Design Thinking, 1992-Style

The term design thinking has gained a lot of attention recently, but it’s actually been around for over fifteen years. The earliest mention of it I’m aware of is from an essay by Richard Buchanan (former professor at CMU, now at Case Western), in the journal Design Issues. It was titled “Wicked problems in design thinking.”

Coincidentally, this essay was the first place where I ran across the concept of wicked problems, something which I would return to years later.

Here are some excerpts from it. I think it’s striking how much it presages of current ideas on design thinking.

Despite efforts to discover the foundations of design thinking in the fine arts, the natural sciences, or most recently, the social sciences, design eludes reduction and remains a surprisingly flexible activity. No single definition of design, or branches of professionalized practice such as industrial or graphic design, adequately covers the diversity of ideas and methods gathered together under this label.

There is no area of contemporary life where design — the plan, project, or working hypothesis which constitutes the “intention” in intentional operations — is not a significant factor in shaping human experience.

To gain some idea of how extensively design affects contemporary life, consider the four broad areas in which design is explored throughout the world by professional designers and by many others who may not regard themselves as designers:

  1. Symbolic and visual communications
  2. Material objects
  3. Activities and organized services
  4. Complex systems or environments for living, working, playing and learning

Reflecting on this list…it is tempting to identify and limit specific design professions within each area… But this would not be adequate, because these areas are not simply categories of objects that reflect the results of design. Properly understood and used, they are also places of invention shared by all designers, places where one discovers the dimensions of design thinking by a reconsideration of problems and solutions.

There are so many examples of conceptual repositioning in design that it is surprising no one has recognized the systematic pattern of invention that lies behind design thinking in the twentieth century.

Design problems are “indeterminate” and “wicked” because design has no special subject matter of its own apart from what a designer conceives it to be. The subject matter of design is potentially universal in scope, because design thinking may be applied to any area of human experience.

[W]hat many people call “impossible” may actually only be a limitation of imagination that can be overcome by better design thinking. This is not directed toward a technological “quick fix” in hardware but toward new integrations of signs, things, actions and environments that address the concrete needs and values of human beings in diverse circumstances.

The essay is reprinted in the book The Idea of Design