Design thinking origin story plus some of the people who made it all happen

What is design thinking, why do I keep hearing about it?

Recently design thinking has gained momentum in the business world through mentions in the Harvard Business Review and Forbes publications. As a thing, design thinking has been described as anything from “a unified framework for innovation“ to the “essential tool for simplifying and humanising.”


When design re-defined not only what it was, but what it could do.

Over this twenty year span design was able to re-define not only what it was; but what it could be applied to. This relatively short but very dense period saw the birth of two vastly different approaches to design across the globe.

60’s America = Design Science

In 60’s America, professions like industrial design and product design made their first small steps to distance themselves from engineering and the sciences. They didn’t get very far. Industrial design was still mostly based on quantifiable facts, things that could be proven, measured, and improved on. In many instances a designers workplace was in a university laboratory or on a factory floor — not the trendy studio loft above the best coffee shop in town.

60’s Scandinavia = Cooperative design

At the same time as an absolute counter to Fuller, Scandinavian cooperative design was also getting off the ground. Unlike the teams of experts assembling in America to fix the world, the Scandinavians invited everyone to become involved in discussions on design.


Buckminister Fuller In 1956 he officially began teaching Comprehensive Anticipatory Design Science (CADS) at MIT’s Creative engineering Laboratory. His labs applied scientific methods to generating designs. Buckminister’s approach built on the knowledge of elite teams of engineers, industrial designers, materials scientists and chemists to innovate. He’s known for geodesic domes, the Dymaxion car, Triton city, the “Fly’s Eye” Dome and terms like “Spaceship Earth” and synergetic.


Scandinavian co-operative design was a vastly different approach to global design at the time. Unfortunately the language barrier makes this design movement not as well documented as others of the time. Scandinavian cooperative design from the 60’s led to many developments in human computer interactions and service design. The Scandinavian approach that is still present and distinctive today, having the same goals it had over 50 years ago of being inclusive and democratic. If you want to learn more look into Susanne Bødker, Pelle Ehn, Dan Sjögren, Yngve Sundblad Kristen Nygaard, Olav-Terje Bergo, Åke Sandberg, Morten Kyng, Lars Mathiassen, and Niels Erik Andersen


Herbert Simon Published The sciences of the artificial in 1969 which gives design a new range of classifications and parameters. Simon argued that everything designed should be seen as artificial — as opposed to natural.


Victor Papanek Arrived on the design scene with Design for the Real World in 1971. Highly critical of the design profession he integrated Anthropology into his design practice in an attempt to design socially and ecologically responsible things. In the course of his career that lasted into the late 1990s Papanek applied the principles of socially responsible design in collaborative projects with concerns such as UNESCO and the World Health Organization.


Horst Rittel and his counterpart Melvin M. Webber first coined the term Wicked problems in 1972, he is one of the first researchers to try to define design theory while concentrating on design methods. Unlike his predecessors he championed the importance of human experience and perception when designing. For the first time Phenomenology was introduced to the designing of experiences.


When designers where put under the microscope to figure out what makes them tick.

During the second wave of design thinking, the focus was solely on what it was that set highly creative people apart from everyone else. It was a moment in time were researchers like Nigel Cross and Donald Schön performed in depth investigations into design processes and how designers got the ideas that no one else did. They observed designers while they were alone and working together in teams. Taking from the social sciences they took note of optimal conditions, individual and collective habits and most importantly the mindsets that designers employed to come up with consistently creative ideas. These investigations of design process later opened the doors for other professions to emulate brainstorming and other creative thinking techniques.


Nigel Cross was a researcher in the field of Human-computer interaction before he began investigating design methodology. His seminal book Designerly ways of Knowing looks at what makes the way designers think and make decisions different to other professions a great influence which helped in the construction of design thinking.


Donald Schön With a background in philosophy and urban planning much of Schön’s work argues against the technical-rationality of design profession seen in the 1960’s. The Reflective Practitioner highlights the importance of self-reflection to a successful design process. His work greatly influenced not only design but the field of organisational learning.


The emergence of service design and their myriad of designerly tools.

During this period, design broadened its scope for the second time. In the early 1990’s design expanded scope beyond creating tangible artefacts for the second time, focusing intently on interactions and services. This shift was supported by Buchanan’s seminal paper Wicked Problems in Design Thinking which explored the potential of design to tackle complex, ambiguous challenges.


Richard Buchanan By connecting the theories of Rittel and Simon with the design practice of Ezio Manzini, Buchanan re-opened the discussion of wicked problems and the role of design in solving them. In 1992 he published Wicked Problems in Design Thinking he drew a path from design thinking to innovation and it’s application. In his later writing on design thinking in Design as a New Liberal Art he noted that design as a profession is “integrative” perhaps because of its lack of specializations, it has the potential to connect many disciplines.


Liz Sanders The founder of MakeTools, Sanders is a pioneer in applied design research. Many of the tools, techniques and methods being used in human-centered design and design thinking today can be attributed to her. Not a designer by trade, her background is in experimental psychology and anthropology. She is also the co-author of Convivial Toolbox, a practical how-to guide for anyone interested in generative design research.


IDEO forms out of a three-way merger. Around the same time as Buchanan was building his case for design thinking, IDEO formed out of a three-way merger. With solid footing, over the course of the next ten years IDEO attracted some highly influential people to join them, from both academia and design practice.


Design thinking finds a foothold in the business world.

Since design thinking began being mentioned almost 20 years ago, it has undergone many iterations; only recently gaining recognition. Design consultancies including IDEO, smart design and ‘frog’ have led the way in adapting design thinking for business purposes.


Alistair Fuad-Luke Is a self professed design facilitator, educator, writer and activist currently teaching emerging design practices. His projects emphasise openness, collaboration and co-design with communities and individuals, social well-being and alternative economies. His books Design Activism and The Eco-Design Handbook comment on the role of design in sustainability.


Ezio Manzini One of the founders of DESIS and supporters of slow design, Manzini’s works are grounded in participatory design for sustainability. Utilising many service design tools his books and projects including Sustainable Everyday and Design, When Everybody Designs focus on inclusive ideation and testing for sustainability. Similar to the style of Scandinavian cooperative design in Manzini’s work, the designer is the mediator.


Deborah Szebeko. At the age of 23 Szebeko founded British-based social design agency of ThinkPublic who specialises in design and innovation within the public sector and NGO’s. With a focus on co-design and a focus on social issues, thinkpublic has won several awards.

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Jo wants to live in a fair and healthy world, where services are co-designed with communities. She's multidisciplinary designer with a background in research.

Jo wants to live in a fair and healthy world, where services are co-designed with communities. She's multidisciplinary designer with a background in research.