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

This is where things get a bit hazy. Design Thinking and all that it stands for today did not directly come out of the history I outlined earlier- it simply proves that design thinking has a history. 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.
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.
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.
To highlight my prediction on the next phase in design, here is a Stanford video on the neuroscience of design thinking. Enjoy.
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46 thoughts on A Brief History of Design Thinking: How Design Thinking Came to ‘Be’”
Lisa Bostwick
Systems Thinking Design methodologies timeline
Roles of humans in complex systems, enhancing human abilities, aid to overcome human limitations and foster user acceptance”
This is where things get a bit hazy. Design Thinking and all that it stands for today did not directly come out of the history I outlined earlier- it simply proves that design thinking has a history. 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.
it all started with….
What makes the current state of design thinking a little complex to grasp is that it springs from multiple histories rather than from a single track. There is much more involved in todays design thinking than is found in the history of design thinking. Regarding your depiction above here are a few observations from practice:
Service Design is not a holistic perspective…that distinguishes itself from all previous design methodologies” as from the outset it presumes you need a service. This is a typical Design 2 methodology orientation, some might say limitation, also found in product design thinking and experience design thinking. Those are known today as downstream methods in comparison to upstream methods of design thinking that begin with no preconceived outcome assumptions.
Meta Design methods (Design 3 & 4) have no preconceived challenge or solution paths built in so Meta Design is not focused on social sustainability”. Sustainability is recognized as one of many important problem types that now exist. Meta Design is not restricted to that problem type. Sustainability design methods are geared towards presuming sustainability related challenges and that is different from Meta Design methodologies and orientation.
Stanford has many impressive fancy titles to offer up under the subject of design thinking and is primarily still stuck in their legacy system Design 2 mode where design thinking is presented as product creation. That has not been the leading edge of design thinking for at least a decade. The American graduate schools of design have been slow to adapt to the changing aspects of design thinking in real world practice.
Much of what is being sold today as design thinking actually originates from the applied creativity community of practice rather than from design history. If you don’t know that you might find the present picture of design thinking rather confusing. This is particularly true of collaboration and cocreation. What leading practices are doing today in the realm of cocreation has its roots, not in participatory design history but rather in appllied creativity where behaviors have always been front and center. You won’t find much about (inbound) behaviors in the history of design. Instead what you will find is (outbound) interest in users. Applied Creativity has its own history beginning in the modern age around 1940. Much deep historical knowledge and research regarding how to work upstream comes from applied creativity not design.
On line you will encounter many histories of design thinking” being written by folks who are trying to write the story based on their relatively narrow understanding of design history as a single track. Those one dimensional history depictions leading up to today tend to be fatally flawed but perhaps useful to those looking for a cocktail-party drive-by understanding of what design thinking is today and how we got here. Good luck to all.
Hi GK,
You have grossly misquoted, mis understood and twisted my words and research out of context. It is clear that you have not read my previous posts leading up to this one. For this reason, i do not feel it is worth challenging and correcting your opinion.
I dont really like to engage in public debates that are grounded in proving oneself better or more knowledgeable than another. The chest beating/bicep flexing reaction in industry (and unfortunately also present in academia) that has been made common practice by previous generations is disappointing. Being part of the ‘new’ and ‘young’ generation, i feel that i should aim to put a stop to this mentality. This strategy is redundant in our current social environment and hopefully will die out as elder professionals retire.
It does elude me as to why you would bother passing critique to those of us who, in your opinion, portray ‘cocktail-party, drive by understandings’ of design thinking. Moreso, why you would take the opportunity to promote your own research” in a forum you dont respect. I had a look at your document and could quite legitimately pass it off in the same manner- cocktail bites of superficial insights with no reference or evidence. Without reference to papers, people, books, articles or practice to back up your insights, anyone could promote a pdf filled with made up insights in order to be perceived as seemingly innovative. But i am sure this is not the case and knowing your experience am giving you the benefit of the doubt.
Personally, i believe in giving credit where credit is due. I have done so with your work and expect the same respect towards my own. You are knowledgeable and experienced enough to understand that I have devoted substantial (full) time work towards my research on design thinking. I do not get anything out of promoting your company or any other person. I do not get paid for endorsements, and am not out to ‘make a buck’ from design thinking or related practice i discuss here- and im certainly not out to prove other people wrong. The aim of this blog is to share insights and knowledge from my research as well as spark thoughtful discussions on related topics.
You opinion is most welcome whether it challenges or supports my argument. My only request is that you offer the same respect towards my efforts as i have done your own. I also request that you thoroughly read my previous posts before trolling on my, or other individuals websites, and stay true to context. And if you vehemently disagree with my research and contentions, i will not be offended should you wish i retract all references to your company and your work. These are, after all, simply modern interpretations of Buchanan’s orders of design.
Thank you for putting much time and effort into responding and im sorry we dont share the same view.
chest beating/bicep flexing” as elder professionals retire.” Huh? WTF? That is nasty unwarrented stuff.
You asked me to clarify a two sentence contribution and so I did. My previous brief comment on your post remains. It is a simple statement. Your Brief History of Design Thinking” above reflects the Design 1 & 2 worlds. There is nothing particularly unusual there. It remains an industry and academic bias. Evidently that is not what you wanted to hear.
I can see in your other posts on this blog that you are referencing the NextD work and the models that we created and shared. I am happy to see that you are making use of that work in your own sensemaking. We interact with and are visited by many graduate and post-graduate students working on the future of design. I believe you have yourself been invited to our office. As I recall you were also invited to be a student moderator of the NextD discussion list on LinkedIn at one time. Your tonalities seem to have changed more recently. That is unfortunate.
In any case if you want to come by and have chat about the difference between the NextD Complexity Ladder work and what you describe as Buchanan’s orders of design.” I would be happy to extend that invitation to you. Regardless you are certainly welcome to continue using the NextD models as you figure out your own path. At this point that work has been widely seen and made use of by many. We remain happy with that small contributions of NextD.
It is not nasty and not unwarranted. You mis represented my argument and mis quoted my words to fit with your defamatory analysis. I don’t mind that you have a differing opinion, but when you label my efforts as ‘cocktail drive by understandings’ (amongst others) and ignore the fact that i state quite clearly that what i have provided on this blog is a summary of a larger and more in depth review of literature from my thesis, i classify that as trolling. You knew what you were doing and frankly id expect more understanding from someone with your expertise.
Deliberate attempts to inspire reactions to then blast those that appear annoyed/frustrated as not liking what they hear” is just a cheap shot. Of course my tonality will differ when met with this sort of reaction.
I will be happily discuss ideas around design thinking with you as long as the respect is mutual, which so far it has not been
Hi Steve,
Thank you for reading and referencing to my work, it is greatly appreciated!
Thank you again and again,
Hi Anna,
Thank you so much for your kind comment. Of course you may cite whatever you like for your assignment.
Dear Stefanie,
Thank you for blogging! I would be totally lost on design thinking history if not this and two previous post on the topic. Thank you so much!!!
I’m writing my master thesis on design thinking and innovation management for a business degree. Obviously, since I’m not coming from design field, I have some difficulties with putting together more or less chronological line on the history of design thinking in short, a page or two. This material has already been priceless help! Yet, I got a bit confused and I want kindly ask your assistance/clarifications.
If I understood correctly, it could be put together this way (please see below).
1960’s – participatory design
1980’s – user-centered design
1990’s – meta design (and/or human-centered design; as you referred: 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. … 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.)
after 2000’s – service design (as you referred: 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.”)
before 2010’s – human-centered design
Yet, then I start comparing this timeline based on your blog post with your circular scheme and I got lost with two basic questions. Firstly, what happened with meta design? Did it just sort of continuation of user-centered design which was getting more and more holistic approach? Secondly, what was first: service design (based on the circular scheme) or human-centered design (based on blog post)? Were they developing parallel?
Sincerely thank you in advance for your further clarifications and explanations on the topic.
Thanks for taking the time to read and comment!
First of all, i would be careful about making a statement about chronological developments of design thinking. I very loosely define a broad history that i understood to have evolved through my readings on design; this history being drawn by major trends and developments in design practice and research.
I wouldnt label the 1960s as participatory design. Participatory design was introduced during this phase but was not popular until the late 1980s. You are right, however, to understand that participatory design was a precursor to user centered design. User centered design did not emerge until the 1980s and in fact it was often used interchangeably with human centered design during this time (but user centered was more common). Our conventional understanding of human centered design did not emerge until the late 1990’s. It is important to note that often many of these practices existed prior to the dates i outline, but that the dates i define are when they started to become popular or commonplace.
Meta design sort of merged with service design and environmentally/sustainably focused design practice. Thus, it is often used in conjunction (or synonymous with) strategic and systemic design. Meta design is user centered in that it relies on social innovation, but the emphasis of its practice is on the wider, holistic and systemic perspective. My impression is that meta design has really died as a term and blended into the general practice of ‘fourth order’ design.
In terms of service and human centered design- this is a tricky question to answer. Service design is often defined as having its roots in marketing. Human centered design, although appearing as a new term, was used around the time user centered design emerged. If we take service design as an designerly extension on marketing, and human centered design as an extension of user centerd design, then these two fields evolved concurrently. But if we are speaking about service design and human centered design as we understand it today, then i would argue service design emerged before human centered design as a term and concept became commonplace.
I hope this makes sense and that i have clarified your questions for you!
This is incredibly helpful, thank you SO MUCH!
Hi Stephanie.
Thanks a lot for sharing here some of your research. It´s really interesting, and very nice and easy understood. Not much of that!
I have a question or two to your timeline, because I´m a little confused: Schould `NOW + design thinking´ considers as headlines or are they to be understood as preliminary last point on the timeline? In the ladder case, would that mean that you see DT as something new(ly defined) grown out of or build on top of previous designpracise and thinking….? Instead of DT understood as some kind of key element or inner soul” of designing (what ever kind of design(ing) and maybe through anytime), but of course changed over time like for instance business has changed.
Louise Werge (Design Management graduate at University of Southern Denmark)
Hi Louise,
Apologies for the delayed response. Yes i do see design thinking as something that is (outside of design practice) newly defined and has grown out of as well as built upon previous design practice and thinking. But design thinking is also acknowledged as a kind of ‘third’ style of knowledge (as bruce archer would call it) and it is definitely -at a very basic level- innate to human nature. It is just that designers generally fine tune this innate soul” or intuition and thus feel more comfortable working in this style of thinking and doing. That said, there does exist fundamental characteristics that appear to be at the core of designing and design thinking, but the practice does and will evolve over time as our world changes around us. I believe design reflects and is reflected in our current state in society and human development.
hope this answers your question
Many thanks for taking the time to answering me.
It answers very well,og rereading your text I understood more of it :-). Now I recognise that DT can both be the cognitive way of thinking (where using more of the right side of the brain is part of it), a methodology (a practice with tools and processes and reflecting this), and now also as a mindset (which is seen in HCD, organizational design and Design Management used at strategic level in organsations). So when you state that DT is grown out of previous practice and thinking (design theory?) it is as a mindset? Is that the right way to put it?
Talking about a style of knowledge” is this then understood a cognitive way? And the two other styles is then?
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