Friday, July 5, 2013

Article Review: The Creative Spirit of Design

Recently I have read several instructional design publications that I thought were particularly insightful and inspiring. I plan on reviewing several of these articles over the next several weeks to share my own thoughts and responses.

For my first review, I thought I would review an article written by Dr. Jason McDonald: The Creative Spirit of Design. I was very happy to come across and read this article - McDonald provides some language and fresh insights into design that have helped me reinvigorate my already strong love of instructional design.

My review is below. I should note here that this is certainly not a comprehensive review. I will highlight key parts of the article, and I strongly encourage you to read the full article.

In his article, McDonald identifies what he calls "the creative spirit of design." In defining this spirit, he quotes Hokanson, Miller, & Hooper (2008): "to truly design is to extend understanding, to create something new and innovative" (p. 37). McDonald shares what he believes to be the properties of this creative spirit by describing three characteristics that exemplify proactive design:
  • Imagination. To define imagination, McDonald quotes Cross (2007): "design is the ability to imagine that-which-does-not-yet-exist, [and] to make it appear in concrete form as a new, purposeful addition to the real world" (p. 10). I found this to be an apt articulation of what designers do - we can see something before it exists.
  • Creation-Oriented. Again, McDonald quotes Cross (2007): "designing is a process of pattern synthesis, rather than pattern recognition. The solution is not simply lying there among the data... it has to be actively constructed by the designer's own efforts" (p. 24). In design work, there is no "right answer," and a complex design problem can be solved in infinite ways.
  • Inter-disciplinary. As we interact with other people, technologies, fields of thought, we actually develop new ways to solve problems. We expand out ability to solve problems and do new things. Collaboration with others can often create new opportunities and removes previous constraints.
I found this article to be motivating and exciting - McDonald has articulated aspects of instructional design that often don't seem to be described or discussed in the field. In this section, I will quote what I thought were key points in the article and share my reaction.

A note on processes and methodologies
"Instructional design processes, methodologies, and techniques are intellectual tools, and should not solely define the field, nor limit designers' sense of possibility about their opportunities" (p. 53).
As a field, we often spend a lot of time focusing on the tools that we use (technologies, theories, and processes). This is important, because a good designer knows and utilizes these tools effectively. However, tools are not design. The are the instruments used to design and develop. As McDonald quotes later in the article (p. 57), "great designs come from great designers, not from great design processes" (Brooks, 2010, p. 231). Sometimes in the field of instructional design we focus too much on our tools, and perhaps this is because they are something concrete, something that we can point to, talk about and describe clearly. Unfortunately, this means that we might ignore teaching and studying what actually happens in a design situation.

Guiding Principles 

McDonald writes about what he calls "guiding principles." He defines these as ".... the philosophical orientation designers bring to their work, the statements of what they value and why those values are worth pursuing" (p. 53).

I have personally found this to be particularly important in my own design work. When I keep a focus on Why I Teach and Practice Instructional Design, I find that I am much more inspired and excited about creating excellent learning experiences for my students. Note that this doesn't necessarily mean that I am giving up the powerful theories and processes that I have acquired through study and experience over the years; rather, it enhances my ability to use these tools more creatively and effectively.

A Focus on Improvement
"The creative spirit of design expresses the possibility that with disciplined effort, designers can re-make any situation into something that more closely resembles the desired state"  (p. 54).

What a great way to articulate the designer's goal of improvement. With this goal in mind, we can overcome nearly any constraint that might impact our effective design. All designers battle issues like lack of time, resources, tools, or expertise, but with the appropriate mind-set, we can creatively move toward the ideal. I have written in the past that there is no perfection in instructional design, and this quote articulates the truth that in an imperfect world, we designers should do our best to move toward the ideal.

Design Formulas and Routines
"One reason design formulas and routines are inadequate is because design so often addresses the untried, the unproven, and the unknown" (p. 56).

McDonald notes in his article that very often an instructional designer will attempt to apply an instructional design process or a model or theory of instruction to their work in a formulaic manner. He notes that approaching a design without considering all of the variables and constraints in the design situation will likely fall short of the design need and potential. I agree with McDonald, although I would be quick to assert that having a deep knowledge of a variety of processes, theories, and models of instructional design actually enables the creative designer, giving him or her the power to creatively apply them to unique situations in unique ways.

A Personal Reaction

When reading this article, I get the sense that McDonald is "giving me permission" to be more creative and animated in my instructional design work. It can be easy to become formulaic in design work - simply following the steps, checking the boxes, or following the processes prescribed by other individuals. However, with the Creative Spirit, a designer can use their own capacities proactively to create a positive influence on the student's experience.

What I Believe McDonald Builds on But Does Not State
McDonald's ideas build upon a few characteristics and skills that he does not necessarily articulate in this article. I believe that without a foundation of these characteristics and capacities, an instructional designer will never be able to fulfill his or her potential and achieve design excellence. I plan to write more about these characteristics in the future, but I will summarize these characteristics below:
  • Belief in Self-will. At the foundation of McDonald's writing is a foundational belief that people have what might be called free agency, self-will, or the power to choose their own actions. To be effective, a designer must believe in their own power to act. Without this belief, the designer allows their perceived constraints to control their work and limit their design.
  • Proactive. McDonald assumes that instructional designers have developed the ability to be proactive, that they take responsibility and ownership for their situations and work. Proactive designers approach design tasks by taking full responsibility for what they do and therefore work toward the ideal described by McDonald. Without this approach, designers are again controlled by their environment and can tend to shift the "blame" to others when things do not go according to plan.
  • A Positive Attitude. McDonald also assumes that instructional designers must have a positive attitude in their work. Good instructional designers must believe that improvement is possible and that they can facilitate that improvement. I have personally seen good instructional designers deteriorate into ineffective box-checkers as a result of their own negativity, and I have found that maintaining a positive attitude is a key element of creativity.
  • Awareness of Locus of Control. Creative instructional designers must know what they can influence or change and what they cannot so that they can focus their energy appropriately. I have interacted with some designers who spend a lot of time and energy complaining about things they cannot control instead of working effectively with the tools and resources they have.
  • Communication and Collaboration Skills. Being able to work effectively with people empowers an instructional designer to achieve instructional design excellence. But if a designer does not have the required communication and collaboration skills, that individual will not be able to work effectively with others. I have personally watched talented, bright designers fall short of their potential because of a deficiency of "people skills."
In fact, it is likely that many brilliant designers never achieve their potential because they go through their careers without acquiring or maintaining these characteristics. Conversely, even the designer of mediocre intellectual capacity can achieve amazing results through the careful acquisition and application of these beliefs, attitudes, and approaches to design work.

Final Thoughts
In a field that continues to evolve, instructional designers must become increasingly aware of what they do and how they can do it better. I believe that the creative spirit of design as described by McDonald is absolutely critical to the success of an instructional designer. I highly recommend this article and thank Dr. McDonald for his writing.


Brooks Jr., E. P. (2010). The design of design: Essays from a computer scientist. Boston: Pearson Education, Inc.

Cross, N. (2007). Designerly ways of knowing. London: Birkhauser Basel.

McDonald, J. (2011). The creative spirit of design. TechTrends, 55(5) 53-57.

No comments: