Design thinking – A little background

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Design thinking has become a major buzzword within innovation and business development over the last decade. But the tradition goes back even further.

If you’ve just landed on this article and are new to design thinking, read here for a more general approach to “What is Design Thinking?”

As written in another post, design thinking has become an automatic solution for almost any business challenge, from product development to service design and strategy development.

Most recently the business promotion project Sprint:Digital, in which Gejst Studio participated as a facilitator, aimed to apply design thinking to digitization projects in Danish SMCs.

Some critics believe that it’s nothing more than a buzzword. So, in this article we will go a little further into the tradition that design thinking has grown from, a tradition with a considerable Scandinavian origin.

Design is establishing itself as an independent discipline

Our story starts in the 1960s in the USA, where design began establishing itself as a separate discipline. Up until this point in history, design was a big part of the work of engineers and other occupations. But in the 60s, a movement started where design established itself as a science with its own methods. 

Today, design remains more of science than the lively creativity often associated with it. But the exciting part about design thinking is that we are beginning to see multidisciplinary teams working together on a common problem.

At the same time, there was a breakthrough in Scandinavia. The cooperative design approach (later participatory design) was developed as a democratic project, where almost everyone is invited as an essential contributor to the design process. In this development, the designer’s role becomes more and more the facilitator of the process.

Through the 70s and 80s, these two trends continued to develop while a third trend came along. Anthropology and ethnographic methods were integrated into the design process to understand the users and the context in which one is designing.

Designers are increasingly starting to base a big part of their discipline on research. But people from other fields, such as anthropologists, are also beginning to act as designers.

IDEO: The beginning of modern design thinking?

In the 1990s, we have some actual figures that many would probably credit as the founders of the position that design thinking consumes today. IDEO was founded by, among others, the two brothers David and Tom Kelley. Over the next few years, they would become globally known as one of the world’s largest design companies, helped by several iconic design projects for Apple. From the beginning, IDEO was built around multidisciplinary teams, where anthropologists, business strategists, and practitioners from various fields became part of the company’s design process.

Since then, the two brothers and the CEO at IDEO, Tim Brown, have written several bestsellers, constituting the syllabus of most design thinking courses, including ‘Ten Faces of Innovation’, which describes the different roles an innovation team should have. With the founding of the at Stanford University, IDEO should be credited for the fact that design thinking today constitutes a broad and professionalized discipline.

Everybody is a designer.

Around the time of IDEO’s founding and the formalization of design thinking, it was still a task primarily handled by designers and dedicated design teams. Through the 00s and up to today, design thinking has gone through two primary developments: First of all, the challenges that are the subject of design thinking have expanded radically, from product design in the 60s to services involving users today. Design thinking is now applied in a wide range of areas within digitalization, business strategy, the public sector’s offerings to citizens, and, as mentioned here, in the development of the Danish public libraries. Global brands such as Novo Nordisk, Zalando, and Lego have restructured their entire innovation departments to work according to design thinking principles. 

Secondly, the development of design thinking has moved toward a way of thinking and working with development processes that everyone can use. Design thinking is today performed by everyone and often without any designers involved.

Has design thinking made everyone a designer? Of course not. Regardless of the potential and spread of design to a wide range of areas, the quality will probably vary as much as it does with any other method that grows far beyond its boundaries. Today, design thinking is criticized from several sides. However, whether this criticism is about design thinking or perhaps rather dubious ways of using it, we will have a closer look in another post.

If you want a deeper dive into the history of design thinking and its key players, we recommend reading this Medium article from Jo Szczepanska: Design thinking origin story plus some of the people who made it all happen