The Thinker by Rodin (1840–1917), in the garden of the Musée Rodin, via Wikipedia


Design thinking is just thinking. What I mean by this is that when you really consider what we’re describing when we say “design thinking” is that we’re giving full consideration to something. To think is to give thought—make a judgment, opinion, or rational reasoning. The nature of what I’ve just written above is in itself an act of this. Now, this isn’t to say that design thinking isn’t a special skill, because it absolutely requires a certain personality and problem-solving ability to successfully utilize. To participate in design thinking one must both be able to analyze something in its simplest form (attempting to be unbiased in careful study), make observations about the state of the thing being analyzed, form an opinion, and ask questions.

Seems straightforward right? Ironically it isn’t. In a way, you could say to do this is to almost have a naïve, child-like curiosity of the world. Think about it. Whether you have children or not, we are all familiar with the universal badgering of incessant “Why”s: “Why can’t I fly?” “Why do fish live in the water?” “Why is the sky blue?” Children are encouraged to play and learn, though only up to a certain point as they grow older where education becomes more structured and more practical. It’s my belief that a key difference between a “creative” professional adult and any other is that in spite of modern life and general education, they have been able to keep a child-like wonder in their lives. (Of course this is all the more enhanced with an art school education.)

It should come as no surprise that individuals whom aren’t traditionally creative or artistic types have worked to define creativity and the process of thinking for creativity and imagination. One such figure is John E. Arnold. A professor of mechanical engineering as well as business administration from Stanford, Arnold was an early author on the concept of “design thinking” in the 1950s. Driven by an opinion that engineers in the modern age needed to be capable of radically new solutions, he saw the creative process as an intellectual one, and understanding and utilizing it as crucial to this evolution. A key part of this was breaking from the status quo: engineering students were typically given specific problems to solve with only one correct answer. This mattered because it would lead to the same ideas and stagnation in how an engineer thinks and plans—keeping within an echo chamber of thought as opposed to true problem solving, which leads to newer and likely higher quality solutions. The manner in which Arnold arrived at these ideas was in itself a process of design thinking, beginning with the question:


What distinguishes a person who achieves creative, innovative solutions from someone who achieves less in these areas?


Arnold referenced ideas and research from a range of sources including but not limited to psychologists, philosophers, artists, architects (of note: Buckminster Fuller) as well as his own personal observations and analyses.

Arnold defined the creative process as a manner of problem solving in which the output would be:

  1. a better combination, not just something different
  2. tangible, something you can see, or feel or react to in some fashion, not just an idea
  3. forward-looking in time, relating to society’s needs, not merely “recreative”
  4. a “synergetic” quality—the value achieved in the combination is much greater than the sum of the parts (a multiplicative effect).

From a layman’s perspective, the point of understanding and defining the process was in this case, to move engineering beyond a trade of expected solutions to an industry of innovation. That’s the reason for the buzz around design thinking: through it’s defining of the creative process, it can provide quantifiable value to business and technology. Whether an architect, civil engineer, graphic designer, artist, entrepreneur, or other—design thinking is a beneficial tool for anyone engaged in inventing something new or problem solving something existing. It is a necessary means for the beginning and evolution of ideas.


“Designers’ ideas stem from personal experience and are the manifestations of events, narratives, and autobiographies.”
—Steven Heller, Graphic Design Now In Production


There is another side to design thinking that’s extremely valuable: it’s ability to be used to impact culture and all of our lives in a positive way. I remember early in my career learning about the OXO Swivel Peeler. An entrepreneur looking to come out of an early retirement was aiming to launch a new product. He’d tried something designed for kids which was unsuccessful (the product category wasn’t well defined: it wasn’t quite a toy and it wasn’t furniture). Then, during a vacation, an idea struck.

Peeler, via Wikipedia


He was cooking with his wife, who has arthritis, when she complained about the pain in her hands while using a potato peeler. Having a background in architecture and design, she asked if he could do something about it, in particular, ‘make a better handle.’ It struck him that there hadn’t been much done in the design of comfortable kitchen gadgets—let alone any developed to be accessible to everyone in an affordable price range. In this case, the design thinking process was kicked off by educated intuition: while not actively looking, two people were open and aware enough to observe a basic challenge in daily life, then began an inquiry asking why and how.

Good Grips Prototype For A Peeler, 1990; Designed by Davin Stowell and Daniel Formosa; USA; santoprene, polypropelene, metal; L x W x D: 18.8 x 3.5 x 2.5 cm (7 3/8 in. x 1 3/8 in. x 1 in.); Gift of Smart Design, Inc.; 2011-50-20 – via Cooper Hewitt collection.

The process involved lots of research into what people would need, studying existing handles of all kinds (including those found on bikes). Hundreds of prototypes were made and tested using various materials and shapes. With the enlisted help of Smart Design (an OG for the truly multidisciplinary team of graphic and industrial designers, engineers, and more), they created what has become an icon of industrial design. See the final version here.


“I am the wisest man alive, for I know one thing, and that is that I know nothing.”Plato, The Republic


So, how does one effectively “design think”? I’ve taught quite a few fundamental and intermediate graphic design courses and found that much of what I needed to teach was first how to think and how to see. For most, the presumption of graphic design is that it involves decoration: an arbitrary arrangement of color, images, and fun fonts. And, much like the unfortunate stereotype of artists, we move these things around to a final pleasing position. While there is an ‘art’ to the form of both art making and design, if these things are only built from this premise, we neglect any true purpose for each and merely create mediocre works. I’ve always considered the key difference between art and design creation is that the former is based upon problem solving for ideas created by the artist internally, while the latter is based upon problem solving for challenges provided to the designer. Both utilize design thinking, aka the creative process.

The design [thinking] process goes generally like this:

  • Brief: The problem/challenge to address
  • Research: Study of everything from the audience, to the service/product, to the organization/company, market trends, industry, et cetera
  • Concept/Design: Ideas derived from the research to provide a potential solution
  • Prototype: Test the design to gather feedback
  • Refine: Adjust the design based upon feedback gathered
  • Implement: Launch the design

Design thinking is the structured manner in which I could teach my students how to see and think about design making. The system isn’t second nature, otherwise Arnold would have been out of a job. The mind has to be trained to think this way automatically. The process itself is rooted in means of inquiry like the Five Ws—Who, What, When, Where, Why—whose influence extend far back into ideas philosophers Aristotle and Socrates explored in Ancient Greece.

Design thinking is intended to be a process of working in a way that may be a little more intuitive to some (I’ll save the subject and controversy of intuition for another time). Before we get out of the gate to begin design, we must first understand what the design is for and a possible desired outcome. It doesn’t matter if the approach is more conceptual or formal—either means follows the same process and has a purpose or end goal. The best designers, and arguably, artists, work this way and the most innovative and/or resonate work is often the end result of it. Building upon reknowned American psychologist Joy Paul Guilford’s factors of “divergent thinking”, Arnold outlined key attributes for the creative mindset as:

  • Problem Sensitivity
  • Fluency
  • Flexibility
  • Originality
  • Daringness
  • Drive
  • Confidence

While anyone can learn the process of design thinking, it alone won’t provide new or innovative ideas. Design thinking is a tool of many tools for the creative process. It’s application with critical and creative thinking—along with skills gained as a part of study and design education—foster an environment of thought which can establish imaginative ideas and solutions.

Design thinking provides structure and definition to the often invisible, and seemingly mundane.




Sources/More Reading:

Ideo “Design Thinking” 

Harvard Business Review “Why Design Thinking Works”

The Society for Research Into Higher Education, “Creativity, a Select Review of Research”

Wikipedia, “John E. Arnold”

Theoretical Foundations of Design Thinking. Part I: John E. Arnold’s Creative Thinking Theories

Stanford Webinar – Design Thinking = Method, Not Magic

University of Southern California, “Studies of Aptitudes of High Level Personnel” by J.P. Guilford, Ralph Hoepfner

Fast Company, “The untold story of the vegetable peeler that changed the world”, by Mark Wilson