Design Thinking in Museums: Stepping into the “Continuum of Innovation”

How can I kick off design thinking in my own institution?

This is something I was asked by numerous colleagues after co-presenting a paper on design thinking and launching a new site, Design Thinking for Museums, at the 2013 Museums and the Web conference with Molly Wilson and Maryanna Rogers.

I talked a lot about implementing design thinking inside one’s own institution with attendees in the halls of the conference hotel and over a “Birds of a Feather” breakfast. And since returning from Portland, I’ve had numerous inquiries from colleagues at institutions around the world about how to get started with design thinking, a human-centered process for innovation.

Image from dt4e.org, Design Thinking for Educators

Image from dt4e.org, Design Thinking for Educators

The museum profession is embracing new ways of problem solving, collaborating, and innovating like never before. And perhaps that’s why the concept of “design thinking” struck a chord at this year’s Museums and the Web conference.

Design thinking is mindset and a methodology for fostering creativity and solving complex problems with innovative solutions. It can transform the way a museum or cultural institution develops digital or analog offerings, visitor experiences, or visitor services by giving staff the analytical, creative, and intuitive techniques and tools to solve multifaceted problems. In the museum setting, design is usually used in the context of making objects, but design is also a process. Design thinking is a process for framing and solving problems and discovering new opportunities. It’s a powerful protocol that can lead to truly innovative outcomes.

There are many starting points and incremental steps along the way, but there is no single, definitive way to move through the design thinking process. As Tim Brown, CEO of IDEO, writes in “Change by Design” (2009), design thinking is a “continuum of innovation…a system of overlapping spaces rather than a sequence of orderly steps.”

To step into into this “continuum of innovation,” there are some strategies and approaches you can implement to kick-off the process and start infusing the design thinking ethos into your work culture. Some of these are more attitudinal, while others are tactical.

1) Get away from your desk and talk to visitors

visitors in galleries

A mother and daughter I interviewed in the SFMoMA galleries.

The power of talking to real users—from visitors to members to donors—can have a transformative impact on staff attitudes and insights. It sounds simple, but the mere act of moving from abstracted discussions about “the public” to interactions with real, live people is incredibly powerful. Spending as little as one hour a day over the course of three days interviewing visitors can lead to deeper, more nuanced understanding about the needs of visitors—and insights around how to meet those needs.

At the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA), where I worked for over 10 years and introduced and championed design thinking, I led a team of colleagues through in-house trainings on how to interview museum visitors for empathy. The materials, including the slide deck for an in-house SFMOMA staff training and “cheat sheets” for conducting interviews on the museum floor, are all available on the Design Thinking for Museums.

2) Set time constraints

The temptation to work on projects until they are “perfect” is not uncommon in most organizations, and is especially endemic in art museums, where the notion of the precious, beautiful object has a longstanding precedent. Setting time limits, even artificial ones, lowers the stakes and expectations around tangible products.

For example, if you only spend one hour making a prototype, it’s hard to have the urge to cling to what you’ve designed and become overly attached to it. It’s much easier to change course and make adjustments. Bringing a scrappy prototype to a meeting or a user test frees a team from getting hung up on colors, fonts, and implementation details, and allows them to focus on the concepts.

The notion of time limits applies not only to the development of prototypes, but to all phases of the design thinking process itself. By setting time limits at every stage of the process, the team is forced to keep moving forward and not get mired in details and delays. In fact, the entire cycle can be experienced in 90 minutes, as modeled in a free, open, online “crash course” in design thinking created by the Stanford d.school.

3) Saturate your space

saturated work space

The SFMOMA web team workspace, covered with images of visitors in the galleries.

Saturating your space means filling your work environment with photographs, notes, and stories about the users you have observed and talked with. This makes their stories more genuine and compelling to internal stakeholders, and keeps you “accountable” and true to your users. Being constantly reminded of these real people with real needs through visual cues in one’s work space can inform your every decision.

It’s also a powerful “ice breaker” for getting skeptical colleagues on-board. When the wall outside my cubicle at SFMOMA was plastered with photographs and stories about SFMOMA visitors, I had queries from colleagues in almost every department. (I chose this particular wall because it’s very visible to anyone traveling between the conference room and the restrooms!)

4) Adopt an optimistic and collaborative approach

The design thinking ethos is one of openness, optimism, and collaboration. In many ways it’s similar to improv in that it’s biased towards action and focuses on building on each other’s ideas and opening up possibilities, trusting that the process will bear fruit even if the path is not always clear. In many museums it can be hard to remain upbeat as resources shrink and workloads increase, but this is a process that demands optimism and openness.

5) Find a buddy

This is probably the most important tactic for kicking off design thinking in one’s institution. Changing ways of working and thinking inside an organization is not easy, and it’s even harder to go it alone. Finding a colleague who is interested in trying—and failing—along with you can make all the difference. Ideally your buddy can be someone inside your own institution, but if that’s not possible, find someone at another institution with whom you can share stories and ideas.

For more resources and tips around implementing design thinking in your own institution, please see the website Design Thinking for Museums. And to learn more about how SFMOMA applied design thinking to a big challenge, please read the recent Museums and the Web paper, Design Thinking for Visitor Engagement: Tackling One Museum’s Big Challenge through Human-centered Design.

This article was adapted from a post originally published on www.designthinkingformuseums.net.
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About Dana Mitroff Silvers

I'm a design thinking facilitator and web strategy consultant with expertise launching online products in museums, nonprofits, and mission-driven organizations. I run the blog Design Thinking for Museums and the consulting practice Designing Insights. www.DesignThinkingforMuseums.net www.DesigningInsights.com

4 comments

  1. I’d love to hear stories of how other museum professionals are using design thinking methodologies inside their own institutions. Have you tried anything? Please share stories of your successes–and failures!

    • Dana — I’ve been meaning to chime in. First of all, great post! When I was working with School & Teacher Programs at the Saint Louis Art Museum, we were working with the local National Writing Project sites to lead design thinking workshops with teachers in the museum. The group I was working with is called the CoLab, and they are working with a tweaked version of design thinking called “ResponsiveDesign.” Here is a link to the CoLab’s website: http://ourcolab.org/schools-museums-and-community-partnerships/
      The process was exceptional, having teachers exploring problems, building empathy, and enacting prototypes of learning experiences in the museum with their students. The design thinking and prototyping mindset even spread to the students, which was amazing. This type of work is happening in so many different ways, and I’m so glad to see more and more museums trying it out. And doing design thinking myself has certainly changed my own practice — little elements of it come out constantly in my daily work.

  2. Over at the museopunks podcast, we’ve been chatting to Dana about this same topic. If you want to hear more about design thinking – and design in museums in general – head over to http://museopunks.org/

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