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

  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

2. Context

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

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

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

6. Conclusion

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. It’s about techniques for describing things.

So is Part 3. It gives some pointers about writing essays well.

opinionated typographer