You already know the first Design Thinker in history...

Let us share with you the story of Thomas A. Edison (a.k.a. the light bulb inventor) and how Tim Brown (the “father” of Design Thinking) designated him as the first Design Thinker in history:


Edison created the electric light bulb and then wrapped an entire industry around it. The light bulb is most often thought of as his signature invention, but Edison understood that the bulb was little more than a parlor trick without a system of electric power generation and transmission to make it truly useful.

So, he created that, too.

Thus, Edison’s genius lay in his ability to conceive a fully developed marketplace, not simply a discrete device. He was able to envision how people would want to use what he made, and he engineered toward that insight. He wasn’t always prescient (he originally believed the phonograph would be used mainly as a business machine for recording and replaying dictation), but he invariably gave great consideration to users’ needs and preferences.

Edison’s approach was an early example of what is now called “design thinking” -a methodology that imbues the full spectrum of innovation activities with a human-centered design ethos. By this I mean that innovation is powered by a thorough understanding, through direct observation, of what people want and need in their lives and what they like or dislike about the way particular products are made, packaged, marketed, sold, and supported.

Many people believe that Edison’s greatest invention was the modern R&D laboratory and methods of experimental investigation. Edison wasn’t a narrowly specialized scientist but a broad generalist with a shrewd business sense. In his Melo park, NJ, laboratory he surrounded himself with gifted tinkerers, improvisers, and experimenters. Indeed, he broke the mold of the “lone genius inventor” by creating a team-based approach to innovation.

Although Edison biographers write of the camaraderie enjoyed by this merry band, the process also featured endless rounds of trial and error -the “99% perspiration” in Edison’s famous definition of genius.

His approach was intended not to validate preconceived hypotheses but to help experimenters learn something new from each iterative stab.

Innovation is hard work; Edison made it a profession that blended art, craft, science, business savvy, and an astute understanding of customers and markets.

Design thinking is a lineal descendant of this tradition. Put simply, it is a discipline that uses the designer’s sensibility and methods to match people’s needs with what is technologically feasible and what a viable business strategy can convert into customer value and market opportunity.

Like Edison’s painstaking innovation process, it often entails a great deal of perspiration.