Thinking About Thinking (Part 1/3) — Linear and Non-Linear Thinking

In the next few posts, we’d like to share some of our findings regarding how people think.

Metacognition occurs when a user stops and thinks about how they think. If you were to metacognate, you would reflect on your analytic approach to solving problems and completing tasks.Chances are, you will find that it is a combination of linear and non-linear thinking.

Linear thinking can be thought of as a train of thought that follows a step by step process, with each step building on the last. Linear logic often takes the form of “if a occurs, then do b” or “if a is x, do b, but if a is y, do c”. While this is incredibly effective in completing tasks on a day-to-day basis, it doesn’t always yield the most efficient or optimized solution.

Non-linear thinking occurs when an individual takes a problem or concept and traces multiple different linear paths from this concept simultaneously. While each of the paths themselves may be linear, non-linear thinkers excel at traversing multiple paths simultaneously and making leaps from one to the other at different stages.

For example, a linear approach to designing a new pen would be “A pen is used by writers. Therefore, I should design the pen to write with ink. Pen’s that write with ink have ballpoints. Therefore, I should build a ball point pen.” None of these logical leaps are incorrect, but there are various other logical conclusions that one could come to if they new about the other processes (fountain pens, gel pens, felt pens, etc.). This process follows a path of:

if pen –> then uses ink–> if uses ink –> then ballpoint

Now a non-linear thought process would identify several logical paths:

if pen –> then uses ink –> if uses ink –> then ballpoint

if pen –> then writes –> if writes –> then typewriter

if pen –> then creates –> if creates –> then artist’s tool

if pen –> then is a tube –> if tubular –> then must fit in hand

And then string them together in an uncommon way:

if pen –> then writes–> if writes –> then creates –> if creates –> then must fit in hand and use ink –> if must fit in hand and use ink –> then tubular ballpoint pen for use by an artist

The linear paths are woven together to create a new linear path with new compound outcomes. When reviewing a non-linear pathway, you’ll see that the output is still a linear process. However, deriving this linear process is where non-linear thinking has its applications.

In Part 2, we’ll talk about lists and creativity, and in Part 3, we’ll show you how we at Elegant Solutions combine linear and non-linear thinking in our design process.