I’ve spent my career in both product design and writing roles. When I was a content strategist at Facebook, design thinking was a key part of my writing process. Now as a product designer at Dropbox, I make use of my writing background every day.
When my hobby was no longer my formal job, I was able to find new meaning in it. After switching careers to design, writing felt looser and airier to me. It was like reading for pleasure after years of following school curricula. When I was less precious about it all, I realized that I get more out of the act of writing than the finished work itself. It’s my natural way of thinking, ideating, and learning.
In this post, I’ll discuss some ways I’ve found writing to be useful in my design process. And I’ll suggest lightweight, playful exercises to get the words flowing. I invite you to let go of your inhibitions and give your newest creative tool a spin.
Organize your thoughts
*"Writing can be a tool for talking to ourselves when we’re still figuring things out. A sort of mirror or feedback system. A way to understand and articulate design."* — Nicole Fenton, Words as Material
Design thinking is nonlinear. Writing can help harness your scattered ideas and make sense of them. Like organizing a closet, it’s a process that involves finding and compiling the right groupings of ideas. Put your favorite explorations on this shelf, or hang your open questions over there.
Don’t underestimate the value in pausing to have that “conversation with yourself.” Make the time to cultivate intention and stay grounded in your process by documenting it. Use writing to synthesize and learn, form questions, and clarify your point of view.
When you keep a regular writing cadence, you can also enhance your sense of progress over time. If you look at design as a journey, writing can be a catalyst to identifying steps forward — no matter how big or small.
Writing exercise: Create a process journal
Try keeping a daily journal of your work. Each day, aim for 10 minutes of uninterrupted writing that’s for your eyes only. In my experience, this works best when done at the very beginning or end of each day.
Describe a decision you recently made, or reason through a pending decision that’s hard to make. Pose big questions you’d like to explore next in your process, or explain solutions you’d like to prototype. Unpack learnings from user research. Frame up a conversation you’d like to have with a collaborator. Whatever’s on your mind, give yourself permission to listen and document it for 10 whole minutes.
Craft your story
*"There’s a common thread through these principles — emotional design — which uses psychology and craftsmanship to create an experience for users that makes them feel like there’s a person, not a machine, at the other end of the connection."* — Aaron Walter, Designing for Emotion
Behind any well-crafted, emotionally resonant design lies the power of story. It’s how we best relate to the people we’re designing for. When we see our users as protagonists, it’s easier to identify and empathize with their struggles. Personas, storyboards, and flowcharts help us better understand a design’s narrative.
Designers often bring stories to our work through sketches. And according to HCI pioneer Bill Buxton, sketching is the defining act of design thinking. Sketches are quick, disposable artifacts we create to suggest, explore, provoke, and question. They’re central and unique to the way designers approach problem solving.
What if we thought of story-writing as a form of sketching? Like sketching, writing is a fast and inexpensive way to capture ideas. Because they’re not visual, words have the added benefit of keeping solutions ambiguous. Stories create space for our imaginations to explore the human context of our work. They’re the lowest fidelity sketches you can create.