Design Thinking for Museums

A design thinker in residence: an interview with Henry Trejo of Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art

I interviewed Henry Trejo, the Design Thinking Fellow at the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Fayetteville, Arkansas. I was beyond excited when I heard that the Crystal Bridges Museum had a design thinker in residence, as this is the very first US museum to put someone in this role, as far as I’m aware. (Update, November 7, 2018: I just learned that the V&A Research Institute (VARI) at the Victoria and Albert Museum has a new Design Thinker in Residence position!)

Below are highlights from my conversation with Henry Trejo, which has been shortened and edited for clarity. (Many thanks to Samantha Sigmon at Crystal Bridges for making me aware of Henry’s unique position!)

Q: So what do you do at the Crystal Bridges Museum?

As the Design Thinking Fellow at the museum, I work alongside the Executive Director and Chief Diversity & Inclusion Officer to help execute the museum’s strategic vision. I lead multidisciplinary teams through design thinking methods in order to tackle complex problems.

My fellowship is for two years, and I just started it in June, so it’s still very new. I’m the first Design Thinking fellow the museum has ever had, and we are still learning and figuring it out. I’m thankful for getting the opportunity to do this!

Q: Wow! That’s super cool. As far as I know, you are the only Design Thinking Fellow in any museum in the country! How did you get into this?

I started as a Museum Educator here while I was getting my MFA at a nearby college, John Brown University, in a program called “Collaborative Design.” It incorporated design thinking, creative strategy, and visual problem solving.

Henry Trejo speaking about the Somos group at an AIGA Northwest Arkansas meetup.

While I was working here as an educator, we were trying to build a new resource group that would enhance Crystal Bridges’ reach and impact with Latino visitors and community members.

I led a group through design thinking in order to identify and clarify what our group would be. We branded ourselves as “Somos,” which means “we are.” We recognized that we all come from different backgrounds and our audience is diverse, and this was the foundation of our group.

After I presented the methods we used and the outcomes of our sessions to leadership, I had a conversation with our Director, and he thought that it would be interesting for me to join as a Design Thinking Fellow after I graduated.

Q: So you report to the Director?

Yes, I report to the Executive Director and Chief Diversity & Inclusion Officer, Rod Bigelow. He is my mentor at the institution

Q: What’s an example of something you have worked on?

As a museum that welcomes all, we see design thinking as tool that will help us to achieve the goal of welcoming people from different walks of life and helping them feel comfortable here. We want them to feel that this is their place and museum.

The Loteria exhibition in The Niche at Crystal Bridges.

One of the projects that I worked on with the Somos group was focused on activating a space here at the museum called The Niche. It’s a small, experimental space that is rotated every two to three weeks.

We had an opportunity to install something new there, so we used the design thinking process to develop the experience. When we first started, we didn’t really know what was going to go into the space, but we started brainstorming, and we consciously listed all the bad ideas we could think of!

One of our early ideas was to have an interactive game show that visitors could touch, which is usually a “no no” in a museum. This got us into a different mindset, and led us to something all of us in the Somos group remembered growing up doing—playing the game Loteria, which is like Bingo.

We prototyped something, and the first prototype was really ugly! But we went into the the space to test it and see what would work. We quickly learned that we couldn’t have people in the space yellowing out riddles, so we came up with the idea of a spinning wheel. We also learned that having the game all in Spanish didn’t make sense, because we realized that we all speak Spanglish. So we changed the text to Spanglish.

It’s been interesting to watch people in the space play with the game. Some people start playing with it, and then then encounter words in Spanish, and they have a sense of what it’s like to go back and forth between two languages and not know all the words. This is a way to create a sense of empathy for those who go back and forth between languages.

Q: What has been the reaction to working in this more iterative, human-centered way?

I was talking to a colleague last week, and she was looking at what we installed in The Niche and said, “I honestly didn’t know this would work, but now I see it and I’m learning to trust the process more.” So people are coming along.

We are still in an infancy stage and figuring out what this could look like in the institution. Design thinking is not something you do for every single project. So we are looking at what makes sense.

“I think the key thing is empathizing with visitors. I try to remind myself constantly that I am here to advocate for visitors. That’s where the empathy part comes in. You have to always be asking how what you are creating is affecting them and improving their lives.”

Henry Trejo

One of the biggest things I’ve learned is respect and trust. In the beginning phases when people are learning this process, it’s important to trust the team. I’m not the smartest person in the room. I need the whole team’s knowledge and creativity. That way we can create awesome solutions together.

Q: What has been the most enjoyable or interesting aspect of your work?

Collaboration with people from different departments across the museum. That is one of the most enjoyable parts of the job for me.

And seeing my colleagues use their creativity in ways they thought that maybe couldn’t be done

Q: And what has been the biggest challenge?

For me, one of the biggest challenges is letting go and not feeling or thinking that I need to be the one who comes up with the solution. It’s important to rely on the team. I don’t have to design everything. That’s why we have this team of amazing people!

Q: What advice do you have for other museums who want to start incorporating design thinking into their organizations?

I think the key thing is empathizing with visitors. I try to remind myself constantly that I am here to advocate for visitors. That’s where the empathy part comes in. You have to always be asking how what you are creating is affecting them and improving their lives.