Ways of thinking — Design thinking vs. Future thinking

Xuan Song
7 min readJan 10, 2017


Future of interaction design- Instructor: Barry Katz

Ideas can change life

Different ways of thinking facilitate different strategies for innovation. To create new things for both short-term and long-term, we need to find a way to think and create. In the academic circle, design thinking became a very popular creative problem-solving approach for designers to create new values that create positive impact. The process for design thinking method invested for understanding users, generating insights about their needs, creating a wide range of solutions to satisfy those needs. Then build a business model to bring the winning one to market. It’s a process that is extremely well-suited to do what it was intended to do — creatively solve problems that audience is facing today in a user-centric way.

In most of design and business fields, people use design thinking method to generate the solution for existing problems quickly. They gather the amount of research and data from possible users. However, not all people are satisfied with the design thinking method since users are evolving every day. The future of possibilities is infinite. In early 1945, Vannevar Bush described the idea of the Memex(Memory-Extender) in his Atlantic Monthly article “As We May Think”. He envisioned the Memex as a device in which people would store all of their books, records, and communications. The Memex would provide an enlarged intimate supplement to people. Dr. Bush imagined the forward-thinking speculation 70 years ago. Nowadays, future thinking has come to academic, design and business fields. It’s rooted in the idea of Dr. Bush’s Memex, and drives change through different future possibilities. Future thinking offers ways to shape the future world and social evolvement. In this article, I will discuss the history of Design Thinking and Future Thinking as well as the comparison between the two methods.

The History of Design Thinking and Future Thinking

Design thinking creates social innovation and gives companies a competitive advantage. In the academic field, Peter Rowe’s 1987 book Design Thinking, which described methods and approaches used by architects and urban planners, was significant early usage of the term in design research literature. Rolf Faste expanded on McKim’s work at Stanford University in the 1980s and 1990s, teaching “design thinking as a method of creative action.” Later on, design thinking was adapted for business purposes by Faste’s Stanford colleague David M. Kelley, who founded IDEO in 1991. As Richard Buchanan’s 1992 article “Wicked Problems in Design Thinking” mentioned, design thinking addresses intractable human concerns through design.

Many design strategies have different arguments regarding why design thinking comes out. Jeffrey Tjendra is a Design Executive Officer (DEO) at Business Innovation by Design. His article, “The Origins of Design Thinking” proposes that design thinking was created because big corporations lack the ability to be creative for extreme cases. For example, they aren’t able to build new products and services that meet the needs of their customers. Because of 20th-century education systems that fostered dominant logic and disregarded creativity, people grew up with an overpowered mindset and skill-set of managing value. In order to facilitate innovation, people need a tool to create. By using the design thinking method, designers and businesspeople can find out individual and corporate problems to create the solutions.

Future thinking is associated with future studies. The emergence of future studies is generally credited to the late 1960s and early 1970s. Three groundbreaking books of that era include Alvin Toffler’s 1970 Future Shock; Alain Touraine’s 1971 The Post-Industrial Society. Tomorrow’s Social History: Classes, Conflicts and Culture in the Programmed Society, and Daniel Bell’s 1973 The coming of Post-industrial Society: a venture in social forecasting. W. Warren Wagar, the founder of future studies proposed that his Anticipations of the Reaction of Mechanical and Scientific Progress Upon Human Life and Thought: An Experiment in Prophecy, was first serially published in The Fortnightly Review in 1901. Anticipating what the world would be like in the year 2000. Future thinking was imagining what the world would be like in 20 or 30 years. Renewed inventors, scientists, and futurologists describe the big ideas for the problems they want to solve and how it can transform the world.

Frank Spencer is founder, principal, and creative director at Kedge(Foresight, Innovation, Strategy). He thinks that design thinking is a fantastic way to rethink, redefine and reframe problems and solutions, but a key element is still missing. Spencer said he have the privilege of showing them the critical missing element from their design-enabled strategy, innovation and organizational development: Futures Thinking.

Comparison between two thinking methods

Design thinking and future thinking envision innovation based on the different timeline. Design Thinking focuses on creating for today’s world and the immediate future. As a result, the inspiration stage focuses on investigating the present and the immediate past only (a few years back). It helps organizations to solve problems or creates practical solutions based on current technology and reality. Since future thinking begins with the future in mind, it allows us to pull ourselves to new possibilities and opportunities in a way that brainstorming and visioning processes grounded in the present cannot achieve. We have the chance to create different scenarios based on the future world.

Design thinking and future thinking are a mix of diverging and converging possibilities. Anna Roumiantseva, a design strategist at CoLab IDEO, described that design thinking ultimately converges to a concrete concept that is tested, finalized, and brought to market. Future Thinking, on the other hand, yields a series of scenarios, which are meant to illustrate multiple options for what the future might be without defining an exact prediction. Designers can design product concepts for any one of these future scenarios, which means that the future thinking process can be seen as the starting point for design thinking process.

Many CCA’s interaction design professors teaching courses based on design thinking methodologies and process, but many other professors also came out different ways of teaching students, such as Nicholas Pajerski and Graham Plumb. In the Fall 2016 Objects and Space class, Nicholas Pajerski and Graham Plumb led us to create a responsive environmental displays (interactive exhibition) to tell future scenarios. Instead of creating one final solution for an existing problem, we created 3–5 future scenarios based on the topic we chose. One interesting question that they asked was, “How might this product die, disappear, or evolve?” I felt very excited to create what the future social environment may look like in 50 years. People’s relationships may become superficial. How are we going to build relationship and retain true with best friends? This Future Thinking exercise can help connect the data points to uncover trajectories. It can help us understand users on a deeper level by seeing how their realities and behaviors have evolved.

Both processes create scenarios and prototypes to bring abstract concepts to life. Traditional design thinking processes follow a cyclical five-step framework:

1. Empathize (learn about the audience for whom you are designing)

2. Define (construct a point of view that is based on user needs and insights)

3. Ideate (brainstorm and come up with creative solutions)

4. Prototype (build a representation of one or more ideas to show others)

5. Test (return to your original user group and test your ideas for feedback and improvement)

Through construction a point of view that is based on user needs and insights, designers brainstorm and come up with creative solutions. It helps potential users to react to concepts and provide useful feedback. In reality, future thinking helps us to “empathize, define, ideate, prototype and test” in a much more holistic, emergent and transformational way. In Future Thinking this helps make abstract scenarios for what life might be like tangible by putting real items from those worlds in front of stakeholders.


The world is constantly changing because of the development of new technology and people’s needs. People need strategies to discover, define and create new things. Whether it’s called design thinking, or future thinking, the concept itself is rooted in a capacity to understand the world and our relationship within it in a different way. We try to find a way to rebuild the relationship between the world changing the environment and our life. Whether people support human-centric design or future vision, they all have a sense of creativity. Whether we create for a short-term solution, or a long- term solution, we all wish to create social engagement. When we talked about the history of design thinking and future thinking, many experts proposed their new ideas mostly in academic resources. Scientist, designers, and businessmen test different methods to generate new solutions.

We are constantly thinking, and creating new things as if people’s needs are always changing every day. If we go back in time and draw a line of design thinking and future thinking, they are mostly parallel, but some parts will crossover. Design thinking generates solutions based on today’s condition, but future thinking frames opportunities in a way that the present cannot achieve. Design thinking has the process of diverging and converging ideas, but future thinking converges as many ideas as possible. When these two lines cross, these two “ways of thinking” all need tangible or intangible prototypes to bring abstract ideas to live. In a way, we will have the chance to iterate and see what the idea and solution will be.

Work cited:

Jeffrey Tjendra, The Origins of Design Thinking, BUSINESS INNOVATION BY DESIGN, https://www.wired.com/insights/2014/04/origins-design-thinking/

Future thinking, Shifting to 21st Century Thinking in Education and learning,


Venessa Miemis, emergent by design, What is Design Thinking, Really?


BBC, Future thinking


Anna Roumiantseva, The Fourth Way: Design Thinking Meets Futures Thinking




Xuan Song

UX designer@Microsoft| MS Human-Computer Design& Engineering at University of Washington