Design and Design Thinking in Technical and Professional Communication: Examining Our Pedagogies, Practices, and Perspectives
Jason Tham, Texas Tech University, email@example.com
Timothy Ponce, University of Texas at Arlington, firstname.lastname@example.org
The design “turn” in technical and professional communication (TPC) has surfaced as a
disciplinary interest in the last two decades or so as scholars and educators investigated the
emergence and applications of design-centric models for the purposes of communication in
technical and professional contexts. TPC programs have begun to include design-driven
courses, assignments, and learning objectives showing the importance of a designerly way of
thinking (Melonçon & Henchel, 2013, pp. 52–53; Tham, 2021). Adjacent to TPC, theorists
including Richard Buchanan (1985), David Kaufer and Brian Butler (1996), and David Fleming
(1998) situated design within the practice of communication and rhetoric, helping scholars like
Charles Kostelnick (1989), Richard Marback (2009), Jim Purdy (2014), Carrie Leverenz (2014),
and Scott Wible (2020) to articulate the viability of design and “design thinking” in writing
studies and TPC pedagogy. Design adds a tangible layer of deliberation to the product vs.
process paradigm shift that influenced a majority of our scholarly and programmatic
discussions in the 1980s. Design brings to our scholarship conversations about materiality,
multimodality, and usability, among others. Focusing neither just on design nor thinking,
however, design thinking is a framework most popularized in business management and
engineering that integrates user- and human-centered design philosophies, iterative and
participatory design approaches, and socially responsive innovation to address “wicked
problems” (Rittel & Webber, 1973). The most prominent model for this framework is the
oft-cited Stanford d.school (n.d.) schema that includes five recursive phases in designing
solutions: empathize, define, ideate, prototype, and test.
The growing interest and deployment of design thinking methodologies in TPC programs
today––thanks in part to the rise of user experience studies in technical communication (Kessler
et al., 2021; Zachry & Spyridakis, 2016)––indicate a need for retrospection on our teaching and
application of design frameworks in programmatic contexts so that we remain socially and
ethically conscious about our practice. However, pedagogical and empirical investigations of
design thinking in TPC programs have only recently begun. Ann Hill Duin et al. (2017) studied
the affordances of the radical collaboration attribute in design thinking that showed benefits for
graduate research collectives. At the undergraduate level, Jennifer Bay, Richard
Johnson-Sheehan, and Devon Cook (2018) infused design thinking processes in teaching TPC
students how to think like an entrepreneur with innovative solutions for wicked problems:
We must teach our students how to have empathy for users, peers, and stakeholders, just
as we must have empathy for the needs of our students. We must define educational
problems from our students’ points of view, not our own, and we need to ideate those
problems by reframing them and incorporating new technology. We need to prototype
new assignments and new activities and then do testing to see which ones work. (p. 193)
Bay et al.’s (2018) model provided exigence for other scholar-teachers, such as Mason Pellegrini
(2021), who argued that pedagogical experimentations with design thinking need to happen in
conjunction with workplace studies in order to understand the transfer from classroom to
professional practice. In a special issue of Journal of Business and Technical Communication,
Rebecca Pope-Ruark, Jason Tham, Joe Moses, and Trey Conner (2019) included several more
cases of teaching design thinking in TPC that exemplify its programmatic potential.
Nevertheless, as the world of TPC and its programmatic efforts change along with the current
health pandemic and arising needs in higher education, scholars are well-situated to examine
the pedagogies, practices, and perspectives of/on design thinking at pressing times.
There is a growing body of scholarship in design and design thinking models in TPC and
writing pedagogy, but not a lot has been considered for programmatic development or
administration. We need research and reports of design-driven efforts at the programmatic level
to help the field grow in that direction. As Bay et al. (2018) motivated scholars to introduce
design thinking to TPC service courses, we encourage projects that apply design thinking in the
broader TPC programmatic landscape, including majors, minors, certificates, and graduate
programs. As well, we are interested in studies and findings about design thinking integration
in program development and innovation, program transitions, recruitment and retention, and
administration and assessment.
Furthermore, critical studies on design thinking are needed because design scholarship has
been traditionally biased toward narratives that were largely informed by Eurocentric
understandings of the world and Anglo American values. Design thinking is often dubbed a
utilitarian method for problem solving, risking itself to being merely an avowal of advocacy.
Thus, as scholars, educators, and practitioners, we should examine the ways in which design
methods and design thinking are taught and enacted in our programs, and how such
enactments are affecting the principles of TPC and beyond.
Potential research questions and programmatic directions include:
● How might design and/or design thinking be integrated with TPC programs, including
majors and minors, certificates, and graduate programs?
● How might design and/or design thinking support program growth, including
recruitment, retention, administration, and assessment?
● How might design thinking support innovation in TPC service courses?
● How can or do various TPC pedagogies––e.g., client projects, service learning, case
method, internships, undergraduate research, and studio pedagogy––align with design
● What aspects of design thinking could be used or updated to reflect TPC programmatic
goals, identities, cultures, and values?
● In addition to user experience and usability studies, how might design thinking
augment TPC programs and pedagogies to broaden their reach and impact on students?
● How might design and/or design thinking create spaces for effective
university-workplace collaborations as well as for effective co-learning and co-teaching
with programs that are design, technology, and innovation driven?
● How might design thinking be combined with social justice advocacy in TPC programs?
● How can design thinking help us navigate the irrevocable shifts in TPC programs and
pedagogies wrought by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic?
We are particularly interested in multiply marginalized and underrepresented voices and views
on design and TPC programs, such as BIPOC technical communicators, disability studies and
disabled scholars, women, and international researchers. We encourage diverse perspectives in
the curated discussions, critiques, and recommendations for the future of design and/or design
thinking in TPC programs.
Publication Timeline: Fall 2023 Issue
● 1 March 2023 – Proposals due (see submission guidelines below)
● 15 March – Decisions on proposals sent to submitters
● 30 April – Initial manuscripts due
● 30 May – Reviewer comments sent to authors
● 15 July – Revised manuscripts due
● 1 August – Final publishing decisions sent to authors
● 30 November – Publication of special issue
Please send proposals (400-500 words) in MS Word or PDF via email to both
email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org, and indicate your submission type:
● Research article
● Program showcase
● FOCUS article
Review the general submission instructions from the Programmatic Perspectives webpage for
further details on submission types.
All prospective authors should review Anti-Racist Scholarly Reviewing Practices: A Heuristic
for Editors, Reviewers, and Authors prior to submitting a proposal.
Bay, J., Johnson-Sheehan, R., & Cook, D. (2018). Design thinking via experiential learning:
Thinking like an entrepreneur in technical communication courses. Programmatic
Perspectives, 10(1), 172–200.
Buchanan, R. (1985). Declaration by design: Rhetoric, argument, and demonstration in design
practice. Design Issues, 2(1), 4–22.
Duin, A.H., Moses, J., McGrath, M., Tham, J., & Ernst, N. (2017). Design thinking methodology:
A case study of “radical collaboration” in the wearables research collaboratory.
Connexion: An International Professional Communication Journal, 5(1), 45–74.
Fleming, D. (1998). Design talk: Constructing the object in studio conversations. Design Issues,
Itchuaqiyaq, C.U. (2021). MMU scholar list. Retrieved from
Kaufer, D.S. & Butler, B.S. (1996). Rhetoric and the arts of design. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum
Kessler, M.M., Breuch, L.A.K., Stambler, D.M., Campeau, K., Riggins, O.J., Feedema, E.,
Doornink, S.I., & Misono, S. (2021). User experience in health & medicine: Building
methods for patient experience design in multidisciplinary collaboration. Journal of
Technical Writing and Communication, 51(4), 380–406.
Kostelnick, C. (1989). Process paradigm in design and composition: Affinities and directions.
College Composition and Communication, 40(3), 267–281.
Leverenz, C. (2014). Design thinking and the wicked problem of teaching writing. Computers and
Composition, 33, 1–12.
Marback, R. (2009). Embracing wicked problems: The turn to design in composition studies.
College Composition and Communication, 61, 397–419.
Melonçon, L. & Henschel, S. (2013). Current state of U.S. undergraduate degree programs in
technical and professional communication. Technical Communication, 60(1), 45–64.
Pellegrini, M. (2021). Composing like an entrepreneur: The pedagogical implications of design
thinking in the workplace. Journal of Technical Writing and Communication. Advance
online publication. https://doi.org/10.1177/00472816211031554
Pope-Ruark, R., Tham, J., Moses, J., & Conner, T. (2019). Introduction to special issue:
Design-thinking approaches in technical and professional communication. Journal of
Business and Technical Communication, 33(4), 370–375.
Purdy, J. (2014). What can design thinking offer writing studies? College Composition and
Communication, 65(4), 612–641.
Rittel, H.W., & Webber, M.M. (1973). Dilemmas in a general theory of planning. Policy Sciences,
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Tham, J. (2021). Design thinking in technical communication: Solving problems through making and
collaboration. New York, NY: Routledge.
Wible S. (2020). Using design thinking to teach creative problem solving in writing courses.
College Composition and Communication, 71(3), 399–425.
Zachry, M., & Spyridakis, J.H. (2016). Human-centered design and the field of technical
communication. Journal of Technical Writing and Communication, 46(4), 392–401.