Leonardo Da Vinci and Design


Da Vinci and Design Thinking

In 1452 a boy was born from an illicit relationship between a prominent Italian notary and his mistress. This boy would go on to become one of the greatest geniuses in the history of mankind—as a painter, sculptor, and engineer. His name was Leonardo Da Vinci.

Thanks to the countless volumes of notebooks that he has left behind, we can get a glimpse of the machinations of his mind and his methods. And as we develop a greater understanding of the potential and power of Design Thinking, we can recognise that Leonardo was actually the original Design Thinker and we can validate the tenets of the philosophy against his own considerable achievements – to inspire us to greatness too.

Drawing is thinking

As a painter, it seems evident that Leonardo would enjoy sketching. But for him, doodling in his notebooks was so much more than just practising the shapes he eventually wanted to paint. For him, drawing was a way of accessing that mysterious ocean of ideas that lies under the surface of consciousness. Leonardo seemed to understand that through the act of drawing he could give shape to these abstractions in his sub-consciousness.

He dreamt up fanciful contraptions for flying, sailing, draining water and of course, imaginative new weaponry that could aid his royal patrons when they needed to settle a score. By studying his sketches, and we follow the way Leonardo kept redrawing his sketches, we get a sense of a man who used drawing to aid his thinking.
Today, in design thinking, we know this to be true. By visualising anything from delivery systems, customer journey maps and personas, we give flight to better thinking. These basic drawings help us see problems from new angles and can help many minds to work together to come up with new methods for solving these problems.

Observation is everything

Leonardo observed like nobody before him. When we look at his paintings and sculptures, we see how not only saw the world but could actually penetrate deeply into the core of objects, animals, and people.

His interest in engineering gave him an understanding of how materials reacted to light. And his interest in painting pushed him to the point where dissected horses and other animals to understand their anatomy. Leonardo was also known to slice up cadavers to get a better sense of the workings of the human body. The way he understood how the muscles, the tendons, connective tissue, and skin all flexed and worked together to animate our inner feelings made him a painter beyond comparison.
He also observed human behaviour carefully which allowed his paintings to become lifelike and compelling.

Today, we don’t have to be able to translate our observations into paintings. But keen observation of human nature enables us to spot opportunities and pathways that help us to solve problems.

A few decades ago, Richard Sears of Sears Roebuck, the bricks and mortar forerunner of Amazon, ordered his company’s sales catalogue – the most important publication for a direct mail business – to be printed at a smaller size than his main competition’s catalogues. Why? He keenly observed how his own grandmother stacked magazines and catalogues on her coffee table. This observation made him realise that the majority of people who kept catalogues would arrange them from big to small – and he wanted his own to always be on top.

Winning by failing

Leonardo started many projects during his life that he just abandoned. Would these be regarded as failures today?

No. We now know that every project he worked on contributed in the bigger picture towards the artist he would eventually become. The artist who would eventually paint his crowning glory: The Mona Lisa.

Accepting failure as part of the process is an integral part of design thinking methodology. The moment we free ourselves from the judgment of failure, the world becomes a more playful place. And in this playground, new ideas thrive. Failure is literally the breeding ground for great ideas.

The helicopter view

Earlier in his career, Leonardo enjoyed imagining and realising spectacular theatrical displays.

Once, he built a stage for a play that involved the planetary motion of our solar system. Leonardo wanted the planets to fly through the auditorium, over the heads of the audience. To do this, he had to take a helicopter view. The design of what happened on the stage above the audience had to be connected to a complex machine that was located behind the stage. He conceived and designed a system of gears, pulleys, and levers that would be manipulated to allow the planetary motion in front of the stage.

Today, in service design, we also understand that designing for the customer is only half the story. What happens behind the scenes also has to be carefully designed to enable genuinely transformative services. Just ask Leonardo. What happens behind the scenes is just as important as what happens in the scenes.

Learning from Leonardo

Leonardo da Vinci was a man like no other. He achieved great things that in many ways still remain unparalleled.

But even today, we can still glean many lessons from his life that can be applied to modern ways of working. That legacy is perhaps an even greater treasure than any of the art he ever produced.


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