Where does the concept of design thinking come from?

By Anne Katrine G. Gelting, Designer, Ph.d., Teaching Associate Professor at The Design School Kolding, Denmark

Over the last 60 years design has changed substantially, from being only an activity with the aim of producing physical products – fashion, graphics, interior decors etc. – to becoming an all-round approach to the innovation process.

Since the early 1960s there has been a parallel and ongoing discussion and reflection among design educators and scholars about what it is designers do when they design, in this continuously evolving and expanding field.

This discussion has been conducted through design method conferences and articles and books about design methodology and has evolved from a desire to create a more methodological approach to designing to studying what actually constitutes “designerly” approaches to development.

Some of the key figures in the first developments of this discussion between the 1960ies and 1990ies are: Christopher Alexander, Bruce Archer, John Christopher Jones, Horst W. J. Rittel and Melvin M. Webber, Bryan Lawson, Donald Shön, R. Buchanan and Nigel Cross who talked about “Designerly Thinking”.

The discussion and reflection are still ongoing today and has diverged into many different subtopics such as co-design, emotional design, creativity and design, importance of sketching and prototyping, etc. Many of the important articles are published in peer reviewed design research journals such as Design Issues, at Elsevier and Design Studies, at MIT Press.

The concept of “Design Thinking” as a way of talking about how designers work when designing, was coined in 1987 by architect Peter Rowe but popularised by Tim Brown from IDEO:

“Design thinking is a human-centered approach to innovation that draws from the designer’s toolkit to integrate the needs of people, the possibilities of technology, and the requirements for business success.”

Design Thinking as an approach is presently used in all kinds of innovation areas: products, services and experiences, in private companies but also in the public area. But what are the most important components of Design Thinking?

What is design thinking?

Design Thinking is about creating a relevant or interesting framework or perspective on an issue or problem by ”opening it up”: This means asking lots of questions, challenging and possibly reframing the problem or issue, to discover and identify the real or most interesting problem that needs to be solved to help users or to provide new and better ways of providing services for companies and organisations.

Different visual tools like data visualisation, mood boarding, collaging, hand sketching, renderings and prototyping tools are then used to research, quickly test and iterate concepts and solutions in the process and to communicate potential solutions.

The design-oriented process and solution combine attention to usability, feasibility and aesthetics. (Aesthetics in the broad meaning of creating a world where we pay due attention to the human senses).

Design Thinking focusses on doing things, and a “Design Thinking” process is therefore a very tangible and pragmatic approach to innovation, where insights and results are documented and communicated in a way that is easily understood and shared inside a design team and also outside through 2D and 3D visuals and models.

The Design Thinking approach is not a simple five-stage gate process as many Design Thinking maps show, but more like a creative” dance” between many different and opposite positions or states that push the innovation process forward. Designers alternate:

  • Between finding problems and creating solutions

  • Between choosing the framework and dealing with detail

  • Between analysis and synthesis

  • Between divergent (open) and convergent (closed) thinking

  • Between abstract (thinking) and practical/tangible actions

  • Between working by yourself and cooperating with others

  • Between developing an idea and communicating about it

  • Between dealing with aesthetics and with technology and functionality

Designers work “iteratively” because they not only move forward but move forward through repeated stages of research, analysis, ideation and creation, but working at a more and more detailed and refined level. A Design Thinking approach is therefore quite complex but also very fun because it creates the kind of engagement and critical reflection that is needed to truly innovate. If done properly, it is truly a journey of learning, exploration and creation!

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5C and 6C Models © Anne Katrine Gøtzsche Gelting and Silje K.A. Friis.