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The Power of Uncomfortable Constraints

3 Dec

A constraint that every idea has to be made of plastic during an ideation session gave me new ways to channel my passion for action into academic writing.

I had the privilege of co-teaching our RAD workshop to a small group of students with design experience on September 24, 2011. Because it was a small group, the RAD team joined some of the sections. I joined the Ideation and Prototyping sections and was in for a wild ride. My How Might We (HMW) statement was: “How might I channel my passion for action into academic writing?” For the first 2 minutes, we brainstormed without any constraints, and we came up with some pretty amazing ideas like “prototype paragraphs,” “write a poem about your paper,” “dictate while running and capture your words with a sound to text machine,” and “use a jigsaw puzzle or building blocks to represent your paper in simpler terms.”

Then we imposed a crazy constraint which we had agreed to BEFORE the rest of my team knew what my HMW was: every idea has to be made of plastic!!! As we continued ideating in between loud bursts of laughter, I continued to scribble ideas furiously until we ran out of time and my whiteboard was FULL!!! Some of the hilarious ideas we came up with were: “write out your paragraphs on reused plastic bags,” “spend time in a large bin with plastic waste until you feel motivated to write,” and this gem: “fill a room with plastic balls, each with an idea or word that will stimulate better writing” (at which point Amanda couldn’t resist reminding me of this darling cartoon: ). ❤

After just 4 minutes of ideation, I was overwhelmed and energized with more than 30 ideas. I picked five and began to think about how to prototype them, but two ideas stood out immediately: the poem idea (I’ve been writing amateur poetry for 20 years) and the room full of plastic balls idea. I grabbed some prototyping supplies: a coffee cup, some hard plastic netting, tape, and scissors. I cut the netting into a circle and cut a door into it, then stuck it onto the cup’s mouth. I wrote every idea from the whiteboard on a separate small post-it and scrunched it up, then put it in the cup. As a finishing touch, I placed a ladybug sticker on the netting door as a lucky doorknob J. Now I had a concrete toolkit I could consult each time I needed inspiration to write: just shake the cup, open the “door” and grab an idea to apply to my writing!

I then grabbed some paper and in about 2 minutes, wrote out a 2-page poem about the 30-page manuscript I am currently revising. I tested the prototype out on my colleagues and they said they understood exactly what my research was about, and inspired me to think of other creative ways to communicate my research such as slide shows with pictures of my subjects, and a screenplay. I study how to motivate people to use less energy, and the manuscript reports a randomized controlled trial in which we focused on specific behaviors like eating less meat, avoiding clothes dryer use, and driving less, all of which can reduce personal greenhouse gas emissions significantly and quickly compared to policy or technology approaches. Here’s the end of the poem:

we need not go to hell

in a handbasket

if we act quickly


so skip the hamburger

for a spinach salad

skip the drive

for a scenic walk or ride


when you need to fly

and if you launder

which we all do

please hang dry!

Through the ideation and prototyping phases, I was able to resurrect my passion for my least favorite part of being a grad student: academic writing. I remain indebted to my Ideation team, the RAD team, and to design process for its amazing powers!!

Freewriting as Design Thinking

4 Jul

One winter afternoon while I was writing my masters’ thesis, my officemate and I made a discovery that permanently changed how I approach the act of “doing research”. I don’t remember how we came to read a review for Writing Your Dissertation in Fifteen Minutes a Day by once Harvard Writing Center Director Joan Bolker. However we stumbled upon it, however, we were inspired to brave the rain to find the library’s copy right away. We read most of the book in about three hours that afternoon, and continued quoting sections aloud to each other until she finished her thesis a few months later. In the four years since then, I have become somewhat of an evangelical for this book and have passed copies out to a number of friends.

Bolker’s premise is fairly simple, but profound. Rather than writing once you have ideas or results in order to tell the story of what you did (i.e. writing as storytelling), she urges a graduate student or scholar to write continuously throughout the research process:

“Writing is at the center of producing a dissertation [or any other piece of scholarship]. This book will teach you how not to talk away your ideas or lose them in mental gymnastics. You will learn to write in order to think, to encourage thought, to tease thought out of chaos or out of fright. You will write constantly, and continuously, at every stage, to name your topic and to find your way into it. You will learn to write past certainty, past prejudice, through contradiction, and into complexity….If you’re to do all of this, you need to write every day, even if it’s only for fifteen minutes a day” (page 5).

During my masters’ thesis, I embraced this method that Bolker (and others) advocate: regular freewriting and academic journaling. I began work each morning by sitting down with a cup of tea and producing 5 single spaced pages of writing. I wasn’t aiming to produce 5 pages of text that would ultimately go into my thesis. Rather, I was developing ideas, exploring tangents, asking myself questions, problem-solving. Design thinking is often thought of as a social process, but looking back now, I realize the conversation that my daily writing allowed me to have with myself played many familiar roles to that played by team members in the innovation cycle.

My freewriting was a key source of new ideas. Often I started with a self-created “prompt” that had arisen in my work the previous day, perhaps from my reading or, later, from chapter drafts I was working on: To what extent did the culture of the Department of Lands and Survey influence the new Deparment of Conservation after its creation in 1986? Why are attitudes towards wilderness different in the United States and New Zealand? In answering my prompts, I wrote in a brainstorming spirit, without thinking about whether what I was writing was right or not. Instead, I tried to suggest as many possible answers as I could come up with without stopping. Investigating them, analyzing them, testing them against the literature, discussing them with my advisor, weighing them against one another – all these analytic processes came later in the cycle of the day, after my 5 daily writing pages were complete.

Daily writing also served as a means for prototyping. I tested chapter outlines or structures by sketching them out quickly in the morning without the pressure of drafting them “for real.” I tried alternate versions next to one another and then evaluated them, answering (in writing, of course), questions like What are the pros and cons between these two prototype thesis structures?, The daily writing pages gave me what web developers call a “sandbox,” a place on the server to try out pieces of code (or in my case, snippets of writing) and see what it looks like before implementing it in the real document.

A third function my freewriting pages served was to raise new questions and thus identify new needs to be addressed in my work. My style in the pages was reflective to a fault, continually asking myself about the implications of an argument I was making or an explanation I was developing. Being able to ask myself questions in writing allowed me (1) to know where I needed to gather more empirical evidence and (2) forced me to fully think through possible criticisms of my ideas before anyone else saw a draft. Additionally, since writing up ethnographic and interview research can be solitary and even lonely, the pages gave me a way to use my own mind as sort of a teammate, literally carrying on a conversation with myself through my writing each morning, paying attention to not only content but also my own mood, motivation, etc., and suggesting solutions for the inevitable slumps in productivity.

Most importantly, perhaps, by creating an inviolate habit that I began my days with a set amount of writing, I was building in consistent time for creative thinking to occur. Five single spaced pages is a fair bit of writing, taking at least an hour each day. Not daily, but with decent regularly I found myself reaching the state of flow that Csikszentmihalyi talks about, where an idea would lead to a new idea and then to another. By the end of the hour I would have produced a piece of writing with very little conscious sense of having done the work. Besides being exhilarating, this flow state was also incredibly productive. Just about every new idea worth anything in my masters’ thesis made its initial appearance in some form or another during my morning daily writing practice.