Design Thinking for Writing - RSA

Design Thinking for Writing


  • Picture of Jordana Globerman
    Jordana Globerman
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Design thinking can be a useful a tool outside the office. It can play a crucial role in education, creative activities and personal development. When we begin to consider the vast array of applications that might benefit from a design thinking approach, the opportunities are limitless. Jordana Globerman found that writing essays was a good place to start.

Design thinking has gained popularity as an efficient and agile approach to problem solving. It is a cyclical process comprised of four stages: define, ideate, prototype and test. First, the problem must be understood in all aspects through thoughtful consideration of those affected by it. As the problem is investigated, convergent and divergent patterns emerge, defining it. It is solved by challenging constraints and thinking creatively. These solutions are prototyped and tested before the whole cycle repeats itself, each time with greater insight and accuracy.

Design thinking allows solutions to be developed creatively and quickly, and tested before too much has been invested. A popular method for addressing organisational issues and product development, we can equally exploit these benefits in other areas such as our creative pursuits or education.

By way of example, consider essay writing. Back in school, there was nothing more decidedly uncool than admitting you enjoy writing essays. Essay writing implied neck injuries from book toting, a strictly pyjama wardrobe, coffee sweats and existential crises. I considered this pursuit to be an adventure. I revelled in the intellectual slog through information, in dodging red herrings and unravelling mysteries. At university you could often find me hidden beneath a teetering stack of library books, typing furiously on a computer that looked like a George Forman Grill. I majored in history and English, which meant most of my time went to essay writing.

The beginning of this journey was the most fun. It required the mapping of a system. To find the thesis, the glue of my essay, I would start broad. I needed to truly understand my subject before offering an opinion on it: which parts mattered, which did not and how it all connected. I think visually. At university this expressed itself through lewd notebook doodles, and more pertinently, through a colourful technique I used for essay writing.

First, read a stack of relevant articles and books. Write down anything you find interesting (with the source noted as it makes the bibliography easy). Your notes might lead you all sorts of places you didn’t expect, but don’t fear divergence. You now have many, many notes. Cut these into strips. These are the making of the mental puzzle you are about to solve. Now you can begin to arrange your notes according to convergent ideas. You can also colour code these notes as you go. What themes keep coming up? Is there a specific player that reappears? Ignore the impulse to basket weave.

At this stage you have many piles of strips. You also have things that don’t fit. You can scrap them as they are off subject. Read through your strips and consider the order in which they might connect. This might be chronological. This might be from highest level of meaning to greatest detail. Once you are satisfied with the logic of your ordering, tape the strips together to form ‘paragraphs’.

At this point you should be able to make logical connections between your paper-strip-clusters. Some clusters might not fit anywhere; again, don’t be afraid to scrap these. The rest of your ‘paragraphs’ should have a logical point of convergence: your thesis statement. Once you identify your thesis you can order your ‘paragraphs’ accordingly. Your quotes can simply be plugged in, or paraphrased. The hard part – the structure – is complete.

This was an unconscious design thinking approach to writing (albeit one that would have been much simpler with Post Its). It worked for many reasons. For one, listening to lectures was never something I excelled at. I learn by seeing and doing and I am not alone. It is estimated that only around a quarter of the population thinks exclusively in words; most people use a combination of words and pictures, or pictures alone, for mental processing. And, while everyone learns differently, we all learn better when more than one of these learning styles is engaged. A design process engages multiple senses thereby encouraging you to map more balanced and complete systems, in accordance with design principles.

In the 1920s, a few German psychologists began researching the manner in which humans easily make sense of disordered stimuli. They produced Gestalt principles, meaning principles of the ‘unified whole’. One such principle is Emergence, which posits humans perceive the whole before digesting its component parts and their connections. This principle is at work in the Define phase of a design thinking process. It enables our understanding and increases memory retention.

By using this cut and paste method for an essay, all your information is at once available, literally and metaphorically. It provides full contextual visibility. Moving elements around allows you to cluster ideas, harnessing the benefit of another design principle – proximity – to easily identify conceptual harmonies. Colours further stimulate thought and emotion, allowing you to engage even when you are crashing from that litre of tea-thin coffee.

Our world is comprised of systems. An essay can be system, and like others, you can’t accurately judge any part of it without understanding its complexity. A good thesis statement can only arise from profoundly exploring a subject. Incorporating design into your writing process does not force your evidence into adherence with a preconception. Instead, it allows a thesis and conclusion to grow organically from evidence. Similarly, understanding the world as a design thinker requires you keep an open mind, and engage before judgement.

Jordana Globerman is a graphic recorder and facilitator who works internationally using design thinking approaches to help groups collaborate creatively.


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