The scandal called Design Thinking: Where did it come from and who coined
the term “human-centered design”?

I was listening to a TED talk by Tim Brown, president and CEO of IDEO, when the inspiration to write this article hit me. Tim conducted an experiment in real time: He asked the audience (about 300 people) to take a piece of paper and a pencil,  and in no more than 30 seconds, draw the person sitting next to them.

“Let’s see, those masterpieces! Already? We stopped! Very well! Now!” exclaimed the speaker through my headphones. He infected me with emotion and at the same time left me thinking, “Is this how I will listen to myself in creative sessions with clients?” (We would have to make an appointment to find out…)

An awkward silence fell over the crowd, and then was slowly broken with comments such as: “Shame on me!”, “I don’t know how to draw…”, accompanied by looks of astonishment that shouted: “Is that me?”, “Is this how I look?” … Here I leave the rest of the talk so you can see it for yourself: Tim Brown: Tales of creativity and play | TED Talk

And what is behind this simple but powerful exercise? The experiment was initially created for children, not adults, but it works the same way. The culprit was Bob McKim, a creativity researcher in the 1960s who headed the design program at Stanford University.

Brown said that the reaction of adults is different because we fear the judgment of our peers, we are ashamed to show our ideas, and that fear makes us conservative in our thinking. Quite contrary to the reaction of the children, who would display their drawings proudly, as if it were a work of art, happy to repeat the exercise if necessary.

You might conclude from this that our ability to innovate and be creative is drastically reduced by the time we become adults. One of the requirements when growing is to look to the future: what we do today has an impact on the future. But I know that we have a reflection of that little boy or girl hidden within us. What if we invited you to play?

The real discovery was before, not after

One hundred years earlier, at the Bauhaus Group in Germany, concepts such as teamwork, the elimination of hierarchies in the innovation process and the project’s focus on user needs began to be worked on.

The way of solving problems that this exploration developed went beyond the design of products and delved into designing services in areas such as politics, education, and society. They responded to bigger societal challenges, exploring the emotional side of the end user.

Currently, the concepts have been established as the leading methodology in people learning and information management to create products and services. The possibility of a convergence between art and technique, providing a method of design, problem solving, is based on creation and verification.

I am referring to Design Thinking, and here I show a summary of the schools, people and movements that laid the foundations for this ancient process:

  • Bob McKim was the one who coined the term “human-centered design”. It was in the 1960s that McKim joined Matt Kahn, from the Art Department, to develop the Joint Program in Design at Stanford University. McKim introduced “the need to search.”
  • A decade later, David Kelley enrols as a student in the McKim program. Bob took notice of him and the following year he brought him into his department. After 13 years teaching at Stanford, David became a full professor and in 1991 founded IDEO in Palo Alto, California.
  • In 2004, David Kelley founded the at Stanford, where the term Design Thinking was born. It was a decision that continues to have its impact felt, since David promoted it as a way of thinking–it is a design methodology characterized by creativity, multidisciplinarity, and teamwork.
  • From here, we return to Tim Brown and his TED talk. It was in a 2008 Harvard Business Review article where he defined Design Thinking, and in 2009 he expanded the definition in the book Change By Design. The book made the term and methodology world-famous.
  • Since the publication of Change By Design, the methodology has spread throughout the world, mainly in the business environment, but also in the public sector. It is applied as a common language for collaborative work and as a methodological basis for disciplines such as Service Design, UX Design (User Experience Design) and User Centered Design, among others.

One of the most popular references are the 3 I’s of Design Thinking, created by IDEO, and inspired by the evolution of Design Thinking:

  • Inspiration (Are you clear about who the solution is for?)

First, you need to write in a sentence what you want to design, since your success will depend on this. A short and easy to remember phrase. Once you have the statement, you need to create a plan that considers the pains, wishes and hopes of your users.

  • Immersion (What is most important to your customers?)

In this phase, you can help yourself with collages, drawings, maps and tools that can facilitate the documentation of the immersion you carry out with your potential clients. Spend a day with them and see what they do, what they say, what they think.

  • Ideation (What design opportunities exist?)

To finish, at this stage you will have to make tangible all this that you learned by making prototypes based on your ideas that you will then show to your potential clients and from which you will receive feedback about it. This is trial and error, and the more times you do it, the better results you will get.

And how is this methodology related to our inner child? Both do not judge, they do not have prejudices like us, and most importantly, they live the present with surprise, with amazement, enjoying everything we do. That unconsciously shapes our future. Change the rules of the game and position the variables in your favour, the one who tries the hardest, the fastest fails! And he who does not fail, loses.

The key is to observe the world with the eyes of an adult, but to paint details in it as we would as children, seeking to reach where the impossible meets the unthinkable to create the marvellous. I can best summarize this for you through the six principles for people-centered design that drive us to be creative, renew ourselves, and never stop dreaming:

  • Empathy

Understanding people and users is a great effort: understanding their needs, why and how they do things, what really gives them value in order to design solutions that make sense to them.

  • Observation

Gather ideas about how the user feels in a certain environment, what her relationship with that environment is like, what he really needs, his experiences, what he says and does in that environment.

  • Conscious conversations

What others do does not always match what they say they do. The challenge is to be able to reflect how people feel and act in the truest and most authentic way possible based on the thought systems and values ​​that define them.

  • Images and artifacts

Using objects and artefacts to understand people often leads to new responses and ways of understanding. If we give people something to react to, we will discover something new about them.

  • Learn from extremes

The wide spectrum of users can give us key indications about people’s behaviour. Thinking about who might have opposing values ​​can open new paths and responses that add value to the design process.

  • Synthesis

A good way to synthesise information is by generating conceptual maps, identifying patterns or signs, elements that are repeated in the experience of several people. This information base will form the foundation of the project.

People-centered design processes facilitate innovation and differentiation in solutions for users and, in turn, for the company and society. For this reason, design has a strategic value that must be taken into account in decision-making in order to add positive value to the world, helping to improve people’s quality of life.

I agree that you have to differentiate yourself, but that creativity and innovation must pivot between the different stages of the process and adapt to collaborate and co-create until you reach disruption. In the next article, we will go deeper into Immersive Design Thinking.