Design workbooks or journals are valuable tools in generating ideas and documenting design work. They are useful throughout the Journalism Design process but particularly in the early stages of Discover and Imagine.

Design workbooks are collections of research, materials, ideas and proposals, and play an important role in helping to understand the nature of a problem and the possibilities for solving it.

I set a design workbook as the first assessment item in my Journalism Design course. It is linked to a series of provocation exercises that run over a three-week period early in the semester. Students use the workbook to document the in-class activity and are expected to continue to work with ideas during the subsequent week. They are given a new provocation the next week, and the cycle repeats.

This is a new task for many students and some are initially uncomfortable with the idea of collating materials and sketching. But I emphasise that a design workbook is a tool for creativity — not a finished product. It should be sketchy and unrefined.

I emphasise that the workbook should reflect the student’s efforts and ideas, and these can, and should be as radical as they like.

Workbook entries include:

  • research notes;
  • screenshots or images of products or situations and annotations;
  • sketches (not drawings, sketches are quick and disposable);
  • anything else that provides inspiration.

Sources can include workshop activities, user research, published papers or examples of existing products or experiences.

Provocation exercise

Provocations can be used to prompt unconventional thinking and encourage exploration of new concepts. Running exercises like this over a few weeks early in the course is a good way to introduce designerly ways of working such as sketching and building.

Have a box of materials on hand for this. Include paper, pens, Lego, PlayDoh, scissors, cardboard, tape and glue.

Set a reading around a technology then, in class, ask students to explore it in relation to journalism, values and possibility, for example:

  • Journalism to wear;
  • Journalism in public spaces;
  • The fourth estate in connected communities.

Encourage students to use a variety of techniques, including brainstorming, interviewing, observing and sketching (using paper and materials). Encourage students to leave the classroom and interview/observe people outside. They might do this to inform their brainstorming, or they might use it later in the session to get some feedback on their sketches.

Focus on pushing boundaries and expectations. Discourage thinking about how to operationalise or implement ideas. This will quickly lead them to discard concepts as unviable. The point is to imagine.
The students should document the process and ideas in their design workbook.


I assess the design workbook on two criteria:

  1. Volume;
  2. Documentation and evidence.

For volume I am looking for a sustained and substantial contribution in dated entries. I normally set a minimum number of pages per week.

For documentation and evidence, I am looking for a variety of concepts, sketches and reflections that are documented using a range of formats and representations. I am also looking for diversity in research methods and sources, eg: interviews, observations, desk research.


Bill Buxton’s book on Sketching user experiences and the related workbook are essential reading:

  • Buxton, B. (2007). Sketching user experiences: Getting the design right and the right design. San Francisco: Morgan Kaufmann.
  • Greenberg, S., Carpendale, S., Marquardt, N. & Buxton, B. (2010). Sketching user experiences: The workbook. San Francisco: Morgan Kaufmann.
  • Reader resources are available here:

Also, this paper by William Gaver discusses design workbooks as a method for design and as a design methodology.

  • Gaver. W. (2011). Making spaces: How design workbooks work. Proceedings of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems. New York: ACM.