A Brief History of Design Thinking

Design Thinking timeline - dt_timeline_w_history

I stumbled across this *terrific* sum-up of how ‘Design Thinking’ came to be over the past few decades, from Swiburne Univesrity School of Design PhD candidate Stefanie Di Russo.  Please check out her blog I think – I design for more writings on the design process and evolution of designers.

These passages are great, illustrated, lively & grounding.  Anyone interested in practicing design, or in using design thinking approaches to innovation must read them.  The theorists and the history provide a depth and context to the design thinking formulas that have been traded around over the past decade.

Here is the amalgam of Russo’s 2 posts on A Brief History of Design, from the 1960s to the present:

Part 1:

A Brief History of Design Thinking: How Design Thinking Came to ‘Be’

… Design thinking was a realisation through the evolution of different (collaborative) design process methods that were developed to improve and extend design to other areas of practice.

From where we left off…

What happened from the mid 1980′s to date was a race to discover new methods for improving business, service and design. Each methodology can be traced through history and analysed independently should you wish to interpret historical readings in context of the method under investigation. I will highlight an example of what I mean as we move along.

The purpose of analysing this period was to understand the evolution of major design process methods and to discover from this evolution the moment when design thinking was realised as a new approach and a way of thinking that underlined all other methods before it. It must be noted that through this development there was no clear linear progression of methodologies that arose, as many were developed at the same time in different faculties and industries. I have taken through much reading a very generalised approach at attempting to create a chronological understanding of the evolution of major design process trends. The purpose of doing this is to objectively clarify the history and evolution of design thinking which has been muddy and conflicting to date.

And it all started with….Participatory Design

In the early days, participatory methodology was seen most commonly in urban planning until recent developments in design gave this method its name. As i stated earlier, one could very easily trace the history and development of participatory design in and of itself- independent from design thinking. For example; If you want to get nit picky about history, participatory design can be traced all the way back to Plato’s Republic.

Plato was known to seek advice from his people

Grass roots democracy was once the heart of participatory methodology and is an established method used for centuries for the development of a harmonious society. But i am here to discuss how this and other methods (each with their own unique history) have come together to form the evolution of design thinking.

Back to the Future

Fast forward from Plato to the 1960s. During the design methods movement, participatory design was gaining momentum through research. Dubbed the Scandinavian approach, participatory design was about integrating end-users into the development (prototyping) phase of projects. Technological developments during the end of this decade saw participatory design shift from a social method to a technological one. Prior to the adoption of PD in technology, systems design was the go-to for engineers prototyping within an iterative framework.

The timeline of Participatory Design

As PD progressed into the 1980s, it became synonymous with the emerging field of interaction design. Many of the techniques used in PD were borrowed from science, such as usability testing. Others included mock-ups, prototyping and even role playing.

The Pitfalls of Participatory Design

One of the main disadvantages of participatory design is its negligence towards user experience and stakeholder input. Usability was king, but emotional response to gadgetry was largely ignored. In many instances user testing was abandoned, when users decisions conflicted with those of the stakeholders and the designers.

The pitfalls of participatory design

In response to this end-user dilemma, discussions surrounding co-design (co-operative design) or collaborative design began to take place. This alternative method aimed to transform passive users into co-operative designers.

User-Centered Design

The most significant contribution to the transformation of user development in design was introduced by design theorist Donald Norman. Donald re-defined participatory design into what he coined as user-centered design. User testing became less about usability and more about a users interests and needs. Norman favoured user-control and humanised participatory and system design by “making things visible”. This was to ensure users could discover errors and have control over resolving them.

Donald Norman aka The Godfather of User-Centered Design

Another significant shift in ideology from participatory to user-centered design was the placement of user at the center of the development process. It highlighted the benefits of understanding user experience over user testing. Owing some of its methodology to behavioural sciences, user-centered design emphasised experience over efficiency and adopted a more humanistic approach with the involvement of the user throughout the development of a product or system.

The differences between PD and UCD

User-centered design grew out of speculations towards elevating users from guinea-pigs to co-developers of systems during the participatory trend. This new methodology incidentally spread into broader areas of industry and practice.

Service Design

On the design methodology timeline, service design broke out into the design discipline as a new practice a few years after the turn of the millennium. We can see now that developments through participatory design to user-centered design and the evolution of customer experiences has shaped much of the methodology behind service design. Lucy Kimbell best sums up the development of service design as:

‘[it] Draws on several traditions including product, environment, experience and interaction design” (Kimbell 2009, p. 250).

Kimbell and a few other scholars discuss a new perspective rising in business; from a closed value chain (i.e: we punched out a product we tested on some monkeys and know it works so we can forget about it) to understanding how and what the user **does** with a product (or service); including their journey and experience. This perspective is another  step forward in the evolution of design methodology, for rather than thinking about end user experience of a product or service (user-centered design) attention has shifted to understanding the use, interaction and journey of that product/service after it has left the hands of the provider.

So now we find ourselves labelling all products and systems as one service unit. Kimbell argues that the distinction between a service and product becomes irrelevant, for everything is a type of service that plays a role in ‘value creation’ (Kimbell 2010, p.3). Furthermore, service design extended the definition of the ‘user’ to include all stakeholders and individuals affected or interacting with the service system.

It was with this new approach to product/service systems that the idea of a holistic mindset was made evident. And the holistic mindset behind service design owed much of its development to Ezio Manzini through his research in service marketing and meta-design. Additionally, many of the methods used in service design today have been borrowed and adapted from anthropology and marketing.

Most importantly, it is the holistic perspective of service design that distinguishes itself from all previous design methodologies. Rather than focusing on the ‘end user’ (the customer: marketing/user centered and participatory design), service design seeks to collaborate with all users of a service; building relationships between stakeholders to open up communication for the exchange and development of value and knowledge.

Human-Centered Design

Since the early 1990s, human-centered design and user-centered design were often interchangeable terms regarding the integration of end users within a design process. Like many other design methodologies, human-centered design first began within technological and product system industries and was growing under human centered interaction (a method that is still in use). Human-centered design only started to evolve around the late 1990s, when the development of methods described above shifted from a techno-driven focus to a humanised one.

It was also at this point that we found ourselves with a design methodology that was manifested as more of a mindset than a physical set of tools. William B. Rouse discusses the ideology of the mindest behind HCD in his book, Design for Success: A Human-Centered Approach to Designing Successful Products and Systems. His definition of HCD is philosophical:

“Roles of humans in complex systems, enhancing human abilities, aid to overcome human
limitations and foster user acceptance” (Rouse, 1991 pp.6-123).

Despite contextualising his defintiion within the field of systems and product engineering, Rouse introduces a broader perspective of the ‘user’- one that is closely related to service design but situated in a broader, more socially conscious arena. In its final (and current) phase of evolution, HCD is seen to hold potential for resolving wider societal issues.

HCD is a mix of meta design and service design but closely related to anthropology. It is used more generally in social development than service development.

The broad holistic perspective introduced in service design allowed for human-centered design to redefine its meaning. Coupled with significant social and environmental disasters, it was appropriate after the turn of the millenium that HCD transformed from a method to a mindset, aiming to humanize the design process and empathize with stakeholders. The mindset approach of human centered design re-introduced design thinking, but this time as a mindset used a method for interpreting wicked problems.

Outer circle (blue) signifies the shifts in design theory along the timeline. The inner circle (pink) signifies the methodological shifts in design practice over time

It is interesting to note that the shifts in design theory and practice that have occured since the methods movement in the 1960s have mirrored one another. Design-as-science trend of the 60s and 70s sit opposite and reflect the methodical inquiry into process methods of the 1990s. Similarly, cognitive reflections in design theory during the 1980s reflect (and sit opposite) the mindset movement we are moving through now. Though this may not have been the best way to depict the timeline of design theory and thinking (infodesign nerds get off my back), I chose a circle to deliberately highlight these reflections and the very fact that we have almost come full circle. If this pattern is correct, we should find ourselves moving back into a scientification (did i make that word up?) of design, and it seems to me that we are already beginning to shift into it; as developments in neuroscience turn attention to design thinking for study.

And, Part 2:

A Brief History of Design Thinking: The Theory [P2]

The Second Wave (1980s-1990s)

After its initial breakthrough on the academia scene, design theory shifted into a somewhat soul searching phase that saw many scholars reflecting on the cognitive aspects of design; what it means to be creative, how much relies on intuition and how personal is the process.

Design theorists that emerged during this period remain household names today. This is potentially due to the fact that design theory has not undergone much of a revolution since this reflective phase. In fact, we (academics and practitioners) are currently in the midst of shaping the early stages of a new wave of design as we speak. More will be explained in a separate post at a later date. For now, we continue our academic journey through the theoretical landmarks that were developed during the mid 1980′s to the mid 1990′s.

Nigel Cross: The instinctive one

Nigel Cross

If you replaced ‘design’ with ‘spirit’ you could easily mistake Nigel as one of the few hippies left standing. His work surrounds the investigation of intuition in design- but not just IN design, UNIQUE to design. Nigel believed that the design process was special due to tacit knowledge and instinctive process, arguing that design can stand alone as a craft independent from other disciplines- especially science.

We have come to realize that we do not have to turn design into an
imitation of science, nor do we have to treat design as a mysterious,
ineffable art. We recognize that design has its own distinct intellectual
culture; its own designerly ‘things to know, ways of knowing them, and
ways of finding out about them’ (Cross 1999, p. 7)

Yup. We designers are a unique breed. We have our own way of knowing, sensing and… thinking. Thinking? Thinking! OH SNAP! What Nigel’s describing here is design thinking!

Nigel favoured the designer in the design process so much that he described the designer as the core of the process. The privileged mind of the designer was central to the process and relied heavily on his or her intuition.

Business, engineering and all other non design folk: you can stop rolling your eyes. Whether it be called intuition, instinct or design thinking, this issue of what makes a designer a ***DeSigNeR*** compared to mortals is still a hot topic of debate. But it might cool your blood to know that Nigel also realised that the ‘creative leap’; the spontaneous burst of creativity scholars previously defined as central to the design process, was not so elusive after all.

anyone can build a bridge

It appeared through Nigel’s investigations that creativity (design thinking) was more about building ‘creative bridges’ than it was about being touched by the inspirational light from the design Gods.  Creative bridges was more about analogical thinking and abductive leaps. Where Papanek described bisociation as a process tool to inspire creative ideas, Nigel thought that this was a natural thought process unique to a designer.

Richard Buchanan: He who popularised “wicked problems”

Richard Buchanan

Pretty much anyone who is familiar with design or better yet design theory would’ve heard of the term ‘wicked problems’ being abused thrown around. Buchanan’s widely influential paper published in 1992 titled, Wicked Problems in Design Thinking, busted out ‘wicked’ and ‘design thinking’ into mainstream design culture. Now is time to spare a thought for poor ol Rittel and Webber who not only coined the term ‘wicked’ but also (in their own way) described design thinking. But it so happens Buchanan’s paper was in the right place at the right time to make the right impact. However, Buchanan like most of his peers during this period rejected the notion of design as a science. He describes design thinking as a ‘liberal art’ reflecting contemporary culture and used by professionals as ‘insight’ into resolving (Rittel’s) wicked problems.

Im going to have to remind you readers that this period was a pretty self indulgent time for designers and design theorists. The following quote might make you gag/be filled with pride depending on your stance or experience on the matter:

[design thinking is] Mastered by a few people who practice the discipline with distinctive insight and sometimes advance it to new areas of innovative application (Buchanan 1998, p. 8).

But perhaps one of the main reasons why this paper was so influential is it explicitly connects design thinking to innovation. For Buchanan, this was largely attributed to the fact that he realised design thinking is a multidisciplinary mindset and discovered four primary disciplines where it could be found- regardless of whether design is directly involved or not:

1. Symbolic and visual communication

2. The design of material objects

3. Activities and organized services

4. The design of complex systems or environments for living, working, playing and learning

(Buchanan 1998, p. 9)

Buchanan predicted much about the nature of design thinking today, however one idea has fallen short of hitting the big time and that is the collaboration between research and practice. Buchanan’s idea of innovation was not exclusively multidisciplinary in practice, but multidisciplinary across practice and research. I know I harp on about this a lot, but this is one area where design practice falls short and the collaboration between design industries and research is only vaguely implemented in very specific areas of industrial development. Anyhow, to reflect on Buchanan’s characteristics in context of design today we could interpret the previous points as follows:

1. graphic design

2. product design

3. service design

4. policy/urban planning/ design

Furthermore, if you have heard about the design industry described as stages/phases/levels/etc, this would have to be the source of such interpretations which is helping us define new heights in design practice and research.

Donald Schön: Caught in his own reflection 

Donald Schon

This man is a favorite amongst design researchers. Schön was the ultimate of thinkers. He reflected so much about the process of design its any wonder he didnt get caught in an existentialist thought loop. But alas, he emerged with his thoughts in a book titled, The Reflective Practitioner.

Schön aggressively refuted the idea that design needs to ground itself in science to be taken seriously. Like his peers, he made an attempt to individualise design as a unique practice through cognitive reflections and explanations on its process.

Look at the frame, not the painting

Schön’s main shtick on design practice was not focused on analysing the process but rather framing and contextualizing it. He describes the idea of ‘problem setting’ as a crucial component that holds together the entire process. The point of focusing on this was to allow designers to best understand how to approach the problem before they go about processing how to solve it.

Side note: Much of my theory (and inspiration for the Sustainability Jam Toolkit) comes from Schön’s theory of design process methods. A quote from his book explains this philosophy:

”When ends are fixed and clear, then the decision to act can present itself as an instrumental problem. But when ends are confused and conflicting, there is yet no ‘problem’ to solve”

And what do we call problems that are confusing, conflicting with no clear problem to solve? Altogether now: WICKED PROBLEMS!

If you read Schön’s book, you will notice he rephrases wicked problems as ‘swampy lowlands’. It is exactly the same concept. BUT! Where analytical design theorists love to dissect the process, Schön believes in preserving the mysterious and intuitive aspect of design, another reason why he focuses on just ‘framing’ the problem and not examining how to solve it.

Let us search, instead, for an epistemology of practice implicit in
the artistic, intuitive processes which some practitioners do bring to
situations of uncertainty, instability, uniqueness and value conflict
(Schön 1982, p. 49)

This might sound a bit airy-fairy, but in the thick of countless debates in design, the issue of intuition vs science still has scholars throwing punches. For certain areas within design such as graphic design, the intuitive argument Schön likes to put forth is appropriate. But for areas containing wicked problems with results which could affect people, intuition just isnt going to cut it.

What now?

As for my two cents, I personally believe that design can ground itself within science AND art, it just needs to adapt its approach depending on the context and situation. Thanks to scholars in this period we have successfully created some kind of ground theory on design, independent from theory in art and science. The problem today is we have not fully investigated into the practicality of design, the design that does not lean towards intuition but calls for rigorous evaluation.

Hopefully i have made it blindingly obvious that through this journey of fundamental design theories design thinking isnt anything new. What we perceive as some hot new trend has been a topic of discussion for the past 50 years. Despite this fact, design thinking was not ready for our society until now, as the design industry has matured enough to bring this concept into light. As such, we find ourselves sitting on the shore, overlooking a new wave in design; the development of design thinking and its manifestation into methods, minds and all that has come before it. So how do we evolve ? We finally turn to investigating outputs rather than internal processings of the designer or team. In other words, we now evaluate the result of design thinking rather than the thinking itself. We ask ourselves if design thinking really is all it is cracked up to be, and in order to do that we must attempt to quantify its impact.


Very helpful! I’m writing my bachelor thesis with Design Thinking as a main topic. Do you have more resources for the above theories or literature advise, books that I absolutely have to read?
Thanks in advance!

Quick correction as one of Stephanie’s PhD advisors
She’s at Swinburne university school of design
Gavin melles