Extant research on the visual attention and association of designers is limited, and scientific evidence dfferentiating among the effects of diverse visual stimuli on design thinking is insufficient. The current study invited 12 healthy expert designers and analysed their experiences of visual attention and association in addition to exploring the differences caused by three types of pictorial representation. The results of this electroencephalography (EEG) experiment indicated that the frontoparietal region was particularly activated when the designers engaged in visual attention tasks, whereas the brainwaves were particularly activated in the distributed prefrontal, frontocentral, and parietooccipital regions during the visual association tasks. In addition, there were no significant differences in the brainwave energy resulting from the three types of pictorial representation applied in this study. The research outcomes linking design studies to cognitive neuroscience establish a concrete foundation for developing future applied research and diverse educational practices. (C) 2016 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.