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How might we embed design thinking into a museum? 5 steps from the Denver Museum of Nature & Science

Denver Museum of Nature & Science

The Prehistoric Journey exhibition hall at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science. Image © Dana Mitroff Silvers

How might we embed design thinking into a museum? This is the question I’ve been exploring with the Denver Museum of Nature & Science over the past six months.

The Denver Museum of Nature & Science (DMNS) has launched a museum-wide initiative to infuse design thinking into their internal DNA as part of an effort to become more relevant and accessible to the Denver community. In this post, I explore five steps the DMNS has taken to embed design thinking into the organization.

1. Recognize that change is needed

The Denver Museum of Nature & Science (DMNS) is a 115-year-old institution that welcomes nearly 1.4 million visitors every year. More than 90% of visitors rate the museum at an “exceptional” level in satisfaction surveys, and the Museum has a membership base of over 62,000 households. It’s a museum that is doing quite well at the gate, by all standards.

Yet, in the words of the Vice President of Visitor Experience Mary Hacking, the Museum “can’t afford to rest on its laurels.” Over the past year, Museum leadership has become increasingly invested in ensuring that the museum is relevant, accessible, and welcoming to visitors of all cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds.

In response, the Museum’s senior leadership has kicked off a new, cross-museum initiative to investigate and explore ways to build deeper and more meaningful connections with the local community. And one of the ways they have set out to do this is through a new way of working and collaborating internally: design thinking.

2. Involve the entire organization

Curatorial and security staff working together in a workshop.

Staff from different departments working together in a training workshop.
Image © Dana Mitroff Silvers

From security guards to trustees, the Museum has made a commitment at all organizational levels to change the way they design and develop new programs and exhibits.

In my work with the Museum, my colleague Maryanna Rogers and I have trained nearly 100 staff in human-centered design methods. These trainings have taken the form of intensive, immersive, multi-day workshops in which staff tackled specific and timely challenges, such as: “How might we better connect the Denver community with nature?”

Staff from every department in the museum participated, including the CEO and trustees, along with team members from Research and Collections, Exhibits, Marketing, Volunteer Services, Finance, Guest Services, Technology, Food Services, and the Gift Shop. Through these trainings and subsequent activities such as brainstorming sessions, the DMNS’s ultimate goal has been to give staff a set of tools and a process by which to make change happen.

3. Examine internal assumptions

DMNS brainstorm

DMNS staff and trustees in a workshop.
Image © Dana Mitroff Silvers

The design thinking process has helped the DMNS staff become aware of and question internal assumptions. For example, something the Museum has been consciously exploring through the design thinking process is the perception of “waste.”

Museum staff recognized early on when starting to experiment with design thinking that there were staff who viewed some of the open-ended, exploratory activities such as uncensored brainstorming and low-resolution prototyping as “wasteful.” But in order for the Museum’s community-focused initiative to succeed, they needed to give staff the permission to try things out and fail.

Amanda Bennett, Director of Marketing and Communications at DMNS, explains: “Even if something turns out to not be relevant to our current project, the application may be beneficial elsewhere. This led us to have great internal conversations about ‘waste’ and how it can ultimately be helpful—and even necessary—particularly when prototyping. We want to create a culture of courage, which means appreciating the idea of creating ‘waste’ in order to create the best product for our guests.”

4. Try new methods “a la carte”

Prototyping a new kiosk in the galleries.

Prototyping a new iPad-based kiosk in the Prehistoric Journey galleries.
Image © Dana Mitroff Silvers

Museum staff have recognized that it’s extremely difficult to drop everything and use a new process from scratch. So they are asking their colleagues to pick and choose tools from the design thinking process “a la carte.” Many staff reported feeling overwhelmed when they first started incorporating new methods of working, but felt better when they learned that even a lo-fidelity prototype could yield valuable insights.

Examples of some of the things that staff at the DMNS have tried include: holding brown bag lunch trainings around each phase of the design thinking process; forming internal “affinity” groups to support each other; setting up a dedicated prototyping space; and, making time and space in meetings to share progress—as well as failures.

5. Slow down and listen

One of the Museum’s big learnings has been around how important it is to really listen to the community.

As part of the community initiative, the DMNS was planning to implement a new discount program for low-income visitors. “Initially, we thought it would be straightforward and simple to model this on an existing low-cost annual pass program at another science museum,” says Bennett.

To think through the annual pass program, staff went out into the community and did interviews and observations. They also ran a series of workshops with participants from social service agencies and community organizations in which they explored models of low-income programs together.

What they discovered was that the issue of cost was far more nuanced. For example, through their community interviews, they met Maria, a recent immigrant to Denver with three kids between the ages of eight and 18. Even if the Museum is free, Maria said she won’t come if there is not something there for her entire family. In fact, even though she is on a very tight budget, she is willing to spend money if it’s for something that will be fun and rewarding for everyone in her family of five.

As a result of this, the Museum reframed the problem, and decided to scrap the plan for a low-income annual pass, and is instead prototyping and testing other ways to develop affordable programs for families.

“Had we not used the design thinking process, we would have grossly misjudged what local community members needed. We would have done what we thought was appropriate for this program—and it would have failed,” explains Bennett.

What’s next?

Moving forward, the DMNS is incorporating design thinking practices and tools into a variety of strategic initiatives. The Museum’s internal Audience Insights department has conducted pre- and post-assessments to measure staff’s creative confidence around using design thinking, and the survey results have indicated that the design thinking process has helped staff connect with their natural ability to generate new ideas and has given them the courage to experiment, be “wasteful,” and take risks.

As Amanda Bennett commented to me after our last training, “The simple truth about design thinking is that it is a powerful set of tools and will be the foundation for driving this Museum forward.”

I couldn’t agree more.

3 Comments »

  1. Would you mind sharing the pre/post survey you used for creative confidence? I work in healthcare and am doing some practice and research work in this area. Thanks so much!

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