Design Thinking through the Writing Process

R. Ben Beach
8px Magazine
Published in
4 min readDec 20, 2018

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Photo by Mike Tinnion on Unsplash

Last summer, I spent several days visiting a technology company, where I hoped to uncover “real-life” applications for the writing practice I assigned to my high school English classes. I was successful, but I also made a surprising discovery — Design Thinking.

Specifically, I was astounded to see the way it parallels the writing process. For the purposes of this comparison, we will be using the Stanford d.school’s five-stage model of Design Thinking:

  1. Empathize
  2. Define
  3. Ideate
  4. Prototype
  5. Test

Empathize

In the first stage of Design Thinking, you must determine your user and understand where they are coming from. In writing, your user is the reader, so this stage focuses on your audience, as well as the tone of the content you plan to write.

Some questions that you should ask at this stage:

  • Who will be reading this?
  • Where and when will they be reading it?
  • Why will they be reading it?
  • What do they want to get from it?

The answers will vary greatly, but you must grasp this much before you begin planning your composition. If you do not reach your reader, what you say and how you say it will not matter in the least.

Define

Next, you must define the problem your writing will solve for your readers. In other words, what will your topic be? What purpose do you have for writing it, and how much depth is needed?

Guiding questions include:

  • What is it about?
  • What do you want it to achieve or answer for your readers?
  • How much info is needed to do that?
  • What form should the text take?
Photo by AbsolutVision on Unsplash

Ideate

Once you have a basic understanding of who you are writing for and what you are writing about, you can begin to come up with ideas for how to go about it.

When using Design Thinking to solve other types of problems, this is the stage where the more outside-the-box ideas, the better. In writing, this is your chance to come up with all the possible approaches to and ideas about what you have to say. Some popular methods include:

Free-writing: completely turn off your internal editor and write freely for a set amount of time about whatever comes to mind in relation to your topic — when you trim the excess away, you will have a valuable starting point for drafting.

Mind-mapping: sketch / write ideas inside of bubbles and connect them in an expanding web around your topic — it’s artistic and structural at the same time.

Outlining: build a hierarchy of ideas to support what you plan to say about your topic — this more structured approach especially appeals to some types of writers and often provides section headings for the writing to come.

While each has its virtues, the important thing is to find an ideation method that works well for you. Get as many ideas as possible recorded before you begin picking and choosing the best for the text you are writing.

Prototype

Drafting is the most important stage in your writing, and yet it is so often skipped over. That’s one reason Design Thinking can be so valuable — get a bare minimum version of your product and try it out before you spend hours or days or weeks perfecting it.

These are what Anne Lamott calls “shitty first drafts” and are essential to successful writing, because editing is where the best work is done. Get something written and test it! But don’t worry — you will improve it significantly before anyone else reads it.

One thing is certain: the more iterations your work goes through, the more your readers will benefit from your writing.

Test

Try out what you have written. In other words, read it. Find where it works and where it doesn’t. Then:

  • Revise
  • Edit
  • Proofread
  • Repeat

The key to testing your writing is to remember your audience and what they will be expecting or needing. Testing can happen in a number of ways, and the more of them you use, the more valuable your results.

Read the text to yourself. Make changes. Read it aloud to yourself. Make changes. Read it to someone else. Read it to your dog or cat. Read it to a wall. Make changes. Test it again. Make changes.

NOT a linear process!

The most important aspect of Design Thinking is that it is not just a set of steps to complete once. At every point, but most especially when you get to the Test stage, revisit the others.

Does the tone sound right for the audience? Is there enough depth to answer the readers’ questions? What other ideas have come up that should be incorporated?

After every test, build another prototype. Each draft will get you closer to a solution to the problem you defined at the second stage.

Publish

Though it is not a stage in the Design Thinking framework, you will eventually publish your writing. This may mean turning in an essay to the professor, hitting send on an email, publishing a blog post, or something much bigger. You may even be able to continue testing and revising after publication.

Regardless, if you considered each of these stages as you wrote, you can expect your writing to be much better designed than much of what is unleashed on the public. And for that, we should all be thankful.

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