Who were the original design thinkers?

August 12, 2008

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?