Design thinking has a history extending from the 1950s and '60s, with roots in the study of design cognition and design methods. It has also been referred to as "designerly ways of knowing, thinking and acting" and as "designerly thinking".
Many of the key concepts and aspects of design thinking have been identified through studies, across different design domains, of design cognition and design activity in both laboratory and natural contexts. The term design thinking has been used to refer to a specific cognitive style (thinking like a designer), a general theory of design (a way of understanding how designers work), and a set of pedagogical resources (through which organisations or inexperienced designers can learn to approach complex problems in a designerly way). The different uses have given rise to some confusion in the use of the term.
Drawing on psychological studies of creativity from the 1940s, such as Max Wertheimer's "Productive Thinking" (1945), new creativity techniques in the 1950s and design methods in the 1960s led to the idea of design thinking as a particular approach to creatively solving problems. Among the first authors to write about design thinking were John E. Arnold in "Creative Engineering" (1959) and L. Bruce Archer in "Systematic Method for Designers" (1965).
In his book "Creative Engineering" (1959) Arnold distinguishes four areas of design thinking: novel functionality, i.e. solutions that satisfy a novel need or solutions that satisfy an old need in an entirely new way, higher performance levels of a solution, lower production costs or increased salability. Arnold recommended a balanced approach—product developers should seek opportunities in all four areas of design thinking: "It is rather interesting to look over the developmental history of any product or family of products and try to classify the changes into one of the four areas ... Your group, too, might have gotten into a rut and is inadvertently doing all of your design thinking in one area and is missing good bets in other areas."
Although L. Bruce Archer's "Systematic Method for Designers" (1965) was concerned primarily with a systematic process of designing, it also expressed a need to broaden the scope of conventional design: "Ways have had to be found to incorporate knowledge of ergonomics, cybernetics, marketing and management science into design thinking". Archer was also developing the relationship of design thinking with management: "The time is rapidly approaching when design decision making and management decision making techniques will have so much in common that the one will become no more than the extension of the other".
Arnold initiated a long history of design thinking at Stanford University, extending through many others such as Robert McKim and Rolfe Faste, who taught "design thinking as a method of creative action", and continuing with the shift from creative engineering to innovation management in the 2000s. Design thinking was adapted for business purposes by Faste's Stanford colleague David M. Kelley, who founded the design consultancy IDEO in 1991.
Bryan Lawson's 1980 book How Designers Think, primarily addressing design in architecture, began a process of generalising the concept of design thinking. A 1982 article by Nigel Cross, "Designerly Ways of Knowing", established some of the intrinsic qualities and abilities of design thinking that also made it relevant in general education and thus for wider audiences. Peter Rowe's 1987 book Design Thinking, which described methods and approaches used by architects and urban planners, was a significant early usage of the term in the design research literature. An international series of research symposia in design thinking began at Delft University of Technology in 1991. Richard Buchanan's 1992 article "Wicked Problems in Design Thinking" expressed a broader view of design thinking as addressing intractable human concerns through design, reprising ideas that Rittel and Webber developed in the early 1970s.