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Where Did Design Thinking Come From? A Brief Historical Sketch

Since the mid-2000s or so, the term design thinking has gained growing traction in the business world as well as the creative and computing fields. Thanks to mentions in trade publications like the Harvard Business Review, Wired and Forbes, design thinking has become not just a corporate buzzword but also piqued the interest of scholars who work at the intersection of technology development, software engineering, and social computing, among other industries. While some have argued that architectural studies should “own” design thinking (“The architecture of,” 2019), since two of the most influential books on design thinking were authored by architecture theorists Bryan Lawson (1980)—How Designers Think—and Peter Rowe (1987)—Design Thinking. However, that’s only part of the history of design thinking development. Design thinking is in fact a result of evolution from concepts and methodologies originated in fields of industrial design and engineering, social and computer sciences, and product development.

Historians have traced the origin of design thinking to the advancement of product design methodologies in two different (almost opposing) directions pursued by designers in the 1950s—1960s. One of the directions was led by inventor Buckminster Fuller at MIT. Fuller coined Design Science as a systematic approach to design through effective application of science. His methods were process-driven, but most importantly they were performed by experts from

Key developments of design thinking Source

FIGURE 1.1 Key developments of design thinking Source: Designed by Jo Szczepanska. Used with permission.

varying backgrounds and with specialized ways of working. This made Fuller’s design teams multidisciplinary, a core characteristic of modern design thinking. Nevertheless, Fuller’s approach was elitist and difficult to replicate in common businesses because he only enlisted individuals from the best universities and labs.

While Fuller was assembling his dream team in the US, designers in Europe took a much different route to product design. Scandinavian designers from well-known projects like Utopia and DEMOkratiske were experimenting with what they called cooperative design, or co-design methodology. Instead of hiring only experts to design teams, this participatory design approach aims to be non-selective and invites anyone who are interested in co-designing products and services to participate in the design process. This methodology has a great influence on the service design movement today that relies on creative, action-based design practices like mock-up envisionment and cooperative prototyping, among others. Arguably, the Scandinavian approach is also the root for human-centered design today. One distinction between this approach and the expert-based design approaches in the 1960s western world is user empowerment—the Scandinavian methodology sought to include the voice of actual users in the design process instead of making assumptions about user needs.

At the same time when aspiring designers were studying both the popular American and Scandinavian design models, Austrian-American designer Victor Papanek emerged as a strong advocate of socially and ecologically responsible design in the 1970s. Papanek was known for his integration of anthropological philosophy in his design practices and has contributed to the cross-disciplinary movement in product design.

As mentioned earlier, Rittel and Webber (1973) coined the term “wicked problem” from their examination of phenomenology as a philosophical approach to design studies. It wasn’t until Buchanan’s (1992) “Wicked Problem in Design Thinking,” that the term became popular for designers. Buchanan (re)invigor- ated the discussion of wicked problems as a driving force for innovative design. Notably, the 90s was an important decade for design thinking not just because of Buchannan but also due to a fashionable three-way merger. In 1991, David Kelly (professor at Stanford), London-based designer Bill Moggridge, and Mike Nuttall of Matrix Product Design merged their companies to form IDEO, a multinational design and consulting firm. Between the 90s and early 2000s, IDEO had attracted influential talents from both academia and industry.

Alongside the rapid evolution of personal computers and mobile devices, as well as radical designers at Apple, Xerox, and IBM, IDEO managed to popularize design thinking and launched educational programs via the Stanford Hasso Plattner Institute of Design, fondly known as the Stanford Long-term members of IDEO, David Kelly and Tom Kelly also wrote best-selling books on design thinking and creative confidence. Tim Brown, an industrial engineer turned IDEO’s CEO, has become the strongest advocate for design thinking and brought its ideals into the 21st century.

There are many figures worth noting in the design thinking timeline, but perhaps the most critical is a designer who has returned to the root of design and its purpose. With Nigel Cross, Kees Dorst argued that wicked problems cannot rely on rational problem-solving methods (Dorst & Cross, 2001). Dorst (2006, 2011, 2015) went on to suggest that designers should use a rhetorical (discourse) framing method to guide their innovation. Next to Buchanan, Dorst is likely the most relevant theorist of design thinking to rhetoric and technical communication scholars. As Scott Weedon (2019) summarized, “Dorst’s framing approach provides technical communicators a method to analyze the various discourses and practices that constitute a situation in order to invent an innovative frame” and “technical communicators can use their rhetorical knowledge to invent productive metaphors that suggest tactical implications for adequately addressing complex situations” (p. 429).

Into the second new decade of the 21st century, design thinkers are also more concerned about social issues than ever. A key figure in social design, Deborah Szebeko, founded the British design agency ThinkPublic, and has been an advocate for design innovation within the public and non-governmental organization sector. Szebeko’s work has a strong influence on the social justice movement many design thinking practitioners have confided in today.

Even with just a brief overview of the history, we can see that design thinking can be traced to multiple disciplines and it is an amalgamation of design practices. Design thinking has been contextualized by the shifting practices led by various design industries. The key figures highlighted in this short historical account have each enlightened designers on how to think about design and the different ways to do design. In the next section, I describe the common methodology' for design thinking as an embodiment of these conceptualizations.

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