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Why design thinking for museums?

When I signed up for an Executive Education course offered through Stanford’s Hasso Plattner Institute of Design, or the “,” I didn’t really know much about design thinking—or how it was relevant to museums. In fact, I didn’t know what I was getting into.

But I did know that my friends at the innovative software consultancy Carbon Five had been experimenting with design thinking, and that Susie Wise, my former SFMOMA colleague, was using design thinking to radically transform K-12 education, so I knew there had to be something here for museums and cultural organizations.

Design thinking is mindset and a methodology for fostering creativity and solving complex problems with innovative solutions. Design thinking is close cousin to many other human-centered design methodologies, and shares many traits—such as an emphasis on iteration and testing—with the Agile software development methodology. I was already familiar with using Agile at SFMOMA, and had been championing its use in museums through workshops.

The course I took attended Stanford’s Extended Education division, Design Thinking Bootcamp: From Insights to Innovation, is sold out every time it’s offered, and companies are sending their employees in droves to learn how to incorporate design thinking practices into their work.

Design Thinking Bootcamp

Bootcamp fieldwork at SFO©, 2012

Bootcamp fieldwork at SFO
©, 2012

The course was about designing innovative customer experiences, but I immediately saw the relevance to a museum, because, in effect, all museum visitors are customers and we design and build products, services, and experiences for them.

Museum visitors increasingly expect products, services, and experiences that are intuitive, responsive, and well designed, so why shouldn’t a museum want to design better for them? In three days of Bootcamp, we experienced the full design thinking cycle, from conducting research at SFO airport to brainstorming to prototyping innovative solutions. Everyone I met was from a for-profit corporation, ranging from Target to Xerox to Shell Oil. There were a few attendees from non-profits, but no one representing a museum or the arts.

An Ethos of Optimism

©, 2012

Contagious enthusiasm at Bootcamp
©, 2012

What affected me most about the experience was the inherently optimistic attitude of design thinking.

The design thinking ethos is one of openness, optimism, and collaboration. Adopting design thinking means starting small, truly listening to visitors, and taking an open-minded attitude towards colleagues and their ideas. This resonated deeply with me, and after Bootcamp, I was inspired by designing thinking’s “bias towards action” and returned home to introduce design thinking to my colleagues and other museums and cultural organizations.

In subsequent posts, I’ll describe how I introduced design thinking at SFMOMA, and how other cultural institutions can apply the design thinking approach to their own real-world challenges.

1 Comment »

  1. Great post Dana! Thank you for sharing your insights. I am currently completing my MBA and have decided to apply design thinking to audience development for the library/ museum project I am currently project managing.

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