Real design thinking: the value of keeping a reflective journal

Keeping track of your thinking processes across research and design projects may give you insights that will help you meet new challenges more effectively.

(Previously published in UX Collective, May 17, 2021.)

Reflective journals
Mole Cricket

The philosopher George Santayana famously said that “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” That’s perhaps the most useful and practical way in which to use a reflective journal: as a means of remembering. As a means of time-traveling to revisit thought processes that emerged on a project or a problem scenario in the past. We can use those captured insights from the past to avoid making the same mistakes, avoid repeating patterns of behaviour that didn’t work, to help make better decisions about the best way forward.

Research shows that the more we write about what we are doing and thinking, the clearer our ideas become. Repeated writing on a theme allows for the development of abstract ideas and complex relationships. Furthermore, when we return to earlier entries in our journals, we may discover we are able to answer a question, or we may suddenly understand the importance of a certain thought to the development of our work.

(RMIT Study and Learning Centre, 2012)

What were your thinking patterns on that previous project, as you searched for a solution? Looking back, what were the implications of those thought processes? Why did some of the elements of the problem seem so very important then and of such lesser importance later on? What were you feeling at the time? How did you deal with, for example, those ethical dilemmas that service design invariably throws up? How were you dealing with your own self-care? Were you, literally, giving yourself enough time to breathe?

Photo of journal
I enjoy using paper and pen — but you don’t have to…

We’re not talking about some five-minute team retro here (although your reflections can turbo-charge your input into team retros, too); we’re talking about on-going, considered, and personal reflections documented on a regular basis. And the process of writing those reflections is and of itself part of the value of keeping a journal. Reflective writing, widely practiced in academia, is as a key part of many learning journeys.

Reflective writing is quite different to most types of academic writing. Generally, a reflective piece of writing requires you to map the progress and changes in your thinking about a subject or a topic, or about the learning journey in which you have engaged.

UTS, A quick guide to reflective writing, 2019)

The value then, of keeping a reflective journal is to map the progress and changes in your thinking. There is also value in the act of reflection itself; in taking the time to consider how you tackled a particular issue and why you thought about it in that particular way. The scholars at UTS suggest to structure your reflective writing in three stages:

  1. Description‘What?’
  2. Analysis‘So what?’
  3. Synthesis: ‘Now what?

However, there’s no need to be quite so prescriptive. My own reflective writing is a lot more, uh, free-range and organic. I get pleasure in the task of writing itself. In my case, that’s the action of putting pen to paper, rather than with some interaction with a screen. The tactile sensation of writing on paper helps me keep some distance from my work and gives me a certain sense of freedom. Write what you like, doodle what you want, draw what you want, let it out and onto the page. Let it go.

The act of writing, of reflecting, can be part of a decompression process. This process can be helpful in letting go of some of those stresses that we often experience on fast-paced projects and in dealing with the compromises that a designer/researcher inevitably has to make.

Things may not make sense at the time.

This is especially true if we think back over the past, crazy, twelve months, when so many people’s lives have been turned upside down. Writing a reflective journal during this time has helped me keep a sense of perspective. Even after more than twenty years experience in human-centred design I still get great value from reflecting on my thinking processes and approach.

I suggest you try it. You’ve got nothing to lose and lots to gain.

Have fun letting it out. You have nobody to please but yourself.

Notes

RMIT, Reflective journals, 2021. Available at: https://www.dlsweb.rmit.edu.au/lsu/content/2_AssessmentTasks/assess_tuts/reflective%20journal_LL/cycle.html. (Accessed: 17 May 2021).

RMIT Study and Learning Centre, The Reflective Journal, 2012, Emedia.rmit.edu.au. Available at: https://emedia.rmit.edu.au/learninglab/sites/default/files/Approaches-The%20reflective%20journal.pdf. (Accessed: 17 May 2021).

Santayana, George, Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy (2021). Available at: https://iep.utm.edu/santayan/#:~:text=George%20Santayana%20(1863%E2%80%941952)&text=Probably%20the%20most%20well%2Dknown,Reason%3A%20Reason%20in%20Common%20Sense. (Accessed: 17 May 2021).

UTS, A quick guide to reflective writing, 2019, Canvas.open.uts.edu.au. Available at: https://canvas.open.uts.edu.au/courses/80/pages/a-quick-guide-to-reflective-writing (Accessed: 17 May 2021).

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