Illustration by Jessica Saia

How I Manage to Give my Students the Finger Every Semester, and Why It Made Me a Better Designer

This is how I would love my story to begin:

In a brazen act of singular genius, I developed a tool for understanding and remembering the basic structure of arguments. The Hand Approach™ continues to revolutionize my classroom—changing hundreds of lives as my students have filtered out into the world, never falling victim to baseless opinion again. Does The Hand Approach™ just work in the classroom? No! Constructing unassailable arguments revolutionized my design practice and turned murky projects crystal clear. Now, I’ll tell you my secret, and how you can use The Hand Approach™ to bend people to your will both professionally and personally.

But, I’m no good at grand promises and, perhaps even more so, deeply skeptical of mental tricks and games that give people an “edge” — whatever that means. Here’s how this story really begins:

In an act of desperation, driven by sheer naiveté and panic, I thought I could save my first end-of-year teaching reviews by giving my students a trick to remember the five parts of an argument. By some stroke of luck, it worked. Probably because it involved flipping the bird and having them yell, “Fuck you, I have evidence!” which, by the sheer nature of such an anomaly in a stuffy classroom, creates a memory.

Creating a strong argument, with each piece supporting the whole, facilitates dialogue. Rich dialogue solves problems, and solving problems is what we designers do.

The “hand” stuck, and ten years later perhaps I can call it an “approach”, but even that moniker seems too grandiose. (Who could claim that “righty-tighty lefty-loosey” is an approach to screwing a lightbulb?) Nonetheless, I found myself using the hand to influence decisions in my old museum job as I fought for large design projects. And, I find myself using it as a conversation designer with my new design team and product partners. Linking the five parts of an argument to each of your fingers is just an easy way to keep you on track. It reminds you how to hold on to ideas and hypothesis that you believe in but, more importantly, that you’ve done the work to defend the claim. Creating a strong argument, with each piece supporting the whole, facilitates dialogue. Rich dialogue solves problems, and solving problems is what we designers do.

From English 200 to ONE Design: A brief history

University professors have no teacher training, and most of them, at some point early in their career, are set up to fail. My university required doctoral students with backgrounds in English to teach two sections of English 200. ENGL 200 was a semester-long writing course that stressed the five parts of an argument-driven essay: claim, reasons, evidence, counter-arguments, and warrants. Students had to write a 20-page final paper on any topic they chose utilizing the five parts. Because it’s always a good idea to pair young, completely inexperienced “professors” with strenuous, over-enrolled, required courses, the not-so-surprising result was that many students failed, and most students hated the class.

Much to the chagrin of my students, I have undergraduate degrees in creative writing and philosophy with a masters in composition, and I was working on a doctorate in media theory. In short, I love arguments. I was raised on them; trained in them. Good arguments broke sloppy claims down into opinion drivel. Like people who will stop to pet and cuddle a cute dog in the park, reading or hearing a well-constructed argument reroutes my path and makes me genuinely happy. Look at that complex claim supported by reasons and evidence! Even my assumptions are addressed with clearly articulated warrants! It’s like that.

Opinions kill breakthroughs and innovation.

Sadly, arguments get a bad rap because we often confuse them with arguing. Arguing typically involves a bunch of opinions wrapped up in dramatic flair and some well-executed zingers, if you’re savvy. Conversations typically involve two people peddling opinions in parallel until, at some point, someone just agrees to disagree. Opinions kill breakthroughs and innovation. They make for crappy essays (particularly essays written by college sophomores), and they stunt dialogue. Arguments, on the other hand, promote dialogue by supporting ideas with evidence and empathy — the core of design thinking.

I wanted my students to see the value of a good argument and love them as much as I did. I knew that teaching them how to create an argument would help them pass the course, and I knew that it would help them in their other classes as well. Hell, I knew it would help them in life. Give me a roommate or partner grievance, and I will give a bulletproof argument to help change behaviors. Oh, and I also wanted them to like me. I came up with the correlation to the hand on the fly during one of my first classes as I was losing my students’ attention at a breakneck pace. I’m terrible at writing on the board, and I talk with my hands so much that my FitBit once logged three miles during a 2 1/5 hour class. Panic + hand-waving = accidents. Sometimes they’re happy accidents.

The Hand “Approach”

Here’s how it played out in the beginning. It’s the approach I still use in each of my classes today, what I use to solve difficult design problems, to get my spouse to fix stuff around the house, and to keep my children from that extra snack. Arguments: the duct tape of life.™

Thumb = Claim

Just like your thumb, the claim holds your argument together. It’s a short statement that guides all the other information that you will provide around your topic. No BS, no flair, just a confident consolidation of the facts with a dash of ingenuity to get people excited.

Pointer Finger = Reasons

Reasons are your “because” and support the basics of the claim. Literally think of yourself pointing at someone (nicely, no one likes a know-it-all) and telling them the “why” behind your claim.

Middle Finger = Evidence

My personal favorite, the middle finger: nature’s gift to the most effective silent communication since the smile. If your claim and reasons have not forwarded your dialogue — and they shouldn’t on their own — evidence will. This is the ole “fuck you” I was talking about earlier where you lay out your research and systematically point back to your reasons providing full factual support. Mic drop.

Ring Finger = Alternative Perspectives

Coming off the heels of your evidence high, you return to a shared space in the dialogue. This is your ring finger, and your promise to acknowledge and represent other perspectives within the context of the claim. To have and to hold, to love and to cherish, in sickness and in health, you will work to see all perspectives and take them into consideration as you construct your claim by working through all the evidence.

Pinkie Finger = Warrant

We don’t know how much longer the pinkie finger has left on the human body’s evolutionary journey, but it’s safe to say it will be here for some time. Most of the time, you can hold things without the pinkie. Warrants are the same. The fifth part of the argument, warrants, tie together the claim with the reasons. They often address assumptions and can strengthen an argument in more ways than one. (It’s like this: claiming that design thinking will solve problem X may make sense to you, but you can’t assume that people know the value of empathy-driven design. You may need a warrant to explain the benefits.)

Using the Hand in Design

Using the hand can help frame approaches to design problems, and it can also help designers better articulate their contributions to a project. A claim answers your problem statement, reasons support your expertise, evidence equates to the mountains of user research and data we collect, alternative perspectives represents every single point of view to the outcome, and warrants…well, warrants assuage fears. Here’s how it can work:

  • Use it as a framework to tackle a design problem. Arguments begin in the middle. Start collecting and organize what will become your evidence. Some of that evidence will settle into that middle finger, and some of it will represent your promise to alternative perspectives. Look at it all, because it’s all important to your argument. Once you have your evidence and can show that you understand the entire problem, begin to shape the claim. Push your claim hard. Batter it with “whys?” until you have the most perfect “because” statement(s) to articulate your reasons. Then test the relationship between your claim and reasons. Batter those statements with “how do we know?”, “says who?” and “for whom?” Let those emerging warrants frame your claim and support your reasons. Sometimes your warrant is so strong, so indispensable, that it becomes a reason or even part of the claim. Let it.
  • Let it help you formulate your decks/presentations. Arguments flow logically, so they are good at bringing people along to your way of thinking. They also validate other points of view and promote dialogue. If you present your idea in this structured fashion, your partners will know where to jump in. If they don’t, you can guide their questions and comments to the correct space. Someone who is questioning your evidence may think that they are unraveling your claim. Take a breath and keep the conversation in the evidence space until you can work together to either address the issue or revisit the claim (based on more evidence). Bringing your partners into the structure of argumentation promotes dialogue. As your work through the argument together, they may begin to articulate a different argument. This type of collaboration is problem solving at its finest.

The five-point argument is as old as the hamburger essay. The hand is as old as…humans. There is no magic here, but you just may find yourself thinking a bit more critically and tackling problems with a bit more care and empathy (with a dash of swagger and zeal).

How does this story end? Word spread far and wide through two universities about the hand. I still carve out an hour every semester to review it, and I haven’t taught writing in nine years. It’s helped me chose political candidates and focus research. Most importantly, it’s helped me become a better designer, and for that — high five to the sky.

Want more? Read my example of The Hand Approach in action.

And check out ONE Design’s open positions here.