Sunday, March 2, 2014

The Origins of Design Thinking

If you run an nGram on Design Thinking, it turns out that the phrase doesn't show up much in Google's book database much before 1970.

This is interesting for a couple of reasons. The first is that design as a profession and research on how designers think started long before 1970.  In his 1940 book Industrial Design - A Practical Guide to Product Design and Development, Harold van Doren examined the thought processes and methods used by Industrial Designers in making things for mass consumption.  He also expressed the opinion that the name Industrial Design falls short of the mark in describing the what Industrial Designers actually do, preferring the phrase Product Design and Development.

L. Bruce Archer
Another leap forward occurred in the 1960's, when L. Bruce Archer began studying methods of design at the Royal College of Art in London.  In a series of articles published in Design magazine, he advocated six stages of the design process: programming, data collection, analysis, synthesis, development and communication.  This roughly parallels one of the current descriptions of the Design Thinking process; define, research, ideate, prototype, choose, implement, and learn.  (Remember, the phases are not sequential in Design Thinking.)

In the context of "Design Thinking", even more interesting is the story of how Archer came to be an Industrial Designer;  As a boy, he wanted to be a painter, but was discouraged from studying art past the age of 15.  After returning from World War II, Archer was advised to become an engineering draftsman.  He became a certified mechanical engineer and joined the Institute of Engineering Designers and the Institute of Mechanical Engineers. Archer's epiphany came after attending the Festival of Britain in 1951, where he heard about the budding profession of Industrial Design, an experience he described in near religious terms;

"‘I was saved... I could be an artist and an engineer at one and the same time."

This concept, that it is possible, even necessary, to both "feel" (like an artist) and analyze (like an engineer) is a key to Design Thinking.

In 1973, Robert McKim's book Experiences in Visual Thinking suggested a three step design process; Express - Test - Cycle. The scope of those process steps expanded to include other factors besides the purely functional aspects of finding a solution just as the capability of microprocessors, which were invented in 1971, became capable enough to enable the creation of "smart products" which could be programmed to respond to input in different ways.

By 1974, the HP-65 was a fully programmable handheld calculator, capable of a multitude of behaviors. At the same time, we began struggling with how to set the clocks on our new VCR's and digital wrist watches. The lines were forming for the upcoming Users vs. Engineers battle. "User Centered Design" emerged as a separate discipline, spearheaded by Don Norman who joined Apple Computer in 1993, the same year Newton was introduced. UCD asserted that products must be designed based on the needs of the user, and even set aside what Norman then deemed "secondary issues", like aesthetics. Apple did not agree, striving for a more balanced approach;

Dave Kelly now (2014) observes that the process of Design Thinking starts with empathy. To further illustrate the point, he tells stories of students in the who've "flipped", acknowledging and embracing their creative natures.  Sound similar to L. Bruce Archer's discovery in 1951?

So, perhaps we've pushed the roots of Design Thinking at least as far back as the mid 60's. In my next blog, More nGrams we'll drill down into the use of the term and then move on to; Beginning to see the Light, where we'll look at Harold van Doren who may have started down the path at least a decade earlier.

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