Before Design Thinking

Posted inFeatured

By: Ellen Lupton | December 22, 2009

First published in 1972, The Universal Traveler is a mad masterpiece of D.I.Y. hippie culture that deserves its place in history next to the Last Whole Earth Catalog. This quirky guide to the design process was created long before “design thinking” became a buzzword among business-oriented designers. Authors Don Koberg and Jim Bagnall produced the book themselves with crude but loving care, using Presstype headings, typewriter text, and photocopied illustrations to yield a goofy but readable volume flavored with subtle whiffs of hemp and granola.

Subtitled “A Soft-Systems Guide to Creativity, Problem-Solving, and the Process of Reaching Goals,” The Universal Traveler happily demystifies the creative process by describing short, compact tasks that anyone can pursue along the non-linear path to confronting problems. Dozens of exercises unfold within the book’s overall trajectory, which begins by accepting and defining a problem and ends with implementing decisions and evaluating results. Diagramming a big spiral that ends close to where it begins, the authors describe this iterative journey as a “round trip” (feel free to conjure multiple meanings for the word “trip”).

I discovered this amazing book through my colleague Jennifer Cole Phillips, who uses it in her courses at MICA (Maryland Institute College of Art) to help students think openly and systematically about the process of generating ideas. Although some of the methods are too spacey for us (self-hypnosis, anyone?), others are delightfully concrete. Below are a few of my favorites.

Manipulative VerbsReimagine your subject by applying a series of verbs to it. Performing actions such as multiply, divide, invert, transpose, freeze, flatten, soften, or extrude can allow designers to quickly generate diverse solutions to a problem.

Forced ConnectionsGiven a particular kind of object (a newspaper, chair, camera, or shoe box), make a chart listing its physical or functional attributes. Create new solutions by linking elements from each column. Alternatively, create something new by marrying two seemingly unrelated objects or ideas. For example, combining a fireplace and a table could yield an eating surface that you can cook on, a hearth that is a coffee table, or a fireplace that transmits radiant heat through a glass hood.

Archetypal FormStudy archetypal solutions to recurring problems. Most commonly repeated forms are highly functional structures that have been tested by time. A child’s drawing of a house reflects a basic building type that works well in climates where the snow still falls. Use archetypes as the basis for solutions to new problems. Could a house, a book, or a sandwich help you design a logo, a poster, or a package?

No longer in print, The Universal Traveler can be found on Amazon Marketplace and other second-hand book services. Better yet, find a copy in your school or public library, or borrow one from your favorite hippie friend.