Björn Rust (he/him) is a post-industrial designer cum researcher, innovator and educator, developing context-sensitive innovation practices for people, planet and beyond.

Recent writings

  1. Opportunity hoarding
  2. Doing away with bullshit
  3. The course of my life, so far

Design Thinking Meets Development Thinking

During the last decade, design thinking has been treated as a panacea with apparently boundless applications. The walls of classrooms and offices the world over have been characteristically plastered in sticky notes doubtlessly bearing the words ‘empathise’ and ‘synthesise’. This explosive enthusiasm for design thinking has lead to an uncomfortable relationship with this half-century old tool within the ranks of traditionally trained designers. To this group, the widely marketed, commoditised and corporatised version bears little resemblance to the cognitive process that evolved out of the likes of MIT during the mid-to-late 20th century.

Yet there is little question that design thinking when appropriately applied yields surprising outcomes, particularly when approaching complex systems with ambiguous variables. It is in these spaces that design thinking has the most potential. However, it is unclear if design thinking can be universally applied across industries, as the continuing evolution of design practice is presenting doubts over how to identify the process (Di Russo 2016, p.1).

This paper attempts to identify the principal components of design thinking by way of its historical context, and compares those to the properties of contemporary humanitarian reform. The goal of this paper is to determine: if the conditions that were applied to design during the mid-to-late 20th century were applied to other industries today, could they too evolve a cognitive process equivalent to design thinking, or otherwise deeply integrate a third way of knowing beyond science and the humanities?

Defining Design Thinking

Definitions of design thinking vary wildly from one industry to another as it is reinterpreted to fit the modes of thinking in its adopted environment. In its original form, it essentially describes how designers apply experimentation and empathy to arrive at innovative, human-centred solutions within their practice. It is a means of approaching complex problems, sometimes referred to as ‘wicked problems’, a term coined by Horst Rittel to describe their unique and ambiguous nature.

Design thinking is the cognitive component of the design process; the other is the craft. There remains a small degree of uncertainty surrounding how much of a designer’s instinctive precognition, as Victor Papanek (1984) put it, plays a roll in the results of the process. This plays into the question of whether or not design thinking is a mindset unique to designers or a transferable process. One might argue that sufficient experience with design thinking is all that is required to arrive at a point where instinctive precognition can occur. However, this does not take into account the effects that selection bias has on the population of successful designers or design thinkers.

Beyond the scholarly understanding of design thinking, the majority of what is understood about the methodology or praxis of design thinking stems from the work of commercial firms IDEO and Frog, and the Stanford D.School. Even so, as Stefanie Di Russo (2016) points out in her doctoral thesis Understanding the behaviour of design thinking in complex environments:

»Numerous authors have attempted to define and refine design thinking, with most claiming that design thinking has no common consensus within the design community« (Di Russo 2016, p.281).

The Origins of Design Thinking

Design thinking is by no means new; its perceived newness may be an artefact of the growing value of design within western culture. Design-centric brands have seen measurable commercial advantage over their competitors. In 2015, The Design Management Institute reported that design-led companies outperformed the S&P by 211% over the ten years during which it was collecting data ( 2015).

The origins are much more humble, and far less commercial. It was the design methods movement lead by the likes of Horst Rittel in the 1950-1960s that signalled the beginning of an ongoing debate over the process and methodology of design (Di Russo 2016, p.12). Ultimately, in the most reductive assessment of the era, two pillars emerged, each with their respective champions. The first was the Design Science camp lead by Herbert Simon and Buckminster Fuller. The second was the social school with Victor Papanek at its helm.

But these were not then, as they are not now, mutually exclusive. Ultimately it is an amalgamation of the two that has given birth to the evidence-based, outcomes-orientated, human-centred practice that now defines design. Remarkably, this language is now very much at home in the humanitarian sector. Initiatives like Doing Development Differently (DDD), Charter for Change (C4C), and most recently the Grand Bargain (GB) outline ways of working that would feel remarkably familiar to students of design.

Scientising Design

Design, as it is now understood, is a relatively new profession. As recently as the 1960s, design was not defined according to its terms. It was not until 1962 that a group of scholars initiated that process at The Conference on Systematic and Intuitive Methods in Engineering, Industrial Design, Architecture and Communications in London (Di Russo 2016, p.12). Among its objectives was to distinguish design practice from art and engineering, which the profession still struggles with to this day. In fact, Buckminster Fuller, who was among those shaping the design profession at the time, famously proclaimed that:

»A designer is an emerging synthesis of artist, inventor, mechanic, objective economist and evolutionary strategist.«

It’s no wonder then that the profession struggles with an ongoing identity crisis. This struggle is due in part to the way in which design has further fragmented over the years. It is crucial to understand that for many designers, the craft of design is inseparable from the process of design, which today bears the name design thinking.

During those early years, that distinction did not universally exist. In the 1960s, industrial design praxis was chiefly data-driven. However the outcome was not the process itself, as it is in design thinking today. Like architects and engineers, every decision was tied to quantifiable facts, the outcomes of which could be objectively measured and iterated. Herbert Simon (1969), in particular, was a great believer in the cognitive process of design which he shared in his book The sciences of the artificial. Therein he declares that engineering is »concerned with ‘synthesis’, while science is concerned with ‘analysis’«, and that the work of the engineer/designer should be understood as artificial. In Chapter 5, ‘The Science of Design: Creating the Artificial’, Simon (1969) does, however, explain that:

»Engineers are not the only professional designers. Everyone designs who devises courses of action aimed at changing existing situations into preferred ones. The intellectual activity that produces material artifacts is no different fundamentally from the one that prescribes remedies for a sick patient or the one that devises a new sales plan for a company or a social welfare policy for a state.« (p.111)

This is a significant declaration that speaks to the universality of the design process, perhaps acknowledging that design is among the oldest and most fundamental human activities. However, while that might be true, Design Science remains a highly specialised pursuit, which has its roots firmly planted at MIT in the mid-1950s. It was there that Buckminster Fuller began developing new systematic methods to evaluate and solve problems. Surrounded by a cross- disciplinary team of specialists, Fuller was able to approach complex systemic issues, much like those faced in disaster scenarios. But in doing this with non-designers, he began to lay the foundation for contemporary design thinking, which is today as popular among corporate executives as it is in the studios of IDEO, Frog, or the D.School. Among Fuller’s most lasting legacies in design thinking is his rigorous process-orientated approach, which was highly outcomes orientated. By measuring results, Fuller was able to repeat successful projects.

Empathising Design

By the 1970s, Victor Papanek had developed a comprehensive alternative model to that presented by the Design Science proponents. In his seminal book Design for the Real World: Human Ecology and Social Change published in 1971, Papanek presents a highly critical case against the state of design. He argued that design had become overly focused on aesthetics and was principally a tool used by marketers, not dissimilar to the way design thinking is often used today. Papanek argued that the role of design was to address the underlying needs of humanity and that designers had a moral obligation to that end. Like Fuller, Papanek believed that design should be cross-disciplinary and research-oriented. The two men were after all close allies, with Fuller having written the preface to the first English language edition of Design for the Real World. However, Papanek was a far greater advocate for the integration of anthropology into design practice as a means of arriving at more socially and ecologically responsible solutions. He argued that design must elevate beyond process methodologies and standard models of best practice (Di Russo 2016, p.18). Ultimately his socially orientated practice, which increasingly incorporated vernacular sensibilities, saw Papanek collaborating with the likes UNESCO and the World Health Organization ( 2011).

Distinctly Design

The question of whether or not design is distinct from Fuller’s science or Papanek’s humanities is still in debate, albeit, less fierce than in the 1960s. However, one scholar and co-creator of the Design Methods Movement, Bruce Archer expressed little doubt. He believed design represented a third distinct way of knowing. In an article published in the journal Design Studies, Archer (1979) explained:

»The repository of knowledge in Science is not only the literature of science but also the analytical skills and the intellectual integrity of which the scientist is the guardian. The repository of knowledge in the Humanities, not simply the literature of the humanities but also the discursive skills and the spiritual values of which the scholar is the guardian. In Design, the repository of knowledge is not only the material culture and the contents of the museums but also the executive skills of the doer and maker.« (p.20)

While this makes the point that those who have not studied ‘designerly ways of knowing’, to borrow from Neil Cross (2001), may not be equipped to apply its process. It does suggest, as Simons (1969) did a decade earlier, that designers do not have a monopoly on design. Design is a characteristic inherent in all human activity; this is not to say that all humans can design well or have the necessary aptitude to design on demand, just that it is a predisposition that can be enhanced through education as plainly as science and the humanities.


During the 1980–1990s scholars began reflecting on the foundations laid by the likes of Fuller, Papanek, and Archer. It was during this period that the term design thinking was formalised as the title of Peter Rowe’s book in 1987.

In 1991, Nigel Cross, along with Norbert Roozenburg and Kees Dorst initiated The Design Thinking Research Symposium to consolidate experimental and scientific research on the cognitive aspects underpinning design practice (Di Russo 2016, p.23). The investigations lead by the likes of Cross during this time into the habits and mindsets of designers became the foundations for the transferability of design tools into other professional contexts.

By the end of the 1990s, with design comprehensively deconstructed, the stage was set for its central innovation to be superimposed on any system facing wicked problems by anyone who cared to impose it. This understanding of design thinking as a transferable cognitive process, distinct from science and the humanities, yet still evidence-based and socially orientated as is now the dominant paradigm. In the words of Nigel Cross (1999):

»We have come to realize that we do not have to turn design into an imitation of science, nor do we have to treat design as a mysterious, ineffable art. We recognize that design has its own distinct intellectual culture; its own designerly ‘things to know, ways of knowing them, and ways of finding out about them’« (p.7).

Design Thinking Meets Development Thinking

Design does not maintain a monopoly over wicked problems. In reality, the humanitarian sector faces among the most wicked problems to be found. The question that this sector must reflect on is whether or not design thinking offers tools significantly different from their own. Recent initiatives like the Grand Bargain, presented during the 2016 World Humanitarian Summit, are already making recommendations on participatory practice, which mirrors the language of design thinking and its subroutine, human-centred design.

In actuality, the manner in which participatory practice is described by Nabeel Hamdi of Oxford Brookes University is in many ways more sensitive than the way some of its earliest adopters in the UTOPIA project did (Sundblad, 2011). This may be in part due to the vastly different context, humanitarian assistance when compared to human-computer interaction. But it may also be a product of the nature of the discourse surrounding modernist development when compared with modernist design. The former has contented with aid critics and scathing post-developmental theorists, while the latter still enjoys praise to this day.

A cursory unpacking of Hamdi’s (2017) preferred definition of participation, namely, »responsibility with authority in partnership with other stakeholders«, reveals just how carefully crafted it is. Hamdi suggests that responsibility, the first component of the definition, is inseparable from rights, and fundamental to efficient work. While authority represents the inevitable strategic agenda of power-sharing, and partnership is what gives participation meaning (Unhabitat. org 2017).

By contrast in IDEO’s Field Guide to Human-Centered Design, published in 2015, a co-creation session is described as »a great way to get feedback on your ideas and bring people deeper into the process« (p.109). The objective is a very pragmatically articulated, but students of post-development theory will immediately note the emphasis on ‘your ideas’. This is not raised to condemn the process—Co-Creation is an incredibly powerful tool, which has been poorly applied by designers and humanitarians alike. IDEO’s clumsy language simply illustrates just how easily inclusive language can become a Trojan Horse for the same dominant, ethnocentric, and technocratic approach that has dogged development practice for the past 75 years. It is essential that ‘participatory development’ doesn’t merely become a new ‘siren song’ as Serge Latouch (1993) describes it. It is for this reason that design thinking must be deeply understood before being implemented. Design thinking is not a double diamond (Design Council), or simple a three-phase process (IDEO), it is a professional mindset that can no sooner be synthesised than the scientific method.

However, there remains a more fundamental question as to where participation or co-creation is most appropriately applied. Considering the Disaster Management Cycle’s four stages—Mitigation, Preparedness, Response, and Recovery—at first glance it would appear that the Recovery and the subsequent Mitigation and Preparedness stages offer the greatest opportunities for co-creation. Including recently affected populations in co-creation during the response phase may be extremely sensitive. For instance, observational assessment methods can have severe consequences (Schryen and Wex, 2012). But with authority, as per Hamdi’s definition, it too may assist in sympathetically transforming the political economy of development, so that affected communities are empowered to craft their own futures. Ideally, local actors should be given every opportunity to apply their vernacular knowledge, neither post-developmental theorists likes of Arturo Escobar (1995) and Majid Rahnema (1996) or designers like Victor Papanek (1971) would disagree. As per the recommendations of the Charter for Change (2015), the humanitarian sector should not undermine local capacity.

Design thinking encourages practitioners to embrace problems. The process of ‘problem setting’ is among the most crucial components of the process. The objective of this exercise is to assist in approaching the problem, before attempting to solve it. This too may have functional equivalents in the traditional disaster response space, albeit with far less clarity. One such example might be Ed Blakely’s first of five steps within his process phase, which is the first of seven phases. Blakely recommends before taking any action that practitioners first acknowledge the problem.

If the Design Council’s Double Diamond were to be superimposed, Blakely’s first action would sit in the Discover quadrant. In this divergent stage of the process, a design thinker would be encouraged to explore the problem in the broadest possible sense. Next is Blakely’s second of five steps: ‘Identify the extent of the problem’. This sits in the next quadrant of the Double Diamond, known as the Define quadrant, which appears within a convergent stage that encourages a narrowing focus so to arrive at a definition. At this point, the process will have generated a brief, which would inform Blakely’s third step: ‘Invite recovery and development authorities’. This step, along with the actions of the briefed authorities—which is Blakely’s fourth step—sits within the Development quadrant, which is the second of the divergent phases. Students of the D.School might be prototyping at this point. Finally, Blakely suggests delivering a plan to inform the remaining six phases of his framework. With that, his process has arrived at the Delivery quadrant of the Double Diamond, representing the model’s endpoint.

The danger of applying a design thinking model such as the Double Diamond in this way is that it scientises the process in such a way that discounts the ‘designerly ways of knowing’ as described by Cross. It can reduce a process intended to be non-linear into something quite the opposite. Design thinking encourages testing, learning, and retesting; it is a process that rewards those who are nimble, solutions-orientated, and collaborative—traits that are as desirable among designers as they are among contemporary humanitarians.

Both design and the humanitarian sector have endured a great deal of change during the 20th century. By way of scholarly deconstruction both have arrived at new definitions of themselves, and both, as if by way of zeitgeist, have arrived at an evidence-based and human-centric mode of practice.

Design is intrinsic to human behaviour, as many scholars agree, yet western culture fails to decouple design process from design craft. So often design is synonymous with its physical manifestations. The popularity of design thinking has not broadly altered this perception; it has merely added to the minutia of the profession. Very few understand design as a third way of knowing alongside science and humanities.

The humanitarian sector does not need designers. It requires practitioners prepared to operate amidst all three ways of knowing. Dispense with the word design, and it is encumbered by its legacy in art and craft. Instead, nurture the conditions that yielded this new way of knowing so all industries can arrive at a more holistic way of work.


Archer, B. (1979). Design as a discipline. Design Studies, 1(1), pp.17-20.
Cross, N. (2001). Designerly Ways of Knowing: Design Discipline Versus Design
Science. Design Issues, 17(3), pp.49-55.
Di Russo, S. (2016). Understanding the behaviour of design thinking in complex
environments. (2015). The Value of Design – Design Management Institute. [online]
Available at: [Accessed 3 Nov. 2017]. The Field Guide to Human-Centered Design. (2015). San Francisco: IDEO.
Latouche, S. (1993). In the wake of the affluent society. Atlantic Highlands, N.J.: Zed Books. (2011). Victor J. Papanek | About | Papanek Foundation. [online] Available at: [Accessed 5 Nov. 2017].
Papanek, V. [1971] (2016). Design for the Real World. London: Thames & Hudson. Schryen, G. and Wex, F. (2012). IS Design Thinking in Disaster Management
Simon, H. (2008). The sciences of the artificial. Cambridge, Mass. [u.a.]: MIT Press.
Sundblad, Y. (2011). UTOPIA: Participatory Design from Scandinavia to the World. IFIP Advances in Information and Communication Technology, pp.176-186. (2017). Participation in practice – Nabeel Hamdi, Oxford Brookes University – UN-Habitat. [online] Available at: [Accessed 28 Oct. 2017].

Further Readings

Buchanan, R. (1992). Wicked Problems in Design Thinking. Design Issues, 8(2), p.5-21.
Buckminster Fuller – the 1972 Playboy Interview. (1972). Playboy, (vol. 19, no. 2), pp.59-76.
Cross, N. (1999). Design Research: A Disciplined Conversation. Design Issues, 15(2), p.5-10.
Escobar, A. (1995). Encountering Development. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. (2014). Bringing Disaster Relief Home. [online] Available at: [Accessed 3 Nov. 2017]. (2014). Shelter from the Storm. [online] Available at: [Accessed 29 Oct. 2017].
Fuller, R. and Snyder, J. (2015). Operating manual for spaceship earth. Baden: Lars Müller Publishers. (2017). Grand Bargain. [online] Available at: [Accessed 29 Oct. 2017].
Kolko, J. (2015). Design Thinking Comes of Age. [online] Harvard Business Review. Available at: [Accessed 3 Nov. 2017].
McKay, J. (2015). Developing Preparedness and Recovery Plans with Design Thinking. [online] Available at: [Accessed 3 Nov. 2017].
Rahnema, M. and Bawtree, V. (1996). The post-development reader. London: Zed Books, pp.377-404.
Szczepanska, J. (2017). Design thinking origin story plus some of the people who made it all happen. [online] Medium. Available at: [Accessed 3 Nov. 2017].
Tjendra, J. (2014). The Origins of Design Thinking. [online] WIRED. Available at: [Accessed 3 Nov. 2017].
Turnali, K. (2016). Empathy, Design Thinking, And An Obsession With Customer- Centric Innovation. [online]Forbes. Available at: [Accessed 3 Nov. 2017].
VanHemert, K. (2014). FEMA Enlists Designers to Rethink Disaster Relief. [online] WIRED. Available at: [Accessed 29 Oct. 2017].

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