Writing for design students, part 1: A pattern for structured writing

Design education is changing constantly under the impact of pervasive software, and shifts in our understanding of materiality, craft, convention, and innovation. Beyond the familiar collaborative aspects, the need to engage across disciplines and the transformation of enterprise through online, low-capital models, have emphasised communication skills. The growth in events where people discuss design (conferences of all flavors, Creative Mornings, Glug events, Meetups) is one area where this shift is highly visible. Less prominent are the gradual shift in the skills profiles of design educators, and the re-orientation of design curricula.

The examples I gave above are about talking about design, but writing about design is at least as important — and critical for students. The problem, from the point of view of design educators, is twofold: many students might not arrive at university with a good foundation in writing skills; and the pressure on resources within institutions leave little time for developing key skills. The growing internationalisation of courses, and the opening up of education to mature and part-time study — all unqualified Good Things — mean that educators can make fewer assumptions about the writing skills of increasingly diverse students.

There are many good guides for academic writing, but most are longer than the texts the students need to write. And many are not written with visual and material resources in mind. So over the years I’ve developed my own guidelines for writing, specifically for design students. I broke them up into three chunks, each less that 1,000 words: structuring texts, describing things, and constructing arguments. They are length-agnostic: you can adapt them to write a 500-word abstract, or to get a PhD going.

One plus five sentences

Write six informal and direct sentences. The purpose of this is to give structure to your thinking about your topic, and stop you from writing endless prose that you need to edit down later. Try to answer these questions:

  1. What are you writing about?
  2. Why is this an interesting thing to write about?
  3. In which environment does this thing happen?
  4. How can you describe it so that the interesting aspects are obvious?
  5. What patterns and meaning emerge from this description?
  6. What are the wider implications of all this?

The zeroth answer is your working title, and represents the overall research question. The others are summaries of the first five sections of your text (there’s also a final recap section). And here’s more words about each of these, with headings attached:

1. Introduction

Introduce the topic, its context, and what is important/interesting about it for the readers. If there are key events / persons involved, then outline them here. Introduce the key research question(s). By the end of this section the methodology you will be following should be evident; you should also have explained any key terms that are part of your topic.

2. Context

Describe the knowledge domains your topic takes place in. This may include other research literature, explanations of specific techniques, technologies, materials, and so on. Cover geographical, social, and historical information that is important for understanding the research questions. Depending on the topic, you may be describing archival material, or things that are too recent to have been documented much (e.g. interfaces).

The way you describe the context is important: write with your research question in mind, and follow a thematic approach (i.e. by key ideas) rather than a linear one (i.e. this first, then the other, then the other).

3. Subject

Describe your specific topic in depth, highlighting the aspects that relate to your main research question.

If you are looking at a large body of material, you should explain how you are arranging things. If you identified suitable existing schemes in section 2, explain how you are adapting these for your subject; alternatively, explain why you need a new scheme, and how it applies. The way you describe your subject matter should enable readers to begin to see patterns in your examination, that respond to your research questions. As in section 2, a thematic approach is better than a linear one. Clarify the terminology you need for your discussion, and introduce any new terms. Use this section to get all the facts on the table, and arrange them in the manner that will help you in the next section.

4. Analysis

Describe the patterns that emerge across your subject matter, along the thematic axes you have described in the previous sections. Focus on trends and changes, and identify the factors that motivate these, to the degree allowed by the facts you described already. Reveal different aspects of your subject (e.g. make connections across knowledge domains: trade, technology, law, culture, and so on).

The primary objective in this section is to generate knowledge; this will usually come from new ways of interpreting existing material, and integrating new material in existing narratives. Do not speculate: limit your interpretations to what is revealed by the combination of your subject matter and the information you have described previously.

5. Discussion

Extend the ideas you described in section 4, and synthesise your observations into clear statements. Identify any limitations of your methodology, and any notable problems (or promise) with your observations. Consider whether you can extract more generalised principles from your analysis, and express these into hypotheses for further research.

6. Conclusion

Recapitulate the key points from your observations, and discuss the impact of your research on practice, or related studies.

Apart from “Introduction” and “Conclusion”, the headings are placeholders. Depending on the length of the final text, each section might be just a paragraph long, or expanded into more chapters. (In a PhD, for example, sections 2 and 3 might include more than one chapter each.)

Part 2 is live.