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Design Thinking for Museums: one year and counting

Image courtesy Michael Edson, Smithsonian Institution

Image courtesy Michael Edson, Smithsonian Institution

I launched this blog, Design Thinking for Museums, exactly one year ago at the 2013 Museums and the Web conference in Portland. It was an experiment that UX designer and Stanford d.school Fellow Molly Wilson and I built in a day at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art cafe, armed with coffee and WordPress.

The blog was developed as a resource for the field and accompanied a paper documenting a partnership between SFMOMA and the Stanford d.school. When the site launched, I wasn’t sure how long we would keep it up, if we’d get any readers, and what kind of response we’d receive from the museum community.

I’m happy to report that now, one year later, there are small but significant signs of enthusiasm for and adoption of design thinking in the museum sector. I’ve just returned from the 2014 Museums and the Web conference, where I presented a paper with co-authors from the Getty and the Queensland Museum about how those institutions are using design thinking and prototyping to tackle challenges ranging from designing new digital publications to re-envisioning organizational structures.

In our session, participants put down their digital devices and enthusiastically dove into a collaborative, hands-on design challenge to redesign the Museums and the Web conference badge. I was floored by the enthusiasm and energy in the room, and the brilliantly inventive prototypes the participants developed (see some of the photographs attendees took in the Twitter timeline below). I was also heartened that the types of questions we got were around the mechanics of implementation, not around why one would want to work this way in the first place (i.e., starting from user needs, testing rough prototypes in the galleries with museum visitors, and adopting an optimistic bias towards doing and making).

A small but growing revolution?

In the year since this site has launched, I’ve heard from museum and nonprofit professionals from Brazil to Beijing who are trying to change the ways they work inside their organizations using human-centered design strategies. Institutions are starting to appreciate the value and benefits of starting projects from the needs of the user/visitor, as opposed to the institution/building, and I’ve been incredibly fortunate to consult with museums across the country around implementing design thinking into new initiatives.

User stories and notes line the windows of the offices of the Getty web group. Image courtesy Susan Edwards and Ahree Lee, J. Paul Getty Trust.

Photos of visitors, notes from interviews, and paper prototypes line the windows of the offices of the J. Paul Getty web group.
Image courtesy Susan Edwards and Ahree Lee, J. Paul Getty Trust.

My design thinking heart melts when colleagues tell me they have been inspired by the blog or a workshop to try new ways of working and collaborating, and I’m incredibly impressed with the brave and innovative work being done at the J. Paul Getty Trust and Museum, which was documented in our Museums and the Web paper and in this blog post by Jack Ludden of the Getty. At the Museums and the Web conference this year, colleagues reported back to me some of the strategies and practices they have experimented with inside their institutions over the past year, including:

  • Keeping prototyping supplies available in common areas
  • Posting photos of museum visitors on office walls and windows
  • Bringing prototypes to meetings
  • Scheduling regular times to interview visitors in the galleries
  • Warming-up teams with improv games
  • Convening standing meetings
  • Trying some of the other strategies I’ve written about, such as developing empathy towards one’s colleagues

The road ahead

These are the early adopters, and without the support and encouragement of a handful of peers and colleagues, I probably would have taken down this blog and called it a day by now. I’ve written about kicking off the process and encountering internal resistance to design thinking, and hope this blog can support early adopters who are struggling to make changes in their own institutions.

Despite the growing movement in the museum sector to kick off new projects and initiatives with the needs of the user/visitor front and center, I still encounter pockets of resistance, and sometimes outright hostility, in my workshops and talks. The overarching theme of the resistance boils down to a misperception of design thinking in a museum setting as an all-or-nothing process that hits an institution like lightning and supersedes all existing processes, research, institutional values, and curatorial expertise.

Design thinking is not an end-all, be-all process that should be implemented in a vacuum; rather, it is a toolbox of mindsets, skills, and methodologies that can be adopted and adapted to inform and enhance a museum’s existing knowledge and ways of working. It is not a replacement for market research or visitor evaluation, nor is it a proposition to turn the museum’s programming over to visitors’ every whim and request. It’s also not the right process for every project, program, or organization, and there are organizations that are happy with their tried-and-true ways of doing things. But for the organizations that are thirsty for new ways of approaching and defining problems, collaborating, and innovating their programs, exhibitions, and visitor offerings, it’s a powerful framework worth a try.

What have you tried?

Are you trying new strategies or ways of working within your museum or organization? I would love to hear your stories, and am always looking for writers for guest posts to share their first-hand experiences. Please contact me, or leave a reply below!

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