The Evolution of Writers as Designers

Origins of Design Thinking

The term “design thinking” grew out of a sort of bureaucratic push for creative problem-solving in businesses, organizations, and companies. In 2005, design thinking in the higher education sphere accelerated at the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford University—more commonly known as the d.school.  Now, the d.school offers workshops, courses, and consulting services which train participants to use design thinking across disciplines as a problem-solving framework.  

In 2009, Tim Brown published Change by Design : How Design Thinking Transforms Organizations and Inspires Innovation and also gave a TED talk titled, “Designers—think big!” Brown also serves as CEO of  IDEO, a design company that partners with groups across industries to implement human-centered design frameworks in a range of contexts (see all their projects here). 

The framework  evolved within different spaces, and now keywords like “design thinking” and “human-centered design” can be found in fields like  design education, web design (these two are unsurprising), hospitality & tourism,  computer science, sociology, political science, interior design, health, higher education, and a sea of others. Writing studies is one of those many spaces where design thinking has begun to gain traction. 

How does it work?

So what does design thinking entail, actually? How do people do it? Here’s an example.

Cassidy Browning from The University of Texas at Austin’s School of Design and Creative Technologies frames the Black Lives Matter Foundation as a contemporary, public example of design thinking in action

“The Black Lives Matter Foundation, Inc (BLM) is a global example of design thinking. Co-founders Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi began BLM as a hashtag in 2013 and have maintained a decentralized, co-created, iterative movement for creating change. It is designed to invite use, participation, and co-creation; it is non-linear, non-hierarchical, and non-prescriptive. This design maximizes access, with estimates of 26 million participants imbued with creative confidence and welcomed to iterate. The name/hashtag feels like the result of ‘why laddering’, as it distills and identifies the core wicked problem: Black lives are not treated as though they matter. The capacious and adoptable design embraces ambiguity and welcomes collective intelligence and a bias for action.” [1] Cassidy Browning, “Design Thinking’s Social Justice Genealogies & PracticesJournal of Design and Creative Technologies 2 (2020).

To illustrate the process, the d.school created useful icons and graphics (go figure!) which I’ve adapted into a dynamic glossary below. At its core, design thinking provides structure to your goal of solving a problem. It begins with understanding your audience and context (empathize), articulating the problem you’re trying to solves (define), brainstorming how to offer a solution (ideate), creating those solutions or samples (prototype), and implementing or presenting that solution to the public (test).

Tip: to fit the whole board into your viewer, hover over the % in the bottom right corner of the board. Then click the arrows button highlighted in blue (above).

Design thinking in higher education

In the last 15 years or so, higher education has begun to prioritize integrative learning (also commonly written as “integrated learning”)[2]Integrative learning is defined by the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AACU) as the “understanding and a disposition that a student builds across the curriculum and … Continue reading and high impact practices. [3]Defined as “certain educational activities, such as learning communities, undergraduate research, study abroad, and service learning, have been identified as high-impact practices because they … Continue reading [4]For an overview of examples of high-impact practices, see: George Kuh and Carol Geary. High-Impact Educational Practices : What They Are, Who Has Access to Them, and Why They Matter (2008); for a … Continue reading

Against the backdrop of integrative learning models and high-impact practice models, the term wicked problem has emerged. When instructors position students to intervene in “unsolvable” issues which do not have a correct response, per se, but can be addressed in a multiplicity of formats, modes, structures, tones, platforms, etc., they are posing wicked problems. Some big bucket examples of wicked problems include: poverty, climate change, education, sustainability, municipal civic pursuits, campus problems, client-based issues, etc. In other words, by posing real-world problems that have real-world audiences to students, they suddenly have a degree of urgency in their coursework that may not have been there before. Wicked problems work hand in hand with problem-based learning.[5]I should note the difference between “problem-based learning” and “project-based learning” in higher education. Problem based learning situates students as participants in real-world … Continue reading Problem-based learning explicitly asks students to propose solutions to a certain issue to practice making situation-based decisions. For design thinking to emerge in such a context, then, should come as no surprise. Design thinking similarly values situational, contextual, and human-based learning processes.

Institutions have increasingly been drawn to the context-heavy, real-world-applicability of these pedagogies. An astounding example is Jonathan Alexander and Susan Jarratt’s “Rhetorical Education and Student Activism,” from 2014[6]Alexander, Jonathan, and Susan C. Jarratt. “Rhetorical Education and Student Activism.” College English 76, no. 6 (2014): 525–44. http://www.jstor.org/stable/24238201. where Alexander and Jarratt describe the way in which first-year writing coursework can forge new pathways for not just student thinking and learning, but action on campus. As a result of these civically and rhetorically rich pedagogies, students are being asked to propose solutions to situations they could/can really influence. And they are being asked to do so in groups, multimodally, and publicly.[7]For a study that both describes the high-impact assignment model in practice and reviews its efficacy, see: Paul Anderson, Chris M. Anson, Robert M. Gonyea, & Charles Paine, “How to create … Continue reading

Design thinking in writing studies

As writing studies discourse began to discuss multimodality in the early aughts[8]See, for example: Diana George, “From Analysis to Design: Visual Communication in the Teaching of Writing,” College Composition and Communication (2002); Suzanne Miller, “English Teacher … Continue reading, design thinking was trickling into various writing programs across the U.S.. Writing scholar Diana George argued that composing a paragraph, poster, and/or multimedia presentation necessitates rhetorical control. Thanks to George’s historical overview of multimodal literacy’s rise in the field of English,[9]In this section, I incorporate Diana George’s argument about English departments incorporating design, though I intend for this toolkit/project to reach writing program faculty more specifically. … Continue reading we can trace the idea that English departments have been preoccupied with design at least as early as 2002, when George published her article.

This idea that creating is a form of composition isn’t necessarily new. George mentions, for example, the Dick and Jane Elementary Reader from 1946 which guided teachers to discuss the illustrations in the text; in 1961, the NCTE published  Television and the Teaching of English where Neil Potsman describes why television literacy was “necessary”; and in 1996,  the New London Group’s “A Pedagogy of Multiliteracies: Designing Social Futures” states literacy includes understanding a “burgeoning variety of text forms,” (61). To borrow from George, “what these [examples] urge, then, is not simply the inclusion of mass media as objects of study but the use of media to encourage the development of multimodal designs,” (18). Writing studies’ “turn to design”[10]Phrase coined from Richard Marback’s article, “Embracing Wicked Problems: The Turn to Design in Composition Studies [Excerpt].” College Composition and Communication 61, no. 2 (2009): … Continue reading in combination with the last decade of foci in higher education sets the stage for design thinking’s budding traction.

For writing studies, this means we are currently seeing an increase in authentic audiences, studio models, and innovative collaboration in writing course assignments and syllabi[11]See Georgetown University’s Writing Program Announcements page for a slew of commentary on authentic audiences & design-thinking. Various educators have shared their experience adopting … Continue reading. Between a concern with transferable skills and an ever-growing understanding of multimodal composition, design in writing pedagogy seems to have found a foothold. Now, a preliminary search result from the Georgetown University Library using the key words “design-thinking” and “writing studies” yields over 5,000 results between 2000 and 2021. On Google, that number increases to 386 million hits.

To return to earlier key words, when writing assignments hinge on wicked problems, students engage in scenarios that never truly reach a point of finite resolution. Why do instructors use this approach? (It sounds frustrating.) The perspective that students are or ought to be treated as agentive, adaptive, and wielding of rhetorical control drives this framework forward. Across disciplines in the last 15 years, institutions, instructors, and curriculum have sought to make students “ready” for the real world after they graduate—where many problems indeed do not have finite resolutions. At their root, these keywords (“high-impact practices,” “integrative learning,” “problem-based learning,” “wicked problems”) developed out of the idea that students can best initiate learning transfer—that is, be able to use the knowledge they acquired in one context in an entirely different one—when they learn by practicing situationally, contextually, and pragmatically.

This phenomenon in writing pedagogy documents a shift in both priorities about A) what students need to learn about writing and B) what we think works in teaching. Almost forty years ago, in the 1980’s, process theory provided students—and instructors of writing—with strategies and familiar procedures upon which writers could build their writing practice. Process theory suggested there may be a “correct” way to write. The view that students should be engaging in real, complex problems as a way to prepare them for—you guessed it— the real, complex, problems they will face after graduation in general comes from particular pivots writing studies itself has seen in the last 20 years or so. In formal terms, this shift in ideology was born out of both post-process theory, which posits that writing itself cannot be mastered, proposing “instruction that is more collaborative and  individualized—a  curriculum  that  stresses  writing  as  a  hermeneutic activity  over  writing  as  a  closed  skill  set,”[12] Matthew Heard, “What Should We Do with Postprocess Theory?” Pedagogy 8, no. 2 (2008): 284. See Heard’s article for a concise yet enriching discussion on post-process theory.  and post-pedagogy theory, which moves one step further and asks if writing can even be explicitly taught.  

Instead, post-pedagogy “aims to transform the ways in which teachers inhabit the power generated by their position within an institution,”[13] Marc Santos and Mark Leahy, “Postpedagogy and Web WritingComputers and Composition 32 (2014): 84–95. This article is a key player in the design-thinking & post-pedagogy discourse.  and  “rethink writing as a teachable object, to encourage projects that theorize writing outside the classroom or other pedagogic scenes—even nonclassroom-based projects like service learning or community-based writing—in favor of inquires that are not limited by processes of pedagogy.”[14] Sidney Dobrin, J.A. Rice, and Michael Vastola, eds. Beyond Postprocess. (Utah State University Press, 2011): 17. It could even be fair to say that, at its most basic level, writing studies as a whole has been steering farther and farther away from Paulo Friere’s “banking” pedagogy and closer toward “problem-posing” pedagogy. 

The perspective that students are or ought to be treated as agentive, adaptive, and wielding of rhetorical control drives this framework forward.

Since Diana George published her 2002 article, post-process and post-pedagogy shed even more light on her idea here: “Thinking of composition as design shifts attention, if only momentarily, from the product to the act of production,” (18). I’d update George’s idea only slightly, and suggest that the framing of “only momentarily” can, too, be adjusted if an instructor uses production (and not product) as the pedagogical driver of a course. Writing studies’ evolution has culminated into a centralized focus on kairotic[15] “Byron Hawk (2007) articulated a kairotic notion of invention that begins with attending to the specifics of context rather than relying on the generic deployment of pre-established “fixed” … Continue reading production as a metacognitive hermeneutic. In other words, the act of thinking through problems, proposing solutions, and engaging in conversations is the actual operative learning happening during writing. If the linchpin to design-thinking is audience, context, and informed choices, it seems intuitive to ask what design-thinking can offer writers.

Eight central scholars have most recently driven the conversation about using design in writing, reconceptualizing it for writing studies and teaching first-year composition (FYC) courses:  

In 2002, Diana George discusses how visual literacy and design are inherent tenets of composition studies in the modern era of ubiquitous internet.

In 2009, Richard Marback engages, primarily, “wicked problems” and how students become members of a problem-solving team or community when they approach their writing as a design problem rather than strictly an assignment.

In 2012, Matthew Newcomb offers a connection between design, writing, and creativity, specifically, and suggests that the act of creating writing is inherently renegotiating context. Thus, creation is rhetoric.

James Purdy (2014)

Abstract:

Through sharing results of an analysis of design language use in several writing studies journals, this article explores why we invoke design in published scholarship. After defining the approach to composing known as design thinking, it then moves to a comparison of design thinking and the writing process and looks at an example application of design thinking in the field. I argue that design thinking not only offers a useful approach for tackling multimodal/multimedia composing tasks, but also situates the goal of writing studies as textual action and asks us to reconsider writing’s home in the university.

In 2014, Carrie Leverenz offers an in-depth proposal for what design thinking can look like in writing classrooms. She suggests design naturally coincides with affording students with the vision and mindset to approach writing in real life as something they can do and make an impact. 

Again in 2014, Marc Santos and Mark Leahy talk about post pedagogy, web writing, and how to equip students with the rhetorical approaches required in civic life, after FYC. 

In 2015, Jacqueline Preston published “Project(Ing) Literacy: Writing to Assemble in a Postcomposition FYW Classroom” which supports the idea that both: 1) projects are versions of composition, “Opportunities [are] afforded when instructors refuse curricula built on the idea that the purpose of FYW is to prepare students for their next English class and instead take seriously writing theory and practice that underscore relevance, assemblage, and expression,’ (37) and 2) that you learn and create new contexts by composing, “Highlight pedagogy that treats writing as more than a conduit for communicating effectively,” (43). 

In 2020, Scott Wible’s “Using Design Thinking to Teach Creative Problem Solving in Writing Courses” asks a culminating question, which is how teaching writing through design-thinking can engage students across curriculums and across civic activities by allowing them to practice problem-solving skills in real time. 

What does this model offer?

How is this collection of ideas changing writing pedagogy? Beyond the theoretical definitions (see process, post-process, and post-pedagogy above) alone, frameworks and concepts like design-thinking, post-pedagogy, wicked problems, and high-impact practices shift how students take part in learning experiences. It wouldn’t be outlandish to say pedagogical practices communicate to students how we

  • conceptualize their academic contributions, and
  • value their agency in their learning.

Writing pedagogy that incorporates design-thinking, post-pedagogy, wicked problems, and high-impact practices reveres this fundamental concept: writing acts as a vehicle through which learning, civic engagement, connections, ideas, solutions, interventions, and/or action is made.

If students are offered an environment in which  these concepts drive course design, so, too, will they drive student engagement in communities ranging from the micro level like your composition course, to mid level local communities or organizations, to macro level national and global discourses. Ideologically, design-thinking situates learning itself as an engagement in civic/community issues and provides the means through which students grow intellectually as people, citizens, employees, community members, etc. 

What students gain from design in writing is twofold:

1. Student-driven learning alters power dynamics, allowing students to have agency over how they spend their time; and 

2. It offers students a supportive environment in which they can practice, iterate, create, and refine rhetorical skills that are readily transferable to situations beyond your writing course.  

Though not quite as central to design-thinking, Marc Santos and Megan McIntyre in 2016 coined a phrase that illustrates post-pedagogy quite well: “rather than thinking of ourselves as chefs training apprentices, we might think of ourselves as architects designing kitchens; it isn’t our job to teach as much as it is our job to design environments (and assignments) in which students can learn,” (emphasis added). In the next portion of this project, I’ve curated a guide that I hope offers direct steps toward designing a writing course with design, context, and audience at its center. In addition, I offer a reframing of those same design steps from the perspective of students, to provide examples of how using the design thinking method actually works in class assignments.

Bibliography

Bibliography
1 Cassidy Browning, “Design Thinking’s Social Justice Genealogies & PracticesJournal of Design and Creative Technologies 2 (2020).
2 Integrative learning is defined by the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AACU) as the “understanding and a disposition that a student builds across the curriculum and co-curriculum, from making simple connections among ideas and experiences to synthesizing and transferring learning to new, complex situations within and beyond the campus”(emphasis added).
3 Defined as “certain educational activities, such as learning communities, undergraduate research, study abroad, and service learning, have been identified as high-impact practices because they engage students in active learning that elevates their performance on desired outcomes (NSSE 2007; Kuh 2008).” This definition comes from Jillian Kinzie, “High-Impact Practices: Promoting Participation for All Students.” Diversity & Democracy (2012).
4 For an overview of examples of high-impact practices, see: George Kuh and Carol Geary. High-Impact Educational Practices : What They Are, Who Has Access to Them, and Why They Matter (2008); for a review of their efficacy in an isolated example, see: Krista Soria and Matthew Johnson. “High-impact Educational Practices and the Development of College Students’ Pluralistic Outcomes.” College Student Affairs Journal (2017).
5 I should note the difference between “problem-based learning” and “project-based learning” in higher education. Problem based learning situates students as participants in real-world problems, and uses assignment design to facilitate their involvement in an authentic, complex issue in which they can intervene or contribute. To read more about problem-based learning, see: Elaine Yew and Karen Goh. “Problem-Based Learning: An Overview of Its Process and Impact on Learning.” Health Professions Education (2016).
6 Alexander, Jonathan, and Susan C. Jarratt. “Rhetorical Education and Student Activism.” College English 76, no. 6 (2014): 525–44. http://www.jstor.org/stable/24238201.
7 For a study that both describes the high-impact assignment model in practice and reviews its efficacy, see: Paul Anderson, Chris M. Anson, Robert M. Gonyea, & Charles Paine, “How to create high-impact writing assignments that enhance learning and development and reinvigorate WAC/WID programs: What almost 72,000 undergraduates taught us.” Across the Disciplines, 13 no. 4 (2016).
8 See, for example: Diana George, “From Analysis to Design: Visual Communication in the Teaching of Writing,” College Composition and Communication (2002); Suzanne Miller, “English Teacher Learning for New Times: Digital Video Composing as Multimodal Literacy Practice.” English Education 40, no. 1 (2007): 61–83.; Lalitha Vasudevan, “Performing New Geographies of Literacy Teaching and Learning.English Education 41, no. 4 (2009): 356–74.; Steven Fraiberg, “Composition 2.0: Toward a Multilingual and Multimodal Framework.” College Composition and Communication 62, no. 1 (2010): 100–126.; Jason Palmeri, Remixing Composition: A History of Multimodal Writing Pedagogy. Rhetoric Review 33, no. 1 (2014):79-83.; Christine Greenhow and Benjamin Gleason, “Twitteracy: Tweeting as a New Literacy Practice,” The Educational Forum 76, no. 4 (2012):464-478.
9 In this section, I incorporate Diana George’s argument about English departments incorporating design, though I intend for this toolkit/project to reach writing program faculty more specifically. Such is the case that English departments often house Writing Programs, so George’s argument has relevance here.
10 Phrase coined from Richard Marback’s article, “Embracing Wicked Problems: The Turn to Design in Composition Studies [Excerpt].” College Composition and Communication 61, no. 2 (2009): 385–385. http://www.jstor.org/stable/40593465.
11 See Georgetown University’s Writing Program Announcements page for a slew of commentary on authentic audiences & design-thinking. Various educators have shared their experience adopting an  authentic audiences approach:, but to just name a few, see: Danielle L. DeFauw and Melissa Smith, “Writing for an Authentic Audience” (2016); Rebecca Pope-Ruark, “Know Thy Audience: Helping Students Engage a Threshold Concept Using Audience-Based Pedagogy,” International Journal for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning 5, no. 1 (2011); and Michelle Cox, Christina Ortmeier-Hooper, and Katherine E. Tirabassi, “Teaching Writing for the ‘Real World’: Community and Workplace Writing.” The English Journal 98, no. 5 (2009): 72–80. For design and design thinking, first see James Purdy, “What Can Design Thinking Offer Writing Studies?College Composition and Communication 65, no. 4 (2014): 612–41; then Derek Bruff, “Writing as a Design Process” Vanderbilt University, Center for Teaching (2019), and  Joe Moses, “How we use design thinking to support collaborative writing,” Medium (219).
12  Matthew Heard, “What Should We Do with Postprocess Theory?” Pedagogy 8, no. 2 (2008): 284. See Heard’s article for a concise yet enriching discussion on post-process theory. 
13  Marc Santos and Mark Leahy, “Postpedagogy and Web WritingComputers and Composition 32 (2014): 84–95. This article is a key player in the design-thinking & post-pedagogy discourse.
14  Sidney Dobrin, J.A. Rice, and Michael Vastola, eds. Beyond Postprocess. (Utah State University Press, 2011): 17.
15  “Byron Hawk (2007) articulated a kairotic notion of invention that begins with attending to the specifics of context rather than relying on the generic deployment of pre-established “fixed” topoi (p. 127, pp. 238–240).” from Santos and Leahy’s “Postpedagogy and Web Writing“.
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