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Design Icons: John Arnold

The work of psychologist, engineer, and educator John E. Arnold had a profound influence on what design thinking is today. In the 1950’s, while at MIT, Arnold help transformed the field of engineering from technical fabrication into one of innovation. He accomplished this by offering summer seminars for engineers which utilized the research of J.P Guilford, the creative process of Alex Osborne, Maslow’s research into emotional blocks for creativity, and in one special year he even brought in Buckminster Fuller to lecture about the “comprehensive designer”.

In Arnold's now famous course called Creative Engineering, he challenged students to identify problems faced by a fictional alien race called Methanians. “A bird-like race that breathed methane, had three eyes (one X-ray), three fingers, and very low sales resistance”. The science-fiction setting enabled his students to set aside assumptions and design for the needs of beings very different from themselves.

Known as the Arcturus IV Case Study, its purpose was to shift the mindset of engineering students and change how they approached problem solving. Unfortunately the humanistic approach was new and unconventional at the time and the Arcturus IV Case Study received criticism from conservative colleagues for its “theatricalism and attention seeking” methods. However, he defended his approach and argued that the case study promoted thinking around sensitivity to the environment. cultures, physical limitations and other factors that are critical when designing for people. He further defended his pedagogy by promoting a belief that increasing complexity and the number of nation's and world's problems required more attention to what society needed, which requires a new way of analyzing situations.

The course is one of the earliest precursors to what is now called user-centered design. After working for a few more years at MIT, Arnold was offered an opportunity to take his creative teaching approach to Stanford University and setup the Design Division which would eventually become the Joint Program in Design. Bringing along his creative engineering courses and the radical idea that engineering and design should be human-centered.

Arnold worked with educators Robert McKim and Matt Kahn to develop the curriculum that merged need-finding, art, and science. As the decades went on, the program continued to develop under the guidance of Rolf Faste and David Kelley. Faste and Kelley vastly expanded the field of human-centered design, with Kelley ultimately bringing this approach to businesses when co-founding the famed consultancy IDEO.


Peter Justin Kizilos-Clift, ‘Humanizing the Cold War Campus: The Battle for Hearts and Minds at MIT, 1945-1965’, (American Studies Department, University of Minnesota,2009)

Morton M. Hunt, 'The Course Where Students Lose Earthly Shackles', Life Magazine, May 16, (1955), 186-200.

John E. Arnold, (1953) ‘The Arcturus IV Case Study’ (Stanford University, 1953)

Leonard Bruce Archer (1965) Systematic Methods for Designers

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