Design Thinking of Yore

Design Thinking (DT)has been — somewhat intentionally— misaligned with the historical evolution of Design and Design Theory. The main point I present here is that initial conceptualizations of Design were almost identical to DT’s hot themes such as co-design, holistic design, or prototyping, for example. These themes have been rebranded and popularized by wealthy and influential organizations in the 21st Century for their own benefit and profit, at times breaking important commitments of the Design field.

BAUHAUS was the first Design school, even though Design didn’t exist as a term. Its founder, Walter Gropius, often referred to the Gesamtkunstwerk, which can be translated as the total work of art, universal artwork, synthesis of the arts, all-embracing art form or total artwork. I personally think that total artwork is the best translation. Put simply, Gesamtkunstwerk defines a work of art that makes use of all or many art forms. The ultimate goal of the educational program developed by Gropius and other professors (artists, psychologists, engineers) at the BAUHAUS was to form designers capable of engaging in collaborative work to create total artwork.

More background. The BAUHAUS was established in Germany in 1919. Its founder believed that artists and architects should also be craftsmen, that they should have experience working with different practical techniques, artistic mediums, and disciplines, such as industrial design, architecture, fashion, theater, and music. An important part of the initial vision of the BAUHAUS is that Gropius did not see an artifact as being the work of a single hand. As described in the original manifesto written by Gropius, “BAUHAUS strives to bring together all creative effort into one whole, to reunify all the disciplines of practical art — sculpture, painting, handicrafts, and the crafts — as integral components of a new architecture. The ultimate, if distant, aim of the BAUHAUS is the unified work of art — the great structure (the total artwork).” Other design schools followed this interdisciplinary philosophy and slowly incorporated other disciplines into their curriculums, such as anthropology, psychology, mathematics, and systems engineering.

Nowadays, designers have taken on larger, more complex, and more technically challenging projects. It has become evident that they need a greater understanding of how systems and people work together. This is true at a general level (how culture works, how people act, how infrastructure works) as well as at a practical level (how perception, memory, and vision work). Unfortunately, both the large and the small bits of human behavior or social sciences are difficult to fit into a design curriculum, and they are typically excluded in favor of traditional “design” skills, such as typography, color theory, or product design. However, it is argued by Design Thinking ‘experts’ that a designer should be a generalist of the world, knowing a bit about everything. As known, the generalist concept is not new. The Bauhaus and the Ulm School of Design went through various iterations in their curriculum because of this concern. For example, after the introduction of systems engineering and advanced optics studies at Ulm, students organized protests, asking for more courses on “things that they would actually use in the real world.” The right balance between applicable technical skills and foundational knowledge has yet to be found in Design and Design related programs such as HCDE. Anyways, DT doesn’t provide a clear answer either.

For the present-day designer, Don Norman argues that “new skills are required, especially for such areas as interaction, experience, and service design… [These] require the understanding of human cognition and emotion, sensory and motor systems, and sufficient knowledge of the scientific method, statistics, and experimental design so that designers can perform valid, legitimate tests of their ideas before deploying them… Designers need to deploy microprocessors and displays, actuators and sensors… The old skills of drawing and sketching, forming and molding must be supplemented and in many cases, replaced, by skills in programming, interaction, and human cognition. Rapid prototyping and user testing are required, which also means some knowledge of the social and behavioural sciences, of statistics, and of experimental design.”

Again, Norman and DT advocates call for new skills or disciplines in Design, when in fact, this is a century-old concern in the field. This rebranding of old concepts without credit disrespects the work and history of many important, genuinely groundbreaking schools and designers and design educators.

Design Thinking was born in Silicon Valley, at Stanford more accurately, coined by figures of the likes of Kelley and Brown, who taught design courses at the and IDEO founders. As a side note, this tends to be a normal practice here in the United States, the land of marketing. Did you know pineapples are not from Hawaii? Or that hot dogs are not American at all? Jokes aside, by turning a whole field into a product that can be sold, such as Design Thinking was trademarked by IDEO, design fails at its most important commitments. Design fail sat bringing real people closer to design, which could ultimately make it a stronger field. To bring ‘Power back to the people’, as it’s said in UCD manifestos, one doesn’t need to pay thousands of dollars for a Masters degree at Stanford. Is Design Thinking generating segregation in the design field by means of access?

For example, prototyping might not be realistically applicable in a variety of contexts. Third-world country citizens can’t afford to waste resources to generate critical interventions in the world. Resources in many countries are scarce and expensive. When poor designers prototype, they use leftover materials collected in junkyards or trash — which may even be dangerous. How does Design Thinking account for that? Or is Design Thinking not really commited to democratizing design?

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Originally published at on May 6, 2016.