Making cognitive labor visible and tangible — WIP

Master of Design Thesis — Ideation + Design Phase

Stephanie Waldrop
6 min readMar 26, 2022


My thesis is an inquiry into how we might make cognitive labor in the home, which is often invisible, more visible and tangible for people to understand and recognize. Research concludes that women continue to bear the majority of housework, both physical and cognitive, so I will design an artifact that addresses and brings to light the disparity of this dimension of household labor and steps individuals can take to better understand this facet of labor and ways in which they can better distribute the cognitive load in their own lives.

Cognitive labor in the home is the thinking aspect of labor, which consists of the management, tracking, and monitoring household tasks. This is separate and distinct from physical labor which consists of the physical aspect of completing household chores, such as folding laundry, for example. Cognitive labor is sometimes referred to as mental or invisible labor, and involves four components, where one has to: 1. Anticipate needs, 2. Identify options for fulfilling those needs, 3. Decide among those identified options, 4. And monitor those needs, making sure decisions are executed and addressed.

For example, who in the household does most of the travel planning? Who keeps track of what food items need to be replenished for the next week? This kind of work, called cognitive labor, is something that is difficult to quantify and only compounds as one enters different life phases. It often goes unnoticed — it is often invisible — and has historically been excluded from research on topics related to dimensions of household work.

I seek to amplify awareness of this topic through the design of an artifact that addresses the nuances of this kind of work in the home.


The first half of the quarter was focused on brainstorming and finding inspiration for what my final design would look like. I sought inspiration that would help me find a solution that: measured cognitive weight, tracked cognitive labor, or aided in making cognitive labor visible between couples of people in a household.

I initially brainstormed and tested concepts that were centered around how couples might change the narrative amongst themselves and I conducted a few experiments in my own home to test how I might make labor visible in the home.

I created a low-stakes dialogue tool that tracked our cognitive labor throughout the day. We used found objects in the home — in my case, I used a Lite Brite, a children’s toy, to measure cognitive tasks over the course of one week. The left side was “my side” and the right my partner’s. As we would complete a task through out the day, we would insert a peg on our end. As we progressed through the exercise, my partner commented on the “weight” of a particular exercise — in which one particular tasks felt mentally heavy and asked how we might measure that. So the corresponding pegs on the same line denotes the mental or cognitive weight of one particular task. I included post-it notes where we could also write comments. This was not meant as a comprehensive list or our cognitive labor, rather, it was meant to be a casual exercise that we would partake in when we had the time throughout our generally busy work days. At the end of the day, when we would naturally congregate in the kitchen, usually to make dinner, we would chat about the cognitive work we noted from the Lite Brite exercise. This was a successful exercise in that it made us casually engage in the topic and did not feel imposing or an added responsibility we had to complete.

However, after these initial exercises and after my interviews, I came to the conclusion that making a concerted effort to talk about cognitive labor is difficult, is often one-sided, and can often be contentious, so creating an experience that couples had to participate in wouldn’t be an effective route for my final thesis design.

What it did was uncover this insight around cognitive weight, which I wanted to pursue further.

Cognitive weight is the idea that every cognitive task may feel more or less burdensome. I created a survey that measured people’s cognitive weight from light to heavy and mapped out the frequency in which a person conducted a task in their home. I distributed this survey on Reddit forums targeted to people with children, parents, and those in my personal network and then interviewed 5 individuals.

Survey questions included the cognitive weight and frequency of tasks relating to: social schedules, weekend plans, electronics, care for children, care of pets, chores such as: dishes, meals, household supplies, laundry, insurance, etc.

A link to the survey is here.

Following the survey, I conducted follow up interviews with three respondents where I tried to better understand the nuances of the cognitive labor in the home.

Insights from the survey and interviews are that:

— Most individuals were not surprised by the amount of cognitive load they took on but were surprised by the volume of daily tasks they labored on without realizing it

— Cognitive load is not a familiar term and some individuals finding that giving this work a concrete name makes it feel tangible

— Too much cognitive load and weight induces stress and worry for most participants

Ultimately, I have landed on building a website that acts as an artifact for my design study as a way to share the multiple ways in which to make labor visible. I aim to make this website a hub of information and resource tool that people can visit to better understand cognitive labor and give people the ability to share this resource with those they think would benefit from better understanding this kind of work.


The latter half of the quarter was spent building wireframes for my website and thinking about how I might structure my website so that it engages an audience. My design goals are to create an engaging narrative and interactive platform that will make people care about this topic through use of motion and parallax and interesting visual language.

The website will also contain insights gleaned from my research and provide glimpses into my research process.

The website will contain the following sections:

  1. Landing page — Introducing the project and topic with a scrollytelling element
  2. Defining cognitive labor — Making this concept tangible and digestible for a wide audience through photos, storytelling and parallax motion
  3. Interview + Insights — Using audio and photos from my interviews while weaving in facts about cognitive labor
  4. Experiments + Probes — Potentially using GIFs to highlight certain exercises I conducted including the Task Exercise, Diary Study, and Dialogue Tool, while weaving in different resources
  5. Expert Interviews — Highlights and Insights from my interview with Allison Daminger, an expert in the space of cognitive labor and will include links to her published work
  6. About Section — Will highlight why this project is important to me personally


Website Refinement: In the next month, I will continue building out and refining my website and detailing the information that will exist in each section. I plan on finishing my website by the end of April.

Henry Art Gallery Exhibition: In May, I will work on the exhibition at the Henry Gallery. My thesis exhibit will include a participatory display that will engage visitors into thinking about their own cognitive labor. It will also include a display where visitors can view and explore my website.

Publication: I would like to publish the results of my research to an academic journal and will take steps to plan and prepare for submission.



Stephanie Waldrop

Visual Designer + Master of Design Candidate at University of Washington.