Why Design: Reading and Writing the World

(Fifth post in the “Why Design?” series. All of Garreth’s writing represents a view from the crossroads of education and design. See more of Garreth’s posts here.)

I was/am an English major.

The confusion in verb tense stems from a shift in how I act within the world. For years I buried my head in books. Fictional worlds allowed me to explore a myriad of human experiences I would never have had the chance to understand outside the covers of books. I spent years in college honing my skills at reading these worlds, divining the author’s deeper motives (if such is even possible) and understanding the intentionality at the heart of writing.

At the same time, due to an inexperienced heart, I was also writing critical papers for an art history student. The papers (though not the young lady) changed my life because they opened to me an understanding that there were texts beyond those in the library. I stopped merely looking and began to “see” by turning my close reading skills toward architecture, packaging, toasters, vacuums, pencils, etc.


My heart’s detour had actually led me to a discovery that Paolo Freire had made years earlier: I was “reading the world,” a world created not by authors between the covers of books, but by designers, acting with intention, to solve problems and improve the world.

Years later, as a humanities teacher, this propensity for close viewing led me to design lessons that built students’ powers of observation by encouraging them to pay deep attention to what they saw, heard, felt and even smelled.

It also led me back to that English Major, the liberal arts graduate, and to my abiding appreciation for the enduring impact of a liberal education so clearly outlined by William Cronon in his essay, “Only Connect: The Goals of a Liberal Education.” As well, it led to a further discovery: the integrative nature of design and design thinking employs most all the skills Cronon holds as the fruit of a liberal education. Chief among them, are the skills of reading and writing.


Designers know this. They spend years learning how to develop an eye for identifying problems and visualizing solutions. Such deep understanding is born of the same keen observation of the world employed by English majors but which is also common in any liberal arts degree. It represents designers’ critical engagement with the world through an abiding and guiding question: Why are things the way they are?

Further, the design of solutions–be they products, systems, experiences, interfaces—is a form of writing, an act of creation for a purpose beyond mere self-expression. Designs are physical embodiments of ideas addressing the question of how to improve the world.

I know this is idealistic, but I am an educator. I trade in ideals, in creating a better, brighter future.

If design in practice is not nearly so bright, if it is constrained and distorted by economic demands and buffeted by political winds, that reality does not rob its methods and processes of their application to education.  In its ability to take the often abstract and esoteric knowledge of the classroom and apply it to real-world problems, and through the integrative nature of the field itself, design has few peers as a heuristic.

At PlusUs we recognize the value design brings to education. Our work engages learners in experiences that not only help them consume content knowledge intelligently, but that help them become creators of content themselves.  We understand that learning is not simply taught, it is socially constructed by learners in myriad ways.

Moreover, we recognize that it is not merely knowledge but the world itself that is a creation between people and not of individuals. In this, PlusUs embodies the spirit of E.M. Forster’s dictum to “only connect”: Our work is always in the service of the human community, always guided by the recognition that we are part of the greatest of all endeavors, education. We believe, as do educators the world over, that we have a charge to leave the world better off than how we found it.

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