Modules Teaching Writing

Design Thinking in the Writing Classroom

Design Thinking
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By Emily Chambers

Emily Chambers is a former WAC GRA and is studying for her M.A. in Teaching Writing and Literature. Her main interests are faculty development and curriculum resources. Prior to coming to GMU, she taught sixth grade English in Culpeper County, VA; now she teaches composition at GMU. She can be reached at

Design Thinking is a way of using the principles of design to think about various problems and projects in contexts outside of design.  When clients give designers a brief, a document outlining the goals and results of the proposed project, the designers use design thinking to create prototypes and final products for the client.  Many educators, innovators, and businesses have sought to apply design thinking to the classroom.  For writing teachers, design thinking offers several principles that are helpful, because it addresses the complex challenges that writers face.  By teaching our students to face these challenges together, with minds open to new possibilities and a willingness to fail, we can teach students a means to successful writing.  Design thinking addresses complicated problems with empathy, collaboration, divergent thinking, and failing often.  

Complex problems

In her essay on using Design Thinking in the writing classroom, Carrie S. Leverenz points out that we often simplify writing prompts for students, but she encourages teachers to do the opposite: to present students with “wicked writing prompts” that require creativity, collaborative problem solving, and more than one possible solution.  Designers use these same means to create solutions, designs, and products.  Leverenz argues that teachers should give “wicked writing prompts” that grow out of a true need, thus necessitating students to respond with meaningful solutions to authentic problems.  Such assignments require students to address a specific audience and offer workable solutions, like designers faced with design briefs from a client.


In order to create effective solutions, designers must also empathize with those who gave the design bid or those for whom the design is intended.  Thomas Riddle points out that stakeholders must be considered during the design thinking process, and they may have valuable input for possible solutions.  Empathy is also required in order to delay judgement and fully consider the thoughts of one’s design team members.  In one educational application of design thinking, students learn empathy through a video of a girl’s struggle to find clean water and through interviews on a water treatment plant field trip.  

Writing students can learn empathy by growing their understanding of the audience for whom they write.  Writers must have a deep understanding of this audience in order to craft their writing to address the audience’s needs, desires, and expectations.  Engaging with that audience in person, as students did in the example above, is a powerful way to build empathy and understanding.


Design thinking necessitates contributions from many voices, though not all in harmony.  IDEO, an expert in design and Design Thinking for Educators, insists that its own designers “defer judgement” so as to glean from the expertise and ideas of other members.  For the classroom application, students in design are dependent on one another to contribute solutions, while encouraging one another to think independently, in such a way as to benefit the whole.

In the writing classroom, collaborative work may look like lessons taught by groups of students, or peer editing, but it can also be group writing.  Even though one of Leverenz’s student said group writing doesn’t exist, writing is inherently social, and the more students practice writing collaboratively, the better.  As they learn to defer judgment, they will come to value one another’s unique contributions and to see one another as vital resources.  A group’s collaboration is dependent, then, on divergent thinking, the next principle in design thinking.

Divergent thinking & creativity

Leverenz points out that college writing students are encouraged to think convergently, to narrow possibilities down to one.  Instead, design thinking encourages divergent thinking, thinking that builds off of other group member’s ideas and encourages “wild ideas,” as in this IDEO video.  Out of this divergent thinking comes new solutions to problems.  

Divergent thinking in the writing classroom may take the form of free-writing, brainstorming, and recognizing that many first drafts are garbage but still worth writing.  Divergent thinking is at the heart of seeing writing as a process, one in which there may be false starts and stops.  In Riddle’s examples, participants in design thinking are encouraged to “ideate” and come up with “blue sky lining” solutions, where money is no limit.  

Fail early, often, and inexpensively

The creativity, collaborative work, and divergent thinking required by design thinking develops ideas into several prototypes to be tested (see examples here and here).  Often, each group creates one prototype, then presents their idea to the group.  Everyone votes on the prototypes, in many cases by placing sticky notes on their preferred prototype.  From here, the creative process begins again as the designers take the best ideas from each prototype and design a final product.  In other instances, after voting, the design process continues until the best prototype is refined into a better final design.

Drafts of writing are easily paralleled to the prototypes of design, and educator Edward Burger requires his students to write “failing” drafts early.   But it often proves harder to convince writers that writing poorly is acceptable, even in the beginning of their writing process.  And for more advanced writers, Paula Krebs notes, it is humbling to remember that writing often fails. Perhaps if we as writers were more honest about our failures, or if we, as teachers encouraged failure as Dr. Burg does, students would be more receptive to failing at writing.  With design thinking, failing is changed from a reason to stop working into another step in the learning process, or, as Riddle calls it, “failing forward.”

In this way, design thinking parallels the writing process in that both are recursive, non-linear process.  Those who practice either design thinking or the writing process will proceed forward, retrace steps, take time away from the process, then begin again, always recognizing that the final product can be continually refined.  

Further, both processes benefit greatly from reflection: when writers and designers reflect on their processes and products, they are able to grow.  Such reflection is essential to the design and writing processes, as many solutions are possible for each problem.  Students must reflect on their work in order to evaluate the strengths and weaknesses, brainstorm new ideas, and continue the process.

How will you incorporate design thinking into your writing instruction? Let us know in the comments.

Further Resources:

TED Talks: Changing education paradigms Ken Robinson describes what’s wrong with education today and how design thinking can cultivate the rich resources within students.

Girls Against the World, Scientifically Speaking | Edutopia How do we get girls interested in STEM? The basic tenets of Design Thinking are applied to this initiative.

5-Minute Film Festival: Design Thinking in Schools | Edutopia A rich resource of videos showing DT in the classroom.