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Thinking about Design Thinking: an emerging literature?

For all the talk about design thinking, it is more than a little bit difficult to pin down just what it actually is. Who would be the definitive authority on the matter? Where is design thinking’s authoritative publication, its approved reading list, the schools which teach its tenets, organizations that instantiate its practice, or the guilds of bona fide practitioners of design thinking?

Does design thinking need all or any of these things in order to be considerate legitimate? And to be considered a legitimate what, exactly?

If, as many seem to assert, design thinking is indeed an important new capability, one that deserves a place alongside other strategic practices of business and management, then it seems reasonable that we ought be be definite about what it is exactly. That sounds easier than it is.

In line with Clay Shirky’s idea that we can now “organize without organizations” and David Weinberger’s notion that the mess of Internet culture and the disorder of our ideas is not something we necessarily have to fix, I am inclined to suggest that design thinking is not broken just because we can”t fit it into a neat schema of boxes (and arrows?).

But, neither can we accept that design thinking has no boundaries at all. Because for it to be even an idea, whatever else it might be, we have to have some minimal formula or criteria for what the idea includes, as well as what it rules out.

I recommend here a kind of light weight empiricism. Let’s start by looking at where we find the idea showing up and see what sense we can make of it as we follow it on a path from its emergence into language and along its way to shaping or informing behavior, practice, and, well…thinking.

There seems to be some consensus that the current usage of the phrase traces back to IDEO and to Tim Brown, in particular. It seems likely that instances of the term may pre-date the IDEO vernacular, but I’m happy to credit them with the genesis of the idea to give a baseline to what we all mean when we say or refer to design thinking. But, when push comes to shove, what is it precisely we are referring to when we use the phase in a sentence?

With all this in mind I offer up my very crude experiment into trying to identify the literature of design thinking, which I conducted on Twitter this morning (13 March 2009). I asked a network of people who have more than a passing interest in the currency of the idea of design thinking, what they would vote as their own top three books in the “field”.

I’ve ended up with an eclectic list of nearly 50 books from just over a dozen people, so far. What’s interesting is that only a very few books (most hits were on Roger Martin’s The Opposable Mind and John Maeda’s Laws of Simplicity, hmmm) were mentioned more than once.

I hope commenters will add still others, offer up reasons for why their choices belong on this list, suggest patterns and thoughts about emerging or organizing memes.

Mostly, I want to thank everyone who responded to my Tweets on this question. The list includes many titles I did not know, which I am now looking forward to becoming better acquainted with as I continue to puzzle over and think about design thinking.

P.S. As I get time and comments come in, I will both add to this list and link titles and authors as much as I’m able. I will also try to post the list with link text visible so others can borrow, add, remix, and share.

Ten Faces of Innovation, Tom Kelly
Business Model Generation, Alex Osterwalder (forthcoming)
Mental Models, Indi Young
Art of Innovation, Tom Kelly The Art of Innovation - Tom Kelly
Laws of Simplicity, John Maeda
Paradox of Choice, Barry Schwartz
Design Methods, John Chris Jones
Fifteen Things Ray & Charles Teach Us, Keith Yamashita
Design Management, Brigitte Borja de Mozota
Small Change, Nabeel Hamdi
A Whole New Mind, Dan Pink
Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jane Jacobs.
Abstracting Craft and/or Digital Ground, Malcolm McCullough
The Question Concerning Technology, Martin Heidegger
After Postmodernism, Jose Lopez & Garry Potter
The Social Construction of Reality, Peter L Berger & Thomas Luckmann
Writings on Cities, Henri Lefebvre
Understanding Material Culture, Ian Woodward
The Real World of Technology, Ursula Franklin
Macroshift, Evin Laszlo
Web of Life, Fritjof Capra
The Heart of Enterprise, Stafford Beer
Cradle to Cradle, William McDonough
The Opposable Mind, Roger Martin
Artful Making, Austin & Lee Devin
The Green Imperative, Victor Papanek
Massive Change, Bruce Mau
Designing Interactions, Bill Moggeridge
The Difference, Scott Page
Insatiable Curiosity, Helga Nowotny & Mitch Cohen
The Innovators Dilemma, Clayton Christensen
Naked Innovation, Zachary Jean Paradis & Dave McGaw
Consilience, E.O.Wilson
The Creative Priority, Jerry Hirshberg
Design Thinking, Peter G. Rowe
Art & Visual Perception, Rudolf Arnheim
Homo Ludens, Johan Huizing
Mechanization Takes Command, Siegfried Giedion
Inquiry by Design, John Zeisel
Sciences of the Artificial, Herbert Simon
A Simpler Way, Margaret Wheatley
The Creative Habit, Twyla Tharp
Sketching User Experiences, Bill Buxton
In the Bubble, John Thackara
Design Research, Brenda Laurel
Innovator’s Solution, Clayton Christensen & Michael Raynor
Critical Path, R. Buckminster Fuller
The Timeless Way of Building, Christopher Alexander


  1. Amy wrote:

    Thanks for this, Michael! It makes me want to quit InDesign and pick up a book this weekend.

    Saturday, March 14, 2009 at 8:33 am | Permalink
  2. Shajey Rumi wrote:

    I found these books very relevant:

    The Inmates Are Running the Asylum, Alan Cooper: - probably one of the best book in helping put user/consumer at the center of the design problem.

    Join the Conversation, Joseph Jaffe:- Its a wonderful thought shifting, idea gathering, conversation starting book.

    Saturday, March 14, 2009 at 8:36 am | Permalink
  3. Ros McKegney wrote:


    You’ve got to put something by Christopher Alexander on the list; either “A Pattern Language” which was important principally for building architects, or “A Timeless Way of Building” that popularized the democratization of design and had wide reaching influence on design practice across disciplines. These are not desk references on design, and for that perhaps they do not belong on the top-10 list. But if think of design as being a collaborative process between designer and consumer (as I do), then the Pattern concept that he introduced represents an incredibly important theoretical contribution to our state of practice.


    Saturday, March 14, 2009 at 8:40 am | Permalink
  4. Here’s a nice list of bookmarks from Paula Thornton. Thanks for sharing, Paula.


    Saturday, March 14, 2009 at 8:46 am | Permalink
  5. Gong Szeto wrote:

    masterful list, dear sir. of course, i’ve only read 1/4th of them. one book i’d recommend that you may or may not want to add is “The Sneetches” by Dr. Seuss. i find this parable timeless and explores the intersection of irrational behavior and market opportunism (how i define business, btw) —

    perhaps it can be a part of a parallel list that is not about DT/innophation per se, but just good relevant reading when you get utterly bored of proscriptive dogma ;-) on this list should be every cool-ass sci-fi flick ever made (utopian and well as dystopian).

    Saturday, March 14, 2009 at 9:15 am | Permalink
  6. Daniel wrote:

    Great post! My “to read” list just extended into 2014.

    My three to add to the list:

    Universal Principles of Design; lidwell, holden, butler
    A Pattern Language; Alexander
    The Path of Least Resistance; Fritz

    Bonus: Lateral Thinking; DeBono

    Saturday, March 14, 2009 at 10:17 am | Permalink
  7. Tanya wrote:

    If you want to include Rittel’s “wicked problems,” it’s Rittel and Weber, 1973 H. Rittel and M. Weber, Dilemmas in a general theory of planning, Policy Sciences Vol 4 (1973), pp. 155–169.

    Saturday, March 14, 2009 at 10:26 am | Permalink
  8. Tanya wrote:

    Two books that sum up the design thinking literature I’m familiar with would be “How designers think” by Bryan Lawson and then “Designerly ways of knowing” by Nigel Cross.

    Saturday, March 14, 2009 at 10:51 am | Permalink
  9. Michael, a great list for any of us to consider, and of course, drawn from a mighty club of thinkers on the Twitternet. I scan this and think of the books I skipped over myself because you asked for Top 3 in design thinking.

    Now, we could see this corpus as an inductive compilation of influences in DT. But I’d also wonder whether a deductive definition of DT would lead to a totally different list. I think of DT as a strategic discipline, so did not offer some favorites that seem like obvious misses from the list now that I see the compilation.

    If you expanded this to 100, I would add my next 3 as Papanek’s Design for the Real World, Sterling’s Shaping Things, and Flores’ Disclosing New Worlds. And where is Ivan Illich, von Hippel, Varela, Russ Ackoff? On the Social DT list? ;)

    Saturday, March 14, 2009 at 12:18 pm | Permalink
  10. Dave Gray also offered up a list he compiled, not on design thinking per se, but he understandably thought it relevant:

    Saturday, March 14, 2009 at 1:47 pm | Permalink
  11. A great list indeed.

    It is interesting that most of the books %90+ are completely theoretical.

    Very little on how to move from ideology or observation to action.

    Is it because we don’t have good ways, can’t express them or are just more interested in higher level thinking?

    Sunday, March 15, 2009 at 5:27 am | Permalink
  12. I added three of my own picks on Twitter, but not here. They are:

    Against Method, Paul Feyerabend
    The Leviathan, Thomas Hobbes
    The Structure of Scientific Revolutions

    This also gives me the chance to mention that I think of this growing list to which people have and are continuing to make contributions as a kind of anti-canon of design thinking. Not an authoritative list, representing an orthodoxy about what design thinking is or should be, but actual thinking in action: an active effort to work on the problem rather than to solve it.

    Monday, March 16, 2009 at 4:02 am | Permalink
  13. I will also add my delicious bookmarks, as Paula Thornton did.

    Do you have a list of bookmarks to share?

    Monday, March 16, 2009 at 4:19 am | Permalink
  14. Michael,

    I read your post on Transforming Transformation this morning. Great idea! Many good choices on your existing list. What I see missing are tomes that get at the psychology of human beings as they relate to their immediate environment. In other words, “what are human beings in their perception and physiology that can give us a context to design into?”

    Since that is our quest at my shop, we already have a list of the books that influenced our view. Two years old so a number of new books should be on the list - and some of them are listed on your list. But here is the url. And thanks for doing this!

    Monday, March 16, 2009 at 7:20 am | Permalink
  15. Kathy H wrote:

    List is so helpful - thanks much! Clearly I need to expand current Goodreads collection to catch up.

    Monday, March 16, 2009 at 1:38 pm | Permalink
  16. A few suggested additions

    Personal picks that aren’t on the list yet:

    Managing as Designing, Bolland & Collopy
    - Edited collection linking design thinking to business application.

    Tools for Thought, C.H. Waddington
    - First book I’m aware of specifically on thinking about complex systems, now out of print).

    A couple more that are out there, but not on my top 3.

    The Design Way, Harold Nelson & Erik Stolterman
    - Sometimes academic exploration of design and design practice.

    The Designful Company, Marty Neumeier
    - Neumeier’s follow up to Brand Gap and Zag suggests that design thinking is the key to building an organizational culture of innovation. Quick read, geared towards management more than designers.

    Monday, March 16, 2009 at 3:25 pm | Permalink
  17. Rotkapchen wrote:

    I agree with the lists and the adds, but I now believe that the true Rosetta Stone for all Design Thinking lies in a very unlikely candidate. Experiment on it and let me know what you think: Mind and Nature: A Necessary Unity by Gregory Bateson.

    Apparently all of the intersection of design (’intelligent’ and otherwise) lies in biology. I’m still in the Introduction and there is nothing more elemental in presentation than the concepts Bateson presents. He deconstructs the basis of ‘existence’ so beautifully that his fundamentals now replace those I’d aligned to Ayn Rand as core concepts of epistemology.

    Monday, March 16, 2009 at 11:11 pm | Permalink
  18. Rotkapchen wrote:

    Oh, and I totally forgot about the Shelfari list we created for Design Thinking 2007 — it’s a bit ‘dated’, but some of the best stuff are the ‘oldies’ lying fallow:

    Thursday, April 16, 2009 at 8:58 am | Permalink
  19. Great list. I’ve found from talking to a couple of industrial designers turned design thinkers that a turning point for them was flicking through Jane Fulton Suri’s “Thoughtless Acts”. It’s just a series of photos but it provides an overwhelming case for the central role of empathy in industrial design.

    Thursday, April 16, 2009 at 1:32 pm | Permalink

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