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Design Journals

A design journal is a notebook in which a designer keeps track of ideas, calculations, minutes of meetings, sketches, information, and anything else that pertains to the design work he or she does.

The rules in this page are derived from various engineering sources, as well as some from outside engineering, such as [Ped07].

Hardcopy journals will be graded according to this rubric.

Online journals will be graded according to this rubric.

COVIDocalypse Journals are ONLINE

If this course is offered online, then design journals will be kept online and submitted as PDFs via D2L at the end of the semester.

There is a separate page for online design journals.

hilroyquadnotebook12984.jpgFig. 1: Get this as a design journal.

Get a simple Hilroy quad-ruled notebook (model 12984) to use as a design journal. They are available at the Ryerson Bookstore.

Design journals are often mandatory in many sectors/industries. There are two principal reasons for keeping a journal:

  1. They are used in legal proceedings to verify that due diligence was shown. More importantly, they are the means by which you discharge your ethical obligations to ensure public trust in the profession of engineering.
  2. They are incredibly useful thinking tools. By “externalizing” your thinking, you can more easily think through problems, create solutions, and analyze ideas. The research is very clear: writing on paper helps both learning and thinking clearly. And that leads to deeper understanding (and higher marks).

1971westernelectricjournal1.jpgFig. 2: A Western Electric journal. 1971westernelectricjournal2.jpgFig. 3: Note the rules printed right in the book for keeping a proper journal.

Refer to Figures 2 and 3 for examples of a real engineering design journal as produced for a large engineering firm. This particular journal dates to 1971. Modern journals are not much different, though they are generally of poorer/cheaper quality to save money.

Most importantly, you can enlarge the Figure 3 to read the notes printed right in the journal. These instructions are very typical of design journals.

  • Note the use of “should” in the instructions. This word - “should” - has a special meaning in engineering documents.
  • “Should” is used when specifying a requirement that can only be ignored if absolutely and demonstrably impossible to satisfy or irrelevant to the particular case.
  • These rules are, then, not just suggestions; they are to be taken as mandatory rules that can only be ignored under few and special cases.

Mandatory requirements

The following are mandatory format requirements for an acceptable design journal.

Failure to follow all these requirements will result in a failing grade for your journal.

8.5“x11” +/- 0.5“ maximum.
Write (1) your full name, (2) your student ID, (3) the course ID, (4) your 4-digit team number.
Use only hand-applied permanent ink; no pencil, no erasable ink, no computer printing.
Both sides of every used page must be dated (including day, month, and year).
Yes, you must do this even if the date is the same as the date of the previous page.
Dates must be at the outer top corner of each page.
Both sides of every page must be numbered consecutively.
Page numbers must be at the outer bottom corner of each page.
There must be no skipped pages (either side).
If you do skip a page, mark it explicitly as “BLANK” or run a diagonal line through it entirely.
If more than 1/4 of a page is unused, you must run a line through the blank part to signify that it was unused.
Use your journal for design project work only.
No additions: do not staple or tape or glue any extra material into the journal.
No erasures: do not erase content or use liquid paper.

Do's and don'ts

Keep your design journal with you always — you never know when you will need it.

  • Journal writing is fundamental to both deep learning and good designing.
  • It is an exercise in articulation
    • the act of having to focus your thoughts enough to produce lucid and meaningful arguments solidifies the understanding in your mind.
  • To really understand something, you need to be able to write it down so that
    • others can understand what the thing is,
    • why it's important,
    • how you did it, and
    • why you did it as you did.
  • If you cannot write it down well, then you don't understand it well.

The kinds of information you need to track in your journal include:

Factual information: background research, product information, part catalog information, to do lists, phone numbers, URLs, and so on.

Activity reporting what you did on the project and when you did it; minutes of meetings (taken during, not after, the meeting); project timelines; how long you spent on design activities; and so on.

Questions, issues, and problems: what needs to be done and why; what don't you know that is preventing you from advancing your design work; what is wrong with the design that needs to be fixed; team members not doing work they promised they would do; and so on.

Decisions: when was something decided? By whom? Was it an “obvious” decision or not? What were the deciding factors? Why did the decision have to be made at that moment?

Reasoning processes: when you think through some problem, don't just stare into space; track your thinking by jotting notes and doodles in your journal.

Design concepts and ideas: whenever you are struck by a concept for a product, doodle it into your journal; warning: you may be struck by the concept in the shower, or while riding the subway.

Critical analysis of things: what is your opinion on an issue, concept, or activity? Why? What are the advantages and disadvantages? Does it make sense or not? Why?

In other words, your journal should contain questions and answers, per the four levels of questions.

Report the things that go wrong.

  • A journal that reports only excellent ideas, successful meetings, and no design flaws, is a lie.
  • Design happens in response to problems (e.g. violated constraints) and not just goals (e.g. we must design…..).

Do NOT write for the instructor.

  • You're not telling a story, you're describing factual information.
  • This is easily noticed.
  • One does not report things in the past tense using a narrative voice,
    • e.g. We met for one hour to discuss safety issues.
  • Instead, one should explicitly write the key issues and thoughts one had during that discussion.

Journals must not be novels.

  • Don't waste time writing out paragraphs when a few bulleted points will be enough.
  • A journal is a tool to help you, not to justify your work to the instructor.
  • Write just enough so that you know what you did and why.

Journals help you when you make a mistake.

  • You suddenly discover a design flaw.
  • To fix it, you need to know when and why the flaw happened.
  • Odds are you won't remember enough to know that.
  • A good journal will track enough information for you to let you properly diagnose design flaws.

In the real world, journals can be legal documents.

  • If, for example, you are ever called to give evidence in matters of intellectual property, or of catastrophic failures of products, you will need to remember exactly what you did, when, and why.

A tidy journal is a sign of a tidy mind.

  • The journal should be tidy, clean, and neat.
  • It need not be carefully written in 4 colours of ink, with all mistakes liquid papered out.
    • Indeed, never use liquid paper in a journal.
    • If you make a mistake, simply cross it out once so that you can still read what was crossed out.
      • After all, what if crossing it out was the real mistake….
  • There's a difference between a neat journal and neat handwriting.
    • Neat handwriting cannot be enforced because schools no longer teach proper handwriting.
    • But a coffee-stained, worn, and torn journal, with missing pages, and basically randomly arranged text is definitely not a good sign.

Do NOT worry about length.

  • Too many students think that length is an accurate measure of journal quality. It isn't.
  • While it's true that a journal that's too short will tend to get a low grade, it is also true that a journal that's been padded out with a lot of cruft will also get a low grade.
  • The number of pages you use in your journal will be affected by many variables - for instance, the size of your writing. People who write small will fit more information onto each page.
  • However, as a very general guide: if your writing is of average size, and you follow all the guidelines above regarding content, language, etc., then a “reasonable” journal will tend to be at least around 20 pages long (i.e., 10 sheets, both sides).

A bad journal entry


We received the first major assignment for the instructional robot project. We roughly split it up into specific segments everyone should work at on their own. We all agreed to work on the particular segment; I took on the responsibility of determining our project strategy while everyone else concentrated on a pair of important product characteristics to complete the PRS. There were some problems with that. We also decided that we would get together some time before the due date to comment on each others work (i.e. adding to PRS or project strategy or changing some values, etc.)

(NOTE: This entry has 98 words in it.)

A good journal entry


  • Milestone #1 assigned.
    • Issues:
      • Installability: does that mean the robot is fixed in the lab?
      • Cost: cost to us or to users? (Is that the “price”?)
      • Liability (what if the robot kills a kid) was not raised – ask the prof.
  • Work division
    • I do project strategy
    • John doesn't want to visit Edmund Scientific, but he's closest to the store.
  • To Do:
    • Review 1 week before due (Oct 20)
      • Bring list of all possible characteristics to make sure we've got all the ones we need.
    • Remember to call mtg via email 1 week before that.

(NOTE: This entry has only 94 words in it, but notice how it actually has more content.)

Sample Design Journal Pages

You can see samples of the notebooks of the inventors of the integrated circuit.

Here are some actual journal pages from real engineers at Makani Power.

Here are a couple of pages from Dr. Salustri's journal. Notice the coffee stain in the first one.

Below are some sample pages from actual student design journals. These are all examples of good journals. Notice the variety of formats; that's because everyone is different, thinks different, takes notes differently, and is creative in different ways. Do not feel constrained to write your journal for anyone but yourself; whatever format is best for you (with a few constraints described above) is the format that you should use.


[Ped07]. O. Pedgeley. 2007. Capturing and analysing own design activity. Design Studies, 28(5):463–483. (link)
design/design_journal.txt · Last modified: 2021.06.13 00:24 by Fil Salustri