Design Thinking: Get a Quick Overview of the History

by Rikke Friis Dam and Teo Yu Siang | | 11 min read

To understand almost anything, we need at least some appreciation of its roots and origins, and how it came to be as it is. Design Thinking emerged from an exploration of theory and practice, in a range of disciplines and sciences, as a means of addressing the human, the technological and strategic innovation needs of our time. Let us take a look at a short (and incomplete) history of Design Thinking.

Listing all of the influential factors that have led to the contemporary understanding of Design Theory, Process, and Practice is almost impossible. Business analysts, engineers, scientists and creative individuals have been focused on the methods and processes of innovation for decades.

Although more within the context of architecture and engineering fields, early glimpses and references to Design Thinking date back to the 50's and 60's, and struggled to grapple with the rapidly changing environment in those times. New approaches to solving complex problems had their roots in the thinking applied to World War II, an event that had a profound effect on strategic thinking in the modern world and fundamentally changed the way we apply ourselves to management, production and industrial design.

The 1960's Attempts to Scientise Design

In the struggle to fully understand every aspect of design, its influences, processes and methodology, in the 60’s, efforts were made to develop a science out of the field of design, by applying scientific methodology and processes to understanding how design functions.

Nigel Cross, Emeritus Professor of Design Studies at The Open University, UK, in the paper Designerly ways of knowing: design discipline versus design science (2001), unpacks the struggle that began to unfold in the early 1960s when attempts were made to “scientise” design, and bring the field within the objective of rational sciences. Cross highlights statements from the radical technologist Buckminster Fuller, in which he refers to the “design science decade”.

"[Fuller] called for a ‘design science revolution', based on science, technology and rationalism, to overcome the human and environmental problems that he believed could not be solved by politics and economics"
– Nigel Cross

Wicked Problems

Horst Rittel, a Design Theorist known for coining the term "Wicked Problems" (i.e. extremely complex/multi-dimensional problems) in the mid 1960's, wrote and spoke extensively on the subject of problem-solving in design. In particular, Rittel focused on the application of design methodologies in tackling Wicked Problems and how they were influential in the work of many design practitioners and academics of the time.

Wicked problems are at the very heart of Design Thinking, because it is precisely these complex and multi-dimensional problems that require a collaborative methodology that involves gaining a deep understanding of humans.

The 1970s

Computer scientist and Nobel Prize laureate Herbert A. Simon was the first to mention design as a science or way of thinking in his 1969 book, Sciences of the Artificial. The notion also appeared in Emeritus Professor of Mechanical Engineering Robert H. McKim's 1973 book, Experiences in Visual Thinking.

Cognitive scientist and Nobel Prize laureate for economics, Herbert Simon, has contributed many ideas that are now regarded as tenets of Design Thinking in the 1970s. He is noted to have spoken of rapid prototyping and testing through observation, concepts which form the core of many design and entrepreneurial processes right now. This also forms one of the major phases of the typical Design Thinking process. Simon touched on the subject of prototyping as early as 1969, stating in Sciences of the Artificial:

"To understand them, the systems had to be constructed, and their behaviour observed."
– Herbert Simon

A large portion of his work was focused on the development of artificial intelligence and whether human forms of thinking could be synthesized.

Robert H. McKim, best described as an artist and engineer, focused his energies more on the impact visual thinking had on our understanding of things and our ability to solve problems. McKim’s book unpicks various aspects of visual thinking and design methods for solving problems with an emphasis on combining the left and right brain modes of thinking, to bring about a more holistic form of problem solving. The ideas discussed in his book underpin the Design Thinking methodology.

The 1980s

In 1982, Nigel Cross discussed the nature of designers problem-solving in his seminal paper Designerly ways of knowing (not to be confused with his later series of articles and papers similarly titled “Designerly ways of knowing”, published in the 2000s). In his 1982 paper, Cross compared designers’ problem solving to the non-design related problem solutions we develop in our everyday lives.

Bryan Lawson, professor at the School of Architecture of the University of Sheffield, United Kingdom, also discussed the insights gathered from a series of tests which looked at the comparative methods used by scientists and architects when attempting to solve the same ambiguous problem.

Author/Copyright holder: Counselling. Copyright terms and licence: CC0

Lawson conducted a series of tests on postgraduate architectural students (i.e. the “designers”) and postgraduate science students (the “scientists”). For each group, he set a problem involving arranging coloured blocks, in which the student had to abide by a set of rules, some of which were not known to the student. Lawson realised that the scientists tended to systematically explore every possible combination of blocks, to formulate a hypothesis about the fundamental rule they should follow to produce the optimal arrangement of blocks. In other words, scientists were problem-focused problem solvers. On the other hand, the designers tended to quickly create multiple arrangements of coloured blocks, then tested to see if they fit the requirements of the problem. The designers were solution-focused problem solvers who chose to generate a large number of solutions and eliminate those which did not work.

The latter solution-focused problem solving method is what Cross finds to be a core concept of a “designerly” way of solving problems. According to Cross:

"A central feature of design activity, then, is its reliance on generating fairly quickly a satisfactory solution, rather than on any prolonged analysis of the problem. In [Herbert] Simon’s inelegant term, it is a process of ‘satisficing’ rather than optimising; producing any one of what might well be a large range of satisfactory solutions rather than attempting to generate the one hypothetically-optimum solution. This strategy has been observed in other studies of design behaviour, including architects, urban designers, and engineers."
– Nigel Cross, 1982


Peter Rowe, then Director of Urban Design Programs at Harvard, published his book Design Thinking in 1987, which focuses on the way the architectural designer approaches his task through the lens of the inquiry.

"This book is an attempt to fashion a generalized portrait of design thinking. A principal aim will be to account for the underlying structure and focus of inquiry directly associated with those rather private moments of “seeking out,” on the part of designers, for the purpose of inventing or creating buildings and urban artifacts."
– Peter Rowe (1987)

As you can see, the progression of Design "Thinking" as a subject made its journey through various fields of specialisation over time, as thinkers in those fields explored the cognitive processes within their own fields and later became something which moved into a space of its own.

The 1990s to Present


IDEO was formed and showcased its design process modelled on the work developed at the Stanford Design School. IDEO is widely accepted as one of the companies that brought Design Thinking to the mainstream; developing their own customer-friendly terminology, steps, and toolkits over the years, they have allowed those not schooled in design methodology to quickly and easily become oriented with the process.


In 1992, the Head of Design at Carnegie Mellon University, Richard Buchanan, published his article, Wicked Problems in Design Thinking, which discussed the origins of Design Thinking. In the article, he discussed how the sciences developed over time from the Renaissance and formalised in the specialisations and processes they used, becoming more and more cut off from each other. He further clarified that Design Thinking has formed as a means of integrating these highly specialised fields of knowledge, so that they can be jointly applied to the new problems we are faced with from a holistic perspective.


Design Thinking is taught at the Stanford School of Design, or the The, known today as the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design, has made the development, teaching and implementation of Design Thinking one of its own central goals since its inception.

At present, the Design Thinking movement is gaining ground rapidly, with pioneers like IDEO and formalising a path ahead for others to follow. Other prestigious universities, business schools and forward thinking companies have adopted the methodology to varying degrees, sometimes re-interpreting it to suit their specific context or brand values.

The Take Away

We experienced the industrial revolution and World War II pushing the boundaries of what we thought was technologically possible, and what we required to deal with by way of Wicked Problems. Engineers, architects and industrial designers, as well as cognitive scientists, all began to converge on the issues of collective problem solving, driven by the significant societal changes that had taken place at the time. Design Thinking leaders, theorists, and practitioners began to formulate new ways of leveraging their existing (design-centric) problem-solving, innovation-focused activities and processes towards finding solutions to broader problems.

Design Thinking emerged, or should we say converged, out of the muddy waters of this chaos to combine the human, the technological and the strategic needs of our times, in a synthesis, which is still being explored today by those at the forefront of the field.

References & Where to Learn More

Nigel Cross, Designerly ways of knowing, 1982:

Nigel Cross, Designerly ways of knowing: design discipline versus design science, 2001:

Peter Rowe, Design Thinking, 1987:

Richard Buchanan, Wicked Problems in Design Thinking, 1992:

Hero Image: Author/Copyright holder: Teo Yu Siang and Interaction Design Foundation. Copyright terms and licence: CC BY-NC-SA 3.0

Get Weekly UX Insights

Join 278,401 designers who get useful UX tips from our newsletter.
A valid email address is required.