In-house Issues: Meta Metacognition

My younger daughter has an instinctive grasp of math, an aptitude I marvel at as I’m rather arithmetically challenged (just ask my wife about the time I attempted to handle the family finances). Lexie isn’t just good at the more basic rote memorization of addition and subtraction math facts and multiplication tables, she has an uncanny grasp of the logic and fundamentals of abstract mathematical reasoning.

So I was a bit surprised a few years ago when her 3rd grade teacher, in the course of our parent-teacher conference, raised a red flag about her math skills. Mrs. E acknowledged that Lexie almost always got the correct answers to even the most difficult problems, but then noted that she was unable to clearly articulate how she arrived at her solutions. This skill, Mrs. E explained – the ability to think about how one thinks – was called metacognition. Like most parents, I sat mutely not wanting to challenge Lexie’s teacher, but I was concerned that this requirement might kill my daughter’s instinctive love of mathematics. I was also angry, not just because of what Lexie was facing and would continue to face in her academic career, but because the conversation triggered in me memories of my encounters with this expectation often expressed by past clients and managers.

I can recall many times, upon concluding a killer presentation to a group of stakeholders, waiting for the room to erupt in applause, only to be confronted with the dreaded query, “Hmmm, (pursed lips) well just HOW did you arrive at this solution?” What did THAT question have to do with whether the design addressed the marketing objective or not? Nevertheless, I would dutifully recount the process, filling in any gaps with copious and convincing nonsense.

It’s important to understand that when we, as designers, or Lexie, as a math whiz, tackle design or math problems, we engage in a specific type of thinking that taps into our nonverbal intelligence. The idea, that the metacognition theory forwards, that having someone describe this type of process in words increases or proves their understanding of how they solved the problem, is flawed. If said designer or student didn’t understand the problem on a deeper and different level, they wouldn’t be able to consistently come up with appropriate solutions. Metacognition, therefore, is more about asking an individual to use their verbal intelligence to describe, or more accurately, translate their design or mathematical intelligence. What metacognition isn’t about is a person understanding anything any better than they did when they slipped into a different cognitive realm to solve a problem.

The problem for Lexie, and any designer who is asked to metacognate, is that they may begin to believe they really don’t understand and aren’t good at what they actually are gifted at. They’ll second-guess themselves and impede the process they’re engaged in by trying to verbalize what they’re doing as they’re doing it. Imagine Michael Jordan trying to verbally go over in his head exactly how he makes a layup as he’s making the shot. His kinesthetic intelligence would be short-circuited and I don’t believe this tact would improve his game a whole heck of a lot.

How to handle the “Just how did you do that?” challenge from clients and managers? Redirect the conversation to the creative brief you hopefully were given, and if no CB exists, address the success of the design in terms of the objectives of the assignment as you believe them to be. You can actually appease your client or manager, and appear to answer the process question, by framing the answer in a way that allows you to discuss your choice of imagery, color, fonts etc. by saying, “Well I chose this font because it has a feminine feel to it and that was the demographic noted on the creative brief that we’re targeting in this promotion…”

The bottom-line is that when we think about thinking about how we think, we expose the absurdity of the whole metacognition mess and free ourselves to think the way we think best.

3 thoughts on “In-house Issues: Meta Metacognition

  1. Karen J-K


    I’m in awe of Lexie because math has always been mysterious for me as well. But I really feel for Lexie, because she may have to go through school doing double work. First, the solution will appear to her, possibly fully formed; but then she will have to backtrack and iterate “how” she supposedly arrived at the solution by formulating it in conventional terms so that “laypeople” can follow her supposed reasoning.

    To cheer Lexie up, you can point out how Steven Hawkings has put his mathematical acrobatics into simplistic terms (to him) in his books so that we can follow his thought process to a tiny degree. And he actually appears to enjoy explaining things to us regular people. She may find she often needs to as well.

    As a designer, oddly enough, I have always enjoyed helping clients see the (verbal) rationale behind the designs I present. I like translating what I do into their language. Just like any artist, I make the same leaps of creativity during the design process and immerse myself in the design requirements, letting ideas freely flow. Later, I put on my critical hat and critique the results from the point of view of the creative brief then it’s back to the creative process to tweak and refine if needed.

    I actually enjoy explaining to the client how what I did meets their needs. When they ask “how” I don’t think they want to know the “how” of my personal process. They could care less about that! What they really mean is “how” does this solve *their* problem? Like you said, the “how” means how does your work meet the requirements of the creative brief?

    Clients are, more often than not, left-brained verbal people. They may like what they see, but they need some words to go with it to rationalize to themselves that they are making the right choice. Words put them in their comfort zone. It’s something concrete to them. They don’t like just hanging out there in unfamiliar “visual” territory without some familiar “word” guideposts to reassure them that they aren’t just following some spacey designer into the unknown. After all, they’ve got more than just your fee riding on this relationship with you. They’ve got the success or failure of their product or business. It’s risky and you need to reassure them in a language they understand.

    1. Andy Epstein


      Thanks for the suggestion for Lexie. Steven Hawkings’ work has actually been brought up in her science class so I’ll be sure to mention your anecdote to her.

      Also, thank you for putting the clients’ motivations into a more human and kinder perspective than I did in the post. To your point, sometimes they’re just scared of what they don’t understand.

      One final note regarding your take on the creative process – I once heard a quote from an advertising copywriter that I believes applies to designers too – “Write drunk. Edit sober.”

  2. Karen J-K

    “Write drunk. Edit sober.” …Love it!

    Best of luck to Lexie, she has a gift to nurture. I recall the same demands from math teachers when I was in school. For me, though, it wasn’t a problem since I had to figure things out the tedious way, so my math work always showed each painstaking step.

    I suppose it’s the only way the teacher has of knowing that the student really understands the process, which, of course is the teacher’s job. Perhaps, in the future, Lexie will find the rare teacher(s) someday that are more creative and flexible in their responses to students.

    Thank you for an insightful blog!