from chaos to order

As Adam and others have observed, last weeks classes on pre-writing interestingly revealed the similarity between the process of design and the process of writing. This is a really great insight for me, and I am surprised that I haven’t contemplated it before.

I recall my early frustrations struggling with the design process. I’ve always been rather analytical and a bit perfectionist by nature. So when I first encountered a wide open design problem, I was struck by paralysis. I wanted to produce a well-reasoned solution on the first try, but this is of course impossible as in any design situation there are just too many possibilities and too many unknowns. By engaging with difficult designs in a dynamic exchange with teammates, I learned to take risks, to brainstorm, to explore multiple paths, refine scope and to slowly create order out of chaos.

I find it interesting that having become quite comfortable with this process in design, I never extended it to my writing. I’ve always struggled with analysis paralysis in writing. I tend to sit down and attempt to write perfect prose from the start, constantly editing every sentence as I go. Needless to say this is a grueling experience. Over time, I have improved a little bit–making a few outlines here and doing a little free-writing there. But overall, I still try to begin a writing process with highly structured logical thoughts.

The folly of this approach is now starkly evident. Last week, as Marty described stage 1 pre-writing activities–lists, sticky-storming, concept maps, sketches , etc–I immediately recognized them as the familiar tools of design ideation. And its obvious why they apply; the blank page is just the same as an open-ended design problem: a space of infinite possibility. The end result, in either case, is a highly rational argument. But a large part of the process is decidedly non-rational, and demands a natural evolution from chaos to order.

I can’t say I’ve fully adopted pre-writing into my routine. But I am fully convinced of its usefulness and determined to change my habits with conscious effort and practice.


  1. jeffreybardzell

    I can’t say I’ve fully adopted pre-writing into my routine. But I am fully convinced of its usefulness and determined to change my habits with conscious effort and practice.

    I think this is the right attitude. Prewriting is not a recipe or formal process; like design, it is the cultivation of personal habits that put you in a position to do good work. This “cultivation” comes about, as David says, through “conscious effort and practice.” Habits are hard to change, and they are particularly hard to change suddenly. But by become more conscious, or reflective, to what you are doing, you can almost experimentally introduce new strategies or techniques into your practice (that is, your system of habits). Over time, this will make you a more effective designer/writer.

  2. thismarty

    I couldn’t agree with you more, David.

    I think that anytime people put their hands to creating something, “design” happens at least at some level. We always start with a universe of possibilities that must be first illuminated and then coaxed into refinement.

    Prewriting is no exception. Creating things made out of words is still all about first creating the raw material of ideas and then gleaning from those the specific bitys of material to work – just like ideating things made of bits.

  3. chmbrigg

    David, i love the analogy here (design to writing). One thing to be considered as a new habit (i’m trying right now to get into it myself) is the treatment of our sketchpad/notebook/computer as a sort of design studio, where we produce not only finished products, but also very intentionally and frequently create simple design explorations in the form of mindmaps, outlines, etc. that can later be fleshed out (sometimes much later) into papers, blog posts, etc.

  4. jeffreybardzell

    Here’s an interesting question: *what* are we supposed to be mapping? What is the unit of analysis? Interface widgets get sketched. “Rules” of interaction are written in design docs. Concepts are written and explored in academic papers. “Experiences” are designed in I502, following IDEO’s experience prototyping model. Do mindmaps (etc.) apply equally or equivalently to all of these?

  5. Dave Roedl

    Christian, the notion of a personal ‘design studio’ is a great suggestion.

    Jeff, yours is a difficult question. 😦
    I would say no, of course, different forms of representation do not usefully apply to every sort of creation. Some ideas need to be sketched, some written about, and some experienced in a tangible way. I won’t attempt to make a thorough analysis here, but I would say mindmaps are particularly suited to show relationships among many concepts. This is useful in an early writing process and an early stage of conceptual design, but maybe not so much when you’re trying to nail down the spatial layout of an interface, for example.

    Its interesting to consider all the various strategies for representation, their affordances and limitations. I utilized many over the last year: mindmaps, sketches, wireframes, flowcharts, affinity diagrams, ‘experience maps’, etc. Jeff, you’ve brought up yet another opportunity for ‘reflection on action’! Damn you Jeff and Schon both. J


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s