What Are the Origins of Design Thinking?

What exactly is Design Thinking and why is it so popular?

Design Thinking has generated a lot of momentum through mentions in the Harvard Business Review and Forbes. It has been defined as “a unified framework for innovation“ and an “essential tool for simplifying and humanizing.”

Unlike the profound outcomes it promotes, Design Thinking has been slowly evolving since the 1960’s. Over the past fifty years or so, Design Thinking has been incorporating many of the best tools and techniques from social and computer sciences.

What sets Design Thinking apart?

Design Thinking is a catchall term that solves multi-disciplinary, human-centered questions involving research and rapid ideation. The theory is not only a buzzword created by Tim Brown, the CEO of IDEO. Design Thinking allows corporations that lack the ability to be creative and struggle to develop new products and services that meet the unmet needs of their customers to do just that.

A majority of corporations operate analytically and that can constantly be disrupted by trends and sometimes renders businesses obsolete. This tends to happen because organizations can lack the ability to create new products of value in a timely manner. Responding to external change requires innovation. Innovation means businesses must be capable of design. To design effectively you need to create a culture that fosters creativity, design methods, and the tools that designers utilize.

Pioneers like Tim Brown and Roger Martin have championed changing the understanding of design in the business world from a noun to a verb. Design is used to respond to changing trends and consumer behaviors by gaining competitive advantages. This not only keeps businesses operating but enables the potential for rapid growth, as well.

Design Thinking is now known as a creative-problem solving approach anyone can use to create new value and create a positive impact. Design Thinking has gained popularity as the approach to innovate and as applying it in business can produce tremendous results.

What Preceded Design Thinking?

It started with Participatory Design…

You can trace the history of Participatory Design all the way back to Plato’s Republic, as Plato was known to seek advice from his people. Grass roots democracy can be seen as coming from a participatory methodology as it established a style of collaboration that has been used for centuries to help develop harmonious societies.

Moving from Plato to the 1960s and the design methods movement, Participatory Design gained momentum due to research. Often referred to as the Scandinavian Approach, Participatory Design focuses on integrating customers into the development of projects. However, technological developments at the end of the 60s saw design thought shift from this social methodology to more technological strategies.

Usability was king and the customer’s emotional response to innovation was largely ignored. User testing was also abandoned due to the opinions of users conflicting with those of stakeholders.

User-Centered Design

Design theorist Donald Norman made a significant contribution in the transformation of design thought when he re-formed Participatory Design into what became known as User-Centered Design. This form of testing became less about usability and more about the users interests and their needs. Norman favored humanized participatory and system design that “made things visible”. This was done to ensure that users could discover problems and then have the capability to resolve them.

User-Centered Design was an ideological shift that placed the user at the center of the development process, which showed the benefits of understanding user experience. When enacting a User-Center Design approach you emphasize increasing the customer’s capability over efficiency and adopt a more humanistic approach in the development of a product or system.

This line of thought centered on elevating users from lab rats to co-developers of systems. The methodology has since spread into broader areas of industry and practice.

Service Design

On the timeline of design thought, Service Design came into the discipline in the early 2000s. The developments of Participatory Design and User-Centered Design can be seen as the driving force of evolution and in turn the reasons behind much of the methodology of Service Design.

Service Design’s perspective is another step forward in the evolution of design methodology. Rather than thinking about the end users experience like in User-Centered Design, the emphasis with Service Design is on understanding the use, interaction, and journey of that product/service after its out of provider’s control.

This new approach to product/service systems created a more holistic mindset. The change in mentality is responsible for the perspective of Service Design that separates it from previous design procedures. Instead of focusing on the ‘end user’, Service Design aims to collaborate with the users of a service and then taking things a step forward with building a relationship with stakeholders. What happens here is a process that allows for the exchange and development of values and knowledge. This is where we see Participatory Design and User-Centered Design combining into Service Design.

Human-Centered Design

Human-Centered Design and User-Centered Design were often interchangeable within the design process during the 1990s. The holistic perspective introduced in Service Design afforded Human-Centered Design the opportunity to redefine its meaning. It was then after the turn of the millennium that Human-Centered Design began to transform from a method to a mindset. Its goal became to humanize the design process while empathizing with stakeholders. The mindset of understanding the desires all people involved in the process of product development is the hallmark of Human Centered Design.  

It is captivating to see how the shifts in design theory and practices have mirrored one another. The design-as-science trend of the 60s and 70s are very clearly completely opposite to the methods of the 1990s and early 2000s.