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Lean and smart human-centered design: three lessons from the Grand Rapids Art Museum

Grand Rapids Art Museum
As more museums adopt human-centered design practices, I’m always searching for case studies from different types of institutions. Examples from the J. Paul Getty and Rijksmuseum demonstrate how design thinking is being implemented in larger institutions, but what about smaller and midsized museums?

Recently I spoke with Jon Carfagno, the Director of Learning and Audience Engagement at the Grand Rapids Art Museum, or GRAM, about how the museum is taking a human-centered approach to the development of everything from strategic planning to the visitor experience.

In my conversation with Carfagno, I identified three aspects of GRAM’s application of human-centered design that were critical to its success:

  1. Make an institutional commitment
  2. Don’t go it alone
  3. Start with small experiments

Make an Institutional Commitment

In early 2013, GRAM was transitioning to new leadership and going through the American Alliance of Museums (AAM) accreditation renewal process. The Museum leadership recognized a unique opportunity to apply human-centered design, and decided to develop what Jon describes as a “human-centered strategic plan”—one that strengthens internal staff capabilities around innovation, builds museum-community relationships, and focuses on an improved visitor experience.

Jon Carfagno

Jon Carfagno, Director Of Learning And Audience Engagement, Grand Rapids Art Museum

Says Carfagno, “We recognized parallels between the Falk predictive model of visitor experience and human-centered design, and started to realize the significance that human-centered design could play in our planning process.”

The staff, board, and volunteers embarked on what Carfagno describes as “innovation blitz work” to develop a future-focused strategic plan. They examined current practices and assumptions, surveyed trends, and defined how the museum could offer transformative experiences across channels.

The Museum completed the new strategic plan in the spring of 2014 and it has since been recognized by AAM’s Accreditation Commission as model and is referenced in the AAM Information Center document library.

The Museum's  boardroom is transformed into an innovation lab as staff and board members work together during strategic planning.

The Museum’s boardroom is transformed into an innovation lab as staff and board members work together during strategic planning.

In addition to making an institutional commitment to developing a human-centered, forward thinking strategic plan, museum staff completed training in human-centered design methods through a local design incubator, GRid70. Staff members from various departments, including the Director and CEO, were given the time and space to learn tools that they could bring back to the Museum’s daily practices.

Don’t Go It Alone

GRAM is located in West Michigan, an industrial design hub that houses the headquarters of several international companies, including Steelcase and Herman Miller. The Museum board includes staff from many local companies, and the institution has strong ties to the West Michigan design and innovation community.

Instead of trying to go it alone, GRAM reached out to the community. The Museum partnered with the Amway Business Innovations Group and a local design agency, Visual Hero, for staff training and on the strategic plan development. Through a combination of in-kind donations and non-profit rates, GRAM was able to leverage the expertise of the local community.

The museum also partnered with AIGA West Michigan, the local chapter AIGA, the professional association for design, to launch a program called Design Briefs. This program transforms the Museum into an incubator for ideas through evening events that feature crowd-sourced presentations of new products, services, and social entrepreneurship concepts moderated by a panel of interdisciplinary experts from GRAM and the local design community.

Start with Small Experiments

After the Museum’s rollout of the new strategic plan and the Design Briefs program, the staff at GRAM began to try small experiments they could make to improve the visitor experience at GRAM.

One such experiment emerged after conducting visitor observations in the galleries, reviewing logs of notes from front-line staff, and interviewing guards. The staff noted that there were a significant number of written and verbal complaints and comments from visitors every month in response to guards reminding visitors not to touch the art.

The staff came together and brainstormed solutions and came up with a concept to prototype: they installed framed mirrors in the galleries, accompanied by signage encouraging visitors to touch the mirrors. The wall text asked visitors to notice the oils left behind by visitors’ fingers on the mirrors. In the first three months after the mirrors were installed, the number of guard interventions with visitors trying to touch the art went down to one.

Mirrors in the galleries at GRAM

Mirrors installed in proximity to the permanent collection, in order to turn the usual messaging around “Please Don’t touch the Art” into a learning experience.

But better than that, the staff started noticing visitors posting selfies of themselves with the mirrors. Not only did the mirrors help reduce the number of attempted art-touches, they offered opportunities for visitors to interact with the art and the Museum in a new way.

Conclusion

The Grand Rapids Art Museum is fortunate to be located in a region with a rich history of design and innovation, but I believe the steps they took to apply human-centered design to their organization can be applied in other small to midsized institutions. These include:

  • Committing to human-centered design at the leadership level, and developing actionable plans for improving visitor experience
  • Training staff in human-centered design methods and tools
  • Partnering with the community for expertise, training, and support
  • Being willing to try small experiments

As Carfagno quotes the core pillars of the Museum’s strategy, these steps have allowed GRAM to “activate the museum experience, advance civic and cultural leadership, integrate innovation skills, expand the impact of art, and build institutional strength.”

All images provided courtesy of Grand Rapids Art Museum.

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