Shaping of Design Thinking

I am intrigued by the sudden popularity of design thinking. Lot of invitations expect me to explain the idea of design thinking through workshops and lectures. Even in literature, design thinking as a term often referred to ‘things’ that other disciplines can use. These ‘things’ developed in practice. So, it is natural that these invitations are from people who are not involved in design. Not many design schools deal with design thinking as a course for design students. They seem to assume that design students will come to know it during their long exposure to the school pedagogy. Is design thinking only for ‘others’?

This is a series trying to explore the conceptions and misconceptions on design thinking. The idea is to provoke practicing designers and students to think on this topic and contribute to the blog, while I continue to express my views through periodic seed articles. Eventually, it could lead to developing a book that crystalizes crowd-sourced ideas.

Design thinking &/vs definition of design: Part I

When I was toying with these ideas in my mind, it occurred to me that it might be possible to understand design thinking and its scope through the way we view and define design. The questions and idea I was grappling with include ‘Do they mirrors to each other? Or the relationship is more be flexible and they merely influence each other?’ It is worth an attempt, but definitely not easy because of the breadth of the activities that designers seem to cover.

Bauhas was the foundation of integrated approach to modern design with focus on artifacts that included all tangible materials like objects, communication material (posters, films), crafts and architecture. The idea of modern design was initially artifact centered. The school also included visual and performing arts. Through its practices and teachings, school strived to create a new (visual) language and tools that reflected rapidly industrializing modern world. In spite of the variety in the manifested Bauhas outputs under one roof, there was a common vision, thinking and approach that these areas shared.

We have to face the facts that such vast scope of design activities makes the problem of precisely defining design a difficult task. More inclusive is the field, more difficult it is to articulate definition that cover all legitimate activities and exclude those, which fall outside its purview. Different disciplines within design seem to be united by Wittgenstein’s concept of family resemblance. So, it is little easier to capture definition of design within limited sub-disciplines, with each sharing different features or elements with others, without the entire category ‘design’ sharing something common. This idea is worth exploring, but it will shift our current focus on the relationship with design thinking.

I plan to focus on one of the disciplines I am familiar with, industrial design, knowing fully well that allied disciplines may share some issues and differ on others. With the holistic approach to design that we started with, it is difficult to justify this limited view. Let us accept this merely as a starting point. First attempt to define industrial design by ICSID1 in 1959. It shows how it evolved over time, responding to the changes in the context. ICSID’s struggle to redefine the scope of design activities and relevance continues even now.

Let me present the first definition of industrial design attempted in 1959. It reads as follows 2

“An industrial designer is one who is qualified by training, technical knowledge, experience and visual sensibility to determine the materials, mechanisms, shape, colour, surface finishes and decoration of objects which are reproduced in quantity by industrial processes. The industrial designer may, at different times, be concerned with all or only some of these aspects of an industrially produced object.

The industrial designer may also be concerned with the problems of packaging, advertising, exhibiting and marketing when the resolution of such problems requires visual appreciation in addition to technical knowledge and experience.

The designer for craft based industries or trades, where hand processes are used for production, is deemed to be an industrial designer when the works which are produced to his drawings or models are of a commercial nature, are made in batches or otherwise in quantity, and are not personal works of the artist craftsman.”

First definition is largely an artifact-centered understanding. Its key focuses include, mainly the artifact qualities and industrial processes. It also considered designer as an arbitrator of visual decision about the artifact and other artifact related materials and actions. In dealing with craft objects, it allowed exceptions with a riders like commercial nature and boundaries like ‘not a work of art’. While number of design schools continue to flourish in the faculty of visual art, it appears to see these as two separate activities.

In 1960, the definition became little more inclusive and added services that the artifact rendered. Note that his function was to give form to the object, but in the context of the positive impact on human life. The focus on artifact continued, but there was also a vague acceptance of technology. The 1960 definition reads as follows,

“The function of an industrial designer is to give such form to objects and services that they render the conduct of human life efficient and satisfying. The sphere of activity of an industrial designer at the present embraces practically every type of human artifact, especially those that are mass produced and mechanically actuated.”

In 1969, the definition was revisited. The new definition proposed by Tomas Maldonado was adopted. It reads as follows,

Industrial design is a creative activity whose aims is to determine the formal qualities of objects produced by industry. These formal qualities are not only the external features but are principally those structural and functional relationships which convert a system to a coherent unity both from the point of view of the producer and the user. Industrial design extends to embrace all the aspects of human environment, which are conditioned by industrial production.”

Three points are worth noting in the above definition. First, it broadened the scope to include all aspect of human environment, provided the artifacts were conditioned by industrial production. Second, it expressly referred to creating formal qualities. Third, the formal qualities were seen as part of internal coherent unity of the artifacts, thus making sure that it is separated from styling and superficial treatments.

Designing focused on creating ‘tangible’ artifacts, making them efficient, convenient, safer, cost effective, delightful and in some cases memorable. Continuing the Bauhas tradition, design approach covered a range of design outputs. These included new products, machines, packaging, advertisements, industrially produced architectural creations and so on. The difficulties in defining design that can include range that designers produced persisted. Continued reference to the designer’s responsibilities for formal qualities of their output remained but challenged the porous boundary between art and design.

Though ICSID dropped the definition subsequently and did without it for several decades, the struggle to redefine the scope of industrial design has been reemerging in the recent past. Digital world was creating new challenges prompting redefinition of design. We will touch this topic later in this article, but discuss it in-depth in future articles.

Latest definition reads as follows,

“Industrial Design is a strategic problem-solving process that drives innovation, builds business success and leads to a better quality of life through innovative products, systems, services and experiences”.

Key points of the latest definition include the following. First, it focuses on phrases like ‘strategic’, ‘driving innovation’ and its relationship with ‘business successes’. In doing that, it expresses the needs of the industry and businesses, making design relevant to them. Second, references to artifacts continue but also include intangible creations like ‘systems and services’ as well as ‘experiences’, no doubt prompted by new opportunities that the digital world offers.

Do concepts in design thinking and the definition of design overlap?

Let is return to the central question that we started with. Is there a close relationship between design thinking (and its scope) and the way we view and define design? Do they mirror and influence each other? When I started thinking about it, I had intuitive feeling that they would overlap, coevolve and influence each other. It turned out to right, at least partially. The new definition as well as the literature on design thinking, both see the new role of designer as a strategic problem solver. Both accept the new challenges thrown by the digital world by extending the scope to include user experiences and need to deal with system and networked services in its stride. Clearly, both seem to have coevolved. (A word of caution. We looked at this from a limited lens of industrial design. It is likely that the conclusion may alter a little, if we look at the other design disciplines.)

A closer look reveals that the connection between design thinking and definition of industrial design appears somewhat loose. Let me explain this. The phrase design thinking is coined recently and seems to have emerged through informal usage. It was meant to propagate design approach to ‘other’ disciplines. Design philosophies, processes and actions dealing with tangible artifacts understandably influenced the initial work on design thinking. The practitioners and teachers of design thinking picked and chose what they considered generic, appropriate and useful to the context of use. Lot of it dealt with the obvious; the user, empathy, iterative process, prototyping, business models and so on. In trying to refer to multiple activities that the designers normally cover, latest definition has become so compact that it has lost this direct focus on user, empathy and many other common practices in design. To discover them, one has to read between the lines. On the other hand, even a cursory look at literature on design thinking shows that it is over-obsessed with user orientation and empathy. Even more surprising is dropping references to formal qualities in the new definition. Is it because, ‘others’ did not need it?

In the context in which the phrase design thinking is used, it has yielded results and nobody questions this. While this propagation should continue, design thinking should also further develop as a full discipline. I plan to continue comparing design thinking and design definitions in part II of this article and explore overlaps or lack of them. We will ask wider and deeper questions to ourselves, to explore answers together.


1 An apex body of societies called International Council of Societies of Industrial Designers (ICSID)

2 Source for definitions of industrial design :