Futures Thinking & Design Thinking

Futures Thinking & Design Thinking

Living organisms have the equivalent of one ‘foot’ in the past, the other in the future, and the whole system hovers, moment by moment, in the present – always on the move, through time. The truth is that the future represents as powerful a causal force on current behaviour as the past does, for all living things. And information, which is often presumed to be a figment of the human mind or at least unique to the province of human thought and interaction, is actually an integral feature of life, itself – even at the most fundamental level: that of system organisation.
— Judith Rosen. An extract from the preface to the Anticipatory Systems 2nd Edition: The Nature of Life (Rosen 2012).

Before we go too far, let’s get some clarity on the term ‘Futures Thinking’. Futures Thinking has a few different names that can mean the same thing: Anticipatory Systems, Strategic Foresight, Futures, Futures Studies, Futures Literacy and more. For consistency, my research and this site I (nearly always) use ‘Futures Thinking’.

Different ways of thinking facilitate different strategies for innovation (Song 2017). In a brief comparison of Futures Thinking and Design Thinking, this post introduces a brief history, the similarities, overlaps and differences between the two systems of problem solving, and the outcomes that each process generally creates.

In the smallest of nutshell explanations; Futures Thinking is about exploring possible Futures. Plausible Futures can be generated by understanding trends and signals across a wide variety of information to create hypothetical futures. Information is gathered through research, and insights from expertise; wider understanding of trends and emerging issues are often gathered from unrelated fields and parallel industries, referred to as Horizon Scanning. Plausible Futures can be considered as Possible, Probable, and Preferable. From these Futures, Artefacts from the Future can be envisaged via Speculative Design works. ‘Speculative Design is a way to manifest possibilities, to prepare us for inconvenient challenges and facilitate a more desirable, responsible path into the future’ (Balagtas 2019).

Design Thinking on the other hand using comparable divergent and convergent techniques, draws from trends and understandings within a much smaller timeframe (weeks, months, a few years) and, rather than generate plausible hypothetical scenarios for examination, it creates a specific end product, service, etc. 

Regardless of the temporality being examined, it is important to note both Futures Thinking and Design Thinking are participatory, or Human-Centred, at their core. Research is both qualitative and quantitative. Understanding trends, and gaining insights involves working with experts and other stakeholders during the project life-cycle.

It is through understanding both systems’ processes and methods of problem solving that we can leverage and overlap the best available methods for the task and context at hand.

Unresolved Mapping of Speculative Design

Scale is not indicative of significance | Recreated from Elliott P Montgomery’s Original visit EPMID.COM for more information

The above image, originally created by Elliott P. Montgomery places Design Thinking quite separate from Futures Thinking. 

Modified Mapping of Design Futures

Scale is not indicative of significance | Modified from Elliott P Montgomery’s Original visit EPMID.COM for more information

The above image illustrates what I’m investigating in this research; attempting to demonstrate, and hopefully popularise the opportunity of Design Thinking at the overlap with Futures Thinking. 

You may notice in my research I avoid labelling this focus area ‘Design Futures’. This is a conscious decision to not label this exploration. Once labelled it is open to definition, misinterpretation and boundaries. Once defined it loses its ability to be an open area of investigation that can be melded to your needs, and there maybe concern of not following predefined ‘rules’.

Evans and Sommerville describe Futures Thinking as; ‘…the systematic study of the future, futures thinking provides design with a semi-structured approach to consider potential futures (Marzano, 1998; Myerson, 2004; Jonas, 2001; Raymond, 2004).’ (Evans and Sommerville 2007).

Alvin Toffler considers how people (often designers) examine the past to shed light on the present. In Future Shock he writes he ‘turned the time-mirror around, convinced that a coherent image of the future can also shower us with valuable insights into today’ (Toffler 1971).

In a similar vein to concerns about design ethics and how designers’ cultural and unconscious bias skew the services and products they help create, Prateeksha Singh examines how currently Futures practitioners are majority privileged and Western (Singh 2019). Singh references Alonso-Concheiro’s call suggesting ‘that we should study who did a futures study before studying the futures presented by the study’ (Alonso-Concheiro 2015). A comparison between the ethics of design and futures thinking is worthy of its own post. I won’t go any deeper into this subject here as I want to simply bring attention of how the similarities between the fields of design and futures goes beyond process and outcomes, but into the very fabric of questioning its right to operate and exert its influence the way it does.

This is as good a spot to briefly look at the history of both forms of innovation thinking for more in-depth reading on the history of Futures look in the bibliography below for the work of Schultz and Bell. 

Futures Thinking

Wendy L. Schultz (2015) divides Futures history into 5 waves of development in her paper ‘A Brief History of Futures’, which I have referenced, paraphrased, quoted and summarised below. 

The 1st wave in the field of Futures starts with the Oral storytelling tradition from shamans and mystics.

The 2nd wave is the early written age. Historical patterns and cycles are observed. Understanding that these patterns in the past can be used to determine larger futures, ‘with scholars such as Sīmǎ Qiān (around second century BCE) and Ibn Khaldun (fourteenth century)’. Visionaries and images like the work of Nostradamus (16th century). ‘Who sketched metaphorical vignettes forecasting outcomes stretching forward centuries into the future’ (Schultz 2015).

In this same period, Thomas More with his frame narrative Utopia (1516) introduced the concept of an ideal place and coined the term ‘utopia’ (which means ‘nowhere’) (Bell 1996, Singh 2019). 

The 3rd wave: Enlightenment and Extraction. Progress as a preferred future. The idea of progress through science is born. Competing images and narratives of possible futures. Shultz refers to the work of science fiction writer H. G. Wells, ‘The Time Machine’.

The 4th wave: Systems and Cybernetics. Systems sciences and systems thinking, along with ecology, evolved side by side with futures studies in the early twentieth century. Both provided essential theories and insights into Futures Studies (Schultz 2015).

World War II, deployment, systems operations, and forecasting. The totality of war during the Second World War accelerated forecasting methods development. As all countries needed grand planning and forecasting on scales previously unimaginable; millions of people and the resources to support them. The learnings from this period would pave the way for Futures for the next few decades.

By the end of the World War II Futures methods were being formalised. Its use was being applied to military and intelligence requirements in the US. Europeans were using Futures to re-envision its society and how to move forward after much of its infrastructure was destroyed from the War (Shultz, 2015), and many colonial countries were declaring their independence (Schultz 2015, Singh 2019).

During the 1970s Shell Oil created a global reputation for ‘creative thinking and strategic possibilities via stories depicting alternate futures’ (Schultz 2015) which led the way for other corporations to implement these ‘new’ methods of innovation creation. In 1970 Alvin Toffler writes Future Shock and concern for the future became mainstream (Bell 1996, Singh 2019).

Institutionalising Futures: The World Future Society (WFS) was founded in Washington, D.C., in 1966. And the World Futures Studies Federation (WFSF)  was founded in Paris, France, on May 26, 1973. Formally founded in 2002, ‘[t]he youngest international professional futures organisation, the Association of Professional Futurists (APF), emerged […] in Seattle in April 2001 that brought together alumni from various futures studies graduate programs’ (Schultz 2015). 

Schultz concludes with Futures today is at the beginning of the 5th wave, as we see Futures Theory meld with other disciplines (like design) and globalise beyond the Westernised framing of the future as it spreads across institutions the world over, helped with immersive programmable graphic technology, and a positive outlook for a more inclusive futures world. 

The descriptions from the 1st to the 5th wave above have been summarised heavily from Schultz’s work (Schultz 2015) and I recommend reading it in full and utilising the reference section Schultz provides in that work for more in-depth understanding of the history of Futures Theory. But from the above summary it is clear that thinking of futures scenarios is deeply ingrained in our human psyche and our cultures, and the formalisation of it has been in process since the end of World War II.

Design Thinking

Design Thinking comparatively is relatively young having started its way into design forums in the 1970s (Kimbell 2011). It was however, first written about by John E. Arnold in 1959 in his book Creative Engineering. Design Thinking’s beginning partially lies in the innovation techniques that had been developing during the 1950s (Wikipedia 2019).

People that practice Design Thinking use a human-centred problem solving process. Moving from generating insights about end users, to idea generation and testing, to implementation (Kimbell 2011). Kimbell continues ‘…Their visual artefacts and prototypes help multidisciplinary teams work together. They ask ‘what if?’ questions to imagine future scenarios rather than accepting the way things are done now.’ 

Kimbell’s break down of the human centred design (HCD) process starts to reveal some similarities between Futures Thinking and Design Thinking. 

The Futures cone in the image below could be considered as the first diamond of the Design Council’s, Design Thinking Double Diamond process. So at the conclusion of a Futures process, Artefact Generation could commence from the Synthesis stage of the Design Thinking process to generate Speculative Design work, or to create a specific design solution for the problem at hand. ‘In reality, futures thinking helps [designers] to “empathise, define, ideate, prototype and test” in a much more holistic, emergent and transformational way than is possible without it.’ (Spencer 2016) 

Diagram: Steven Santer (author). Comparison of time-scales and activities between Futures Thinking and Design Thinking processes.

The design process ultimately leads us to create a final solution that is taken to market. The goals are products, services, and experiences for today’s world (Roumiantseva 2016).

Futures process invites inspiration and exploration of opportunities in the future that may or may not happen. It builds an anticipatory attitude to better handle uncertainty (Roumiantseva 2016). Futures is a kind of design that is concerned with asking ‘what-if?’ (Kozubaev 2018).

In conclusion

Despite some clear differences in processes and outcomes between Futures Thinking and Design Thinking, there is certainly opportunities for design practitioners to gain much deeper insights and opportunities to reframe problems when tackling projects in conjunction with Futures Thinking processes.

The first of the ‘Designers Using the Future’ posts will look at how Superflux used Futures Thinking methods in their Speculative Design piece: Mitigation of Shock. This work from Superflux can be considered a Speculative Design within a Humanitarian context.

What is interesting is how little conversation seemingly exists in Design about Futures methodologies, though that is increasing. And from my current reading how little in the field of Futures discusses Design methodologies. It seems both systems of thinking are different sides of the same coin of innovation. At this early stage of my own exploration of Futures, I still want to know how both can work / have worked together efficiently to improve our methods of creating better outcomes for all.

It would seem that Futures projects would be helped in developing more focussed scenarios, personas and artefacts by incorporating key HCD approaches, as much as the use of adaptive and anticipatory methods would help HCD design practitioners in developing more robust solutions.

I will leave this post with a Speculative Design piece from Apple 1987. Think of all the technology referenced here that didn’t exist publicly or at all. However, Apple, at this early stage could identify trends of technology, business, consumers to cast a vision of something that would take 30 years or so to accomplish. Now imagine viewing this in 1987, how seriously would you have taken it?


Note: Small edit to post on 10 Jan 2021—Fixing broken YouTube link, edit to second-last paragraph for clarity, and amendment on quotation marks for consistency.


Alonso-Concheiro, A. 2015. Thinking Futures. World Future Review, 7, 332-341.
Balagtas, P. 2019. Design Is [Speculative] Futures Design Thinking – a new toolkit for preemptive design. Available from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UB9UVHGI6AI.
Bell, W. 1996. An Overview of Futures Studies. Knowledge Base of Futures Studies, 23.
Evans, M. & Sommerville, S. 2007. A Design For Life: Futures Thinking in the Design Curriculum. Futures Research Quarterly, 5-19.
Jonas, W. “A Scenario for Design,” Design Issues, 17, 2: 64-80, (2001). 
Kimbell, L. 2011. Rethinking Design Thinking: Part I. Design and Culture, 3, 285–306.
Kozubaev, S. 2018. Futures as Design : Explorations, Images, and Participations. Interactions. ACM.org: ACM.
Marzano, S. Creating Thoughts by Design: Thoughts (UK: Lund Humphries, 1998).
Myerson, J. IDEO Masters of Innovation (UK: Lawrence King Publishing, 2004).
Raymond, M. The Tomorrow People (UK: Pearson Education, 2004). 
Rosen, R. 2012. Anticipatory Systems: Philosophical, Mathematical, and Methodological Foundations, Springer.
Roumiantseva, A. 2016. The Fourth Way: Design Thinking Meets Futures Thinking. Available from: https://medium.com/@anna.roumiantseva/the-fourth-way-design-thinking-meets-futures-thinking-85793ae3aa1e.
Schultz, W. L. 2015. A Brief History of Futures. World Future Review, 7, 324–331.
Singh, P. 2019. Inclusive and Plural Futures: A Way Forward. Master of Design in Strategic Foresight and Innovation MRP, OCAD University.
Song, X. K. 2017. Ways of thinking — Design thinking vs. Future thinking. Available from: https://medium.com/@xuansong/ways-of-thinking-design-thinking-vs-future-thinking-357ea9c50f88 [Accessed 8 August 2019].
Spencer, F. 2016. Design Thinking Must Be Futures Empowered. Available from: https://thefuturesschool.com/blog/design-thinking-must-be-future-empowered/ [Accessed 26/09 2019].
Toffler, A. 1971. Future Shock, Bantam Books.
Wikipedia. 2019. Design thinking [Online]. Wikipedia. Available: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Design_thinking#targetText=Rolf%20Faste%20expanded%20on%20McKim’s,design%20consultancy%20IDEO%20in%201991. [Accessed 19 September 2019].

No Comments

Leave a Reply