Design Thinking. How did it all happen and who are responsible for it.



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

Being in the news though, doesn’t make design thinking big. 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, this is still quite unique — which is why sometimes — design thinking is applied as more of an umbrella term that catches multi-disciplinary, human-centered projects that involve research and rapid ideation. Most recently it has begun to monitor and measure itself in a quantified way, a trick its learnt from the business and economics sectors.

History and the people involved


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 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.

In 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 ‘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.

Not limited to creating physical artefacts, often this approach has seen designer/facilitators co-creating new systems, services and even policies with the people who will in the end be using them daily.

By the mid 1980’s Scandinavian cooperative design had finally 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. 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 during this period was a vastly different approach to designing. 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.



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 bookDesignerly 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 Thinkingwhich 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.

2002 - NOW

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.




Alastair 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.



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