being previously transformed into our postulated expected behaviour (Bei) “person permeability” via process 10. KANNENGIESSER 3. Processes labelled in Figure 2 Constructive memory: 6 Focussing: 9 Action: 12 Interpretation: 3 Transformation: 13 These four design steps compose what can be thought of as one cycle of Petra’s reflective conversation at the structure (S) level. One of the new behaviours that Petra discovers may be termed “person permeability”. Other interpreted behaviours (Bi) that Petra derives from her new L-shaped design deal with features that she refers to as a “home base” and as “outside/inside” and “outside/outside”. three to four. While Petra does not explicitly refer to this behaviour. and five to six grades. Figure 6 shows this design step as process 12. We can view this goal as the expected function (Fei) “to allow interaction between proximate grades”. which is more what I wanted to do educationally anyway. TABLE 1. namely the new design structure created. Figure 8 shows this as process 13. So I changed them to this more significant layout (the L-shapes). which is represented as process 3 in Figure 7. It relates grade one to two. I’ll have an outside/inside which can be used and an outside/outside which can be used – then that opens into your resource library/language thing. Interpretation: Petra “visually apprehends” (Schön 1992) what she has produced. Action: Petra’s act of drawing. This activity is subsumed in Schön’s notion of “seeing”. In the example. The complete design protocol . three to four. The result of this cycle. What I have here is a space which is more of a home base. these consequences represent (interpreted) behaviours (Bi) derived from the new structure. 4. gives an externally visible account of her new design decision. resulting in the three L-shapes. GERO AND U. something she “wanted to do educationally anyway”. she does talk about her goal of relating “grade one to two. is then taken as a basis for discovering additional.8 J. Schön and Wiggins’ (1992) example of reflective designing mapped onto the processes labelled in Figure 3 Example from Schön and Wiggins (1992) I had six of these classroom units but they were too small to do much with. and five to six grades”.S.

Step 1 of reflective conversation with design structure: Constructive memory (process 6) Figure 5.AN ONTOLOGY OF SCHÖN’S REFLECTION IN DESIGNING 9 Figure 4. Step 2 of reflective conversation with design structure: Focussing (process 9) .

GERO AND U.S. KANNENGIESSER Figure 6. Step 4 of reflective conversation with design structure: Interpretation (process 3) .10 J. Step 3 of reflective conversation with design structure: Action (process 12) Figure 7.

3. p. Schön’s descriptions of reflection. The . as a basis for further. which aims to provide a more detailed ontological representation of reflection as a precursor for the designer’s reflective conversation. self-reference. or ways of framing problems” (Schön 1987. as previous “thoughts” and “thinking” are re-produced. imply the use of memory: “We think critically about the thinking that got us into this fix or this opportunity. second. and we may. understandings of phenomena. as these “thoughts” and “thinking” are modified and adapted in the light of the current situation. and. 28). from a mechanistic perspective. later in the design process. It provides a level of description that captures the designer’s interaction with the design situation but is too coarse-grained to represent reflection as an underlying process. change. This Section switches from the functional to a mechanistic stance. A Mechanistic View of Reflection The ontological framework we have presented so far assumes a functional view of reflection. in the process. restructure strategies of action. Consequences of reflective conversation with design structure: Deriving new behaviour from structure (process 13) presented by Schön (1983) shows that these features are used. Two characteristics of reflection can be inferred from Schön’s descriptions: first.AN ONTOLOGY OF SCHÖN’S REFLECTION IN DESIGNING 11 Figure 8. reflective moves through the design state space.

introduced in Section 2. Accordingly. It includes a given geometry and temperature (as a property external to the design) as the input (i). summarising the physical meaning of reflection: “the production of an image by or as if by a mirror” (which maps onto self-reference) and “the action of bending or folding back” (which maps onto change). Therefore. A possible function (F) of such a process may be “to operate time-efficiently”.12 J. This function can be ascribed to the behaviour (B) “speed” of the process. Design objects can be described by their function.S. “B” and “S” in brackets only to the function (F). KANNENGIESSER characteristics of self-reference and change fit well with two of the definitions provided by the Merriam-Webster dictionary. 5 and 6 shown in Figure 3. GERO AND U. can be seen as subsuming reflection. The primary kinds of experiences reflected on in designing are experiences with design objects. we can define three levels of reflection: • reflection on design function • reflection on design behaviour • reflection on design structure This representation can be further elaborated. let us first look at the example of a thermal stress analysis process. behaviour (B) and . the sequence of steps of a finite element analysis (FEA) as the transformation (t). we use Gero and Kannengiesser’s (2006) idea of applying the FBS ontology to processes as the “object” of designing. as it references itself through recalling previous experiences and modifies them to match the current situation. To better distinguish between the FBS view of the reflection process and the FBS view of the design object. we can represent reflection as being captured by processes 4. a transformation (t) and an output (o). using an approach to reflection that is more process-centred. Constructive memory. we will add the abbreviations “F”. These three components are connected to one another by two unidirectional relationships. Specifically. i – t and t – o.1. The structure (S) of the thermal stress analysis process. Figure 9 describes the structure (S) of an instance of a thermal stress analysis process. like any other process (Gero and Kannengiesser 2006). To introduce this idea. behaviour and structure. The structure (S) of an instance of a thermal stress analysis process Let us now use the FBS ontology to model the process of reflection on design objects. consists of three components: an input (i). and a set of stresses as the output (o). Figure 9.

function state space. as input (i). eventually. not to the function. They transform design structure (and. Table 2 shows the results of applying the FBS ontology to the three levels of reflection defined earlier in this Section. The same behaviours (B) are used for all three levels of reflection to evaluate the achievement of these functions (F). the ability of Petra’s L-shapes to solve her “too small to do much with” problem). For example. The very notion of an object may even be generalised to include processes. behaviour state space and structure state space) that each level of reflection aims at modifying. all processes of design synthesis are heterogenous. kinetic analysis or cost analysis. 2 and 3 in Figure 3). but exhibit the same behaviour (B). For example.AN ONTOLOGY OF SCHÖN’S REFLECTION IN DESIGNING 13 structure (S) of the reflection process.g. The fundamental similarity in the structure (S) of all three levels of reflection is their homogeneity. and produce design structures. The representation shown in Table 2 can be used to separate reflection processes from other processes in designing. as input (i). For example. Business process reengineering (Davenport 1993) is a common example for a See Saunders and Gero’s (2004) notion of novelty as a measure for the interestingness of designs 1 . We can see that they differ in their function (F) and partially in their structure (S). As shown in Table 2. The notion of homogeneity is equivalent to the idea of self-reference. as output (o). The design object being reflected on does not have to be physical. Furthermore. as their inputs (i) and outputs (o) are always of the same type. as output (o).e. and the novelty1 of the result with respect to the previous design solution. thermal stress analysis. as they take design behaviours. The different functions (F) are specific to the subset of the design state space (i. behaviour and structure of the design object being reflected upon. the transformation (t) of both process structures (S) is of the “push-pull” type. We may equally apply reflection to objects in virtual environments. the function “to modify the (design) structure state space” is the same for reflection on design structure as for re-interpretation of design structure (via process 1 in Figure 3). Our ontology can also be used to highlight similarities between reflection and other processes. All design analysis processes are also heterogenous. given external effects). for instance. the function (F) of reflection is the same as the function (F) of (re-)interpretation (captured by processes 1. The structures (S) of the three levels of reflection differ in the respective types of input (i) and output (o). into design behaviour. we propose that two behaviours (B) play a major role in reflection: the accuracy with which the result of the reflection solves a given design issue (e. The homogeneity of their structure (S) is unique. irrespective of their instantiation as.

the reflection can be put into one of the three categories presented in Table 2. reflecting on a process can be described as taking a property of the process as input (i) and subjecting it to a “push-pull” transformation (t). novelty Reflection on design structure to modify the (design) structure state space accuracy. KANNENGIESSER discipline concerned with (re-)designing processes.14 J. novelty Figure 10. GERO AND U. behaviour or structure of the process. One distinguishing feature of strategies is that the transformation (t) components of their structure (S) are viewed as actions or sequences of . Three levels of reflection described using the FBS ontology Process Reflection on design function Process function (F) to modify the (design) function state space Process behaviour (B) Process structure (S) i = interpreted design function t = “push-pull” transformation o = interpreted design function i = interpreted design behaviour t = “push-pull” transformation o = interpreted design behaviour i = interpreted design structure t = “push-pull” transformation o = interpreted design structure accuracy. The structure (S) of reflection on the speed of the process “producing a preliminary design concept” In some cases. TABLE 2. Figure 10 shows the example of the structure (S) of reflection on the behaviour of a design process. which produces an alteration of that property as output (o). here on the speed of the process “producing a preliminary design concept”. reflection is applied to processes that are referred to as strategies. Depending on the classification of the “property” as function.S. novelty Reflection on design behaviour to modify the (design) behaviour state space accuracy. In our ontology.

Here. i. Strategizing combines the traditional idea of top-down implementation of pre-formed strategies with more recent models of bottomup recognition of new strategies as “patterns in a stream of actions” (Mintzberg and Waters 1985). Quist’s reflection uses this structure as input (i) and transforms (t) it into an altered structure as output (o). partially dissolved and replaced against another one. Take Schön’s (1983. Instead. Figure 11. the configuration of the site using that building geometry (as transformation). 93) analysis of the protocol: “At the beginning of the review. the term “strategizing” has been established to denote the interactive construction of new strategies through reflective conversation (Cummings and Wilson 2003).e. the adaptation of the building shape to that site (as transformation). An episode of Schön’s (1983) protocol of Petra’s design session can be used to illustrate reflection on a design strategy. pointing out that she has tried to fit the shapes of the buildings into the contours of a “screwy” slope that offers no basis for coherence. and a coherent building–site compound (as output). even if it is arbitrary. Reflecting on design strategies is most clearly an instance of designers “thinking what they are doing” (Schön 1987. Petra is stuck: [Petra:] I’ve tried to butt the shape of the building into the contours of the land there – but the shape doesn’t fit into the slope. p. . The altered structure consists of a building geometry (as input). Quist [Petra’s studio master] criticizes her framing of the problem. p. The structure of Petra’s initial strategy is composed of the given site (as input). xi). This geometry may be “broken open” later. he resets her problem: [Quist:] You should begin with a discipline.” Schön (1983. We can interpret Quist’s re-“framing of the problem” as a reflection on Petra’s initial design strategy. 85) explains that what Quist means by “discipline” is a building geometry that is imposed upon the “screwy” site to provide coherence.AN ONTOLOGY OF SCHÖN’S REFLECTION IN DESIGNING 15 actions. The desired function of the strategy remains unchanged – to generate a coherent composition of the building shape and the site. What is primarily changed by Quist’s reflection process is the structure of the strategy. Most research in reflection on strategies comes from work in management science and is mainly understood from a functional perspective... p. and a coherent building–site compound (as output). you can always break it open later.

Increased understanding of the notion of reflection: Our ontological framework provides a semi-formal representation for both the functional and the mechanistic view of Schön’s notion of reflection. Most research has delivered a functional view of reflection. This provides a uniform framework for comparing and integrating the research from different design disciplines. The largest gap in our knowledge of reflection concerns the transformation (t) component of its structure (S). can be located at the structure level. focussing on its role in the course of designing rather than on its mechanisms. Further understanding is needed at the other two levels. In particular. Most research on reflection. We have extended Schön’s model by proposing three levels of analysis: the function level. . the mechanistic view clearly distinguishes reflection from other design generators.16 J. Multidisciplinary integration: We have shown that our ontology can be applied to reflection irrespective of the specific instantiation of the “design object” being reflected upon. Conclusion Our ontology of Schön’s model of reflection has the potential to advance design research in three ways: Figure 11. 3. We claim that this is an essential condition for enhancing the very understanding of this line of work. The structure (S) of reflection on the structure of a design strategy in Schön (1983) 1. In particular. the behaviour level and the structure level. 2.S. KANNENGIESSER 4. Framework for further research: Our ontological approach to reflection can be used as a point of reference for further studies. research findings related to reflection on strategies and processes can now be viewed in a form that allows easier access from traditionally object-centred disciplines such as design research. GERO AND U. including Schön’s work.

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