(A version of this article first appeared in the Winter 2016 issue of Innovation, the quarterly of the Industrial Design Society of America.)
Ten grad students sit around a long table in a glass-walled room at the University of Pennsylvania’s shiny new Education Commons. Along with the expected laptops and water bottles, random objects enliven the table’s surface: a small, yellow oval box; a painted ceramic bowl; a block of exotic wood.
The students’ assignment for today, along with some reading, was to bring in a meaningful object. They‘re here for “Communicating Design: Object Stories,” the design writing workshop I’ve been teaching at Penn’s Integrated Product Design Program for the last three years.
In this workshop, we talk about what writing and design have in common, and we experiment with different approaches to storytelling about design. Students write two 300-word essays — one personal and one journalistic — and an Instagram post, all about their object.
What’s the value of a writing workshop for design students? First, many people lack confidence about writing, and I have met many who dread sitting down to write. This workshop gives non-writers some practice, reassurance, inspiration, and tools to ease the sometimes awkward and stressful act of writing.
Second, learning how to execute a piece of writing teaches skills designers need. The act of storytelling, whether you’re making observations, conducting research, plotting story structure, self-reflecting or considering your audience, strengthens empathy and provides perspective. The choices made while writing — about structure, word selection, pacing, dialogue — have parallels to choices made while designing.
Lastly, writing about a meaningful object can suggest strategies for designers looking to imbue new objects with meaning.