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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! 🙂


  1. Hi, just discovered your post via twitter. Great work! Just as a recommend read since I struggled with similar issues, try to get your hands on: Johansson, U. ; Woodilla, J. ; Cetinkaya, M. (2011). The emperor’s new clothes or the magic wand? The past, present and future of design thinking. Proceedings of the first Cambridge Academic Design Management Conference. (2011)

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  4. Great post, love the illustrations as well! Found this via Twitter. I just finished my PhD in design thinking for healthcare looking forward to seeing more!

  5. Pingback: A Brief History of Design Thinking: The Theory [P2] « I think ∴ I design

  6. Thank you for this posting, I enjoyed reading your point of view. I’ve been practicing DT at the core of my consulting methodology for nearly 30 years. Chipping away at wicked business problems has become an accidental specialty.

    One of the points you made about Wicked problem solving, as “referring to policy planning NOT design as form/function” is true. However, DT is not just applied to form/function or even design. I am a designer/architect/industrial designer and user experience professional who works on business problems in a holistic and collaborative manner.

    Experience tells me the criticism of DT is, in large part, due to the fact this is not about aesthetic design solutions (art), but is about design in a creative problem solving sense.

    I’d invite you to read my POV:
    And, please share your thoughts.

    Thank you,

    • Hi Diane

      Thank you for taking the time to read my blog. Your approach to ‘wicked problems’ is definitely a design thinking mindset, however, it is not so much the mindset that is the focus of criticism- but rather the lack of evidence/knowledge surrounding this cognitive practice. Furthermore, explaining this mentality to business leaders is tricky and with no empirical support on design thinking (so far, or at least in the language of market/graphs/data) it is hard to justify such a radical shift in process which ultimately affects an entire organisational culture.

      That said, DT has gained success because of this new creative approach to problem solving. It just takes longer to implement successfully than most (business) people expect- or are willing to devote resources to.

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  9. Carl Hastrich

    Hey, this post is really great. My brain is buzzing … warning & apologies if this is an overload …

    An obscure connection who played an important role in establishing “design methodology” that began a discussion about “thinking” was John Chris Jones. He made a book called “Design Methods” that was an audit of all the problem solving techniques in engineering and how they could be used in difference sequences to generate solutions.

    Why he might not be theory driven enough for this analysis, the key element is that he collected these processes in 1970 and it became THE toolkit. And then in 1980 during a reprint he actively discouraged people from trying to use it like a cookbook – advocating for more creativity and flexibility of thinking. He might be hard to find info on, but is very intriguing.

    It is also impossible to have a history of design thinking if you do not begin with Bauhaus and integrative thinking of art, practice and psychology. Even if it is brief, it is impossible to discount the enormous impact those thinkers had on shaping design thinking. It is remarkable how long the conversation was dominated about the impact of formalism on human behaviour / society. A unique historical investigation would be identifying the period at which things evolved from form being the only sense analysed to when problem solving became more associated with diverse elements such as business … Victor Pap was key to contextualizing a lot of this, but he was not the first.

    Bucky Fuller needs to be included. Bridging science to creativity is key.

    I’d like to know when “design” became an academic practice. Many of the theorists you mention were not really designers, and many of the loudest voices of design thinking today are not “designers”. I think this is a uniquely rare phenomena, that would be unlikely to occur in a scientific space.

    I hope you are going to dive a little into: mihaly csikszentmihalyi – his Flow book is absolutely critical in understanding and explaining creative thinking that is absolutely integrated with design thinking.

    A personal obsession is that while we are “globalized” we really are poor at analyzing art/design history through a non-western lens. Were there key design thinkers in Japan? The current landscape suggests that business has not infiltrated design so as to muscle out poetry and art in the same way as it has done, especially in north america. Who were the key critics that made this possible?

    Is there such thing as a Chinese design theory movement before communism, during communism? Man, no idea how you would find that.

    There must be something in South Korea. For a country that has built itself on innovation and technology, there is for sure to be a debate around design theory. Who were the key thinkers that fostered innovation as policy? While vilified by western design for teaching in purely didactic ways (and many of the South Koreans students come to Canada to study) – that IS a design position that must have been proposed by someone.

    India is likely the hot bed of design thinking development. The wicked challenge of working and operating in multiple languages, across different social, educational and monetary climates while dealing with enormous change on all fronts must be informing something. When did innovation really establish itself? Many western schools have gone over to “share” their thinking … what has been integrated, rejected, replaced?

    I’d be really curious in your thesis if I could learn stories of the tensions culturally that may have occurred in the past and maybe shaping our future.

    Thanks for the thoughts – very exciting!

    • Hi Chris

      One of the difficulties i had when writing my literature review is knowing where to place the boundary. Charles Burnette recently posted a bibliography on design thinking, yet for me this seemed (rightly so) to have focused heavily and deeply on cognition, psychology and emotion. Mr. Burnette did admit that his resource was ‘focused on cognitive structure and process rather than application and technique’. This seems problematic for me because design is intimately connected with the object that is the outcome, i.e the design. Yet design thinking is somehow becoming detached to this process that is equally dependent on interaction with the designed object? Descriptions of design as a thing are as hard to define as is the thinking. The problem is that in order to try and define design thinking, perspectives narrow on a particular characteristic- as Burnette has done; cognition and emotion. Then, in focusing on this one particular characteristic, you dive deeper and deeper, and as a result explore broader and broader areas of research. Combine Burnette’s bibliography with another that say, focuses specifically on the design thing and design tools, and you end up with a reference list that pretty much covers all fundamental writings from scholars in almost any field of research and practice! And all are valid. Then the boundary is lost.

      It was probably a good thing that i was limited in word count and time when writing my literature review, because it forced me to place boundaries on my research. I tried to get to the absolute core of design thinking and design thinking history- whilst deliberately restricting my research to the design field. This was partially to prove a point that design research has discussed (and i guess ‘owns’) the term design thinking. And ironically as you said, most scholars that submitted papers on design in the 1960s were not designers in the way we define design practice. The methods movement was the event that design practice became a recognized academic field of research. A history of and definition of design thinking is enough to be a thesis in itself! But your comments on global practice and other influential figures on design are equally valid- and should be explored further. I wish i had the opportunity to do so in my research but i am limited under my current research topic (that is unless i decide to write about history). Perhaps this is something we could talk about and/or publish further?

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  11. Hi Carl and Stef. Nice work from you both.
    While this is not my central field of research I feel it’s really important to distinguish between different meanings of ‘design thinking”. On the one hand it is about how designers think – the creative process, integrating art and science, an open-ended, human-centred approach etc. One the other hand, the term has been adopted by those who span the fields of design, business and social change to mean a very specific staged process that promotes an empathic, human-centred method for solving social, business and design problems, strongly driven by social values (IDEO et al). Do you make this distinction in your writing?

    • Hi Toni,

      Thanks for reading+commenting. There is merit in distinguishing the different understandings of design thinking but i dont think identifying different meanings does much good overall to the practice. I believe the two accounts you mentioned in your comment are almost the same- there is a difference between industry and academia but its more a matter of depth. On the surface, the understandings are quite similar with perhaps a few characteristic differences. I do make a distinction in my thesis between the history to date (and how we have defined design thinking today, both from a practitioner and academic point of view) but as i said, the differences come down to a matter of depth than gross misunderstandings.

      Hope this has answered your question


  12. Jan

    Hi! I am writing my master’s thesis about the connection between Absorptive Capacity and Design Thinking. It would be great if I could reference to some of your work. Where can I find the full papers that you wrote (and published)?

    • Hi Jan,

      Thank you for reading my blog. A the moment i have one paper available and this is about my methodology. I have deliberately focused my energy on this blog for much of my PhD and as such have not published formally; but will be extensively this year. Despite this, you are still able to reference my blog as a source in your thesis. It is still acceptable to reference contemporary links if the content is appropriate to your research.



  13. Hi and thanks for this very insightful piece. I have been doing some research into the origins of the methods which formed Design Thinking as we currently know it and a few of the references you have made were the first I had encountered so far. Early days for me. Thanks for sharing. I’d like to reference this post in a Design Thinking history module of a course I am developing.

    • Hi Nur Ahmad,

      Thank you for taking time to read my blog and for your comment. Of course you may cite this post (and any others that are useful to you) in your work.



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  18. It might be productive for you to further expand your research into the “who” and “what” elements of the question. That is; who said what about “Design Thinking”, what did they mean exactly, and *when* did they say it? This will quickly take you across the digital divide, as some works, like Harold van Doren’s and Bruce Archer’s are not readily available in digital formats yet. Some were writing academically about how successful designers think and act (Cross) while others were formulating a teachable method. (Kelley)

    Much like music, there are those who study the practitioners and those who actually practice it with skill. Those for whom a skill is “magic” do not understand it well enough to rely on their opinions.

    (BTW – I find attempts to trace DT’s roots to the Bauhaus and it’s New Objectivity, amusing. DT starts with empthy, while N.O. was about practical engagement with the world—an all-business attitude.) It’s all about “Design” but some methods are more comprehensive and balanced than others.

    • Hi Dexter,

      Thanks for your comment. In my literature review i delved into the who, what and when. There is not one single historical timeline, i have presented one such timeline but it is based on my research which operates within certain boundaries. I have no doubt that my timeline could work in parallel with another interpretation, as i do believe many of the major developments happened concurrently.

      Could you elaborate on your comment, particularly “those for whom a skill is ‘magic’ do not understand it well enough to rely on their opinions”. I am interpreting this as when design/thinking is presented to non-designers as a new method. This i agree with.

      You are right in saying that N.O was about practical engagement with the world. But the history i present isnt to prove that design thinking had *always* been empathetic and user centered, but rather, there were some fundamental characteristics, attitudes and movements that existed throughout design history and have evolved to what we understand as design thinking today. I am more or less presenting the evolution, as well as tracing historical roots, to design thinking. These roots have changed significantly- in practice and perspective- from early practices in design. If design thinking today had no relationship to design practice, especially historically, then we should not be calling it ‘design’ thinking. With my history of design thinking i hoped to provide an argument that would add credibility to the notion that design thinking rests on foundations established in the design field.

      Hope this made sense. i am more than happy to discuss these topics over email should you wish to continue the conversation



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  21. Vivian Tung

    Hi, I have to say it’s an impressive work/summary! I’m writing my Master thesis of applying DT on tele-healthcare, and have to introduce the origins of DT. Is it possible to have your PhD thesis as my reference? plz tell me when you see this message, thank you so much:)

    • Hi Vivian,

      Thanks for stopping by to read and comment! Yes you can reference either this blog or my thesis. The thesis would need to be referenced as forthcoming, though. For example the citation you would use is: Di Russo, S. (2015) Understanding the behaviour of design thinking in complex environments. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, Swinburne University, Melbourne, Australia

      hope this helps!


      • Vivian Tung

        it really helps!!l! thank you for your help again:)

  22. Great work and arts, enjoyed to read and watch. Not sure how far you progressed, since you are referring to Papanek, I would suggest to add his mental model of phenomenology which by definition is the philosophy of experience. I would also see -parallel and not sure if they crossed, so good subject for PhD research- Action Research/Cooperative Inquiry ehich root back to end WW II as legitimate forethinkers of contemporary DT methods set.Good luck!

    Twitter @RezaMou

  23. Jeremiah Matthews

    Hey hey, Great read!

    I’ve been reading your blog a lot over the past couple weeks in the process of researching emerging design trends. To be honest, I really like the way you write. I usually find writings on Design History or Design Theory to be pretty bland but you do a good job of balancing practicality with fun.

    I know Design Thinking isn’t the newest thing in the world but in the grand scheme of things but I’ve heard the incarnation of DT at Stanford’s D. School is sort of its own animal. Tim Brown said in the documentary Design & Thinking that the way we see Design Thinking today all comes from David Kelley and his DT program at the D. School. However, I thought that he might be a bit biased seeing as Brown is the CEO of IDEO (or was at the time) and Kelley was one of the founders of IDEO.

    What are your thoughts on Brown’s stance (and the documentary, Design & Thinking)?

    Also, can you recommend any writings about Experience Design? I’ve been digging into that as much as possible but all the research I’ve heard about that would seem to be the most useful is behind a paywall or hasn’t been published yet (I hear Intel has a lot of research on the subject). But from what I’ve read about DT it seems to be pretty similar to Experience Design. Can you elaborate on that at all? You obviously know way more about Design History than I do and I would love to listen to your insights.

    Thanks for you time!
    Jeremiah Matthews

    • Hi Jeremiah! first of all apologies for the rather delayed response, and second of all- yes there is definitely bias from Tim Brown, but that is to be expected as you pointed out regarding his relationship with david kelley and IDEO. When you mention experience design, it depends what perspective/definition you are calling from- there are two schools of thought on this practice. Basically, i feel like experience design is kind of a washy term for what design is anyway. Experience in what? with what? where? Is it experience in a service or a product? Design thinking basically proposes experience design, as experience design (i believe) simply elevates the human element in design to the forefront and this is exactly what design practice/design thinking aims to do, too. in perspective of history, i did not come across experience design as a sub field of design at all- this term i believe is very new and i fear more or less emperors new clothes, so to speak, as i have not seen elements of the practice that define it from other design practices like service, strategic, product , etc. Perhaps i should look a little more into it, too and try prove myself wrong!

  24. Anandteerth Onkar

    Hi Stefanie,


    Your literature survey is amazing, just so simple, clear explanation with precise quotes that explain the concepts so very well.

    I would like to connect to you in person to know more on this topic.

    If time and opportunity does not persists for us to meet and research then, I would like to dig down your research on design history to Indus Valley Civilization, it is the universe first civilized colony. How were their homes, temples, farms, culture etc…. were?

    There are hundreds of places in India that reflects ancient civilization with great architectural design.

    I would urge you to have a look at history of a village called “Hampi”. It is among-st the best architecture in the world. Hope so get something useful out of it.
    It scientific and cultural approach to design the village has still not been decoded by any of the great scientist across the world.

    • Hi Anandteerth,

      Thank you for your kind comment. My gmail is available in the ‘About’ page of this blog. I am more than happy to chat about design thinking and design history


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