IDEO is often credited with inventing the term “design thinking” and its practice. In fact, design thinking has deep roots in a global conversation that has been unfolding for decades. At IDEO, we’ve been practicing human-centered design since our beginning in 1978, and took up the phrase “design thinking” to describe the elements of the practice we found most learnable and teachable—empathy, optimism, iteration, creative confidence, experimentation, and an embrace of ambiguity and failure. We knew from experience that our clients valued these skills as much as they valued the designs we created for them. That moved us to share the mindsets, approaches, and skills of design thinking. You’ve likely heard the proverb: Give someone a fish, and they’ll have food for a day; teach someone to fish, and they’ll have food for life. That applies to design thinking. We want to teach people how to use design thinking in their lives, communities, businesses, and organizations.

The Evolution of Design Thinking

As a mindset and methodology, design thinking is relatively young. In comparison, the scientific method has stood centuries of rigorous investigation; and modern management practices such as Six Sigma and lean manufacturing have benefited from decades of practice and examination. Design thinking has seen just 15 or so years of widespread adoption. For the most part, it’s still largely a set of heuristics for guiding team-based collaboration.

The essence of the practice was a response to the question of what design had to contribute to the modern world. Designer and scholar Richard Buchanan framed this ongoing challenge for design thinking in 1992 through the notion of “wicked problems,” though scholars trace the term farther back, to 1935, with John Dewey and the melding of aesthetics and engineering principles for a new age. Buchanan built on theorist Horst Rittel’s challenge to designers in the early 1970s to move from solving simple problems to “wicked problems”—problems that are complex, open-ended, and ambiguous. These are problems that do not lend themselves to easy judgments of “right” or “wrong.”

Today, design thinking has become common parlance in many industries and disciplines. The approach is fresh and effective, and newcomers can easily learn and engage productively with it. But it's also easy to get stuck in the basic motions of design thinking, while missing opportunities for fuller integration. As the concept has spread, it hasn't always retained a consistent meaning, nor a uniform depth. The term "design thinking" can be used as currency without a true commitment to understanding and applying the practice. At IDEO, we believe that applying design thinking with integrity means continuing to deepen and refine—to be lifelong learners and practitioners at the same time.

Leading up to the advent of design thinking, there were numerous approaches, practitioners, writers, and books that paved the way.
And in the decades before IDEO's founding, two significant and enduring works signaled an important direction in design:
  • Ken Garland's First Things First Manifesto called out the advertising industry's perversion of design principles and called for the application of design skills in service of social good.
  • Victor Papanek's Design for the Real World spoke to the need for design to address real-world problems in ways that consider the state of humanity and the planet.

And just as many individual thinkers preceded the articulation of design thinking as a mode unto itself, so a whole new set of individuals have become leaders and influencers in more recent decades, shepherding the ideas of design thinking into many new arenas and industries, where its potential has been proven again and again.

Across numerous fields, advanced practitioners are fostering design thinking by encouraging its use and adapting it to specific domains and applications.
  • Increasingly, developers are using design thinking alongside other design and development methods (e.g. agile and lean). Outside IDEO, there’s:
  • Shelley Goldman in K-12 education
  • Roger Martin and Jeanne Liedtka in business
  • Sarah Brooks in government (specifically, the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs)
  • Matteo Vignoli in food innovation
  • Carl DiSalvo and Liz Sanders in design research, among a long list of others
  • Antionette Carroll, an equity designer
  • Terry Irwin, who researches transition design, a new area of design that encourages societal transition toward more sustainable futures—something akin to design thinking on a systems level
Educational institutions contributing to the research, curriculum, and resources to the realm of design thinking include: