6 February 2019

A Brief History of Military Design Thinking

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By Aaron P. Jackson

Welcome to the field of military design thinking. In this article, I summarise what it is, where it came from, and where it might be going.

This artilce was originally published on Medium. The full article can be accessed at this link: Please note that the hyperlinks for references in the below extract will redirect you this this link.


Despite claims by some of a very long lineage of practice,[1] design thinking seems as a discipline to be somewhat ahistorical. Designers by nature focus on innovation, emergence and creativity, all of which have a future orientation. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that very few designers known to this author have a deep knowledge of the origins and development of their field, or of the design methodologies that have come before the ones that they personally know and practice. Yet developing this knowledge is arguably a vital step on the path to becoming a true expert in the field. Not only does it help one to understand the field as a whole and contribute to its further development, it also helps designers to evaluate newly emergent developments in the field and to understand which are robust, which are likely to be effective and why, and which are not.

It has therefore been refreshing to see some recent articles that address the history of design thinking and chronicle its key practitioners and developers in an interesting and accessible way.[2] In this author’s particular field — military design thinking — we face a dual challenge: not only is there still a lack of historical awareness, there is also a general lack of awareness by ‘outsiders’ (including other designers) that the field exists. As a result, a brief history can also act as an introduction to the field itself, demonstrating the unique aspects of military design thinking as well as those it has in common with ‘civilian’ design thinking. It is hoped that what follows will therefore be not only enlightening, but may also inspire civilian designers to consider how military design might be able to influence their own design practice — or how their practice might be able to influence the field of military design thinking.

As will be seen below, the links between the civilian and military design thinking are already growing. Indeed, this article is based on an extract from a paper that the author will soon be presenting at the Innovation Methodologies for Defence Challenges (IMDC) 2019 conference, which will be held at Lancaster University, United Kingdom, on 26–28 February 2019. This conference will feature a mix of civilian and military design thinking experts exploring collaboration opportunities and ways in which currently emerging overlaps between civilian and military design thinking could be beneficial to a range of design thinking fields including national security, industry and academia to name just a few. (For more information about the conference, visit:

Without any further ado, what follows is a brief history of the field of military design thinking.

The emergence of military design thinking: the 1990s

Despite the earlier proliferation of civilian design methodologies, military design thinking emerged independently. Its precise origins have been subject to debate, and three minority perspectives are worth mentioning.

First, ‘operational art’ has been cited as the earliest example of military design, as this body of theory ‘implied that before “planning” occurred where a series of operations could be linked towards some larger strategic goals, a broader “design” ought to occur that required more systemic thinking over analytical reductionism’.[3] If this assertion is correct, then military design thinking emerged in Prussia in the 19th century; was significantly developed in the Soviet Union from the 1920s; and entered the vernacular of Anglosphere militaries during the 1980s.[4]

Another perspective posits that planning is a form of design and that, therefore, military planning is a form of military design (see Image 1).[5] [6]By this understanding military design, in the form of staff planning guidance, dates to at least the mid-19th century when Western militaries began to incorporate planning processes into written doctrine.[7] If one looks beyond doctrine to military theory and practice in general, then by this understanding military design is much older. Just as Nelson and Stolterman asserted that ‘humans did not discover fire — they designed it’,[8] if planning is a form of design then our prehistorical ancestors did not discover organised violence — they designed it! Military design by this understanding may therefore pre-date militaries themselves, although no-one known to this author has yet explored the potential implications of this possibility.

Some consider military planning to be a form of design

Thirdly, it has been asserted that military design thinking was first evident in the theoretical works of US Air Force Colonel John Boyd, which were primarily developed during the 1980s.[9] These works discussed military applications of complexity and chaos theory, evolutionary biology and military history, amongst other less-frequently referenced disciplines. Not only were Boyd’s works amongst the first to explicitly discuss chaos and complexity theory in the military context, the interdisciplinary nature of his enquiries has much in common with subsequent military design theory.[10]Yet Boyd himself did not use the term ‘design thinking’, and it is unlikely he would have considered himself a designer. Ultimately, the accuracy or otherwise of these three perspectives depends on which definition of design thinking one employs.

The remainder of the few existing works that attempt to trace the origins of military design thinking assert that it originated in the mid-1990s with the work of Israeli Brigadier General Shimon Naveh.[11] Ben Zweibelson, for example, has stated that ‘I consider Naveh the “father” of the military design movement because he was the first to spearhead an entire new methodology that was intended for the military to replace traditional military planning’.[12] Naveh was also the first to explicitly consider himself as a military design thinker. His approach, called Systemic Operational Design (SOD), was developed at the Israeli Defense Force’s (IDF’s) Operational Theory Research Institute (OTRI), which Naveh headed following its establishment in February 1995.[13] This approach originated with an analysis of Soviet operational art using general systems theory, informed by a critical reading of military history.[14] This was soon accompanied by interaction with other academic disciplines including urban planning, psychology, cybernetics, and post-modern and post-structural philosophy, to form a unique design methodology.[15]

Systemic Operational Design was developed as an alternative to ‘traditional’ military planning processes, which tend to apply a technical rationalist approach that breaks problems into component parts before problem solving via linear reverse-engineering of solutions.[16] Traditional military planning processes are in this respect similar to the early civilian design methodologies developed by Herbert Simon and Bruce Archer, and which have since been superseded by other civilian design methodologies that are more holistic in the way they frame and then solve complex problems.[17] In contrast to traditional military planning processes, SOD employed ‘dialectic deliberation’ between conflicting perspectives to enable extensive reframing, eventually developing an operational concept via multiple holistic considerations of problems (see Image 2).[18] [19]

Systemic Operational Design (SOD) is usually considered to be the first military design methodology

The extreme paradigmatic dissimilarity between SOD and traditional military planning has resulted in a legacy wherein in military design thinking is often considered antithetical to military planning, and the two are often viewed as being in tension.[20] Interestingly, a similar state of tension has been observed within civilian design thinking between Simon’s and Donald Schön’s approaches.[21]Notwithstanding the minority view that planning is a form of design, debate about the impact of this tension remains an ongoing theme within military design thinking. This tension has also been evident in the implementation of military design methodologies. For example, Zweibelson summarised what happened after the IDF attempted to implement SOD:

SOD was so dense with philosophical language and these very abstract concepts, it was hard to translate and to disseminate to lower level forces. Further, it was only taught to senior leaders, and even then, only self-selecting leaders took it upon themselves to study it. Eventually, traditional IDF leaders, who wanted to protect the legacy system, took action to purge SOD from the military; they largely eliminated the majority of SOD practitioners from their ranks, with Naveh himself excommunicated and OTRI disbanded.[22]

This disbanding happened just prior to the 2006 Hezbollah War. Whether or not SOD was to blame for the Israeli failure in this war remains contentious to this day.[23]

To the US Army and beyond: the 2000s

In the mid-2000s, the US military became interested in SOD as a possible methodology to help solve the problems it was facing in Afghanistan and Iraq. ……

This article was originally published on Medium. To continue reading the full article, please click the following link:


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