Natural language, which is closely linked to thought and reasoning, has been recognized as important to the design process. However, there is little work specifically on understanding the use of language as design stimuli. This paper presents the results of an experiment where verbal protocols were used to elicit information on how designers used semantic stimuli presented as words related to the problem during concept generation. We examined stimulus use at the word level with respect to part-of-speech classes, e.g., verbs, nouns and noun modifiers, and also how stimuli syntactically relate to other words and phrases that represent ideas produced by the participant. While all stimuli were provided in verb form, we found that participants often used stimuli in noun form, but that more new ideas were introduced while using stimuli as verbs and noun modifiers. Frequent use of stimuli in noun form appears to confirm that people tend to think in terms of objects. However, noun use of stimuli introduced fewer new ideas and therefore contributed less to concept formation in our study. This work highlights a possible gap between how people may tend to think, e.g., in terms of nouns, and how new ideas may be more frequently introduced e.g., through verbs and noun modifiers. Addressing this gap may enable development of a language-based concept generation support system to encourage innovative and creative solutions for engineering problems.

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