By now you may be familiar with the axiom that to gain expertise in something requires 10,000 hours of practice. What does 10,000 hours of practice look like and how does it lead to expert status? In other words, one doesn't wake up on the morning after the 10,000 hour and suddenly have access to expertise, so there must be stages or levels on the way to "expert" status. Indeed, the state one reaches after 10,000 hours must be a constructed notion useful in evaluating relative experience—no doubt one continues to develop expertise beyond that point. It would also follow that these stages must be relevant to the practice in question. So, what do the stages of design expertise consist of?
Bryan Lawson, an architect and psychologist who specializes in researching the cognitive aspects of design thinking (the science of design), has developed an outline of these steps in his book What Designers Know. He begins by framing out the levels of expertise (via Kees Dorst and Hubert Dreyfus) as they will relate to the nature of each step. In a sense, each level of expertise roughly corresponds to a cognitive ability, although in reality the transitions are very fluid. The levels in ascending order are novice, beginner, competent, proficient, and expert. These levels are fairly straightforward, even if the differences between each level entail some interesting discourse. We will take them at face value to understand the five steps towards expertise which I will list below:
Step one: Rules of thumb, or schemata. Every student to design learns a set of rules or schemata that form a shared language of design. These may entail simple relationships between material elements or the interface between human beings and material elements. An example in architecture would be the rise and run of stairs or the coursing of bricks. Simple forms are also necessary schemata: domes, vaults, frames, tunnels, etc.
Step two: Precedent. Case studies form an important part of early design education. Learning examples of how design problems have been solved before give the student of design a repertoire from which to depart in determining solutions to a design problem. This is the reason architects buy so many books! (its an expensive habit...) At this stage we are moving through the first one or two levels of expertise.
Step three: Guiding principles. This is the step that really ignites the fire in any design student's belly. Upon learning a sufficient number of schemata and precedents, one may start to apply certain values or frames to a design problem as a means of understanding it. These are the conceptual drivers that designers use to approach a design problem.
Step four: Recognition. At higher levels of expertise, an ability to respond to design problems becomes more intuitive and less analytic. The designer is able to recognize patterns in the problem similarly to how a chess master recognizes the layout of a chess match. As such the designer becomes more solution oriented than problem oriented, and draw from their precedent memory. Now we are reaching the upper levels of expertise.
Step five: Gambits. Taking the chess metaphor a step further, a match between masters will entail both sides recognizing the situation and having moves to offset the other. In this case, and in some design situations, one needs a unique gambit. A gambit may be an opening move drawn from precedent or from guiding principles that sets the stage for a solution. Many notable designers employ these moves deftly and are known by them.
By the fifth step, a design expert is said to have a highly situational knowledge. By some degree an expert relies less on the earlier steps as they become more sensitive to their practice. The earlier steps become internalized or are superseded by later forms of knowledge. However, each step is a necessary cognitive negotiation with the practice—in this case design—that gradually build up to expert status. To understand this model as a novice student of design is to recognize the incremental nature of design education. I believe that it may better ground students in the process.
Bryan Lawson, What Designers Know (Oxford: Elsevier, 2004), 106-119.