Design Thinking Research

Design thinking history – the impact of Stanford Prof. John Arnold

January 30th, 2016 | by

There have been quite a few attempts to trace back the origins of the “design thinking movement”. In fact, most academic works I read on this matter include an epitome of how it came to be. To this regard, I particularly want to point out Stefanie Di Russo’s excellent blog posts on the history of design thinking and the underrated writings of Bruce Archer.

Rather than doing another chronology of design thinking however, I want to shed some light on the influence of Prof. John E. Arnold (1913–1963) of the Stanford Mechanical Engineering department, which I believe had a great impact on the design thinking movement. Here’s why:

In 1957, John E. Arnold joined Stanford faculty as Professor of Mechanical Engineering and Professor of Business Administration. At that time, he was already known for his unconventional teaching paradigms for engineers, especially boiling down in his Arcturus IV case study, a problem-based learning approach that put his students in a futuristic setting to work on tools and appliances for a bird-like race having “three eyes, including one with X-ray vision” [1]. (Rumour has it that this unconventional practice might be responsible for him leaving the M.I.T., where he taught creative engineering before joining Stanford…)

“His “science fiction” approach caused a stir among traditional educators and conservative engineering leaders.”

– New York Times, September 30, 1963


John Arnold with his unconventional props for creative engineering [1]

It is interesting to note, that most scholars root the design thinking movement in Herbert Simon’s The Sciences of the Artificial from 1969 [2] – Stefanie Di Russo being a notable exception (see above). However, I will share some quotes from Arnold’s talk Creativity in Engineering [3] held at a New York Conference on Creativity ten years before Simon published his work. I will also briefly link them to our current understanding of design thinking.


“And fourth, in the last area, [the engineer] can take on some aspects of the artist and try to improve or increase the salability of a product or machine by beautifying or bettering its appearance, or by having a keener sensitivity for the market and for the kinds of things people want or don’t want.”

– John E. Arnold

While design thinkers usually don’t regard themselves as experts in aesthetic design, they do put great emphasis on what people want or don’t want. Most methods used in design thinking really try to improve our understanding of the user and other stakeholders somehow associated to the product.

“Questioning and fantasy are two prime requisites of the creative personality.”                        

– John E. Arnold

Asking questions is an essential part of design thinking. We interview people, wonder WHY things are as they are

…and, perhaps most importantly, ask ourselves How might we do this?:

“He is looking for a broad, generic statement, something that will not pre-condition his thinking along narrow lines but will give him a broad area to explore in his search for a solution.”

– John E. Arnold


While there are a lot of similarities to our current understanding of design thinking, there is at least one very notable difference: John E. Arnold was not a great advocator of team work, as can be seen in the following quote.

“Perhaps the team on some occasions interferes with the creative process. What comes out of a team or a committee is the most daring idea that the least daring man can accept.”

– John E. Arnold

While there certainly is some truth in this, I believe working in teams can generate synergies that make up for any shortcomings that might come with it. Furthermore, if we are able to hold a design thinking mindset, the “least daring” person will not interfere with any visionary idea!


John E. Arnold died on September 27, 1963 from a heart attack in Italy, where he was on a sabbatical to write a book on the philosophy of engineering [4].

“John Arnold was a visionary thinker. Not one to follow, he set trends in design education.”

– Memorial Resolution for John E. Arnold






[1] Hunt, Morton M. 1955. “The Course Where Students Lose Earthly Shackles” LIFE Magazine, May 16.

[2] Simon, Herbert A. 1969. The Sciences of the Artificial. Cambridge, London: The MIT Press.

[3] Arnold, John E. 1959. “Creativity in Engineering.” In A Report on the Third Communications Conference of the Art Directors Club of New York, edited by Paul Smith, 33–46. New York: Art Directors Club of New York.

[4] The Stanford Daily. 1963. “Prof. Arnold Dies Traveling in Italy” October 2.

Eine Antwort auf “Design thinking history – the impact of Stanford Prof. John Arnold”

  1. Terrific insights on John Arnold. Unfortunately, he died decades before I enrolled in the Product Design program at Stanford, but his legacy, and that of McKim, Kahn and Faste, has endured.

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