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Introduction to design thinking

Once you wrap your head around the design thinking process and put it into practice, you can develop your own approach.
Young female designer contemplates sheet of paper
© Shutterstock

What is design thinking?

‘Design Thinking’ is a term used to describe a thought process that guides you to solve problems in a considered way. To be honest, it could just be called ‘design’ because if you’re not solving problems in a considered and innovative way then you’re not designing.

Consider ‘Design Thinking’ to be a set of rules that outlines the steps to follow and actions to take when designing something. These rules, if followed will ensure the solution that comes out at the other end is effective and innovative. If you’re reading this, you are creative (That’s right! Our brains are already equipped with all the right components for creative thinking.

By practising and building on these existing pathways we become better at it.) and rules don’t sit with some of our creative brains that well. So, you’ll be pleased to know that the ‘rules’ of Design Thinking as a process are, like all rules, made to be broken.

The History of Design Thinking

1950 – 1969

Thanks to a few key players in the mid-1950s to the late 1960s, such as Buckminster Fuller, Victor Papanek and Horst Rittel, the practice of design started shifting.

It moved from a stiff ‘numbers and facts-based approach’ that relied heavily on engineering and the sciences, to a more holistic approach that used creativity and various specialists in their field to design innovative solutions.

1970 – 1979

Victor Papanek played a crucial role in sparking the conversation around what design was, what it should be and how designers should think.

An industrial designer dubbed the ‘Sustainable Design Guru’, Papanek published a book in 1971 entitled Design for the Real World: Human Ecology and Social Change where he addressed the need for designers to go beyond aesthetics and simple solutions, and design for the benefit of humans, society and the environment.

Papanek’s view was that “Design must be an innovative, highly creative, cross-disciplinary tool, responsive to the needs of men. It must be more research-oriented, and we must stop defiling the earth itself with poorly-designed objects and structure.”

1980 – 1989

In the 1980s, the need for design to become more user-centric grew, and we began to realise that in order for solutions to be effective, we needed to look at the bigger picture.

Design Thinking as a term started popping up not just in the architect’s office, but in business boardrooms, IT and engineering firms, and in creative teams. Today, the term is more relevant than ever, as we face complex environmental, social and economic problems.

A problem-solving tool

Industrial Designer and CEO of IDEO, Tim Brown, brought the term ‘Design Thinking’ back into the spotlight in the 1990s. He began highlighting its use to improve not just products, spaces and services, but businesses and organisations. Brown helped to push Design Thinking beyond the sector of design and promoted it as a problem-solving tool for non-designers.

Another noteworthy modern-day commentator on the subject of Design Thinking is Jane Fulton Suri. Suri is a Psychologist and Architect who wrote both the Little book of Design Ethics, about the ethical practices in design research and Thoughtless Acts, which discusses amusing ways that everyday people use creativity to better shape the world around them. One example of this is when we add function to form beyond its initial purpose, like using a pencil to put hair in a bun or conforming to where numerous others have placed their coffee cups in the absence of a bin.

Effective solutions

It’s difficult to pin down exactly when the term Design Thinking popped up first, and who exactly created the process. And, many great minds have contributed to its development over the decades. However, historically, it seems to have come about through the evolution of problem-solving in response to numerous issues, which called upon designers to develop more considered, responsible and effective solutions.

Currently, it is expected that the process will continue to evolve and with each new design and new problem, will come to a new individually tailored approach. Hopefully, you will be able to adapt a unique Design Thinking process to your own work, which will evolve to guide your creation of some extraordinary things.

“Design is the intermediary between information and understanding. “
Hans Hoffman – German-American expressionist painter
© Torrens University
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