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Introducing Design Thinking (and Making) for Technical Communication

Overview: This chapter opens with the argument that design thinking matters now more than ever for technical communication. By way of showcasing the growing prominence of design thinking practices in academia and industry, this introduction presents the basic principles of design thinking and its philosophy for human-centered solutions. It combines key emphases of technical communication—including user experience, user-centered design, usability—with design-centric thinking and the growing tendency for treating technical communicators as problem-solving professionals. The introduction shows the strong overlaps between current technical communication pedagogical approaches and design thinking frameworks. The chapter includes with a preview of the recent novice maker culture that informed what is fondly known as the Maker Movement in education.

The Design (Thinking) Turn

Ongoing narratives in the academic discipline of technical communication urge scholars to pay attention and respond to the evolving nature of technical communication work and practices, tools and technologies, values and cultures (Johnson- Eilola, 1996; Spilka, 2002; Bekins & Williams, 2006; Hailey, Cox, & Loader, 2010; Zhang & Kitalong, 2015). Changing problems in the workplace and the classroom call for innovative thinking and actions, as Linn Bekins and Sean Williams (2006) and Hailey et al. (2010) contended:

The creative economy has affected technical and professional communication curricula, students, and alumni in ways that have increased the emphasis on technological aptitude, an ability' to work with multiple cultures and numerous independent contractors, to deal with changing expectations, and to manage creative, dynamic, and often nonlinear projects. (Bekins & Williams, 2006, p. 294)

We further suggest that technical communicators who consistently identify and solve important corporate problems and who develop innovations that positively impact the corporation’s bottom line will be more valued than those who write well but contribute nothing more.

(Hailey et at., 2010, p. 139)

Indeed, we must prepare students to face unprecedented issues. Recent events including the COVID-19 global health pandemic and ongoing racial tensions due to systemic oppression and xenophobia have proven to technical communication scholars, instructors, and practitioners that the social aspect of technical communication is as important as—in some cases, more important than—its technical counterpart. Jason Swarts (2020) argued that technical communicators play the crucial role in socially constructing users’ interaction with technologies and with their respective communities. Relatable examples from the COVID-19 crisis are the hand-washing instructions and social distancing guidelines that provided both technical information and social organizing measures to the general public. Evidently, emerging issues in our society, the workplace, and academia, plus the evolution of information technology, have helped technical communication mature into an innovative profession. Our job is no longer just about translating complex technical information for everyday users but instead solving problems through communication and material resources. In this book, I further contend that technical communication serves a catalyst for social innovation and changemaking. This contention aligns with existing technical communication scholarship derived from the larger field of writing studies.

The North American academic tradition of technical communication is heavily influenced by rhetoric and writing studies theories and scholarly developments. Among the most important paradigms in the understanding of contemporary rhetoric and communication were the process turn (circa 1960s), the social and post-process turns (1980s), and the critical and cultural turn (1990s). While these “turns” were not successive but rather staggered, each has borrowed from its predecessor’s theoretical bases and assumptions. Fortuitously, the dawn of the social and post-process paradigm was dovetailed by serious discussions among composition specialists and professional communication theorists on the connections between writing and design.1 Borrowing from the vocabulary of design studies, Charles Kostelnick’s (1989) College Composition and Communication (CCC) article, “Process Paradigm in Design and Composition: Affinities and Directions,” critiqued the then buzzword, “process pedagogy,” and offered design as a counterpart to the writing process. Succinctly, Kostelnick stated,

As a medium for creativity and communication, design is the natural counterpart to writing, one adapting visual, the other verbal, language to diverse contexts. The parallels between the process approaches encompass an array of cross-disciplinary issues central to the creative act. Both process movements have explored creativity as a sequence of interrelated activities and have shifted from linear stage models to recursive cyclic models. Similarly, both movements have treated invention as a problem-solving task adapted to a particular audience and context.

(Kostelnick, 1989, p. 267)

Kostelnick’s argument was largely influenced by Richard Buchanan’s pioneering efforts in identifying the rhetorical facets of design practices. In “Declaration by Design: Rhetoric, Argument, and Demonstration in Design Practice,” Buchanan (1985) forwarded the idea of design as demonstrative rhetoric—that built objects and interfaces “influence and shape society by [their] persuasive assertions” (p. 22). Buchanan considered designers as major contributors to the reconfiguration of new-age rhetoric by “shaping it to meet modern problems” (p. 22). Consequently, Buchanan has inspired his then Carnegie Mellon colleague David Kaufer to place rhetoric under the aegis of design (Kaufer & Butler, 1996). During the 1990s, this design-as-rhetoric trajectory continued to garner interests from rhetoricians who studied extra-textual arguments, including David Fleming (1996, 1998a, 1998b) and Kostelnick (1995, 1996), before being sidetracked by the dot-com phenomenon and the World Wide Web invention at the turn of the century.

For technical communication scholars, the effort to create an explicit connection between design and writing is a critical juncture—where product meets process—to forge a more holistic approach for communication (cf. Miller, 1985; Geisler, 1993; Medway, 1996a, 1996b; Winsor, 1996; Lewis, 1999). Flowever, the concept of design as a solution for writing problems did not receive the uptake that rhetoric scholars in the 80s and 90s had hoped. It wasn’t until 2009, when Richard Marback again offered design as a “new” paradigm for composition. Marback (2009) noted that the “centrifugal forces of critique in composition studies are giving way to centripetal interest in design, reinvigorating practical interest in agency” (p. 398). Thanks to the increased attention given to multimodality and multimodal composition, writing studies as a whole has become more accepting of design approaches to composing, especially when it involves multimedia technology' and situations that require solutions beyond text-only mediation. While Kostelnick (1989) sought to reinvigorate the process paradigm, Marback (2009) focused on the writer’s agency and considered design— specifically design thinking—as a way to confront the wickedness of writing.

This wickedness is drawn from the notion of “wicked problems” coined by design theorists Florst Rittel and Melvin Webber (1973), which refer to societal problems that are complex and situationally unique in formation; lacking in linear explanations; difficult or impossible to solve with testable and finite solutions; and contagious in that any potential solution spawns other wicked problems. According to Rittel and Webber, wicked problems share the following characteristics:

  • 1. They do not have a definitive formulation.
  • 2. They do not have a “stopping rule.” In other words, these problems lack an inherent logic that signals when they are solved.
  • 3. Their solutions are not true or false, only good or bad.
  • 4. There is no way to test the solution to a wicked problem.
  • 5. They cannot be studied through trial and error. Their solutions are irreversible so, as Rittel and Webber put it, “ever)’ trial counts.”
  • 6. There is no end to the number of solutions or approaches to a wicked problem.
  • 7. All wicked problems are essentially unique.
  • 8. Wicked problems can always be described as the symptom of other problems.
  • 9. The way a wicked problem is described determines its possible solutions.
  • 10. Planners, that is those who present solutions to these problems, have no

right to be wrong. Unlike mathematicians, “planners are liable for the consequences of the solutions they generate; the effects can matter a great deal to the people who are touched by those actions.”

In “What Can Design Thinking Offer Writing Studies,” James Purdy (2014) argued that “design thinking offers a useful approach for tackling ‘wicked’ multi- modal/multimedia composing tasks” (p. 614). Purdy contended that design thinking forces writing studies to move beyond print based conditions and explore other modalities as available means of meaning making. “Invoking design,” Purdy wrote, “can serve to answer Jody Shipka’s call for the discipline to focus on all communicative practices, not just writing” (2014, p. 632). In the same year, Carrie Leverenz (2014) also advocated for design thinking as a teaching framework and composing process for multimodal texts: “it eliminates the question of how to fit multimodal composing into writing classes since it focuses on designing solutions to problems rather than creating forms for their own sake” (p. 3). It is safe to say that design thinking is achieving a steady state in composition scholarship given its connection to multimodality. As Kelli Cargile Cook (2002) argued, multimodal rhetorical skills encourage “students to understand and be able to analyze, evaluate, and employ various invention and writing strategies based upon their knowledge of audience, purpose, writing situation, research methods, genre, style, and deliver)' techniques and media” (p. 10). These skills are crucial for students to be successful, agile technical and professional communicators today. Moreover, as Jody Shipka (2005, 2011) demonstrated, design thinking and multimodal literacy can also help bridge the gap between academia and workplace through the varied communicative and composing practices students engage in the classroom that may also be performed in the workplace, such as websites and multimedia presentations. Scott Wible (2020) reinforced the argument that design thinking lets students develop creative habits of mind that can help address multidimensional problems.

Yet, it was not until more recently that design thinking began to appear in journals and conference proceedings specific to technical communication:

  • • Writing to the broader professional communication community, Ann Hill Duin and her collaborators from the University of Minnesota showcased design thinking as a methodology for team organizing (Duin, Moses, McGrath, Tham, & Ernst, 2017).
  • • To participants of the Association for Computing Machinery Special Interest Group on Design of Communication (SIGDOC) annual conference, Liz Lane (2018) showed that the design thinking process can be useful in scaffolding service learning projects.
  • • In Programmatic Perspectives, journal of the Council for Programs in Technical and Scientific Communication, Jennifer Bay, Richard Johnson-Sheehan, and Devon Cook (2018) posited design thinking as a strategic pedagogical approach for developing entrepreneurial competency in technical communication students.
  • • Following a well-attended panel at the 2018 Conference on College Composition and Communication, the Journal of Business and Technical Communication dedicated a special issue on design thinking approaches edited by Rebecca Pope-Ruark, myself, Joe Moses, and Trey Conner (Pope-Ruark, Tham, Moses, & Conner, 2019).
  • • Through the lens of game studies, Laquana Cooke, Lisa Dusenberry, and Joy Robinson (2020) argued in Technical Communication Quarterly that design thinking acts as a viable framework for increasing students’ ability to solve macro- and micro-level problems in technical communication.

At a time when technical communication is undergoing an identity shift from traditional documentation and communicating complex information to content strategy' and user experience (UX) design (cf. Redish & Barnum, 2011; Verhulsdonck, Howard, & Tham, forthcoming), design thinking serves as a critical component in mediating this process of change. It provides a language for understanding the work of technical communication as problem solving. Along the same vein, it helps technical communicators to identify as designers— designers of information, designers of user experience, designers of technological solutions.

However, because resources are scarce and popular sources like blogs and business forums are inconsistent with their use of the term, design thinking is often mistaken for a design exercise focusing on visual or graphic design. Some have treated design thinking as a one-size-fits-all formula with a linear, step-by-step process to devise solutions. This book seeks to rectify these misconceptions, starting with a historical account of design thinking.

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