The da Vinci re-Code: Mapping da Vincian principles to design-thinking attributes

How similar are design thinkers to da Vinci? During a Masterclass on Writing a Screenplay, the tutor, Steve Attridge, recommended that screenwriters adopt the 7 elements of creativity practised by Leonardo da Vinci. These elements were originally defined by psychologist Michael Gelb in his book How to Think Like Leonardo da Vinci as:

  • Curiosità – An insatiable quest for knowledge and continuous improvement
  • Dimostrazione – A commitment to test knowledge through experience, persistence, and willingness to learn from mistakes
  • Sfumato – An openness to the unknown, embracing and managing ambiguity, paradox, and uncertainty
  • Arte/Scienza – Whole-Brain thinking, developing a balance between science and art, logic and imagination
  • Connessione – Systems thinking--an appreciation for the interconnectedness of all things and phenomena
  • Corporalità – Body-mind fitness, cultivating grace, ambidexterity, fitness, and poise
  • Sensazione – The sharpening and continual refinement of the senses, especially sight, as the means to enliven experience

What struck me about these elements is how similar they are to the 'ideal' attributes of design thinkers proposed by various design schools (e.g., Stanford, and professional organisations (e.g., IDEO, LUMA Institute, UK Design Council) and discussions on LinkedIn Groups.

So, how similar are design thinkers to da Vinci?

To make comparison easier, I've taken liberties with Anglicizing and Adjectiving the Italian descriptions.   

  • Curiosità – curious
  • Dimostrazione – experimental (learning and progressing by persistently making and testing)
  • Sfumato – open (open-minded, non-judgemental)
  • Arte/Scienza – integrated (combining knowledge from different fields)
  • Connessione – holistic (looking at the whole as a functioning, interconnected  system)
  • Sensazione – sensorial (applying and refining all the senses)
  • Corporalità – robust (healthy and strong in mind and body)


Then I scanned various lists of design thinking characteristics, traits, behaviours and attributes, and listed them here, alphabetically but not exhaustively: 

  • Action-oriented
  • Adventurous
  • Clear-communicator
  • Collaborative
  • Curious
  • Empathetic
  • Flexible
  • Humble
  • Imaginative
  • Iterative
  • Meticulous
  • Optimistic
  • Passionate
  • Process-oriented
  • Systems-thinking
  • Tangible

And then I mapped them (of course!) onto the 7 da Vincian elements. For most attributes, the mapping was straightforward: Iterative to Experimental, System-thinking to Holistic, and so on. If you're wondering about Optimistic, so was I, until I read Tim Brown's explanation which equates optimistic to 'determined' in that no matter the constraints of the problem, design thinkers persevere until they find at least one potential solution that's better than the existing alternatives. For me, that fits with Experimental element--especially the 'persistence' in conduction multiple experiments. 

There were 5 attributes that were more difficult to map onto the elements (shown in the grey box in the diagram). Empathetic could possibly be mapped to Open (a willingness to explore the unknown requires designers to step outside their personal experience) or even Holistic (if we include a deep understanding of human needs and experiences as central to system-thinking). Likewise, Humble could mapped to Curious, since the "quest for continuous improvement" indicates that there is room to improve, as does Experimental's "willingness to learn through mistakes". 

As for Imaginative, Passionate and Clear-communicator, I wasn't able to see a strong correspondence, other than to say that practising all 7 of the elements would enhance a designer's imagination, and that if designers aren't passionate or clear communicators, then they will struggle with practising the elements successfully.  

One striking omission...Nothing mapped to Robust (healthy and strong in mind and body). While there is much research about how physical exercise contributes to mental health, and how meditation and other 'awareness' techniques help calm and focus the mind, I haven't seen an attribute for mind-body balance on any of the design thinking lists. Granted, I haven't read all of them, but it's worth considering how we can incorporate Corporalità into our design-thinking practice. 

Article Written By: Heather McQuaid

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