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Online 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

This page is only for online design journals used for this course during the COVIDocalypse.

There is a separate page for regular hardcopy design journals. You are expected to read about hardcopy journals to get a sense of the history of these documents.

Do this right away

  1. Get a copy of this Google Doc template for your online design journal.
  2. Once you have a copy of the template, change the filename per the naming conventions in the Project Deliverables.
  3. Finally, share your Google Doc design journal with your TA and Dr. Salustri ( Grant full edit permission for your TA and Dr. Salustri.

Do not put your online journals in your Google Shared Folder. These are treated as individual documents to each student.

If you need help copying and sharing a Google Doc, read how to share a google doc.

Get your online journal sorted by the end of the third week of classes, or you risk a grade penalty.

Make sure you do the steps in the right order: (1) get a copy of the template, THEN (2) change the filename, THEN (3) share it with your TA and Dr. Salustri - or you risk a grade penalty.


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).

Mandatory requirements

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

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

The document name must be correct. See the Project Deliverables for the naming convention. If the document's name is incorrect, it won't be collected and graded.
Use the correct template and do not change the formatting.
Complete the items given on the first page of the document. If any of this information is wrong, you will get a failing grade for your journal.
Use Level 1 Headings for dates. That is, every entry in the journal
Leave no blank pages.
Use your journal for design project work only.

Do's and don'ts

Keep a paper notebook with you at all times so that you can write down ideas and other information whenever you can.

Set aside some time every day to update your online journal, using notes from your paper notebook.

  • 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. You can doodle in your paper notebook, take a picture of the doodle with your phone, then embed it into your online journal.

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 deleted.
    • Indeed, never delete text in a journal (unless you're just correcting a typo).
    • If you make a mistake, simply use strikeout formatting.
      • After all, what if crossing it out was the real mistake….

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.
  • 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 by the end of the semester (including embedded images).

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

While these examples are on paper, consider the kinds of information in the entries rather than how they're written.

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/online_design_journals.txt · Last modified: 2021.06.12 23:59 by Fil Salustri