Monthly Archives: January 2012

A Brief History of Design Thinking: The theory [P1]

The first thing most researchers do when commencing a doctorate is dive into a pile of books and write a literature review. This hurdle usually takes around six months of intense study on fundamental literature surrounding the topic of research, with a conclusion highlighting gaps and potentials for future investigation. This is not just a training exercise that eases students into hardcore academia, but builds the foundation of knowledge prior to conducting case study research.

Since my topic surrounds design thinking, it was without any doubt that most of my literature should analyse this. But after a month of surface research, I had gathered enough (current) literature to give me an understanding of what design thinking is and is doing, but none provided any indication on where exactly it came from.

Always listen to the angel on your shoulder

It was this realisation that spurred me to research the origins of design thinking, as i believed that in order to know where we are moving in the future we must first understand from where in the past we have evolved. Over half of my review was dedicated to historical analysis, tracking the major waves which rippled through academia and into practice to what we know as design thinking today.

The literature chunk of my review is split into three sections:

1. A brief history of design theory

2. The evolution of design process methods (forming the foundation leading up to..)

3. What design thinking is today.

So. What im thinking is that i split this up into three posts. Otherwise it will just end up as one big phat chunk of text and frighten you lovely readers away. As with most ‘academic’ posts that i publish, it needs to be said that this is just one interpretation of the evolution of design thinking. I have read (but only a few) others that have taken a different approach- from a business perspective to marketing (all great reads). I have analysed this evolution in context of design theory and major movements in ideologies that i believed influenced practice to where we are today.

(ironic use of typeface)

In reality, design methods usually overlapped at any one point. Other scholars and practitioners will no doubt argue that this history cannot be traced in one path. Unsatisfied and (still) confused, I decided to make an attempt towards constructing some sort of chronological order of the history of design thinking and methods to make it easier for us as researchers and practitioners to understand.

That’s enough of my preface dribble. Now lets get stuck into it…

A Brief history of Design Theory

The First Wave (1960s-1980s)

The design methods movement of the 1960s marked the beginning of an ongoing debate over the process and methodology of design. Academic heavyweights in this period included Horst Rittel, Herbert Simon and Victor Papanek. Each man represented different ideologies on design during this period and have been chosen for the impact that their writings have on design theory today.

1. Herbert Simon: The design – as – science guy

Herbert Simon

If you have ever heard of design described as a process which aims to improve existing environments into preferred ones then be sure to remember that it came from Mr. Simon. This man believed that our world is made up of ‘artifice’; objects create by man. His most notable book titled, The Sciences of the Artificial, analyses in great depth (from economics through to psychology) of the artificial world we have created designed.

As a result, Simon concludes that the ultimate artifice known to man is in fact the human brain. A whole chapter is devoted to the psychological justification of this concept; drawing comparisons between a computer and the human brain, but i wont elaborate on the justifications of that here.

i think therefor i compute

The main purpose of this comparison however, was Simons argument that our brain (like computers- that are constructed by our brains) have limits. Thus, the best we humans can do when designing is aim to ‘satisfice’- because neither the computer nor our brains can comprehend the complexities and variables of our external environment.

robots reflect our brains capacity

Now this may come as a shock to those of you who love to coin rapid prototyping as a ‘innovative’ method, but in fact Simon proposed this concept of simulation (prototyping) as the ultimate way to ensure we come up with the most ‘satisfying’ solutions. This comment from Simon was published back in the 1970s:

“To understand them, the systems had to be constructed, and their behavior observed”

In light of todays large-scale, complex environmental and social issues, Simon stressed the most important factor for successful solutions is an understanding amongst all stakeholders- a common problem understood by all. When faced with large scale societal or environmental problems, Simon knew that the result had to be open and evolving, one without final goals.

2. Horst Rittel: The one who coined ‘wicked problems’ in design

Horst Rittel

Everyone loves to refer to complex design hurdles as ‘wicked’ problems. But many dont realise that 1. the man who coined this phrase is Horst Rittel (in conjunction with another scholar named M.Webber but i shall only refer to Rittel for ease of discussion) and 2. that this phrase was in fact referring to policy planning NOT design as form/function. Rittel was in the same frame of mind as Simon when he explained that a wicked problem is: “unique, ambiguous and has no definite solution”. Coincidentally, Rittel also explains that resolving one problem opens up a whole new set of problems which can never achieve a finite ‘true or false’ solution. Sounds just like ‘satisficing’, doesnt it?

The (closed) design process we use today

In slight contrast to Simon, Rittel believed that science could NOT resolve open, evolving and ambiguous problems. This calls for a more creative approach.

The process that we should be using for complex problems

Rittel goes on to suggest that each ‘wicked’ problem is entirely unique and so too is the process. Perhaps the best advice we can take from Rittel’s knowledge on wicked problems, is:

“Part of the art of dealing with wicked problems is the art of not knowing too early which type of solution to apply”

Stinks of ambiguity and uncertainty, doesnt it? But today that is what we like to call design thinking.

3. Victor Papanek: The sustainable design guru

victor papanek

Before Al Gore presented his doco, An Inconvenient Truth, an industrial designer named Victor Papanek was quietly advocating the importance of shifting our product driven perspective to using our design knowledge for resolving societal and environmental problems. His book, Design for the Real World: Human Ecology and Social Change, dates back to 1972 and has remained a landmark in the field of sustainable design.

Papanek’s book primarily concerns itself with arguing over the moral obligations and responsibilities of design. Addressing fundamental societal needs is key, as Papanek states himself:

 “Recent design has satisfied only evanescent wants and desires, while the genuine needs of man have often been neglected”

Could this reflect what we call ‘value’ and ’empathy’ in service design, human centered design and design thinking?

This may also come as a shock to the innovation gurus of today, but Papanek periodically refers to ‘innovation’ throughout his book as a result of simplifying complexity. [Cue Albert Einsteins quote]. In order to achieve this, Papanek draws from experience, knowledge and intuition. Young innovation entrepreneurs take note.

This was fun, wasnt it?

And so concludes the first installment of my very brief history on the theory behind design thinking. In the following post i shall explore the second wave of design theory; looking at individuals such as Richard Buchanan, Nigel Cross and Donald Schon.

N.B: I am forced to note that the writings in this post (and those that follow) are summaries of research writing undertaken during my PhD. If you wish to refer to these critical examinations, please do so but with with mindfulness that you must reference my work and/or ideas included. All images are also my own. Thanks and goodnight! 🙂