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Design sprints for content development: How Phoenix Art Museum ran a design sprint

"I'm Here" gallery guides

The “I’m Here” gallery guides at Phoenix Art Museum, which were developed through a design sprint.

This is the first in a two-part series about running design sprints in museums. This post discusses using design sprints for content development at Phoenix Art Museum, and the second post examines how the British Museum is experimenting with design sprints to advocate for visitor experience.

For a series of printed visitor guides called the “I’m Here” series, Phoenix Art Museum adopted an innovative approach to content development: a design sprint. Educators worked off-site on the “I’m Here” guides in a day-long sprint. The finished guides have been hugely successful, with a large take-up rate, several print runs, and robust social media shares. For this post, I interviewed Christian Adame, Assistant Education Director, about the project.

Christian Adame portrait

Christian Adame of Phoenix Art Museum

Q: Tell me how the “I’m Here” gallery guides came about.

A:  We had just started a rebrand of the museum’s look and feel, and we wanted to set a new tone. Our goal was to explore ways we could interact with visitors in a more informal way.

We were aiming to demystify what it means to go to a museum, so we asked ourselves, “Why do people come to museums? Why are they posting selfies and sharing the experience socially?”

The answer is that they want everyone to know why they are here. And that phrase stuck with us: “I am here.”

This really encapsulated our thinking. The why around a museum visit is really meaty.


Q: Why did you chose to run a design sprint?

A: The education director at the time was very interested in iteration and trying new approaches quickly. Museums are glaciers—they move really slowly. Running a sprint was a way to bring more voices to the table, and move quickly through a single project in one day.

We ran the sprint off-site, at my (former) boss’s house. We felt it was critical to get out of the office, away from (office) dynamics.

We assembled a group of seven of us in the education division and put everything else aside. The thought was that everyone would be a part of this, and we would finish the first iteration that day.


Q: So you knew you wanted to frame the sprint around this notion of why a visitor is at the museum, but did you have a product in mind going into it?

A: Well, we didn’t have a very robust digital infrastructure here, so we knew we wanted to create something analog, something printed that people could walk away with. We went into the sprint with some criteria for what we wanted to create: it should be informal, and concise, and respond to the notion of “I’m here.”

And when we brainstormed during our sprint, three main ideas came to us. These were:

I’m here …

  • For the first time
  • With kids
  • On a date

Being in Phoenix, we get a lot of first-time visitors, mostly tourists and snowbirds, as well as locals who visit a few times a year. And we wanted to give these visitors a starting point. The one “with kids” was targeted at parents, and the last one (“on a date”) was an opportunity to have some fun!

I'm Here on a Date

The “I’m Here on a Date” guide to Phoenix Art Museum


Q: Tell me more about how you structured the sprint.

A: Our former education director facilitated, and I took second lead. We started out by examining at all the research we already had: audience demographics and evaluations. We also looked at the research of John Falk. His work examines what motivates visitors to come to museums, from relaxing and recharging to facilitating others’ visits. This kind of thinking goes beyond demographic information, which only provides a certain baseline amount of knowledge about why people visit.

We then considered this notion of “I’m here” and the idea of visitors wanting others to know why they are here.

From there we did a brain dump, with everyone individually writing down ideas of how to address visitors’ motivations for why they come to Phoenix Art Museum  We tried to put ourselves in the mindset of a visitor, and asked the kinds of questions they would ask, what they might want to know, and so on.  We alternated between working individually, then posted our thoughts and ideas all over the walls and shared out as a group. We are a big fan of Post-its. The process of showing everyone’s thought process visually together, then honing down to the best and most meaningful ideas, provided the structure of the sprint.

We cranked through the content in a day, worked with a graphic designer to create (the first prototype), and had about 200 copies made and put it out there. We wanted to see what would happen.

I'm Here - Social Media ShareQ: How did you test it?

The education director and I ran the testing. We have free admission on Wednesday evenings, and there is an art walk on the First Friday of every month, so we put the guides out (on Wednesdays and Friday evenings), and talked with visitors.

We played with where to place them so they would get the most visibility, and basically observed. It’s critical as an educator to observe what people do in the museum. It’s safe to say we lurked quite a bit, and as visitors left the museum, we asked if they found the guides useful. We got a lot of positive feedback right away.


Q: What kinds of things did you learn?

A: It was mainly the language and the design that visitors responded to. Visitors noticed the difference in tone from the interpretive content on the walls in the museum. For example, you open the date guide and it says, “Ah, first dates… will there be chemistry?” It spoke to visitors directly, not abstractly.

We also learned that visitors appreciated something they could physically take away for free. We played with placement, and put the guides into different galleries.

We also watched social media so we could quantify if people were posting photos of themselves holding the guides—selfies with the guides, etc.


Q: What are your next steps?

A: We’ve been through three reprints now, and we have another guide in development: “I’m here to disconnect.” This one is about putting your phone away and focusing on two to three works of art.

Overall, the sprint method allowed us to be more iterative. We’ve since used the method for other projects. We found it refreshing, productive, and a welcome alternative to putting a project on a calendar and chipping away at it for months. Our team collectively built something, and the process ultimately made the team stronger.

I'm Here - social media share


All images courtesy Phoenix Art Museum.

4 Comments »

  1. I was enjoying to read this article, also wondering what kinds of content (text or images?) are included in each guide of ‘I’m here’.

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