Who were the original design thinkers?

August 12, 2008 — 11 Comments

In my Harvard Business Review article I introduce the idea of design thinking with the example of Thomas Edison and the customer centered, systems thinking, approach that he took to the creation of the light bulb. The great engineer of Victorian England, Isambard Kingdom Brunel (pictured here), was also not a typical engineer. He cared about the experience his customers had when they traveled on his railways and steamships. He may have been a design thinker.

Something tells me that design thinking was widely spread long before design was seen as a profession and long before we started to write about it. The difference was that it was intuitive and its practitioners often seen as slightly odd. They were not typical inventors, engineers, artists or businessmen. They integrated aspects of all of these and they focused on creating solutions that met the needs of the customer. I believe that design thinking is part of a longer tradition of integrated, human centered, creative problem solving. The early examples were mavericks who used their intuition to determine how they approached and solved problems and created breakthrough ideas. Now we exist in a time where we need more than a few intuitive mavericks to tackle the challenges in front of us. We also exist in a time where we have compartmentalized ourselves into ever more specialist disciplines, using engineered processes to create incremental solutions. We need to be inspired to cut across boundaries to make new connections and insights. Some of the great mavericks of the past can provide such an inspiration. My list includes Brunel, Edison, Charles and Ray Eames, Akio Morita, Steve Jobs (of course), Ferdinand Porsche. Who else should be on the list?

Tim Brown


11 responses to Who were the original design thinkers?

  1. Two great design thinkers who I find inspiring are George Lucas and Jim Henson. Both helped reinvent entire industries with a combination of bootstrapping ingenuity, technical know-how, cultural insight, a flair for the visual, brilliant storytelling and business acumen.

    Lucas revolutionized movie special effects by teaming up with a collaborative bunch of sculptors, cameramen, filmmakers and artists. His multi-disciplinary team used novel camera rigs, odd angles, and miniature models to enhance the visuals in Star Wars — which led to a new era of movie special effects (and an entirely new company, ILM). As we all know, his endeavors spun off into several other businesses and technologies, including THX, LucasArts, LucasFilm and Skywalker Sound.

    Of course, by thinking differently about the business of film, Lucas also re-framed how films – and filmmakers – make money. Rather than take a director’s fee, he negotiated for the licensing rights to his characters, which later earned him hundreds of millions of dollars.

    While Henson didn’t create Sesame Street, he created the characters and built the puppets that brought the show’s innovative TV-meets-education mission to life. An innovator in puppetry, he introduced techniques that changed the way puppets were used on television – including using the frame defined by the camera to hide puppeteers (rather than a hollow stage). He made characters from flexible materials rather than wood and used sticks to control their arms, enabling them to express a greater range of emotions.

    Known for his humbleness and unpretentiousness, colleagues remarked that they never heard him raise his voice. When “He was not the sort who led by shouting at people or pointing out their inadequacies,” remarked a Creatureshop co-worker. “His was a very gentle hand on the tiller.”

    His Muppet characters were sold to Walt Disney for an undisclosed amount in 2004.

  2. It’d be interesting to think about it in the context of industries or categories. When it comes to thinking about the entire customer journey/experience, Walt Disney comes to mind. It’d also be neat to include folks that didn’t have commercial success, or had to struggle to great lengths before achieving their goals. Preston Tucker comes to mind as an example from the auto industry.

  3. These are all great examples. I think, recently, architects tend to stand out in this field. At least in the beginnings of the 20th century — the totality of experience (and perhaps a little God-complex) is central to Le Corbusier, Frank Lloyd Wright, but also the arts and crafts types, Bernard Maybeck and Julia Morgan. Who grew out of and along with the social reform movements and communities from the 19th century — New Harmony, IL, Chautauqua Movement and the Methodist Camp meeting communities. Or even Kellogg and his sanitarium, which of course had a product brand extension.

    I don’t know enough about Catholic history, but I assume there is a Pope in there that radically influenced the totality of the Catholic Mass.

  4. da vinci, of course, comes to mind.
    then everybody who mastered great works of engineering and married them with aesthetic grace – builders of temples, pyramids and cathedrals, builders of bridges, sky scrapers and so on.

    i would think that they fall into five main non-exclusive categories: A) the mavericks: loners, ego maniacs and inventors – who, driven by some instinct, felt that their creations did not only have to make sense in a technical way – and who also felt that a sense for aesthetic fit within the process of creation could also lead to an improved technical fit and an overall consistency (steve jobs would be included here, ingvar kamprad the ikea founder too)
    B) the heirs: people who inherited a well running family business (like alberto alessi or klaus-juergen maack of ERCO) but by their slightly more affluent upbringing they were not satisfied with a job just producing ordinary lamps or coffee pots.
    C) the breeders: people who seized an opportunity by identifying, collecting and transferring new concepts and ideas (willi fehlbaum of vitra comes to mind)
    D) the authors: people who developed a unique way of understanding and shaping the world and to tell their own story (charles and ray eames for example)
    E) the reformers: people who recognized the short-comings of the 21st century’s modern world only focused on the technological and numeric part of the equation and advocated a much broader and holistic approach (like walter gropius and buckminster fuller)

  5. correction:
    it has to be “… the short-comings of the 20th century modern world…” of course.

  6. ferri porsche would also fall under “B) the heirs” as he brought the porsche style to his father’s company.

    maybe one could also change “the heirs” into “the crown princes” – people to whom absolute and unquestionable power was transferred… – quite a necessary prerequisite for design thinking and doing.

  7. Dieter Rams? His highly rational approach to design still knocks my socks off. I have a book on the design output from Braun over the last 50 years and you can instantly pick out all the Rams objects. They’re just slightly more appealing. Slightly more pure. His 10 commandments are a great reference, and included sustainability as a goal even though they’re almost 30 years old. And Apple couldn’t help dropping his calculator design into the iPhone, in software form of course, as a homage. His impact is clearly still being felt.

    As a wild card I’d stick in Shigeru Miyamoto, inventor of Mario, Donkey Kong, Zelda and most of the rest of the Nintendo staple of characters, as well as the driving force behind the Wii. His clarity of vision, or maybe intuition, for what “fun” means is amazing, and he’s recently opened that up to a much broader audience then the typical Nintendo fanboy. Like Jobs I’ve heard he has great taste, but can’t always be specific about what that looks like. He knows it when he sees it.

  8. The “design thinkers” you mention had one trait that “invention thinkers” did not. Edison and Brunel were both clearly aware of the need for infrastructure for their inventions and invested in it heavily. Henry Ford also falls into this category.

    It wasn’t just good enough to have a light bulb. Others were inventing the same thing. It was necessary to have power generating stations, power transmission networks and light appliances. Edison thought about them all even before his team of inventors had achieved the bulb itself.

    Edison was thinking about Feasibility, Desirability, Quantifiability while others were just thinking about Viability.

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