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Activating the museum with design thinking: stories from the Minneapolis Institute of Arts

The Minneapolis Institute of Arts, one of the largest encyclopedic museums in the country, began a design thinking process in 2013 to find new ways to enhance visitors’ experiences. Last week I spoke with Karleen Gardner, Director of Learning Innovation, and Sheila McGuire, Head of School and Teacher Programs, about how the MIA has been using design thinking to tackle strategic initiatives across the institution, from the redesign of the lobby to the development of new amenities for families.

Q:  How did you start using design thinking at the MIA?

Karleen Gardner (KG):  We’re a very audience-centered museum, and we have a strong focus on visitors. We work in cross-functional divisions here at the MIA, and that’s where design thinking comes in.


MIA staff present prototypes for new family spaces.

We started exploring the design thinking process about a year and a half ago, and kicked it off with two workshops for cross-functional groups of staff led by one of our docents, who also works at the College of Design at the University of Minnesota.

The workshops involved putting staff into cross-functional teams, providing guidelines for questions to ask of visitors, and sending staff into the galleries to conduct “empathy interviews” about comfort, amenities, and wayfinding.

We asked visitors questions like, “What are your motivations for coming to the MIA?” and “What would make your experience here even better?”

At that time, we did not have what I’d call a welcoming, comfortable lobby, and we were about to undertake a project to reimagine and redesign the lobby.

Many of the insights we gained from these visitor interviews were around comfort and space. We reflected on the insights we had gathered, and prototyped solutions for the lobby that focused on things like good coffee, food for kids, and places to sit.

Open seating areas in the new MIA lobby.

Open seating areas in the new MIA lobby.

Sheila McGuire (SMG): And the lobby is a totally different space now! We have a new coffee shop, public seating with books, magazines, and iPads, and a new family space. We have transformed the lobby into a “third space” and a “social space.”

Q: What methods from design thinking have made their way into the day-to-day work at the MIA?

KG: A lot of the brainstorming methods, with their emphasis on divergent thinking, have been impactful for us. Plus the use of Post-It notes!

Design thinking has made us realize that we have to go out and talk to our visitors. We can’t make assumptions. Even though many of our assumptions have been confirmed in talking with visitors, empathy is key, and you can’t get that empathy without talking (to visitors).

Staff sketches of ideas for new family spaces.

Staff sketches of ideas for new family spaces.

SMG: And the notion of prototyping has been really important to us too. This notion that we don’t have to have a finished product when we go out into the galleries. This has helped us think about ways we can be more experimental and not have to have final, polished products before we test them.

Q: How have staff reacted to these new ways of working?

SMG: Some of the perfectionists have had a hard time letting their prototypes go out, but in the end, everybody understands the process as well as the value of not presenting a finished product to visitors. If you work on something until it’s polished, you won’t get useful, honest feedback.

Innovation is in our DNA here at the Museum. For example, in our staff meetings, people share risks they recently took, and risk-taking and new thinking are a part of our culture.

Q: What are some other projects you’ve applied design thinking to?

KG: We ran another internal workshop with staff that was focused specifically on the needs of family audiences. We interviewed visitors about activities they can do at the museum with their families, synthesized the findings, and brainstormed solutions to meet the needs of families.

We came up with some crazy ideas—things like rock climbing in the museum! But this made us think: why not build an artist-designed playground? And what are other ways can capitalize on our campus? This led us to think about ways we can activate the museum on a daily basis, and we’re currently exploring some of these ideas for next year.

Q: How do you see design thinking fitting with traditional methods of evaluation?

SMG: In the formative evaluation phase, design thinking shifts us from the “What do we know?” approach to the “Why?” mindset.

It’s a collaborative process. It’s not about me going out with my survey asking visitors specific questions; it’s co-creative. This is about looking at problems from different perspectives.

Q: Any final thoughts of the impact of design thinking at the MIA?

KG: Design thinking has helped us engage not only with visitors, but also with cross-sections of our own staff. In fact, team building has been another huge aspect of the design thinking process. It’s given us a different internal language and set of mindsets. I’m not sure that I know of another process that would have done it as well.

Photos courtesy Minneapolis Institute of Arts.
Banner image by Alvintrusty on Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0.

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