Cognitive Artifacts – Business Cards and Clocks

Mary Margaret Herring

When reflecting on this week’s prompt, I thought about the business card as an example of an everyday cognitive artifact. Norman (1991) defines a cognitive artifact as “an artificial device designed to maintain, display, or operate upon information in order to serve a representational function” (p 17). In this way, business cards can be thought of as cognitive artifacts because they store information about a person on a card that can be shared. On a business card, a person usually lists their name, title, and contact information as well as the logo of the business that they are working for. The card can be shared with others to help them remember information about the business person – like their title or where they work – and how to get in touch. Business cards allow us to off-load memory onto the card.

While considering business cards, it became clear that the cognitive function of business cards has been replicated online. Businesses use “Meet our Staff” pages to introduce their employees and provide their contact information. Or, a person can consolidate their business cards by adding the peoples’ information to their phone as contacts. Similarly, Google knowledge panels pull contact information from websites and display this information in the search results for easy access. It seems that while the method of storing and displaying information online is much more complex than handing someone a paper business card, the function of the business card as a way to off-load memory becomes clear.

Another cognitive artifact that I considered was a timer. I often set timers while cooking so that I can focus on other tasks while one part of my meal cooks. By setting a timer, I can free up some mental space by not having to keep a mental record of how much time has passed. It seems that the design of timers or clocks can be manipulated in interfaces as well. For example, when I use Netflix on my phone, I have to swipe down on the screen to see what time it is. The clock is hidden from me. Similarly, when a person presents a PowerPoint presentation, their clock is hidden. I suspect that these interfaces are designed in this way to keep the audience from keeping tabs on the time. Netflix wants users to stream their content longer and PowerPoint wants the audience to focus on the presenter’s message. It is harder to accomplish both of those tasks when there is a clock reminding everyone that they have assignments to complete today or another meeting to attend in 5 minutes!

By viewing technologies as symbolic-cognitive artifacts, the designer is able to better understand the function that the technology needs to have. Irvine (n.d.) states that “[w]e are simply at one point in a longer ‘cognitive continuum’ that begins with language and symbolic representation, and expands into our ability to think with and represent multiple levels of abstraction” (p 2). If we apply this example to the business card example, we can see how such a simple artifact can be adapted into a technological form with basically the same function. Apps allow users to swap contact information, businesses upload their contact information to Google knowledge panels to make it easier for users to find and many (higher-level) employees can be found on company websites. While these technologies are much more complicated, it is clear that their function is not that different than a simple business card.


Irvine, M. (n.d.). Introduction to Cognitive Artefacts for Design Thinking. Manuscript in Progress.

Norman, D.A. (1991). Cognitive Artifacts. In J.M. Carroll (Ed.), Designing Interaction: Psychology at the Human-Computer Interface. Cambridge University Press.