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Stepping into the “continuum of innovation”: kicking-off design thinking in your museum

photo (5)“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 at the 2013 Museums and the Web conference with Molly Wilson and Maryanna Rogers. I talked a lot about this with attendees in the halls of the conference hotel and over a “Birds of a Feather” breakfast I pulled together at the last minute (I called it a “rapid prototype”!). 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 at home.

The museum profession seems to be embracing new ways of problem-solving, collaborating, and innovating over the past couple of years. And perhaps that is why design thinking struck such a strong chord at this year’s gathering of museum technology professionals.

Design thinking is mindset and a methodology for fostering creativity and solving complex problems with innovative solutions. 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.

visitors in galleries

A mother and daughter I interviewed in the SFMOMA galleries.

1) Get away from your desk and talk to visitors

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.

The SFMOMA team went through its own in-house trainings on how to interview visitors in the galleries. The materials, including the slide deck for an in-house training and “cheat sheets” for conducting interviews on the museum floor, are all available online.

Photo from flickr by Earthworm. Some rights reserved.

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 web team workspace at SFMOMA.

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 about 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.

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