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

Jo Szczepanska
18 min readJan 4, 2017


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.”

Being in the news though doesn’t make design thinking anything new. Unlike the radical outcomes it promises, design thinking as an approach has been slowly evolving since the 1960’s. Over the past fifty plus years, design thinking [or design really; let’s be honest] has appropriated many of the best tools and techniques from creative fields, social and computer sciences.

What sets design thinking apart?

Design thinking has an amalgamation of approaches, which makes it unique — they may be why — design thinking is applied as an umbrella term for multi-disciplinary, human-centered projects that involve research and rapid ideation (idea generation). Most recently as an approach, it has begun to monitor and measure itself in a quantified way. A trick its learnt from the business and economics sectors.

What is this article on about?

Well, as promised this story is dedicated to some of the key players that added to what is labelled design thinking. In general they’ve done a lot more than contribute here. Many of them have added to the field of design, and pushed it into the territory of improving designing beyond tangible artefacts toward constructing complex systems.

Please consider this a first stop to your own journey into design thinking. I know there is a lot to take in here, but down the bottom there is a download link with a timeline that tracks the dependencies and developments of design thinking. Please, please, please get in touch with any omissions, additions, thoughts. If you start reading this and think “this is basic, I know this already” I challenge you to read the of work by Stephanie Di Russo I was recently introduced to.


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.

Subjects like ergonomics and Design Science determined design decisions, and designers had highly specialised ways of working.

Design Science as an example was spearheaded by all-round inventor Buckminister Fuller at MIT in the mid fifties. Rare for that period, Fuller created design teams comprised of experts from across disciplines to tackle systemic failures. In his own words Fuller called Design Science:

“…the effective application of the principles of science to the conscious design of our total environment in order to help make the Earth’s finite resources meet the needs of all humanity without disrupting the ecological processes of the planet” Buckminister Fuller

He created systematic methods to evaluate, design and solve problems. His goals were grand. He wanted to use the potential of science and technology to intentionally advance the well being and standard of living of everyone. Utopian. Technological. Solutions.

What he did in the 50’s and 60’s resonates with the design thinking of today because his teams were not designer’s but people who were expert enough in their fields to contribute to the goal of a project. This is in contrast to human-centered or participatory design seen in Europe …we’ll get to that later.

Picking his team’s from the world best universities, Fuller’s teams were elite, exclusive and process driven. In Fuller’s approach success was measured so that projects were replicable.

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.

Instead of being closed off and selective, here designers played the role of facilitators or guides, with everyone from experts to workers and inhabitants co-designing products and services they would want to use.

Many highly innovative projects like Utopia, NJMF, DEMOkratiske Styringssystemer, DEMOS, TIPS and DUE were developed to help workers, unions, workplaces and even government departments tackle the changing workplace environment as a reaction to the introduction of new technologies.

Scandinavian cooperative design was grounded on the belief that every worker “has the right and duty to participate in decisions concerning” what systems are developed and how those systems are designed. DEMOS

Feeding directly into what we call service design today, this way of working relied heavily on designers. They created environments for ‘designing-by-doing,’ using tools like ‘mock-up envisionment’, future circles, organisational games, co-operative prototyping, ethnographic field research, and democratic dialogue to generate new ideas or improve on existing ones. Highly involved and iterative, this mode of presenting and working through designs acted as provocations or discussion starters between all the workshop participants.

What set them apart at this stage was they focused on: “knowing with the users” “giving the users a voice” “learning together by doing” “scenarios, acting it out” “exploratory research and development”… the start of what we call participatory design or co-design today.

Not limited to creating physical artefacts, often the Scandinavian approach saw designer as facilitators co-creating new systems, services and even policies with the people who would be using them in the end.

By the mid 1980’s Scandinavian cooperative design made it across the Atlantic to the United States where it became known more widely as participatory design. Over the years, Scandinavian cooperative design has also been known as the Collective Resource Approach and more recently Cooperative Experimental System Development.

What I have to point out here is for anyone born after the 1980’s — yup, I’m one of them — is that this block of time between the 1960’s and the 1980’s was the first real instance of humans designing non-tangible things like software and interactions. What is quite fascinating is that at this early stage of making non-physical designs, the design profession called on social sciences like psychology and anthropology to help them understand how people reacted to fundamentally new ways of doing things via a machine. Human–computer interaction design (HCI) is still using the same processes taken from cooperative design and cognitive psychology today to create and test new interfaces and interactions. From the 60’s to the 80’s cooperative design, and cognitive psychology imparted direct observation, interviews and participatory design techniques to a designers toolkit.


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.

“A designer is an emerging synthesis of artist, inventor, mechanic, objective economist and evolutionary strategist.”


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

“Participation is a fundamental process, not only for democracy, but also for learning” Bødker et al. (2000)


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.

“The engineer, and more generally the designer, is concerned with how things ought to be — how they ought to be in order to attain goals, and to function.”

“Everyone designs who devises courses of action aimed at changing existing situations into preferred ones.”


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.

“Design must be an innovative, highly creative, cross-disciplinary tool responsive to the needs of men. It must be more research-oriented, and we must stop defiling the earth itself with poorly-designed objects and structures.”


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.

“Everyone can — and does — design. We all design when we plan for something new to happen, whether that might be a new version of a recipe, a new arrangement of the living room furniture, or a new lay tour of a personal web page. […] So design thinking is something inherent within human cognition; it is a key part of what makes us human.”


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 reflective practitioner allows himself to experience surprise, puzzlement, or confusion in a situation which he finds uncertain or unique. He reflects on the phenomenon before him, and on the prior understandings which have been implicit in his behaviour. He carries out an experiment which serves to generate both a new understanding of the phenomenon and a change in the situation.”


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.

By 2003 a selection of universities across Europe and Carnegie Mellon in the states began teaching service design to students. The rise of service design, and their emerging methodologies that focused on complex problems created an environment for a new wave of design tools; including tools for non-designers to participate in design.


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.

Design has no subject matter — that’s what make this a powerful discipline. We MAKE our subject matter


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.

This human-centered design revolution is causing us to rethink the design process. In order to drive the human-centered design revolution, we need to tap into the imaginations and dreams not only of designers, but also of everyday people. New design spaces are emerging in response to everyday people’s needs for creativity.


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.

Unlike other design firms at the time they also invited experts from disparate fields like anthropology, business strategy, education or healthcare to guide and augment their design teams and processes. Their tactic to create multidisciplinary teams had the collective gaining recognition with several awards within a few years of starting.

They have since managed to popularise the terms design thinking and human-centred design, launched educational programs at, authored several books, and embed members at prestigious universities world-wide.

Kelley Brothers David and Tom are both authors of best-selling books, long term members of IDEO’s management and educators. David and Tom have skills that span from design to business management. They collaborated on Creative Confidence a book about unleashing creativity.

“It turns out that creativity isn’t some rare gift to be enjoyed by the lucky few — it’s a natural part of human thinking and behavior. In too many of us it gets blocked. But it can be unblocked. And unblocking that creative spark can have far-reaching implications for yourself, your organization, and your community.” Tom Kelley

Tim Brown As an Industrial designer and IDEO’s CEO, Brown has been a great advocate for Design Thinking and innovation. He has written many articles promoting design thinking for non designers, and Change by Design.

In order to survive in today’s complex world, organizations need to generate, embrace, and execute on new ideas. That takes creativity and a creatively capable workforce. It’s the secret sauce, or in evolutionary terms, it’s what keeps you fit. Organizations without it can’t compete.

Jane Fulton Suri With a background in both psychology and architecture Jane has been instrumental in co-authoring many of IDEOs human-centered design tools. To quote her IDEO bio “She evolved techniques for empathic observation and experience prototyping that are now employed widely in the design and innovation of products, services, and environments, as well as systems, organizations, and strategies.” Her book Thoughless Acts? shows the link between direct observation and design inspiration. Most recently she authored the Little Book of Design Ethics.

“Design research both inspires imagination and informs intuition through a variety of methods with related intents: to expose patterns underlying the rich reality of people’s behaviors and experiences, to explore reactions to probes and prototypes, and to shed light on the unknown through iterative hypothesis and experiment.”

Bill Moggridge Was a British designer with a background in Interaction design and on of the co founders of IDEO. He designed the first ever laptop and was a pioneer in applying a human-centred approach to designing objects and emerging technologies. He has authored books that focus on Interaction design, Designing Interactions is one of them — a 764-page introduction to and history of interaction design comprising 40-plus interviews with designers and entrepreneurs, from Douglas Engelbart to Will Wright to Larry Page and Sergey Brin.

I don’t think that anyone has really told (people) what design is. It doesn’t occur to most people that everything is designed — that every building and everything they touch in the world is designed. Even foods are designed now. So in the process of helping people understand this, making them more aware of the fact that the world around us is something that somebody has control of, perhaps they can feel some sense of control, too. I think that’s a nice ambition.


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.

The growth of the service design field has created new tools and processes that involve co-creation and participatory design. This shift toward collaborative design and multidisciplinary teams has focused on opening internalised creative processes and mindsets to make them more transparent and usable for everyone.

An alternative design group that complement design thinking, applying a more Scandinavian approach than a business-model focus. Fuad-Luke, Sanders and Manzini are pioneers in using co-design or participatory design with the goal or social, economic or environmental impact. They each design with everyday people (often called end-users) to disrupt large scale systems and paradigms with grass-root innovation and vernacular knowledge.


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.

The real JOY of design is to deliver fresh perspectives, improved well-being and an intuitive sense of balance with the wider world. The real SPIRIT of design elicits some higher meaning. The real POWER of design is that professionals and laypeople can co-design in amazingly creative ways. The real BEAUTY of design is its potential for secular, pluralistic expression. The real STRENGTH of design is this healthy variance of expression. The real RELEVANCE of design is its ability to be proactive. The real PASSION of design is in its philosophical, ethical and practical debate.


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.

“Design for social innovation is everything that expert design can do to activate, sustain and orient processes of social change towards sustainability.”


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.

We use a mixture of design processes. We’ve got a diversity of designers, including service designers, graphics designers, information designers, programmers, marketers, social scientists, positive psychologists, and even anthropologists. This diversity of experts bring different techniques related to their disciplines, and this mixture creates a unique design process — we call it a co-design process — whereby we capture public views.

As a final note I would like to acknowledge some of the women of design thinking I have found on my obscure hunts through white papers and internet searches. I am convinced that there are more. Help me find them.

Angelika Dilschmann, Ewa Gunnarsson, Susanne Bødker, Kerstin Frenckner, Caroline Nordquist, Kerstin Severinson Eklundh from UTOPIA.

Constance Abernathy was a trained architect that directed Buckminster Fuller’s office in New York and then founded a private architecture firm.

Ruth Asawa who won the First Dymaxion Award for Artist/Scientist, and attended Black Mountain College.

Harlanne Roberts (née Herdman) studied textile design at the Purdue University, where she met Victor Papanek, whom she married in 1966. Like many wives of successful designers and architects, Harlanne played an important role. She typed and critiqued the first edition of Design for the Real World.

Check out the pdf here if you want to take a closer look

This article is based on the design thinking course taught in Monash University’s Faculty of Art Design and Architecture.

It wouldn’t be complete without a reading list now would it?

Cohen, Reuven. “Design Thinking: A Unified Framework For Innovation.” Forbes. March 14, 2014.

Ellett, John. “How Design Thinking Can Improve Your Marketing Plan: Lessons From IBM Design Studio.

Fulton Suri, Jane, and IDEO. Thoughtless Acts?: Observations on Intuitive Design. California: Chronicle Books LCC, 2005.

Jane Fulton Suri — Finding Inspiration Through the Power Of Observation.” YouTube. Accessed March 19, 2016.

Brown, Tim, and Barry Kātz. Change by Design: How Design Thinking Transforms Organizations and Inspires Innovation. New York: Harper Business, 2009.

Buchanan, Richard. “Wicked Problems in Design Thinking.” Design Issues 8, no. 2 (1992): 5.

Cross, Nigel. “From a Design Science to a Design Discipline: Understanding Designerly Ways of Knowing and Thinking.” Design Research Now: 41–54.

Design Science.” Eight Strategies for Comprehensive Anticipatory. Accessed March 19, 2016.

De Russo, Stephanie. "A Brief History of Design Thinking: How Design Thinking Came to ‘Be’." I think ∴ I design. 2013. Accessed March 21, 2016. https://ithinkidesign.wordpress. com/2012/06/08/a-brief-historyof-design-thinking-howdesign-thinking-came-to-be/.

De Russo, Stephanie. "A Brief History of Design Thinking: How Design Thinking Came to ‘Be’." I think ∴ I design. 2013. Accessed March 21, 2016.

De Russo, Stephanie. "A Brief History of Design Thinking: How Design Thinking Came to ‘Be’." I think ∴ I design. 2013. Accessed March 21, 2016.

De Russo, Stephanie. "Understanding the behaviour of design thinking in complex environments." 2016.

Fuad-Luke, Alastair. The Eco-design Handbook: A Complete Sourcebook for the Home and Office. London: Thames & Hudson, 2004.

Fuad-Luke, Alastair. Design Activism: Beautiful Strangeness for a Sustainable World. London: Earthscan, 2009.

Kelley, David, and Tom Kelley. Creative Confidence: Unleashing the Creative Potential within Us All.

Kolko, Jon. Design Thinking Comes of Age.” Harvard Business Review. 2015. Accessed March 19, 2016.

Manzini, Ezio, and François Jégou. Sustainable Everyday: Scenarios of Urban Life. Milano: Ambiente, 2003. Manzini, Ezio.

Manzini, Ezio. Design, When Everybody Designs: An Introduction to Design for Social Innovation. Translated by Rachel Coad. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2015.

Mitchell, Julian. Yeezy Season: Kanye West And The Art Of Design Thinking. Forbes. November 30, 2015. Accessed March 19, 2016.

Papanek, Victor J. Design for the Real World; Human Ecology and Social Change. New York: Pantheon Books, 1972.

Rittel, Horst W. J., and Melvin M. Webber. “Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning.” Policy Sci Policy Sciences 4, no. 2 (1973): 155–69.

Sanders, Liz. “MakeTools.” MakeTools. 2014.

Sanders, Elizabeth B., and Pieter Jan Stappers. Convivial Design Toolbox: Generative Research for the Front End of Design. Amsterdam: BIS , 2012.

Schön, Donald A. The Reflective Practitioner: How Professionals Think in Action. New York: Basic Books, 1983.

Simon, Herbert A. Sciences of the Artificial. Cambridge, MA, 1970.

Sundblad, Yngve. “UTOPIA: Participatory Design from Scandinavia to the World.” IFIP Advances in Information and Communication Technology History of Nordic Computing 3, 2011, 176–86.

Turnali, Kaan. “Empathy, Design Thinking, And An Obsession With Customer-Centric Innovation.” Forbes. January 17, 2016.

Co-Creation, Service Design, Product Design, Digital Innovation, Patient Experience, Partnerships & Training.” Thinkpublic.



Jo Szczepanska

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.