Here’s the short story, as most people I’m familiar with tend to tell it:

Design thinking emerged from failed attempts to create innovative products and bring them to market. Traditional models for getting this sort of thing done suffered from a few serious flaws, so the people who cared about getting things right started making some significant shifts in practice.

For instance, rather than inventing things they assumed would be useful and reacting to sales and reviews, they began immersing themselves in the experiences of those they hoped to serve ahead of design, in order to better understand their needs and make stuff that met them. They also began prototyping: Creating preliminary models that they could test quickly. These first builds burned less time and money while providing designers the opportunity to test and improve upon their creations. Each failure brought them closer to their ideal final product, and because they practically co-designed their stuff with their intended consumers, success was far more likely.

That’s the short story that everyone I know knows. Here’s a more detailed and perhaps, accurate history of design thinking if it interests you, though.

Why do I bring this up?

Well, because the history of design thinking reminds me of my own history as a teacher of writing. Once upon a time, I coached writers to produce entire manuscripts before considering audience. We invested significant time and energy in crafting those drafts, we treated feedback and revision as steps inside of a linear process, and the work that emerged was often formulaic, uninspired, and consumed under duress only by those who were required to read it. I’m thinking about teachers and parents.

It took some time for me to realize that the writing process is really just a mental model for how some people are taught to produce text. Design thinking is a mental model too, and I find that it elevates the process ways that serve writers well. Particularly young, inexperienced, and highly impressionable young writers. This is how it looks. Do you notice commonalities between the writing process and design? In what important ways do they differ? How might we weave them together with careful intention, in order to better serve our students?

Five Ways Design Thinking Elevates the Writing Process

  1. Design thinking is driven by empathy. This reminds us of our greater purposes as writers. Masterful teachers may coach writers to define their audiences and purposes during the rehearsal or pre-writing phases of the process, but this still isn’t being done in any robust way inside of many schools. It’s too easy to skim over in our quest to perfect form. Design is dependent on empathy, though. The process doesn’t progress without it.
  2. Design thinking is an immersive experience. This inspires writers to forge relationships with readers ahead of drafting, sustaining them as the process unfolds. They come to know the interests, experiences, and needs of the audiences they’re writing for, shaping their work in ways that engage them best.
  3. Design thinking builds stamina. Rather than committing to a draft-by-draft process, writers compose bit by bit, testing their work one small slice at a time in order to fail and recover faster. Revision happens in small, manageable moments throughout the process, too.
  4. Design thinking is iterative. Revision isn’t a single phase in a linear process. Rather, it’s the daily work of writers who tinker and test diverse approaches before choosing the one that is most satisfying.
  5. Design thinking is all about innovation. Rather than replicating forms, writers learn how to tinker within them, mixing modes and creating new approaches that improve upon the old.

The visual below illustrates how the two processes converge inside of the workshops I facilitate. This is a working draft, and I continue to wonder:

  • Is it worthwhile to integrate these two mental models, or am I making the pursuit of creativity unnecessarily complex?
  • If this work is worthwhile, then what are the teachable moments inside the blended experience?
  • In what other ways might design elevate the writing process?

I’ll share some tools and protocols for each approach next week, in the context of curriculum design. Interested in learning more about how we MAKE units and lessons? Drop by.




  1. This idea that design thinking begins with immersion in the user experience is very foreign in the practice with writing for sure. If anything, in the creative writing process and instruction, the writer has to immerse himself or herself in the character. Making this shift in the practice of the instruction of writing so necessary.

    The infographic pulls together these two processes. Student friendly version?

    • Not there yet! I’m still trying to figure out if this seems forced and if it’s really a good fit. The whole notion of beginning with immersion and empathy is complex when you think about writing as design. There are so many ways to interpret that and proceed…..hmmmm…..

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