Design Thinking: A Brief History

You could say the basic principles of Design Thinking have always been around. It was these basic principles that early humans built tools and drew on cave walls. It required observation, experimentation and prototyping. Learning from each iteration and evolving the design and our evolution as a species. Just as is does today.

In his article, Design Thinking Origin Story Plus Some of the People Who Made It All Happen,

Jo Szczepanska provides us an extensive timeline for this “multi-disciplinary, human-centered… amalgamation of approaches that involve research and rapid ideation.” I’ll give you the cliff notes here:


Buckminster Fuller officially began teaching Comprehensive Anticipatory Design Science (CADS) at MIT’s Creative Engineering Laboratory. His labs applied scientific methods to generating designs. Buckminster’s approach built on the knowledge of elite teams of engineers, industrial designers, materials scientists and chemists to innovate.

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


Scandinavian Cooperative Design starting in the 1960’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 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. Highly critical of the design profession he integrated Anthropology into his design practice in an attempt to design socially and ecologically responsible things.

“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.” 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.


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 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 organizational 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 behavior. He carries out an experiment which serves to generate both a new understanding of the phenomenon and a change in the situation.”


Richard Buchanan published Wicked Problems in Design Thinking. He drew a path from design thinking to innovation and its 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 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 has since managed to popularize the terms Design Thinking and Human-Centered Design, launched educational programs at Stanford’s, 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, an Industrial designer and IDEO’s CEO, 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, 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, with a background in Interaction design, is one of the cofounders of IDEO. He designed the first ever laptop and was a pioneer in applying a human-centered approach to designing objects and emerging technologies. He has authored books that focus on Interaction design, Designing Interactions.

“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.”


Alastair Fuad-Luke is a self-professed design facilitator, educator, writer and activist currently teaching emerging design practices. His projects emphasize 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. Utilizing 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, is the founder of social design agency of thinkpublic who specializes in design and innovation within the public sector and NGO’s. With a focus on co-design and a focus on social issues.

“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.”

I expect that there are some missing from this list… and that Design Thinking will continue to evolve over time.