Definition: Designers are relying on tacit knowledge and skills that they do not fully understand and cannot fully explain. Because of its implicit nature, it is hard to predict what effects tacit knowledge will have in design.

Impacted Patterns: co-evolution of problem-solution, commitment.


The term “tacit knowing” or “tacit knowledge” was first introduced by Michael Polanyi, with his central assertion being that “we can know more than we can tell.” (Polanyi 1966, page 4). Polanyi analyzed diverse forms of tacit knowledge, such as tradition, inherited practices, implied values, and prejudgments.

Design is closely related to tacit knowledge. Design aims at exploiting implicit, tacit knowledge and skills of designs and other people involved in the design activity. Schön (1987) calls such knowledge knowing-in-action, revealed only in the way we carry out tasks and approach problems (page 25). Schön elaborated that such knowledge can only be revealed by the skillful execution of the performance. We are characteristically unable to make it verbally explicit. In other words, while we cannot explain such knowledge and skills, we can demonstrate them by being engaged in a particular activity. Cross similarly refers to “natural intelligence” of design ability (Cross 1999), and “designerly ways of knowing” (Cross 2006).

A design activity can set in motion our intuitive and tacit knowledge accumulated through years of research and experience. And by engaging users in design, we may employ their intuitive knowledge about their domains. Much of such valuable knowledge is not captured in existing theories and guidelines. Glass, for example, noted that actions of designers are often implicit and intuitive. He defined intuition as: “a function of our mind that allows it to access a rich fund of historically gleaned information we are not necessarily aware we possess, by a method we do not understand” (Glass, 2006; page 125). Glass elaborated that our unawareness of such knowledge does not mean that we cannot use it.

Intuition, judgment and tacit skills play a critical role in understanding and setting problems from messy and ill-defined situations (Obrenovic 2011). Tacit knowledge is often seen as one of the most important characteristics of designers. Moreover, we usually would not call some activity design if it does not involve tacit skills (Weth 1999). Tacit knowledge and intuition are often only available intellectual ‘tools’ by which designers can handle real-world complexity.

Tacit knowledge is crucial in design, but because of its implicit nature, it is hard to predict what effects it will have. Consequently, tacit knowledge has a significant influence on the dynamics of design activities. The co-evolution of problem-solution pattern is often a consequence of actions based on intuition, judgment, and tacit skills. For instance, tacit skills are crucial to identifying design problems, especially in the realm of complex human and social issues. The similar applies to the commitment pattern as mastering usage of tools often requires acquiring an extensive set of tacit knowledge and skills.

Questions to Ask Yourself

  • What kind of tacit knowledge and skills you use in your design activities?
  • How are you developing these skills?
  • How do you combine tacit (implicit) and explicit knowledge?
  • How do you capture and share tacit knowledge?
  • How do you plan activities that involve extensive usage of tacit skills?

Cover Art

A designer sketching. Skills relevant to design require tacit knowledge, not always known explicitly, even by expert practitioners, and which is difficult or impossible to explicitly transfer to other people. Credit: Hrvoje Abraham Milićević / Pexels.