To know the future requires understanding the past

To understand almost anything, we need at least some appreciation of its roots and origins, and how it came to be as it is. Design Thinking emerged from exploration in theory and practice in a range of disciplines and sciences as a means of addressing the human, the technological and strategic innovation needs of our time. 

Listing all the influencing factors which lead to the contemporary understanding of Design Theory, Process and Practice is nearly impossible. Methods and processes of innovation have been the focus of business analysts, engineers, scientists & creatives for decades. Early glimpses and references to Design Thinking date back to the 50’s and 60’s, though more within the context of architecture and engineering fields which were struggling to grapple with the rapidly changing environment in those times. New approaches to solving complex problems had their roots in the thinking applied to the 2nd World War, an event that had a profound effect on strategic thinking in the modern world and fundamentally changed the way we apply ourselves to management, production, and industrial design.

The 60’s Attempts to Scientise Design

In the struggle to fully understand every aspect of design, it’s influences, processes, and methodology, efforts were made to develop a science out of the field of design, applying scientific methodology and processes to understanding how design functions. In Nigel Cross’ Paper, Designerly ways of knowing: design discipline versus design science 2001, Cross unpacks the struggle which began to unfold in the early sixties where attempts were made to “scientise” (Cross, 2001) Design, and bring it within the realm of the objective and rational sciences.

He references statements of the radical technologist Buckminster Fuller, referring to the 1960s as the

“design science decade”. (Cross, 2001)

Fuller was calling for a

“design science revolution”, based on science, technology, and rationalism, to overcome the human and environmental problems that he believed could not be solved by politics and economics” (Cross, 2001)

Wicked Problems

Horst Rittel, a Design Theorist is known to have coined the term “wicked problems” (I.e. Extremely complex/multidimensional problems) around 1967 and was speaking and writing on applying design methodologies in tackling these wicked problems around the time, influencing many other practitioners and academics to further their work in this area of focus.

Books, papers, conferences and other initiatives focusing on new methods of design practice and theory started surfacing in the early 60’s stemming from the disciplines of engineering, industrial design, and architecture as well as streams of thought dealing with cognitive science and psychology.

The Early 1970’s

The notion of design as a “way of thinking” in the sciences can be traced to Herbert A. Simon’s 1969 book The Sciences of the Artificial, and in design engineering to Robert McKim’s 1973 book Experiences in Visual Thinking. – Wikipedia

Herbert Simon, a Cognition Scientist, Noble Prize winner of economics and thought-leader in the area of artificial intelligence described Design as:

“a process which aims to improve artificial environments into preferred ones.” (Stephanie Di Russo, 2012)

He is also noted to have spoken of rapid prototyping and testing through observation, concepts which form the core of many design and entrepreneurial processes right now and which forms one of the major phases of the process of design thinking as we will find out later in the course. He is quoted as writing concerning prototypes as early as 1970 when he stated –

“To understand them, the systems had to be constructed, and their behavior observed” (Herbet Simon, 1970 – Stephanie Di Russo, 2012)

A large portion of his work was focused on the development of artificial intelligence and whether human forms of thinking could be synthesized.

Robert Kim who was a blend of artist and engineer focused his energies more on the impact visual thinking has on our understanding of things and our abilities to solve problems. Kim’s book unpacks various aspects of visual thinking and design methods for solving problems with an emphasis on combining the left and right brain modes of thinking to bring about a more holistic form of problem-solving. The ideas discussed in his book are foundational to those that form the basis of the Design Thinking methodology.

Early 1980’s

The idea that the way of thinking designers employ is somehow different and superior to methods traditionally used for solving of specific types of non-design related problems, was being discussed in the 80’s by people like Nigel Cross(1982) in his work – “Designerly Ways of Knowing.” And by Bryan Lawson in a work entitled – “How Designers Think: The Design Process Demystified”(1980). Bryan Lawson discusses insights gathered from a series of tests he had been running comparing the method scientists and architects used to solve the same ambiguous problem.

Nigel Cross is later quoted to have written –

“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)


Peter Rowe’s Book, “Design Thinking” focuses on the way the architectural designer approaches his task through the lens of the inquiry, undertaken to inform the design process. He wrote:

“I am concerned with the interior situational logic and the decision-making processes of designers in action, as well as the theoretical dimensions that both account for and inform this kind of undertaking.” – Rowe, Peter G. Design Thinking: The MIT Press, 1987

As we can see the progression of design “Thinking” as a subject made it’s journey through various fields of specialization over time as thinkers in those fields explored the cognitive processes within their own fields and later became something which moved into a space all on its own.


IDEO is formed and showcases its design process modeled on the work developed at the Stanford design school. IDEO is widely accepted as one of the companies which brought Design Thinking to the mainstream, developing their own customer-friendly terminology, steps, and toolkits over the years allowing those not schooled in design methodology to quickly and easily become oriented with the process.


In Richard Buchana’s statement about the origins of design thinking found in his Work “Wicked Problems in Design Thinking – 1992”, he discusses how the sciences developed over time from the Renaissance and formalized in the specializations and processes they used, becoming more and more cut off from each other. He further clarifies that Design Thinking has formed as a means to integrate these highly specialized fields of knowledge so that they can be jointly applied to the new problems we are faced with from a holistic perspective.


Design thinking is taught at the Stanford School of Design or the The d.School known today as The Hasso Plattner Institute of Design has made the development, teaching, and implementation of Design Thinking one of its central goals since it’s inception.

At present, the Design Thinking movement is gaining ground rapidly, with pioneers like IDEO & formalizing a path ahead for others to follow. Other prestigious universities, business schools, and forward-thinking companies have adopted the methodology to varying degrees, sometimes re-interpreting it to suit their specific context or brand values.

A Quick Wrapup.

We had the industrial revolution and the 2nd world war pushing the boundaries of what we thought was technologically possible and what we were required to deal with by way of wicked problems.

Engineers, architects, and industrial designers, as well as cognitive scientists and related fields of study all, began to converge on the issues of collective problem solving, driven by the massive changes in society.

Design Thought leaders, theorists, and practitioners began to formulate new ways of leveraging their existing (design-centric) problem solving, innovation-focused activities and processes towards finding solutions to broader problems.

Design thinking emerged or should we say converged out of the muddy waters of this chaos as a means of combining the human, the technological and strategic needs of our time in a synthesis, which is still being explored today by those at the forefront of the field.

For some optional reading into more a detailed history of the development of Design Thinking, The following Series of Blog posts by Design Researcher Stephanie Di Russo is quite insightful. History of Design Thinking Part 1, Part 2 & Part 3 – Stephanie Di Russo