The Design Journal: Getting it Started Again

I’m a notoriously bad journaler. I love having journals, and have a collection of empty ones. Often I start a diary or journal, only to stop a few days later, and tear out the pages and shred/recycle them when I read them a few years later in mortification.

Last year one of our first assignments as first-year DMBA students was to keep a design journal. Not only would we need to keep a design journal, we needed to turn it in on occasion. Terrifying, true, but also a great opportunity to build a good habit.


First page of my first design journal. Note the cut-out pages from a prior journaling attempt.

Most people want to be the kind of person that keeps a sketch notebook, design journal, writing journal, or diary. Keeping a written or sketch journal is purported to increase creativity, release stress, enable us to better understand our thoughts, and to explore ideas in a non-threatening way. Carrying a small journal with you enables spontaneity and encourages us to be thoughtful of our surroundings, finding inspiration unexpectedly. I found, however, that owning a blank notebook and calling it a “design journal” did not immediately confer these benefits. Journaling/sketching/keeping a diary must be cultivated, like any other habit.

At first, I stuck with word maps, process diagrams, keeping notes on readings and lectures, and occasionally forcing myself to make small sketch accompaniments. As this was an assignment, we needed to make entries at least once a week. Sometimes the entries were uninspired, and sometimes I was enthusiastic about it. Sometimes I could barely manage to make one entry a week, and sometimes it was easy and natural to make several. As time went on, I incorporated colors and visual diagrams. By the end of second semester, I graduated to a new journal.

It's not pretty, but I even started more sketch-heavy entries.

It’s not pretty, but I even started more sketch-heavy entries.

When my journal had a more defined focus– exploring ideas, not trying to be brilliant, it became very comfortable. It was helpful to think of the journal as a personal tool, not intended for public consumption and recognize that not every note made in a journal offers insight or inspiration, and that it’s okay. My journals became lighter and smaller so that I could carry them everywhere and inconspicuously get them out to make a note/observation. Unfortunately, I fell off the design journal bandwagon this summer, but am hopping right back on. Although new habits are hard to build, or even re-build, this one is worth it. Virginia Woolfe puts it well:

“I got out this diary and read, as one always does read one’s own writing, with a kind of guilty intensity. I confess that the rough and random style of it, often so ungrammatical, and crying for a word altered, afflicted me somewhat. I am trying to tell whichever self it is that reads this hereafter that I can write very much better; and take no time over this; and forbid her to let the eye of man behold it. And now I may add my little compliment to the effect that it has a slapdash and vigour and sometimes hits an unexpected bull’s eye.”

Here's to new beginnings!

Here’s to new beginnings!

For more on the benefits of journals (the articles are endless, but these are my favorites):