“You can’t use up creativity. The more you use,
the more you have.”
Creativity is fundamental to the teaching of writing. Although WR 153 focuses specifically on creativity and innovation, all WR courses ask students to approach their reading, viewing, writing, and research in creative ways. One important approach to creativity is “design thinking,” which emphasizes that creativity is a non-linear, iterative process. Design thinking is based on two foundational assumptions:
- Everyone can be creative.
- Creativity can be taught.
The principles of design thinking can be used in any WR course to teach students that creativity is a process of asking questions, using multiple strategies and approaches in answering those questions, taking risks in conceiving and executing original work, developing and refining ideas in response to feedback, and learning from productive failure. The metacognitive aspects of design thinking invite students to think about their own creative processes and identify factors that promote creativity.
Although WR 153 is structured by the steps of the design process (understand, empathize, define, ideate, prototype, test, assess/reflect), all WR courses can benefit from incorporating elements of design thinking and an emphasis on creativity and innovation. Approaching writing instruction in this way can:
- Increase student engagement by focusing on creative responses to problems that students care about;
- Give students a sense of agency as a result of greater choice in what to write and how to write about it;
- Encourage taking intellectual risks and reward productive failure as a means of learning;
- Help students develop skills that are transferrable to other academic situations and their professional lives; and
- Enhance students’ personal lives by allowing them to learn about themselves and their own creative potential.
The Creativity & Innovation Hub Guide contains additional useful information on creativity and innovation across disciplines at Boston University.
Principles of Design Thinking
Design thinking is a non-linear, iterative approach to creativity that involves between three and seven steps. Although it is based on theories of design practice that go back to the early twentieth century, it has most recently been popularized by the design firm IDEO and the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford, commonly known as the d.school. The process involves understanding the issues involved in a design project, empathizing with the audience for an end product, defining the scope of the project, generating ideas for and creating prototypes of the product, testing and assessing those ideas and prototypes, and revisiting the steps of the design process until a final product is created.
The complete set of seven steps can be applied to the writing process in a WR course:
- Understand: Students develop a foundation for their work by exploring issues and approaches relevant to the course topic, as well as previous work in the field.
- Empathize: Students practice empathy by demonstrating their awareness and understanding of the audience for whom they write or create.
- Define: Based on their observations and insights, students articulate a problem or question that will motivate their work over the course of the semester.
- Ideate: Students generate new ideas and possible solutions by challenging assumptions and engaging in a variety of creative activities.
- Prototype: Students start to create solutions and implement their ideas into written, digital or other forms in order to capture ideas, but also redefine choices.
- Test: Students share drafts with others in order to gain feedback and insight into improving final versions.
- Assess/Reflect: Students reflect on and evaluate their peers’ and their own processes and final outcomes.
The steps of the design thinking process are not meant to be followed in a rigid way. They should be flexible and customizable to the particular project: students may need to define, ideate, and prototype multiple times and in various modes/genres before they are ready to create a final draft. The skills students gain in going though these steps should be transferrable to other projects and courses.
Learn more about design thinking:
- “What is Design Thinking and Why Is It So Popular?” by Rikke Friis Dam and Teo Yu Siang provides an overview of design thinking.
- David Kelly of IDEO explains the history of design thinking in “How to Design Breakthrough Inventions,” an interview with 60 Minutes.
- “How to Solve Problems Like a Designer,” which includes an interview with Tim Brown of IDEO, explains the basic principles of design thinking.
Understand and Empathize
Understand: Students develop a foundation for their work by exploring issues and approaches relevant to the course topic, as well as previous work in the field.
The first step of the design process asks students to understand not only the course material, but also the resources necessary for their particular project. Since this usually involves additional reading/viewing, the “understand” step is part of the research and information literacy component of WR15X. Assignments that focus on this step may include conducting library or online research, categorizing research material using BEAM/BEAT, and creating annotated bibliographies.
Empathize: Students practice empathy by demonstrating their awareness and understanding of the audience for whom they write or create.
The “emphasize” step is often connected to “human-centered design,” in which products are designed with an awareness of the needs of particular users. In the context of writing classes, students should write or create with an awareness of their potential audience. What background information will that audience need, and how can students best present information with that audience in mind? Assignments that focus on this step may involve imagining a particular audience for a paper/project and identifying what that audience might need, or revising papers/projects for various audiences (for example, revising an academic paper for a general audience).
Define, Ideate, and Prototype
Define: Based on their observations and insights, students articulate a problem or question that will motivate their work over the course of the semester.
Before they begin the process of generating ideas, it is often useful for students to define, at least in a preliminary way, what question or problem their paper/project is addressing. Assignments that help students define their projects may include questionnaires that ask students to state what they intend to work on and why, as well as more formal paper/project proposals.
Ideate: Students generate new ideas and possible solutions by challenging assumptions and engaging in a variety of creative activities.
In the IDEO design process, the goal of ideation is to generate a multitude of ideas without rejecting those that may seem impractical or even silly. Ideas can be rejected later, after a sufficient number of ideas have been generated. The most common ideation assignment involves various forms of brainstorming, often in teams. Ideas should be written down in some way, such as on sticky notes or index cards. To encourage divergent thinking in the brainstorming process, consider posting some fundamental principles in the classroom, such as these from IDEO:
- Defer judgment.
- Encourage wild ideas.
- Stay focused on the topic.
- Build on the ideas of others.
Prototype: Students start to create solutions and implement their ideas into written, digital or other forms in order to capture ideas, but also redefine choices.
In the IDEO design process, prototypes are models that can be easily revised and even discarded if necessary. Prototypes for writing courses might include outlines, storyboards, slide decks, oral or video presentations, and preliminary drafts. Prototypes should be tested and assessed in some way that allows for reconsideration and revision before students turn in their final products.
Learn more about brainstorming and prototyping:
- “What is Brainstorming?” by Rikke Friis Dam and Teo Yu Siang provides helpful information and ideas for the ideation step of the design process.
- This example of “Brainstorming at IDEO” shows one popular way of brainstorming with sticky notes.
- “What is Prototyping?” by Rikke Friis Dam and Teo Yu Siang provides helpful information and ideas for the prototyping step of the design process.
Test and Assess/Reflect
The final steps of the design process, testing and assessing/reflecting, are not meant to be the final steps in completing a student’s paper/project. After testing and assessing a prototype, students will likely need to reconsider and revise their papers/projects, which will take them back to earlier steps—they may need to conduct further research, generate additional ideas, or refine their prototypes. The design process is meant to be iterative, with students returning to steps in the process as needed until they have completed a final draft.
Test: Students share drafts with others in order to gain feedback and insight into improving final versions.
Just as designers test their prototypes, students should test drafts of their papers/projects by sharing them with others. Assignments that focus on this step usually involve workshopping with one or more peers, but testing may also include making an oral or video presentation to the class, meeting with the professor or a writing tutor, or sharing the student’s work with any other reader/viewer capable of providing feedback. Students may also test their papers/projects using techniques such as reverse outlining to assess the strength and clarity of their arguments.
Assess/Reflect: Students reflect on and evaluate their peers’ and their own processes and final outcomes.
The final step in the design process, assessing the student’s work, may lead back to any earlier step as students come to understand what they still need to work on to complete their papers/projects. This step may also involve the broader metacognitive task of reflecting on the student’s creative process. Assignments that focus on this step may include a variety of reflective exercises, including a final reflection for the course.
David Kelly’s TED talk on “How to Build Your Creative Confidence” can help students think about their own creative processes and how to develop greater confidence in their abilities as thinkers and writers.
A Note on Assessment
“Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”
Because WR 153 courses can include such a wide range of papers and project, contract grading is recommended. Other WR courses that incorporate creativity and innovation may also wish to use contract grading, either for specific assignments or the course as a whole. More information on contract grading can be found here.
An important component of creativity and innovation is productive failure. We learn to create new things or develop new skills by failing and trying again until we succeed. Productive failure is failure that leads to new knowledge, insight, or innovation. Courses that focus on creativity can encourage productive failure by requiring prototypes that will be reconsidered and revised extensively, asking students to share examples of failure as valuable learning experiences, and assigning reflective work on how students have grown through failure over the course of the semester.
Learn more about productive failure:
Both readings below argue for the importance of productive failure. The Burger article contains specific examples of how to validate and reward productive failure in the classroom.
The quickest and easiest way to understand design thinking is to start with videos that explain the concept, where it originated, and how it can be used to address a variety of problems.
- In “How to Design Breakthrough Inventions,” David Kelly of IDEO and the Stanford d.school talks about design thinking in an interview on 60 Minutes and CBS This Morning.
- In “How to Solve Problems Like a Designer,” Vox provides a general overview of design thinking, featuring IDEO CEO Tim Brown.
If you would like to deepen your understanding of design thinking, there are a number of websites that address the concept in greater detail.
IDEO is a design and consulting firm that popularized the concept of design thinking. According to IDEO’s website, “Thinking like a designer can transform the way organizations develop products, services, processes, and strategy. This approach, which is known as design thinking, brings together what is desirable from a human point of view with what is technologically feasible and economically viable. It also allows people who aren’t trained as designers to use creative tools to address a vast range of challenges.” The IDEO website has a number of useful resources on design thinking:
IDEO U, the educational arm of IDEO, has a separate website that contain more information on design thinking as well as additional resources.
- What is design thinking?
- Resources related to design thinking.
- An overview of brainstorming.
- Resources related to innovation.
The Interactive Design Foundation provides useful information on design thinking on its website. According to “What is Design Thinking and Why Is It So Popular?” by Rikke Friis Dam and Teo Yu Siang, “Design Thinking is an iterative process in which we seek to understand the user, challenge assumptions, and redefine problems in an attempt to identify alternative strategies and solutions that might not be instantly apparent with our initial level of understanding. At the same time, Design Thinking provides a solution-based approach to solving problems. It is a way of thinking and working as well as a collection of hands-on methods.” This article describes the basic concept of design thinking and five basic steps: empathize, define, ideate, prototype, test.
Books on design thinking are generally aimed toward a popular audience. They draw on anecdotal evidence rather than research to support their claims, but they can be valuable resources for understanding how design thinking is applied in a variety of settings, including both corporations and the educational sector. To provide a sense of how design thinking developed over time, these books are listed chronologically:
- The Art of Innovation by Tom Kelly, Doubleday, 2001.
- Change by Design: How Design Thinking Transforms Organizations and Inspires Innovation by Tim Brown, HarperCollins, 2009, revised and updated 2019.
- Design Thinking: Understanding How Designers Think and Work by Nigel Cross, Bloomsbury, 2011.
- Design Thinking: A Guide to Creative Problem Solving for Everyone by Andrew Pressman, Routledge, 2018.
- The Design Thinking Toolbox: A Guide to Mastering the Most Popular and Valuable Innovation Methods by Michael Lewrick, Patrick Link, and Larry Leifer, Wiley, 2020.
Resources on design thinking in writing pedagogy:
If you would like to focus specifically on how the design thinking process relates to writing pedagogy, there are number of academic articles that address design thinking in the writing classroom as well as the larger issue of creativity as it relates to composition. To provide a sense of how the scholarship on creativity and design thinking in writing pedagogy developed over time, these articles are listed chronologically:
- “The Cognition of Discovery: Defining a Rhetorical Problem” by Linda Flower and John R. Hayes, College Composition and Communication 31.1 (1980), 21-32.
- “Process Paradigms in Design and Composition: Affinities and Directions” by Charles Kostelnick, College Composition and Communication 40.3 (1989), 267-81.
- “Wicked Problems in Design Thinking” by Richard Buchanan, Design Issues 8.2 (1992), 5-21.
- “Design and the New Rhetoric: Productive Arts in the Philosophy of Culture” by Richard Buchanan. Philosophy & Rhetoric 34 (2001), 183-206.
- “From Analysis to Design: Visual Communication in the Teaching of Writing” by Diana George, College Composition and Communication 54.1 (2002), 11-39.
- “Embracing Wicked Problems: The Turn to Design in Composition Studies” by Richard Marback, College Composition and Communication 61.2 (2009), 397-419.
- “Design as a Unifying Principle: English Departments in a New Media World” by Maureen Goldman, Design Principles and Practices: An International Journal 5.3 (2011), 249-257.
- “Sustainability as a Design Principle for Composition: Situational Creativity as a Habit of Mind” by Matthew Newcomb, College Composition and Communication 63.4 (2012), 593-615.
- “Design Thinking: Past, Present, and Possible Futures” by Ulla Johansson-Sköldberg et al., Creativity and Innovation Management 22.2 (2013), 121-146.
- “Writing in Design Thinking: Deconstructing the Question of Being” by Tassoula Hadjiyanni and Stephanie Zollinger, International Journal of Architectural Research 7.1 (2013), 116-127.
- Design Thinking and the Wicked Problem of Teaching Writing by Carrie S. Leverenz, Computers and Composition 33 (2014), 1-12.
- “What Can Design Thinking Offer Writing Studies?” by James P. Purdy, College Composition and Communication 65.4 (2014), 612-641.
- “Wicked Problems in Technical Communication” by Chad Wickman, Journal of Technical Communication 44 (2014), 23-42.
- “The UnEssay: Making Room for Creativity in the Composition Classroom” by Patrick Sullivan, College Composition and Communication 67.1 (2015), 6-34.
- “Design Thinking Via Experiential Learning: Thinking Like an Entrepreneur in Technical Communication Courses” by Jennifer Bay et al., Programmatic Perspectives 10.1 (2018), 172-200.
- “Dissensus, Resistance, and Ideology: Design Thinking as a Rhetorical Methodology” by April Greenwood et al., Journal of Business and Technical Communication 33.4 (2019), 400-424.
- “Using Design Thinking to Teach Creative Problem Solving in Writing Courses” by Scott Wible, College Composition and Communication 71.3 (2020), 399-425.
General resources on creativity:
If you are interested in resources that focus on the larger issue of creativity, one place to start is with videos that define what creativity is and how it can be cultivated, including in an academic setting.
- Ken Robinson’s “What is Creativity” addresses the general issue of how we can both define and encourage creativity.
- Elizabeth Gilbert’s “Your Elusive Creative Genius” offers one way to think about creativity and deal with fear of failure.
- David Kelly’s “How to Build Your Creative Confidence” discusses how we can be more confident in our creativity and build creative confidence in others.
There are a number of books that focus more generally on creativity. Some of these books are theoretical, while some focus practically on how we can become more creative in work and life. The books by Tom and David Kelly, and by Sarah Stein Greenberg, approach creativity from the design thinking paradigm used at the Stanford d.school.
- Creativity: The Psychology of Discovery and Invention by Mihaly Csikszentmihaly, HarperPerennial, 1996.
- The Cambridge Handbook of Creativity, edited by James C. Kaufman and Robert J. Sternberg, Cambridge University Press, 2003, revised and updated 2019.
- The International Handbook of Creativity, edited by James C. Kaufman and Robert J. Sternberg Cambridge University Press, 2006.
- Developing Creativity in Higher Education: An Imaginative Curriculum, edited by Norman Jackson, Martin Oliver, Malcolm Shaw, and James Wisdom, Routledge, 2006.
- Creative Confidence: Unleashing the Creative Potential Within Us All by Tom Kelly and David Kelly, HarperCollins, 2013.
- Habits of the Creative Mind: A Guide to Reading, Writing, and Thinking, by Richard E. Miller and Ann Jurecic, Macmillan, 2015, revised and updated 2020.
- Creative Acts for Curious People: How to Think, Create, and Lead in Unconventional Ways by Sarah Stein Greenberg, Ten Speed Press, 2021.
The following books are listed separately because they reflect creative practices in specific fields, such as creative writing, the visual arts, and dance. They contain ideas and exercises that are transferrable to writing classes and may be helpful in designing WR courses.
- The Artist’s Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity by Julia Cameron, Tarcher/Putnam, 1992, reissued 2002.
- Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott, Anchor Books, 1994.
- The Creative Habit: Learn It and Use It for Life by Twyla Tharp, Simon & Schuster, 2003.
- Steal Like an Artist: 10 Things Nobody Told You About Being Creative by Austin Kleon, Workman Publishing Company, 2012.
- Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear by Elizabeth Gilbert, Riverhead Books, 2015.
- You Are an Artist: Assignments to Spark Creation by Sarah Urist Green, Penguin, 2020.