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Announcing our Aspen Institute Tech Policy Hub Challenge Grant

Aspen Institute virtual workshop

We’re delighted to announce that we are working on an important and timely project titled “Cultural Engagement to Mitigate Social Isolation.”

With our collaborator Michael Edson of Using Data, we have received a grant from the Aspen Institute Tech Policy Hub, funded by the Ford Foundation and the Omidyar Network, to help museums, libraries, and performing arts organizations work more directly with their communities during this challenging time in America. (Read the full Aspen Tech Policy Hub announcement and the detailed press release.)

10 cultural organizations, together serving over 4 million people across the United States, are participating. These organizations are:

  • Arts & Minds, New York, NY (with Howes Studio), with Carolyn Halpin-Healy, Nellie Escalante, and Deborah Howes
  • Akron-Summit County Public Library System, Akron, OH, with Jennifer Stencel
  • Center for Art and Public Exchange, an initiative of the Mississippi Museum of Art, Jackson, MS, with Monique Davis
  • Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, Santa Fe, NM, with Liz Neely
  • Lux Art Institute, Encinitas, CA, with Andrew Utt and Claudia Cano
  • Mississippi Museum of Art, Jackson, MS, with McKenzie Drake
  • Newark Museum of Art, Newark, NJ, with Deborah Kasindorf and Silvia Flippini Fantoni
  • RED EYE Theater, Minneapolis, MN, with Emily Gastineau, Jeffrey Wells, and Rachel Jendrzejewski
  • Weisman Art Museum, Minneapolis, MN, with Katherine Covey and Susannah Schouweiler

The idea of this project is very humble and straightforward: we will bring the group together and provide workshops in design thinking and LEGO Serious Play, facilitation, coaching, and outside perspectives. The participants will bring their vast professional expertise, imagination, and intimate knowledge of their communities, missions, and values. We’ll meet weekly over the course of 10 weeks, and together we’ll try to nudge new experiments and ideas into the light of day.

When we conceived this project back in April, we were focused exclusively on addressing the harm being caused to communities and individuals by the social isolation of Covid-19, but April seems like it was 100 years ago.

Now, with our hearts aching from the eruption of pain, fear, and anger of what we have all lived through and witnessed here in the US, and with many of our collaborators dealing with the immediate consequences and long-term root causes of violence and injustice on their own doorsteps, we will inevitably be drawn together towards a larger and more consequential response.

This article originally appeared on the Using Data website and was authored by Michael Peter Edson.

Aspen Tech Policy Hub winners

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Evolving the design thinking framework towards greater equity: an interview with Tania Anaissie of Beytna Design

Tania Anaissie interviewing someone during a Liberatory Design session

To kick off the new year, I interviewed Tania Anaissie, the Founder and CEO of the social justice design firm Beytna Design and the co-creator of a new form of design thinking called Liberatory Design.

Liberatory Design combines the innovative potential of design thinking, the systemic lens of complexity theory, and the healing powers of equity practices to redesign how people work and live.

Tania Anaissie
Photograph by Patrick Beaudouin

I met Tania when I was a coach for the Designing for Social Systems program at the Stanford, and was struck by her deep commitment to design processes in which people experience belonging, exercise their full agency and power, and collectively co-design the future. In her work, Tania builds new frameworks and tools that expand upon the traditional design thinking framework with the goal of creating greater equity for those most impacted by oppressive systems.

This new and “evolved” approach to design thinking work is complementary to work being done in the museum sector by groups like OF/BY/FOR ALL, MAAS Action, and The Empathetic Museum, and is timely with the discussions in our sector about how museums can foster more equitable and inclusive practices and connect with our communities in effective and authentic ways.

The interview has been edited for clarity.

Q: Tania, how did you get into this work?

Much of this grew out of my lived experiences with inequity growing up as an Arab-American in Arkansas. As I made sense of my own experience, I saw how many systems were designed to oppress, and wondered if we could use new tools to redesign them. At the same time, I was practicing and teaching design thinking at Stanford, where I previously earned my design degree. I had questions about how design thinking was being practiced. I felt there were some unethical elements built into the design process itself, for example, in the re-creation of unhealthy power dynamics.

I basically reached a point where I was having a “crisis” about how design was practiced, and I felt a strong pull to re-examine the whole thing to imagine it as a force for equity.

Q: So what did you do during your “design crisis”?

Tania Anaissie

I found other people who were asking the same questions. A group of us, designers and equity practitioners, came together to merge our best practices. We launched our co-creation, Liberatory Design, at a workshop for SXSWedu in 2017.  We started meeting people across the nation who were doing similar work, and we started connecting and eventually came together as the Equity Design Collaborative.

I also founded my firm, Beytna Design, and I now work to support social sector leaders to bring their visions of equity to life using Liberatory Design.

Liberatory Design is a way of being and working that facilitates change towards equity. It’s an innovation practice rooted in sharing power, recognizing oppression, and centering those most impacted by inequity.

Q: Tell me more about how this is different from the traditional design thinking approach.

The biggest shift is in who is considered a “designer.” We believe that in order to create equitable outcomes, you have to design equitably, and that means involving people most impacted by the problem in the decision-making. Traditional design thinking consults those impacted, but the design team still goes behind closed doors to make interpretations and decisions. We’re pushing towards co-design and community-led design, which means those most impacted are on the team, making decisions with you as you transform power together.

Traditional design thinking consults those impacted, but the design team still goes behind closed doors to make interpretations and decisions. We’re pushing towards co-design and community-led design, which means those most impacted are on the team, making decisions with you as you transform power together.

Tania Anaissie, Beytna Design

Liberatory Design also includes a deeper examination of the history of how systems were designed, the equity implications, the origins of a problem, and the systemic ripple effects.

This is about prioritizing the design’s impact on the community over the intentions of the designer. It’s about being incredibly intentional about potential unintended consequences to a solution, and having protocols in place to reduce the risk of harm to those who are directly impacted by the outcomes of the design process.

And by design, I mean create with intention. You can design an experience, program, policy, system, product, or relationship. But if you are designing for equity, that means your end goal is to create greater equity.

Tania in conversation

Q: What can we as practitioners do in order to create with intention and design for greater equity?

We can examine the ways in which we practice, and question if (our practices) truly align with our values and are creating the kind of change we seek.

It starts with inquiry. For example, ask yourself, who is present at each stage of the project, and why? Who gets a say in how a problem is framed, or if it’s even a problem in the first place? Do those impacted get a say in decision-making, or if not, what other ways can you share power with them?

A lot of this work is also tied to personal reflection, like exploring your own identities and power because they all come to play in our work.

Q: What might the Liberatory Design process look like in museum?

My invitation is to consider, “How much are we willing to share power with the community we want to design with, and how might we invite them to collaborate?” In my opinion, the more they are involved, the higher the chance you will create truly transformative and equitable ideas.

The best way to engage a community is to authentically involve them, while remembering that no one owes us their trust or time, and the best we can do is design an invitation with respect and humility, and be willing to listen to their feedback.

The best way to engage a community is to authentically involve them, while remembering that no one owes us their trust or time, and the best we can do is design an invitation with respect and humility, and be willing to listen to their feedback.  

Tania Anaissie, Beytna Design

Think about ways to build trust with the community and learn from where they are, for example, Chris Rudd, a friend and amazing designer was working on a project related to shared public spaces in a neighborhood of Chicago. He wanted to involve folks living there in the synthesis of empathy interviews, so he set up a “synthesis station” with Post-Its in a shipping container to engage passersby and invite them to make sense of the learnings. He shared what his team was hearing and seeing and asked them to tell him what was relevant and important.

One of the challenges of working this way is being willing to acknowledge that despite your academic expertise, there are other sources of knowledge that are critical to design work, including lived expertise. There are many kinds of expertise, and all bring richness to the work, but if we get caught up in feeling like we know “better” because of our education or work experience, we need to pause and ask instead, “What do I not know given I see one view of this, and how could I learn from others?” This shift requires you to share power and act as an ally and/or facilitator.

In my work, this means that I’m not here to make final decisions; I’m here to facilitate. I believe that people can solve their own problems under the right conditions, and my goal is to create some of those conditions. This gives space for a more sustainable, community-led approach.

Q: Any final thoughts for emerging or experienced design thinkers?

I invite everyone in the design field to be dedicated to questioning and iterating their own practices. The work isn’t easy, but I’m committed to it, and it has deepened relationships and sharpened my practice in ways I never imagined. I invite everyone to access the tools we’re creating, share your ideas, and join the movement!


Images courtesy of Tania Anaissie. You can follow Beytna Design on Instagram, read more on Medium, and download a set of the Liberatory Design cards here.

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Five emerging trends in design thinking for 2020

A wall of Post-it notes
As we close out the first decade of the 21st century, here are some emerging themes and trends in the human-centered design landscape. From a “back-to-basics” focus on the fundamental mindsets and skills to a growing awareness of the role of equity in design, here are some trends to watch in the next decade.

The themes and trends below are based on my experiences as a practitioner, and by no means is this intended to be a comprehensive, authoritative list. I welcome feedback as to what trends and themes others are seeing on the horizon.

Note that this post was originally published on Medium; the version here has been edited for museum professionals and practitioners.

1. There is a “back-to-basics” focus on the fundamental mindsets and skills of design thinking.

I‘ve observed a growing demand from both nonprofit and for-profit organizations for support and training around the fundamentals, such as active listening skills and empathy-building methods.

While more and more professionals have been exposed to the overall design thinking process through online and in-person workshops and classes, there is a sense that some of the essentials have been neglected. This to me represents a sophisticated understanding of the design thinking framework, as a good design thinker is only as good as their foundational skills.

In addition to active listening and empathy-building, other fundamentals include comfort with ambiguity, a bias to action, group facilitation skills, and an ability to mindfully separate convergent from divergent activities.

A brainstorming session as seen through the camera of an iPhone.
A team generating ideas, after reviewing the fundamentals of brainstorming “best practices.”

2. There is a growing awareness around the role that equity plays in the design process.

With the increased focus on DEAI (Diversity, Equity, Access, and Inclusion), there has also been an increased awareness of the important role that equity plays in design. This is something I‘ve observed more among my museum, nonprofit, and education clients, but I believe this trend will continue to grow in the for-profit sector in the coming decade.

Bringing equity into design merges the design thinking framework with racial equity work, considering the conditions, actions, and intentions that must be taken to achieve inclusive, equitable outcomes.

In recent years, design thinking has left its roots as a tool used for product design and emerged as a powerful problem-solving methodology across fields and sectors. This shift in how design thinking is used has come in concert with a societal shift in the way we identify problems and understand solutions.
– equityXdesign: Caroline Hill, Michelle Molitor, and Christine Ortiz

There are many smart individuals and organizations leading the path in this space, amplifying the design thinking process to consider problems through the lens of equity, and embracing co-design and other inclusive practices that bring stakeholders, visitors, and users into the design process as equal partners.

Tools such as the Liberatory Design Cards from the Stanford’s K12 Lab and the National Equity Project provide concrete, actionable tools that human-centered designers can incorporate into their work.

3. More for-profit organizations are beginning to operationalize design thinking, although smaller nonprofits and museums still lag behind.

From Blue Shield of California’s high-profile, company-wide design thinking initiative to Starbucks’ state-of-the-art innovation center, an increasing number of companies are making design thinking an integral part of how they do business, and staffing up accordingly.

Human-centered design hallway
A “human-centered design hallway” in a library. Image courtesy of the Richfield Branch of the Akron-Summit County Public Library.

While large nonprofit institutions and government entities are dedicating operating resources and in-house positions to design thinking, smaller nonprofits, especially in the arts, still lag behind.

Modest staff “residency” positions like the Design Thinker in Residence at the Crystal Bridges Museum of Art are a start, but most human-centered design work is still part of the “additional duties as required” of existing positions.

This means that the heavy-lifting is carried out on the margins, by people already juggling numerous other responsibilities. These people must be creative, entrepreneurial, and indefatigable, such as this librarian who transformed a service hallway into a human-centered design lab.

4. There are increasingly specialized applications of design thinking to niche sectors and industries.

Design Thinking for Libraries reference guide
Image from

When I first started this site in 2013, the only other domain-specific applications of design thinking were to libraries and education. When I attended the Executive Education Program in design thinking at the Stanford, I was the only person from an arts organization, and only one of three people from a nonprofit. The majority were from Fortune 500 companies.

When I returned to my organization, SFMOMA, I had to figure out, on my own, how to adapt and modify the design thinking tools and methods for the context of a museum. Today, however, there are increasingly specialized applications of design thinking to a variety of sectors, from national parks to the legal profession to the food and restaurant industry. And as the field matures, we will continue to see even more specific applications to niche industries. This will serve the field well, beyond the early-stage “one-size-fits-all” approach.

5. Misconceptions about what design thinking is, and is not, still persist.

Despite all of the growth and progress of the last decade, there are still many misconceptions about what design thinking is and is not. The endless and ugly debates over semantics, process steps, and intent persist. Unfortunately, I still experience this at museum conferences, with many peers and colleagues misunderstanding how design thinking is applied in practice.

While digging into each and every critique of design thinking is far beyond the scope of this, it is my hope that as practitioners continue to mature, skills levels increase, and the application of design thinking becomes more sophisticated and focused, these misunderstandings will begin to subside, and design thinkers can focus on doing good work inside institutions.

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Why bad ideas lead to good ideas: using “reverse thinking” in a design sprint at the National Gallery of Art

Sketches from a bad ideas brainstorm
Team members sharing ideas at the National Gallery of Art
Team members sharing their “bad” ideas in the design sprint at the National Gallery of Art

Disclaimer: All views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s and do not reflect the views and opinions of the National Gallery of Art or the federal government.

Cans of spray paint next to the artworks. Glitter bombs in the galleries. Pony rides in the lobby. Free skateboards available at the Information Desk.

These were just a handful of the intentionally bad ideas that a team at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., generated during a “bad ideas brainstorm,” also known as a “wrong thinking” exercise, during a four-day design sprint. Bad ideas brainstorming is a method for generating novel solutions by pushing teams beyond the safe and status quo.

A cross-disciplinary group of museum staff, joined by collaborators from local institutions and community members, were gathered together to imagine and prototype new digital offerings that promote access to the Collection and build stronger connections between the Gallery and its visitors. The grant-funded project specifically called for the convening of an event that would foster play, creation, and innovation, using the Gallery and its collections as a springboard.

Team members doing solo sketching
Team members at the National Gallery of Art generating “bad” ideas during the first round of Crazy 8s sketching.

Design sprints are facilitated working sessions that involve exploring and validating concepts with end-users through research and prototyping. At Designing Insights, we ground our design sprints in the design thinking framework as it’s taught and applied at the Stanford Hasso Plattner Institute of design, or, and specialize in the application of design thinking to museums and cultural heritage organizations. Design thinking offers a method for cultivating responsive and engaging institutions and developing relevant and meaningful visitor experiences and programs.

Generating bad ideas using Crazy8s sketching

A wall of Crazy 8s sketchesIn most of the design sprints that we run, when we are in a “divergent” phase, we urge participants to go for quantity, not quality, and encourage them to come up with wild and crazy ideas. But this was the first time we had explicitly instructed sprinters to generate truly bad ideas. Really awful, embarrassing, egregious, outrageous, impermissible, even taboo, ideas.

And the results were phenomenal. We set aside eight minutes for the solo sketching activity known as Crazy 8s, and asked people to think of the worst ideas possible in response to “How Might We” questions they had already crafted. We then had team members take three minutes each to share their bad ideas with teammates. The howls of laughter (even some snorting) was contagious, and the room came alive.

After each person had a chance to share their bad ideas, we asked them to repeat the Crazy 8s activity, this time adapting, digging deeper, flipping, combining, or exploring the opposite of the bad ideas they had just come up with. (The smart folks over at Design Sprint Academy have a nice variation on how to run the activity; they call it Evil8s and details are here in a Medium post.)

A Crazy 8s sketch of bad ideas
Some deliberately bad ideas generated in the first Crazy 8s exercise

Moving from bad to good

In ethnographic-style interviews with museum visitors, the team heard over and over that the majority of visitors did not consider themselves to be “art people.” Visitors apologized for not being “art people” and expressed a lack of confidence around the skills and personal experiences they brought with them when they walked through the doors.

In response to this, one of the “bad” ideas was to require all museum visitors to attend “mandatory” academic lectures about the museum and current exhibitions before they could come inside. Another related idea was to only allow entrance to visitors with PhDs. These ideas were recognized as exclusive and elitist— positively bad ideas.

Video prototype
Testing the prototype for the “crash course” videos in the Gallery Atrium.

But these bad ideas led to a new concept that the team is now exploring through prototyping: short, on-demand videos related to building skills and confidence around looking at art. Visitors can consume these videos in the atrium before heading into the galleries. These videos will provide short “crash courses” that will empower visitors, build their confidence, and validate that they are art people, no matter their background, training, or experience.

Another theme that the workshop participants heard in their interviews with visitors was that basic comfort is a big issue. Seating, way finding, location of restrooms and food are top-of-mind. In response to this, the team brainstormed ideas for how to make the museum more comfortable and welcoming. One of the “bad” ideas they generated was to require absolute silence in the museum. No conversations at all. A vow of silence upon entry.

This led to another idea: promoting and fostering conversations, and making them visible and tangible. The team prototyped a platform that invites visitors to share their thoughts, stories, emotions, and reflections with other visitors via a digital interface that is displayed in the atrium, and is now in the process of refining this prototype for a potential implementation.

Why do bad ideas lead to good ideas?

What is it about bad ideas that makes them useful tools for leading us to good ideas? How can imagining the worst way to solve a problem actually help us solve the problem?

Team members high-fiving1) It lowers the pressure

Anyone who has been in a traditional brainstorming meeting in which people are encouraged to “be creative” knows how painful it can be. Faced with a blank piece of paper and the pressure to turn on some “creative juices,” most people draw a big fat blank.

But by freeing the group from any pretenses of being creative or having “good” ideas, the self-editing and self-consciousness melts away. As one participant in the sprint at the National Gallery reflected, “Sometimes you just have to be bad before being OK.”

2) It establishes a level playing field

No matter your role or seniority in your organization, everyone is equally qualified to come up with bad ideas. You can’t get a degree in bad ideas (although some of my friends who spent many years in graduate school might argue otherwise …) and it does not matter if you are in a “creative” role in your organization; everyone has the same qualifications when it comes to the generation of bad ideas.

3) It builds trust in oneself and the team

One participant in the sprint reflected that the experience taught her the importance of “trusting your ideas—all of them.” Another shared: “I had a habit of being very hard on myself, but now I think it’s OK to have bad ideas.” It was as if being given this explicit permission to be “bad” built trust in her own innate capacity.

The experience also builds trust among team members. If everyone is deliberately generating “bad” ideas, no one has to worry about being judged by peers, as everyone is making oneself vulnerable.

4) It loosens up the room

The sheer joy that this activity brought to the room was palpable. The humor changed the energy, and connected colleagues to each other. As one participant noted, “How could laughter and a sense of humor not be good for everyone?”

5) It creates space for the good ideas

Starting with bad ideas opens up doors and possibilities. It clears the plate for good ideas. By putting the awful ideas out there, the group is able to adapt, flip, combine, or move on from the bad to the good.

In conclusion

If you’re trying hard to solve a problem and you’re finding yourself stuck, stop trying to come up with a good idea, and think of the absolute worst way to solve it.

“I used to think having bad ideas was bad,” reflected one of the participants in the four-day sprint. “Now I think they can be starting points for revolutionary thinking.”

Give yourself and your team the time and space to mindfully go for bad ideas. Then take the bad ideas and flip them, explore the opposite, adapt and combine ideas, or look for a kernel of a good inside the bad. Then see where it leads you. You might just end up with a revolution.




Birsel, Ayse. To Come Up with a Good Idea, Start by Imagining the Worst Idea Possible. Harvard Business Review. August 16, 2017. Accessed: July 23, 2019.

Dorf, Bob.How Looking at the Worst Possible Idea Could Lead You to the Best One. Inc. July 13, 2017. Accessed: July 25, 2019.

Wilson, Chauncey. Method 4 of 100: Reverse Brainstorming. Designing the User Experience at Autodesk. January 20, 2011. Accessed: July 26, 2019.



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How to write a cultural equity statement as a framing tool for design thinking

Drafting a cultural equity statement
author writing
Author Sarah Minegar using rubrics to draft the cultural equity statement for Morristown National Historical Park.

This guest post is by Sarah Minegar, Ph.D., Archivist and Museum Educator for the Morristown National Historical Park.

In the realm of pedagogy, design thinking is a page right out of the educator’s handbook; accessible in concept and practice, adaptable and flexible in approach, and inherently iterative. I’ve been utilizing human-centered problem solving and “problem finding” with teacher partners at the Morristown National Historical Park for several years (read more). Inviting collaborators into our interpretive process has been an important step toward achieving equitable narratives. It has also been imperative that we use framing tools to help us anticipate blind spots in our projects, processes, and systems.

Although we have our own in-house indicators of success at Morristown National Historical Park, we try to stay abreast of the evolving measures of best practices and industry-specific metrics. One framing tool that lends itself to adaptation and iteration is the cultural equity statement. (See the Morristown NHP Cultural Equity Statement below).

Intern giving a gallery talk
An intern at Morristown National Historical Park getting peer-to-peer feedback.

What is a cultural equity statement?

A cultural equity statement is a succinct document that aids institutions in addressing, at a glance, the ways in which their missions, actions, practices, and leadership are steering their organization toward justice, equity, and inclusivity. Unlike an outcome-oriented matrix or a categorical rubric, this tool is a checklist of sorts to help you determine if an equity measure is in place.

A cultural equity statement should:

  • Be concise (generally 1-3 pages).
  • Include a summary of how cultural equity is defined and performed as part of your institutional mission.
  • Contain brief statements of acknowledgement, action, and sustainability. These statements should represent the essential objectives of equity in practice and do not need to include details, specifics, or action agendas.

Like any litmus test, you will know immediately where/if an equity consideration is missing. You should ideate or iterate accordingly.

Author Sarah Minegar working with potential high school student interns, per an action step in the cultural equity plan.

Cultural equity statement template

Americans for the Arts has an editable template for drafting your own. While this document may seem fairly simple in design, having one prepared will streamline your evaluation process, help you identify the gaps in your planning, and focus attention on your programming, processes, and leadership pipeline.

Using a template like this also removes some the pressure of getting started and drafting language from scratch; it helps you move into action quickly, and parse through the technical language of equity in a constructive manner.

Empathetic Museum Maturity Model

If you are looking for specific examples of how to determine success in practice, you might also want to pair your cultural equity statement with the Museum Maturity Model. This rubric, available in English and Spanish, was created by the The Empathetic Museum to help organizations determine how they perform in the way of diversity, equity, and access, and move toward inclusive futures.

The Maturity Model is divided into five characteristics: Civic Vision; Institutional Body Language; Community Resonance; Timeliness & Sustainability; and Performance Measures.

The Model is designed to be used alongside your institution’s strategic planning process and to provide benchmark examples of success. Ideally, it can also help you plan and critique new initiatives or pilots. Access the complete instructions and the downloadable rubric in English and Spanish here.


The cultural equity statement and empathetic maturity rubric are helpful starting points for museums striving to improve and evolve services to their communities. These tools provide scaffolding on which to organize needs and begin the design thinking process.

Inclusive design and equitable programming are about removing barriers and making accessibility a foundational consideration with every project. As museum professionals, is our duty to make sure no accommodation feels like an afterthought or is any less sophisticated in its design.

Sample Cultural Equity Statement

Below is the cultural equity statement from Morristown National Historical Park. This is an evolving statement and the version here is from April 2019. We used the editable template from Americans for the Arts; some of it is verbatim and some has been customized.

Morristown National Historical Park

To support a rich and dialogic learning community for all, Morristown NHP commits to championing policies and practices of cultural equity that empower just, inclusive, equitable experiences.


Cultural equity embodies the values, policies, and practices that ensure that all people—including but not limited to those who have been historically underrepresented based on race/ethnicity, age, disability, sexual orientation, gender, gender identity, socioeconomic status, geography, citizenship status, or religion—are represented in the development of public history policy; the support of learners; the nurturing of accessible, thriving venues for civic engagement and dialog; and the fair distribution of programmatic, financial, and informational resources.


  • In the United States, there are systems of power that grant privilege and access unequally such that inequity and injustice result, and that must be continuously addressed and changed.
  • Cultural equity is critical to the long-term viability of the public history sector.
    We must all hold ourselves accountable, because acknowledging and challenging our inequities and working in partnership is how we will make change happen.
  • Everyone deserves equal access to a full, vibrant civic life, which is essential to a healthy and democratic society.
  • Historic sites have traditionally been safe spaces for reflection, connection, dialog, and galvanizing cultural shifts that challenge inequities and encourage alternatives.

To provide informed, authentic leadership for cultural equity, we strive to …

  • Pursue cultural consciousness throughout our organization through substantive learning and formal, transparent policies.
  • Acknowledge and dismantle any inequities within our policies, systems, programs, and services, and report organization progress.
  • Commit time and resources to expand more diverse leadership within our board, staff, and advisory bodies.

To pursue needed systemic change related to equity, we strive to …

  • Encourage substantive learning to build cultural consciousness and to proliferate pro-equity policies and practices by all of our constituencies and audiences.
  • Improve the cultural leadership pipeline by creating and supporting programs and policies that foster leadership that reflects the full breadth of American society.
  • Generate and aggregate quantitative and qualitative research related to equity to make incremental, measurable progress towards cultural equity more visible.
  • Advocate for public and private-sector policy that promotes cultural equity.

Sarah Minegar

Sarah Minegar, Ph.D. is an Archivist and Museum Educator for the Morristown National Historical Park. An academic historian and former classroom teacher, Sarah specializes in artifact-based inquiry and collaborative learning. She is a facilitator and design thinking practitioner. Read more about the unique collections housed at her institution and her teaching practice.

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Design thinking for equity in a national park: an interview with Sarah Minegar of the Morristown National Historical Park

Morristown National Historical Park
Sarah Minegar
Sarah Minegar and colleagues examining primary documents. Image courtesy Morristown National Historical Park.

This month I interviewed Sarah Minegar, the Archivist and Museum Educator for the Morristown National Historical Park Museum & Library in Morristown, New Jersey. Sarah talked about the challenges of bringing design thinking into the National Park Service, adopting an audience-centered dialogue, and how design thinking can help create more equitable spaces.

Tell me about your role in the National Park Service?

We are the first national historical park in the National Park Service. I’m part of a curatorial team of three, and about 23 of us work in the museum. We’re small and we have fluid roles. I do the archives work, process special collections, and I’m also the museum educator.

How are you using design thinking?

I’ve been practicing design thinking for about four years now with my teacher partners to create innovative educational programming. I’m very interested in how we can decolonize some of our spaces and I have been actively focused on sharing the stage with teachers and adopting an audience-centered dialogue.


Prototyping with teachers
Teachers prototyping lesson plans and activities at Morristown National Historical Park Museum. Image courtesy Morristown National Historical Park.

We’ve transitioned from programming consisting of entirely staff-led offerings to teacher-staff co-led endeavors and teacher-led field trips and workshops. Instead of running informational workshops, I’ve been collaboratively prototyping lesson ideas with teachers so they become familiar with our resources and leave with something tangible.

And you know what? When I include stakeholders (teachers) in the process, 99% of them return with their students and participate! In the past, when I ran a massive informational-style workshop for 75 teachers, only two teachers would come back, even after I got feedback that they loved the professional development.

I’ve also used design thinking to discover gaps in our program here at Morristown. This is why I sometimes call design thinking “problem finding.” It illuminates issues and ideas we hadn’t even recognized as gaps in our program.

I really love the inclusive and iterative approach of design thinking. Not only do I have permission to mess up and try again and do better, design thinking mandates this.

Sarah Minegar, Morristown National Historical Park

What’s an example of how you’ve used design thinking to find gaps in your program?

A couple of years ago, we were noticing a continual decline in student engagement and habitual distraction, so I set out to explore this with my student interns. And we uncovered so much beyond “student distraction.”

We invite classes here to this learning space, but we would start in the auditorium and reproduce a traditional classroom dynamic. Then we would bring out a worksheet and ask the students to work on document analysis of a primary document — often one that was in cursive, something that many of these students are not learning in school. We were giving them so many things to do out of their normal classroom, and then we’d say, “Oh, they aren’t focused!”

We started to realize that there were issues of learning intimidation, relevance, and trust, and we had insights into some low-hanging changes we could make to could have a big impact. For example, to break the traditional “classroom layout,” we arranged the chairs in a circle to keep energy and attention. This was a change I could make with no budget. And now we have a more equitable space, not one that says “I’m the expert up front.”

Students seated in a circle
Changing the traditional classroom layout. Image courtesy Morristown National Historical Park.

Another thing we wanted to do was lower the anxiety around looking at documents in cursive. So we began to institute a “gripe session” in which students can actively complain about how difficult the document may be to analyze. This provides a safe way to direct nerves and feelings of intimidation, and it’s an outlet for kids who want to be funny. It gives us a shared place to put our frustrations before we look at the primary documents.

We also got rid of the multitask with the worksheet, and incorporated other equity exercises. I’m really interested in how equity shows up in how we tell history. And I want the students questioning whose voices are missing when we go into the galleries.

So, this was something that started out with an issue of “student distraction,” but then we learned a lot about ourselves and the role we played. It just shows you how when you start to empathize, you learn so much.

How did you get interested in design thinking?

Testing a prototype
Testing a prototype in the galleries. Image courtesy Morristown National Historical Park.

I’m a former classroom teacher, and as a teacher, I’d been practicing empathy and human-centered problem solving for years, but I just didn’t have the language for what I did.

My dissertation focused on literary utopias as explorations in human ecology and social planning. When I discovered design thinking, the overlapping human-centered approach was apparent. I had this whole new vocabulary to express the work I was doing, but through a collaborative lens. And that was the big Aha, for me — that I could do this work collaboratively. As teachers, we work as independent units. But design thinking gave me a way to do this collaboratively.

So I started to take different courses online, such as an IDEO U course. And then I would try out the activities and exercises here at Morristown. Instead of it all being theory, like my grad school courses, it was very tangible.

What’s been the reaction to bringing design thinking to Morristown National Historic Park?

Intern Jariah Rainey brainstorming a learning tool for families. Image courtesy Morristown National Historical Park.

My teacher colleagues love this way of working. They love getting to share authority around stories. Many of us have practiced what we call “audience-centered dialogue” and we also incorporate an equity focus, and design thinking has been a great way to teach change through your own actions. It’s very empowering.But others have had a more mixed reaction. The National Park Service has traditionally taken a “Ranger-led” approach to dialogue with the public. That’s part of our culture. For a long time, we’ve done things a certain way, and there has been some push back.

But now that audience-centered dialogue is the new approach, it can feel scary and threatening. Even if it’s in our interpretive plan, it can be a hard sell sometimes.

So how do you push forward despite resistance to this way of working?

Well, I’m very persistent and enthusiastic! When I see resistance to a specific tool, I try another one.

I really love the inclusive and iterative approach of design thinking. Not only do I have permission to mess up and try again and do better, design thinking mandates this. You don’t call it quits when your colleagues are not on board or something does not work. And that’s freeing.

What advice do you have to others who encounter push back with this kind of work?

Don’t call it “design thinking” or “facilitation” or “audience-centered learning.” Some people hear that and they think it’s all “let’s hold hands and sing kumbaya!” Even the word “design” is a huge barrier.

Just take action and call it whatever you want. It’s that action part that makes my heart swell when I think about design thinking.

Follow the Morristown National Historical Park blog to read about the team’s latest projects and programs.


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This is How a Museum Uses Creativity & Collaboration to Reach 200M Annually

This story was reposted with permission from IDEO U (many thanks to the kind folks at IDEO U!). In this episode of IDEO U’s Creative Confidence Series, Chris Flink, executive director of the Exploratorium, former IDEO partner, and a founding faculty member of Stanford University’s talks to IDEO U Dean Suzanne Gibbs Howard about the evolution of the museum over 50 years, how they’ve expanded their reach globally, and how they cultivate creativity with their visitors, the broader community, and within their own organization. (View the original story here.)

What is a museum? That’s a question the Exploratorium has probed at—and invited its visitors to help answer—for 50 years. That said, “we very much favor the question over the answer,” says Chris Flink, executive director of the Exploratorium, an innovative science center that’s a fixture of the San Francisco Bay Area community.

Today, eight in 10 science museums globally have Exploratorium-designed learning experiences, and the museum reaches 200 million people globally each year.

Chris Flink, Director of the Exploratorium

Contrary to the image often conjured by the word “museum,” the Exploratorium is much more than a building housing a collection of images on view—it’s an ongoing exploration of science, art and human perception—a vast collection of online and physical experiences designed to feed your curiosity.

As a partner at IDEO for 19 years and a founding member of Stanford University’s, Chris brings a unique perspective to the museum—one that keeps humans at the center and uses design thinking to uncover new possibilities and find ways to expand the museum’s reach beyond their walls. Today, eight in 10 science museums globally have Exploratorium-designed learning experiences, and the museum reaches 200 million people globally each year.

IDEO U chatted with Chris to hear how the museum has evolved, ways they use design to create better experiences, and his thoughts on fostering a creative culture.

The Tinkering Studio
The Tinkering Studio at the Exploratorium, © Exploratorium

A Human-centered Approach To Learning

At the Exploratorium, visitor participation is core to the design of every experience. A machine shop in the middle of the gallery floor houses tools for building exhibit prototypes on site. Those prototypes are then taken out into the museum, teams observe how visitors engage with them, and those learnings educate the next round of iteration.

“That sort of back and forth between the shop floor and the museum floor, the interaction with the public and designing in dialogue with those users is a core piece of the innovation model,” Chris says.

It’s okay to fail. It’s not okay to fail to learn from failure.

Chris Flink

Inquiry-based learning is another essential piece of the Exploratorium’s approach. Rather than writing up plaques describing each exhibit and telling the visitor what it is they should take away, the staff at the museum can often be heard asking “What do you notice?” and prompting visitors to share their own interpretation of what is important or meaningful. Chris sees many similarities in the museum’s culture of questions to IDEO’s use of the “How might we…” question.

“You can often learn a lot about a creative culture by phraseology you hear frequently,” he says.

Beyond opening up the opportunity for co-creation, questions serve another purpose—“inviting people to see and connect the dots themselves and to gain the confidence that comes from successfully making sense of the world around you.”

Using questions to draw insights
Image © IDEO U

Scaling Impact By Designing For Key Audiences

To retain focus and structure in an organization that is so creative—and hold the space for new possibilities at the same time—is a challenge for any organization. At the Exploratorium, they do this by focusing on three key areas of impact: inspiring visitors, empowering educators, and fueling a global movement. These areas center around three audiences that are critical to their mission.

The physical museum focuses on visitors and serves as a laboratory to prototype new ideas. To support educators, they’ve created professional development programs, fostered a vibrant community of educators, and developed many online resources and tools, like Science Snacks, that support state learning standards and can be used for free.

To bring their approach of experiential learning to others, they collaborate with other entities through the Global Studios program. By helping like-minded entities of all kinds create Exploratorium-like learning experiences, they reach millions more people each year. The team sees these global collaborations not only as a way to share out but to learn from their partners and improve their own museum experience.

Fostering a Creative Culture

To spark creativity and curiosity in others, Chris says it’s essential to maintain and support a culture of creativity within the organization as well. The Exploratorium faces challenges many creative companies can likely relate to—overcoming silos, learning from failure, and merging different cultures (academic, design, museum) into one organization. To work through these challenges, Chris uses a few tactics honed over his many years of design and business experience.

Staying human-centered is critical to maintaining motivation and inspiring new ideas. The Exploratorium ties their three key initiatives back to the audiences they serve, and the physical space at the museum also helps employees keep their audiences in mind. They often walk through the museum floor to get to meetings or work in the machine shop, seeing and engaging with visitors along the way.

The Machine Shop
The Machine Shop on the the museum floor at the Exploratorium, © Exploratorium

Embracing failure as a learning moment is another important element of fostering their creative culture. “Seeing learning as a universally good thing for the individual and for the organization is something I believe in,” he says. While learning from failure is productive, Chris is careful not to welcome failure as an excuse to learn: “It’s okay to fail. It’s not okay to fail to learn from failure.” Working in an iterative, prototyping process enables failure to happen earlier on when the stakes are lower.

As a leader, Chris sees his role as thinking about “how to best position individuals to see opportunities to make connections that might not otherwise be obvious.”

“Creative leadership is not about having all the answers, but trying to frame an opportunity space and unleash your great people in it,” he says.

It’s also about leading teams through rounds of converging and diverging moments and giving clear direction so your team knows what is expected of them, and they’re on the same page about what part of the process you’re in. A creative leader signals when the team is moving from a brainstorming phase to a decision-making phase.

“There’s not just one way of being,” Chris says. “A good creative process of any kind has to shift gears at different points. The desired behaviors of your team members working in this collaborative way shifts as that unfolds.”

At the end of the day, being in such close quarters with the people they’re designing for is one of the most motivating factors for Chris.

“Being able to see the impact you’re having and the hard work you do actually unfolding around you is really nice.”


Many thanks to IDEO U for allowing me to repost this story. Follow IDEO U on Twitter.

Image of the Exploratorium on the homepage by Fabrice Florin on flickr.


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

Henry Trejo

Henry TrejoI 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 presenting
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.

Loteria exhibition
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.


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The #FutureMuseum Project: Experience-Driven and People-Centered

Museum-iD Magazine cover

The #FutureMuseum Project invites professionals from around the world to share their ideas about the future of museums. Practitioners and experts based in 14 countries have contributed their ideas to the project, which were published in issue 22 of Museum-iD Magazine in Spring 2018, and will be published in the forthcoming Vol.3 of the Museum Ideas book series. Below is my contribution, in which I consider the role of human-centered processes such as Design Thinking and Service Design in the museum of the future.
Museum ID Magazine, volume 22The museum of the future will be more visitor- and guest-centered than ever before in the history of museums and cultural institutions. Human-centered processes such as Design Thinking and Service Design will become critical, foundational skills for emerging museum professionals, and museum staff will need to be fluent in people-centered, qualitative methods and practices in order to bring nuance and insights to the “big data” at their fingertips and better serve their audiences.

“Museums that cling to traditional, authoritative models will lose audiences on a dramatic scale to new types of experience-driven, guest-centered organizations that we can’t even imagine today.”

Dana Mitroff Silvers

This transformation in the traditional museum model has been emerging over the past two decades, but will become the norm and not the exception in the future. As stated in the most recent Culture Track report published by LaPlaca Cohen, “With loyalty now rooted in trust, consistency, and kindness, empathic, service-focused relationships will replace existing transactional models.”

This notion of empathic, service-focused relationships is nothing new in for-profit organizations, and museums of the future will embrace this holistic and human-centered approach as well. The museums that cling to traditional, authoritative models and artifact-driven approaches will lose audiences on a dramatic scale to new types of experience-driven, guest-centered organizations that we can’t even imagine today.

Read what other museum professionals have to say about the future of museums in the full issue online here.


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Minimizing the Einstellung Effect in Design Thinking: How to Arrive at Innovative Solutions by Diminishing Cognitive Bias

Close up view of two beakers of water in a lab

Two beakers of water in a laboratory

“What if we make an app/augmented reality/virtual reality/insert-most-recent-technology-here thing?”

How many times have you heard something like this while meeting with colleagues in a conference room, discussing a new digital initiative in your institution?

When discussing how to tackle a new challenge, it’s common to jump straight to familiar or previously used solutions, instead of considering all the angles and details of the current problem. You may hear something like, “Well, we did x for y, so let’s do x for z now.”

We become so fixated on what we already know or have done in the past that we can’t take an unbiased look at what’s in front of us and find the best solution. This is known as the Einstellung Effect, and it can seriously impede your team’s innovation capability and design thinking capacity.

What is design thinking?

Design thinking is a codified, repeatable process for problem-solving, creativity, and innovation. Also referred to as human-centered design, design thinking is a framework comprised of a series of steps and associated methods, and it is accompanied by core mindsets.

It helps teams solve problems by understanding human needs and motivations, discovering opportunities, generating user-centered solutions, and building and testing prototypes. It’s a process that can take place over days, weeks, or months, and involves teams of collaborators working together to solve problems that don’t necessarily have clear-cut, black-and-white answers, such as how to engage new audiences or how to build strong visitor connections to the collection.

What is the Einstellung Effect?

The Einstellung effect was documented by psychologist Abraham Luchins in 1942 with a test called the “Water Jar” problem. In the experiment, subjects were asked to transfer water between jars of differing sizes to reach specific measurements. After solving a series of problems which had the same solutions, the test subjects were given a new problem and they applied the same solution to it, even though a more efficient and simpler one existed. Instead of considering the best way to get to the desired outcome, they could not “see” beyond the procedure they had just applied. (You can read more about it here, or try replicating the test here.)

Luchins called this the Einstellung Effect because “einstellung” in German can be translated as “way of thinking,” “approach,” or “attitude,” and it captures how once our way of thinking or attitude has set in, it’s hard to overcome it.

I often encounter the Einstellung Effect in action when I’m working with organizations applying the human-centered design process to arrive at breakthrough new ideas related to audience/visitor/stakeholder engagement. Teams focus on a solution that has been used for something else, and then it seems to be the right answer to just about everything.

Falling in love with the latest solution

There are definitely situations when the most familiar or latest technologies are appropriate, but often, when ideas have taken hold of our imaginations, it’s hard to step back and consider alternatives.

I regularly see teams jump to solutions right out of the gate, before they methodically go through all the steps of the design thinking process. They fall in love with what is front-of-mind, thereby missing opportunities for fresh, new ideas.

The Einstellung Effect can be a quick and easy trap to fall into, especially when we are under pressure to quickly solve a problem. Fortunately, there are some practical steps you can take to tame the Einstellung Effect, which I describe below.

1. Start with a diverse team

By assembling a team of contributors from different backgrounds, experience levels, and expertise, you are less likely to fall prey to the cognitive traps of the Einstellung Effect. Diverse team members can challenge one another’s ideas and assumptions.

For example, a frontline staff member who has direct and regular interactions with audiences is going to have a different approach or perspective than someone whose role does not involve first-hand interactions or engagement with visitors, patrons, or audience members.

A 2011 study conducted by Daniel Frings of London South Bank University set out to study how fatigue (more on that in #2, below) impacts the Einstellung Effect. The study found that while people who are fatigued experience increased Einstellung Effect, those working in groups did not, and the quality of the solutions developed by the groups were often better than those developed by individuals.

2. Don’t try to innovate when you’re tired

The Frings study also underscores the impact that fatigue has on the Einstellung Effect. The more fatigued you are, the higher your risk of experiencing the Einstellung Effect.

Translation = don’t embark on a team working session for that big new project or initiative right after you’ve just launched another big project. And try to run design sessions in the mornings, when team members are fresher and rested.

3. Take breaks from the problem

Not only should your team be well rested before tackling a problem, you need to take breaks from it and literally walk away to clear your mind.

Where do your best ideas come to you? Do they emerge when sitting in yet another meeting? Chance are, your best ideas come to you later, when you’re walking the dog, driving, taking a shower, daydreaming — that is, when you are not focused on solving the problem.

This is called “incubation time,” and it’s been well-studied to improve problem solving and enhance creativity.

In a design thinking sprint, we don’t dive right into to solving a problem. We first build empathy for the needs of users, consciously and mindfully alternate between converging and diverging, take breaks, and play lots of games.

This is why I like to schedule design sprints over multiple days, not crammed into one day. It’s the insights that people have after they leave the room that are the most powerful.

4. Use “How Might We” statements

How might we” is a tool we use in the divergent or ideation phase of the design process. It’s a powerful way to reframe a question or problem that sparks new ideas, and can guide groups away from the most obvious solutions.

One of my favorite How Might We techniques is to explore the opposite of a problem. For example, if your first idea of a solution is to build an app, ask yourself, “How Might We create the opposite?” So in this case, the opposite of an app might be something completely analog and old-school.

5. Say “Yes, and” to the Einstellung Effect

This one comes from improvisational theater, which I’ve written a lot about before. Saying “yes, and” to the Einstellung Effect means welcoming it and embracing it.

Just knowing that the Einstellung Effect has been studied can help skeptical colleagues get on board with the need to push beyond the first or most obvious solutions. You might recognize that the first solutions that the team throws out are Einstellung-driven, say “yes, and” to those ideas, and then start building on them, expanding on them, and exploring the opposite of those ideas.


The Einstellung Effect happens when preexisting knowledge or experience prevents us from considering alternative possibilities to a problem. We become so fixated on one possible solution that we are cognitively unable to take a clear, unbiased approach to the current problem. Fortunately, we can take small steps to mitigate its effects, thereby giving ourselves the “cognitive space” to arrive at novel solutions to problems.


Lensky, T. (2015, September 23). “Do you fall prey to the Einstellung effect in problem solving?” Retrieved July 30, 2018, from

Arra, S. (2015, August 12). “Einstellung Effect: What You Already Know Can Hurt You.” Retrieved July 30, 2018 from

Bilalić, M., and McLeod, P. (2014, March 1). “Why Your First Idea Can Blind You to a Better One.” Retrieved July 30, 2018 from

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Why every organization needs a human-centered design hallway: lessons from the Akron-Summit County Public Library

Human-centered design hallway

Human-centered design hallway

Have you ever heard of human-centered design hallway? Neither had I, until I spoke with Jennifer Stencel, the branch manager and teen librarian at the Akron-Summit County Public Library’s Richfield branch in Richfield, Ohio. (Richfield is between Cleveland and Akron, in case you didn’t know.)

Jennifer Stencel
Jennifer Stencel

I met Jennifer at the Museums and the Web conference in Cleveland last spring, and was intrigued when she replied to one of my tweets and mentioned the “human-centered design hallway” in her office. In our conversation, Jennifer shared her “lighter, quicker, and cheaper” philosophy, and detailed how she created a scrappy, makeshift space that is transforming the library from the inside out, making it a more human-centered place for the community.

. . . . . . . . 

Dana Mitroff Silvers (DMS): I want to hear how you are using human-centered design, but  first you have to tell me about this concept of a human-centered design hallway!

Human-centered design hallway
The “human-centered” design hallway at the Akron-Summit County Public Library’s Richfield Branch

Jennifer Stencel (JS): We have a service hallway where all of our library staff walk back and forth. Everyone uses it—student shelvers, IT staff, circulation staff, the maintenance and cleaning crew, etc. My team was taking an online course in human-centered design, and we got an idea: this hallway would be an ideal location to make our work visible as we started to explore human-centered design.

We put books, resources, and materials in the hallway, located on makeshift tables made of shipping crates. We have a stack of Post-its and pens, and any staff member can add thoughts or insights when passing by.

We also have personas posted in the hall so we don’t forget who our users are. Now, every time we walk through the hallway, we think about our specific users, like “Kate,” the working mom.

Having everything visible has made our staff more aware of our work, and more connected to our patrons. Our IT guy was one of the first people to add what I call “Aha! insights” to the wall. He was very excited to see the space, and we dedicated an entire pack of blue Post-its and a Sharpie pen just for him!

Resources in the human-centered design hallway
Some of the resources available to staff in the human-centered design hallway

DMS: What advice do you have for other organizations interested in setting up their own human-centered design hallway?

JS: It doesn’t take much to set up a hallway. In a way, we followed a step in the design process: Prototype. We prototyped a space using what we had: crates for a table, a few Sharpies from the office supply cabinet, and thumb tacks and tape to hang everything. The pen holders are made out of envelopes, and we spent a few bucks on Post-its. We printed out the various guides, which were free. We took free (online) courses. What did we have to lose? Look what we had to gain!

I’ve found that it just takes two people: two people standing in the hallway, holding Sharpie markers, working with colorful Post-Its of various sizes, ripping them off and slapping them to a wall. It attracts others. It looks like there might be an interesting party going on!

The walls become a gallery of thoughts and “Ah-ha!” moments. When you see the hallway, you can’t help but stop in your tracks and read, no matter how many times you’ve walked by. It grows very organically.

DMS: How did you first get interested in human-centered design?

JS: When the recession hit, all libraries experienced it. We were—and still are—asked to do even more with less. That’s how I got into design thinking and human-centered design. It was a way to do more with less. In libraries, our users are changing. Because you can Google anything now, people are asking why we need libraries. We are adding more and more services for the public. When we did a Systems Analysis, plugging in all the new services we’ve added over the years, we joked that it looked like we are in an identity crisis! So we have to justify who we are and why we matter.

I first came across a reference to design thinking on Nina Simon’s blog, which led me to the work of David Kelly and IDEO, and I read everything I could.

Then I came across an online course offered through +Acumen, and asked my circulation staff if they were interested in participating. Four of us took a class and worked on a real problem we were experiencing at the library.

DMS: Was it hard to introduce human-centered design methods and processes at your library?

JS: Not at all. My staff was open to it. It’s easy for us to do ethnographic studies. The patrons are right here. We can walk right out and ask people questions.

And when you go through the human-centered design process and have an “Aha moment,” that adrenaline keeps you going. And then when we present something to the administration that we prototyped for $50 and show them the results, that’s a real high.

DMS: What is an example of a type of problems you have you tackled with human-centered design?

JS: We are located in a rural area, and you have to drive everywhere. There are several companies here that employ lots of people—7,000 people enter Richfield every day. But they drive to work, get off the freeway, park, go into their offices, and rush home at the end of the day.

And what do they do on their lunch breaks? They sit in their cars in the business park! There is no gym here, many of these workers don’t know we exist, they are strapped for time, and there is nothing here they feel a part of.

So one of the problems we focused on was that many of these employees at the local businesses feel disconnected from the community. And that was our challenge: how might we connect with these people and make them feel more a part of this community?

DMS: So what kinds of solutions did you come up with?

Mobile library
The pop-up/mobile library in the local business park

JS: Well, some libraries have mobile mini vans or book bikes, but a van was too costly for us, and same goes for the book-bike, which can run $2-$3K. And you can’t bike around here because it’s all country roads with trucks rushing by. So, the constraints were that we had to be able to transport materials that would fit into the trunk of a car, take up one parking space, and still have place-making appeal.

And we came up with a pop-up library that I can pack into the back of my Subaru and set up during lunch in the business park in summer. And when the business people come out at lunch, I’m there!

The whole thing cost $300, but I had to justify my supply budget, like the bistro table from Walmart. I bring garden games, like Garden Jenga and a huge carpet you can play checkers on, a carpet, and some cardboard virtual reality headsets. So, in addition to books, there is other fun stuff.

DMS: Is it hard to do this work with so many constraints?

JS: I think this process works better when you have constraints. The idea is to look beyond and around the constraints for what is feasible, useful, and desirable.

… we are fitting into the lives of our busy patrons and providing value and meaning. We’re not just sitting here scanning books—we’re thinking about problems we hear from our community.

Jennifer Stencel

DMS: What was the reaction to the pop-up/mobile library? 

JS: Some of the workers in their early 20s are very excited to have me back next summer. What they told me was, “We are so bored, there is nothing to do around here, and you break up that monotony.” And the mayor and one of the local businesses also said they can’t wait for me to come back.

We’ve learned that the pop up library is incredibly versatile. For example, we took it to a local community day. I swapped out the business books for board books, popular non- fiction books, and magazines for kids.

And then a few months later, I took the pop up to a conference, World Information Architecture Day at Kent State. I set up in the back of a conference room. The games had to stay home, but I brought UX/IA books and magazines.

So, while it’s not revolutionary, we are fitting into the lives of our busy patrons and providing value and meaning. We’re not just sitting here scanning books—we’re thinking about problems we hear from our community.

DMS: Any final words of advice?

JS: It always helps to have at least one other person interested, or at least intrigued with the idea and the process. If you are working under constraints but find yourself itching to try new things, the design process is perfect for making something happen. The process is an attractive approach because it executes a brilliant place-making concept: “lighter, quicker, and cheaper.”

It’s lighter because you are testing an idea bit by bit. It’s quicker, because if the idea fails, it fails early, so it is easy to either pivot and try again or table it. It’s cheaper because you’re prototyping in steps and pieces.

When you are done with the process, hopefully with something successful, you will have a solid, strong idea to move forward. And then you can ask to go bigger and more expensive with confidence.

Follow Jennifer and the Richfield Branch library on Twitter here.


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Quick wins for building empathy with visitors: 4 hacks inspired by School Retool

Quick wins for empathy
Quick wins
The Quick Win cards from the School Retool fellowship.

Last spring and this winter, I’ve had the opportunity to work as coach for a project called School Retool, an initiative developed by the K12 Lab Network at Stanford’s Hasso Plattner Institute of Design (the in collaboration with IDEO and the Hewlett Foundation.

School Retool is professional development fellowship that helps public school leaders redesign and transform school culture. The program is grounded in the notion that big change starts small, and by implementing small, scrappy experiments or “hacks,” one can effect large-scale transformation.

To support leaders in catalyzing change, the program introduces them to “Quick Wins”—small things that can be done with little advance planning or budget to build empathy for and connection with end users.

While principals are the “designers” of school culture, museum professionals are the “designers” of the visitor experience, and the key to developing an engaging and human-centered experience is understanding the people for whom you’re designing. These Quick Wins are things you can do next week to flex a “hack mindset,” build deeper empathy for visitors, and understand what resonates with them so that you can design better exhibitions, services, programs, and products.

Move your desk for a day1) Relocate your desk for a day

This is one of the most popular Quick Wins with school leaders in the School Retool program. The principals I worked with moved their desks into the hallways of their schools and found it to be an eye-opening experience. They saw, heard, felt, and even smelled their schools from a completely new perspective.

For museums professionals, this can be achieved by setting oneself up to work for a day, half day, or even a few hours, in a cafe or other public space.


Experience your museum from a different point of view and gain empathy and insights through observing and listening to visitors.


  1. Set aside a few hours to a full day when you don’t have meetings. Think of it as an opportunity to get work done without usual interruptions.
  2. Choose a public space (museum cafe, a public seating area, or even the information desk).
  3. Grab your laptop or reading materials and settle in.
  4. Take in everything that happens in the space throughout the day with all of your senses—listen, watch, feel, and even smell!
  5. Reflect on what you noticed and learned at the end of the day (it’s important to do this within a couple of days so you don’t forget).

Live poll2) Run a live poll

Museum professionals can use this as an opportunity to get real-time feedback on topics ranging from visitor amenities to upcoming programmatic content. But don’t approach this as you would a market research exit survey; think of this as an opportunity to have meaningful, face-to-face conversations with a handful of real visitors.


Capture the pulse of your visitors, and make yourself the face of your institution—one that is accessible and open to feedback.


  1. Find a colleague to join you—it’s easier to capture feedback with a partner who can take notes.
  2. Consider offering something to thank visitors, such as note cards, posters, free passes, or other small gifts.
  3. Choose a question or subject area you’d like to explore through the lens of your visitors.
  4. Write the question on a small signboard, and stand in the atrium, cafe, information desk, or other high-traffic area.
  5. Invite visitors to answer the question. You can capture their feedback in a variety of ways: take notes on Post-its and post them; capture notes on an iPad; or even create audio recordings on your phone.
  6. Compile the answers, and share them with your staff and visitors.


Take a visitor to coffee3) Take a visitor to coffee

The thought of asking a random visitor to have coffee with you may seem terrifying at first, but when framed as a chance to share their expertise and personal experiences—and potentially impact the future of the museum—most visitors are delighted to talk and have someone really listen to them.


Having a face-to-face, unscripted conversation with a visitor (or visitors) over a drink is an invaluable way to learn more about who they are as people and gain insights into their needs and expectations.


  1. Assemble your supplies: notebook; pen; staff badge (so they know you are legit); and any incentives you can offer (free passes, gift card, coupons, etc.)
  2. Park yourself somewhere conducive to intercepting people (near benches, outside the cafe, in the store). It’s fine to meet with more than one person at a time (a couple, for example).
  3. Offer the incentive and a drink in exchange for a half hour of their time.
  4. Focus on listening. What is their experience like in your museum? What are their hopes and dreams — in and outside of the museum context?
  5. Take notes. Take photos with permission (you may want to bring photography permission forms if you have them).
  6. Reflect on what you heard. Did you hear anything unexpected? What opportunities are there for change?


Shadow a visitor4)  Shadow a visitor

The companion project to School Retool is the national Shadow a Student challenge, an immersion journey that ask principals to experience their schools through students’ eyes, capturing observations and then reflecting and acting on them. The shadow experience is a game-changing and humbling experience for school leaders, and can be the same for museum professionals.


Ethnographers, educators, and researchers have long known the power of shadowing to build empathy and arrive at insights. Shadowing someone and experiencing their joys and frustrations can increase empathy and uncover insights in a relatively short amount of time.


  1. Recruit a colleague to join you. It’s helpful to have a second person to observe and take notes.
  2. Set aside time and block off your schedule.
  3. Assemble your supplies: comfortable shoes; smart phone; notebook; pen; gifts/incentives for visitors (passes, gift cards, coupons); photo permission forms.
  4. You can either intercept visitors as they arrive and ask to shadow their visit, or, pre-arrange it in advance and meet them before they start their journey. Shadowing a visitor’s journey to the museum can be extremely powerful, although this takes more advance planning and preparation.There are many ways to pre-arrange this: you can call a local hotel concierge during the run of a popular exhibition and offer free tickets to a guest who will allow you to shadow her/him; you can pre-recruit visitors through websites like Craigslist or (again, you may want to offer free tickets or other incentives); or you can pre-recruit through word-of-mouth in your neighborhood, through a child’s school, or at a local gym or community center.
  5. If the visitor will be taking public transportation to the museum, meet them at the train station or bus stop and ride along.
  6. Adopt a “beginner’s mind.” You will learn the most by having beginner’s eyes and putting your expectations aside. Resist the urge to answer questions that arise during the visit about logistics or content; don’t be an expert.
  7. Capture what you see and hear.
  8. Make time for reflection shortly after the visit is over. Consider:
    • What did you see and hear?
    • How did it feel to be with the visitor?
    • What surprised you? What does this make you wonder?



These Quick Wins, adapted from the national School Retool fellowship, are small hacks that museum professionals can implement as ways to gain deeper empathy for museum visitors. And deeper empathy can lead to a better visitor experience, because by truly knowing our visitors, we can create better exhibitions, services, programs, and products for them.

These small wins are meant to lead to larger changes in institutional programs, policies, and strategies by uncovering insights into what visitors think, feel, and do. They don’t require extensive advance planning, endless meetings, and significant budget. Let us know if you try one of these Quick Wins by sharing your experience in the comments below!

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How a small arts organization on Vancouver Island is dreaming big with design thinking: an interview with the Nanaimo Art Gallery

Empathy Map
Julie Bevans
Julie Bevan, Executive Director of Nanaimo Art Gallery

Always on the look out for stories of museums and cultural organizations using design thinking strategies and approaches, I was delighted to meet Julie Bevan, Executive Director of Nanaimo Art Gallery in Nanaimo, British Columbia, Canada, at the Getty Leadership Institute this past summer.

Nanaimo Art Gallery, located on Vancouver Island, presents exhibitions by contemporary artists, maintains a growing collection of art works by significant artists from British Columbia, and hosts workshops, lectures, and other public programs. The Gallery is bravely stepping into the world of human-centered design, and recently collaborated with a group of local cultural organizations working together to build engagement with communities in Nanaimo.

Jackie Duys-Kelly
Jackie Duys-Kelly, owner of Awarewolf Creative

I spoke with Julie Bevan and project facilitator Jackie Duys-Kelly, owner of Awarewolf Creative, about the initiative. As Jackie told me, it’s rare in Nanaimo that organizations are interested in or familiar with design thinking, and the project was a new experience for the Gallery.

Our conversation was interesting to me because it demonstrates how small organizations can leverage the power of design thinking by moving quickly, taking small steps, and being open to a new way of working. Below are edited excerpts from our conversation.

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Dana Mitroff Silvers (DMS): Tell me more about how this project came about.

Julie Bevan (JB): A group of us were pulled together by the City of Nanaimo to inform the creation of a Cultural Plan for the City, and out of that plan our Cultural Manager’s Working Group was formed. There were seven leaders representing various cultural organizations including Vancouver Island Symphony, TheatreOne, Nanaimo Museum, Nanaimo Archives, Crimson Coast Dance, The Port Theatre, and a representative from the City’s Culture and Heritage department.

Nanaimo Art Gallery exterior
Nanaimo Art Gallery is located on the eastern edge of Vancouver Island, in British Columbia, on the traditional territory of the Snuneymuxw First Nation. Image via Google Street View.

One of the things we identified very early on is that we are relatively small organizations. Nanaimo is not large. We live on an island. So we needed to talk about ways to pool our resources to make a greater impact, and this project was about establishing an identity and brand for all of our organizations.

DMS: And how did you chose a design thinking approach?

JB: Well, we didn’t know what we were doing! We didn’t consciously choose design thinking—we brought in Jackie to facilitate exercises to get us thinking in new and different ways about how to engage with communities in Nanaimo. We wanted to work with someone who had fresh approaches and was not entrenched within our organizations.

DMS: It’s interesting that you bring up this notion of not being “entrenched” within an organization. Tell me more about that.

JB: Generally speaking, in a lot of smaller cultural organizations where budgets are tight and teams are small, sometimes people overlook the importance of the process and are focused on the end product. There is this sense of “let’s create this new thing and get it out there” without investing time and thinking and involving multiple perspectives to inform the creation phase.

The spirit of design thinking is about inquiry and asking questions  …. We want to model an inquiry-based approach and embed that into all of our activities. The very act of asking a question is an invitation to participate and respond.

Julie Bevan

JACKIE DUYS-KELLY (JDK): These arts organizations are about understanding people and communicating more effectively. And that is what the design thinking process is about, too. It is a form of dialog with your audiences and a way to connect more deeply with their needs.

JB: And we are interested in thinking about the process at our organization. That’s how many artists work. We really want to invest in the process. The spirit of design thinking is about inquiry and asking questions. And this fits quite closely with the Gallery’s artistic program. We are modeling an inquiry-based approach and embedding that into all of our activities. The very act of asking a question is an invitation to participate and respond.

DMS: I love that notion of design thinking as an invitational, inquiry-based approach. I don’t know if I’ve heard that before.

JDK: You know, until you experience design thinking, you just think that it’s a bunch of hokey whatever. But once you experience it and start asking questions, it’s like, “Wow, I never thought of that!” New ideas start forming. You start exploring ideas from different angles.

Empathy map
An empathy map for a visitor named “Art.” Image courtesy Nanaimo Art Gallery.

DMS: So what did you do in your design thinking sessions?

JDK: In the first gathering of the group, we worked to get them to think about how their audiences experience the creative cultural sector. We developed an Empathy Map and everyone put themselves in the shoes of an audience member and examined what their experiences look and feel like, and what their challenges are. Then we broke into teams to do brainstorming activities to consider what our audiences are currently experiencing, and what we hope to have them feel and experience in our organizations.

DMS: And how did it go?

JB: People really enjoyed the process and we learned more about each other’s work. It was a nice way to take conversations in positive, new directions without getting bogged down with limitations, objections, and minutiae. After that, the group met monthly and dug in more deeply. We talked with people in the community along the way to get their feedback around an identity and brand that could work like an umbrella to promote all of our organizations.

Design thinking session at Nanaimo Art Gallery
Design thinking working session with the Cultural Manager’s Working Group. Image courtesy Nanaimo Art Gallery.

DMS: What kind of insights did you arrive at?

JB: One of the insights we had was that while a lot of these organizations are recognized outside Nanaimo, the local community could be more aware of what our arts and culture organizations offer, and the ways our work contributes to the cultural, social, and economic vitality in our region. So we learned that we needed to consider our communications to specific community stakeholders and provide them with different kinds of tools and language, and forge partnerships with organizations working to promote tourism and economic development.

DMS: What is happening now?

The organizations are continuing to work together quite closely. We launched the project we developed collaboratively, Love Arts Nanaimo, in the spring, and it’s had successes and failures.  We are re-grouping in the next couple of weeks to talk about what’s next. t

We have an advantage at Nanaimo Art Gallery in that we are small and nimble and we can experiment. We can try things and shift and pivot.

Julie Bevan

DMS: Are you using any design thinking strategies for other projects as well?

JB: Yes, definitely. Going forward, at Nanaimo Art Gallery, we are planning to work with Jackie in early 2018 to apply design thinking to questions related to visitor experience and map the direct and indirect ways the communities we serve access the Gallery. Our team at the Gallery is also embarking on the creation of a digital strategy in 2018, in conjunction with two other art galleries in British Columbia, and design thinking is a tool that we could potentially use there too.

We have an advantage at Nanaimo Art Gallery in that we are small and nimble and we can experiment. We can try things and shift and pivot. While we may have fewer resources than a place like the Smithsonian, we can embed new ways of working and create an organizational culture where curiosity and learning are prioritized.

The process and principles of design thinking are not intimidating. It’s scaleable, it’s energizing, and ultimately, it’s about asking questions and exploring ideas from multiple angles.


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Five mistakes of beginning design thinkers (and how to overcome them)

5 common mistakes of beginner design thinkers

Five mistakes of beginning design thinkers

In working with organizations of varying sizes and across sectors, from national museums to tech start-ups, I’ve observed a set of common errors that practitioners new to design thinking often make when implementing and applying the process.

First off, it is useful to define design thinking. I recently came across Lee-Sean Huang’s definition of design thinking, and it is spot-on:

Design thinking: a method and a mindset that starts with an understanding of human needs and motivations to define, frame and solve problems.

Design thinking involves developing empathy for visitors, discovering opportunities, generating user-centered solutions, and building and testing prototypes. From executive directors to front-line staff, I’ve worked with people at all organizational levels on applying this process to challenges ranging from the development of new digital products to the reimagining of visitor experiences.

Following are the most common errors I have observed, with examples of how to overcome them. My hope is that by outlining some common mistakes, others can save precious resources — and morale — thereby ensuring the success and viability of the design thinking process inside their own institutions.

1. Skipping the empathy phase

Design thinking is grounded in understanding people — the people for whom your organization creates programs, exhibitions, services, or experiences. Whether these are first-time visitors coming to your museum or users of your website, the first step of the process is about understanding their motivations and building deeper empathy for their needs.

The only way to do this is to directly interact with them, through interviews, observations, and immersions in their experiences. If this sounds simple and common-sensical, that’s because it is. Yet I’m frequently asked by clients to skip this phase and jump straight into problem-solving. Similarly, I’ve seen countless teams embark on activities like journey mapping or persona creation without ever talking to real people. This results in well-meaning but superficial and self-reflexive artifacts.

Many times, clients will ask if they can skip this phase because they “already know” what their audiences need and can “speak for” them. To me, this is like building a new house without laying down a foundation. You might build it more quickly in the short run, but you are setting up for failure.

Interviewing visitors at the National Gallery of Art
The intrepid staff at the National Gallery of Art, talking with visitors in the galleries.

Design thinking is about recognizing that you are not your visitor or user. It is about adopting an open-minded attitude of curiosity and exploration, setting aside assumptions, rolling up one’s sleeves, and talking to real people. This means going into the galleries, or beyond the institutional walls, and talking with and observing current visitors as well as non-visitors. And this does not require weeks of time. Even five to six 45-minute interviews and observations can yield immensely valuable findings and insights.

2. Expecting design thinking to be appropriate for all organizational problems

Design thinking is not the best approach to solving all problems. It’s not a one-size-fits-all-process, and there are many situations where it simply does not make sense.

Design thinking is best suited for exploring new offerings, audiences, markets, and opportunities, while other processes, such as Six Sigma, are better applied to improving existing programs or products.

For example, I was recently working with a non-museum client, a utility company, on applying design thinking to various organizational challenges. Many of their processes and practices relating to customer safety have been in place for decades. And they work. There may be room for incremental improvements or increased efficiencies, but these are not processes that need radical reinvention. Furthermore, some of the common practices of design thinking, such as lo-fidelity, rapid prototyping, could be outright dangerous in their context. This is where another process they already use, Lean Six Sigma, is more appropriate. For a museum, this might be an existing exhibition development procedure, or an in-house evaluation process.

For this client, we learned that for other challenges they are facing, like consumer-facing digital services, design thinking is an appropriate choice. It offers them a fresh, out-of-the-box way to reimagine and reinvent the customer experience. Another client I was working with, a large museum, was using design thinking to develop new offerings for adult visitors. In this case, design thinking was also a good fit, as they were very early in their timeline and the problem space was wide open.

3. Misconstruing it as quantitative research

Design thinking is not quantitative research. It is not market research. It is not visitor evaluation. It is not about amassing vast amounts of quantitative data to arrive at statistically validated answers. It is about developing nuanced insights and understandings through direct interactions and observations with people, and then arriving at breakthrough, new ideas.

As UX expert and author Laura Klein says, “Quantitative research tells you WHAT your problem is. Qualitative research tells you WHY you have that problem.”

Design thinking is a process that helps you understand the WHY behind your data. It should be used as a complement to other processes, such as visitor surveys or web analytics, but never should be construed as a replacement for quantitative methods. If anyone tells you to rely solely on design thinking methods to make strategic decisions, be wary.

For institutional cultures that are suspicious of what is perceived as less rigorous and “scientific,” design thinking may not be appropriate, or it should be paired hand-in-hand with quantitative research.

4. Mixing divergent with convergent thinking

The design thinking process is often represented with the “Double Diamond.” This is a visual map of the iterative steps of diverging and converging.

Double Diamond visual representation
© 2014 Design Council

During a design thinking cycle, the team is either diverging or converging, also referred to as focusing and flaring. When you are in a diverging step, you are trying to open up without limits—gathering inspiration, brainstorming, generating alternatives, exploring analogies, and saying “yes, and” to all ideas. During a converging phase, you are evaluating, sorting, narrowing, focusing, selecting, and judging.

Focus and Flare visual representation
Image by the Stanford

And you can’t do both of these things at the same time. Trying to do both at the same time is like driving with the brakes on. This means that when you are in a divergent phase of the process and generating lots of ideas, you can’t be simultaneously deciding which ideas are awesome and which ones suck. You have to leave your internal critic at the door until it’s time to converge.

And this is very difficult — even outright uncomfortable — for most people. Yet’s it’s critical for generating breakthrough ideas. I often tell people that it’s easier to dial back a crazy idea than it is to take a meh idea and make it great.

For example, one of my museum clients was brainstorming about how to drive more engagement with millennials. One of the “crazy” ideas was to invite celebrities to events to attract new visitors. Another colleague’s first instinct was to shut down this idea (“That’s crazy! We aren’t going to get celebrities to come to our events!”) But, we captured the idea and set it aside. Later, during a converge step, another team member was inspired by this idea to arrive at a more realistic concept: getting a handful of local celebrities to interact with museum audiences through social media in conjunction with a specific exhibition. This was an idea that could work, and there was already a precedent for it at another local institution. But if they had shut down the original idea in the diverge phase, they would not have arrived at the final concept in the converge phase.

5. Calling design thinking design thinking

I was working with a corporate client recently who was lamenting how his organization was suffering from what he called “flavor-of-the-month” fatigue. He was convinced that if he suggested to his team that they use design thinking, he would face resistance. But his colleague had another idea: don’t call it design thinking. So they started introducing methods and mindsets, such as empathy mapping and converging and diverging, but they didn’t call it out as “Design Thinking.”

Someone working at a whiteboard

Design thinking is often misunderstood and mischaracterized. And it’s definitely an overused buzzword. This can prompt the powers that be to shut it down, even without knowing what is involved, exactly. So although it may sound counter-intuitive, not using the term “design thinking” can help ensure success.

Its merits have been endlessly debated. Some people think it’s a failed experiment , while others think it’s, well, bullshit. Yes, there are definitely bullshit applications of the process out there, and there are consultants who slap a bunch of Post-its on a wall and call it design thinking. Yet design thinking is a lot more than Post-its, and there are also extremely sophisticated and nuanced applications of the process and its attendant methods. Even if the term is a jargony buzzword, it’s what Lee-Sean Huang calls a “useful starting point for deeper understanding” and for having “conversations about approaching and solving problems in new ways.”

Given the bias towards the process, I often find that it’s best not to call it design thinking. Instead, I advise beginning design thinkers to name the individual methods and mindsets and frame them as useful starting points for having conversations, without calling it “Design Thinking.”


My goal in outlining these errors is not to admonish those who have bravely embraced the sometimes scary and often messy process of design thinking, but to leverage their learnings so that others can more successfully champion, utilize, and apply the process. By grounding the process in empathy, having realistic expectations about what it can and can’t accomplish, knowing when to use quantitative vs. qualitative methods, separating divergent from convergent thinking, and choosing your terminology carefully, you can ensure greater success to your design thinking endeavors.


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Join the conversation about design thinking and design sprints in museums

Join the conversation
Talking about design sprints and design thinking in museums at the 2017 Museums and the Web conference.

Are you experimenting with design thinking in your museum? Are you planning to run a design sprint? Or are you curious to hear from other practitioners who are dipping their toes into the waters of human-centered design?

We’ve launched a new LinkedIn group (Design Thinking & Design Sprints in Museums and Cultural Orgs) and have started a Twitter hashtag (#dthinkmuseum) for professionals to share stories, ask questions, and join the conversation.

Join in, and talk with peers who are experimenting, learning, and leading the way.

Many thanks to Lucie Patterson at Australian Center for the Moving Image for inspiring this! Lucie is bravely embarking on running a design sprint at ACMI after taking our workshop on Design Sprints for Awesome Teams at Museums and the Web 2017. Look for more stories and lessons learned from her soon.

Join the conversation!


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How the Computer History Museum is using human-centered design to develop a new education center

Planning meeting at the Computer History Museum
Computer History planning meeting
Computer History Museum CEO John Hollar (far right) with CHM staff and community members during an Education Center planning meeting. Photo © Computer History Museum.

This post, authored by Scott Burg, Senior Researcher at Rockman et al, originally appeared on the blog of the Computer History Museum and on Medium, and was republished here with permission. It is the second in a series of  articles exploring the design and construction of the Computer History Museum’s new Education Center.

The Computer History Museum (CHM), located in the heart of Silicon Valley, is the world’s leading institution exploring the history of computing and its ongoing impact on society. The CHM is building a new Education Center, scheduled to open in fall of 2017. The center will be a 3,000-square-foot flexible-use teaching space that will facilitate the kinds of active, collaborative, inquiry-based learning that exemplify the Museum’s educational strengths.

For the planning and management of this initiative, the CHM is collaborating with IDEO, one of the world’s leading design and innovation firms. Over the course of five weeks, an interdisciplinary team from IDEO led a series of collaborative workshops and activities with CHM staff and stakeholders to research the needs of local communities and generate creative concepts for the space.

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From the beginning of the project, Computer History Museum (CHM) leadership understood that embarking on the design of a new Education Center would require the input of multiple constituencies, both internal and external. On one level, CHM recognized that observing multiple users’ relationships to the intended space and earning their buy-in were critical in creating a space that would meet the needs of the very diverse communities they wanted the center to serve.

At the same time, the Museum’s leaders acknowledged that their own staff had concerns and expectations that would need to be recognized and addressed. CHM’s Education Department is only one of several internal constituencies who may conduct programming or events in the new space. Lauren Silver, CHM’s Vice President of Education and the Education Center project lead, stated:

I wanted to hear the voices of people within the Museum who might actually use the space, to help us explore the kinds of factors that would benefit visitors as well as our own staff.
– Lauren Silver, Vice President of Education, Computer History Museum

First meetings with CHM staff

Under Construction signage
CHM Education Center under construction. Photo © Computer History Museum.

At the outset of the project launch, Silver held numerous meetings with Education staff to help shape an initial vision for how the space might look and function. The goal was not to achieve consensus but rather to air everyone’s “implicit” visions. Not surprisingly, there were many diverse suggestions. Though staff were willing to be involved, Silver was concerned that once this input process was expanded to other CHM staff as well as community groups, her ability to both manage the project and objectively tease out and assess other viewpoints while having her own personal vision for the space could be challenging.

She and others within CHM recognized that in order to maximize engagements with constituents, a certain level of design and process expertise would be required. For a number of years, CHM President and CEO John Hollar and Dennis Boyle, a founding member and partner at the design firm IDEO, had been exploring ways for the two organizations to collaborate. As discussions around the new Education Center intensified, it was apparent that the right project had finally materialized. Having the buy-in and interest of both organizations led to CHM hiring IDEO to facilitate workshops with CHM staff and community groups to articulate and generate concepts for the new center.

As mentioned in a previous CHM blog post, IDEO grounds its work in the human-centered design process. This approach encourages the inclusivity of multiple voices, assumes that all points of view are valid, and incorporates some ambiguity that often results in unanticipated surprises and innovation. When done well, a user-centered approach fuels the creation of products and ideas that resonate more deeply with an audience and ultimately drives engagement and growth.

During many of its engagements, IDEO spends a good deal of time helping the client envision the impossible as possible and imagine something new or novel. In the case of CHM, hearing many different voices and expectations, the IDEO team felt they needed to help Museum staff better understand the tradeoffs, and how to balance the many complex components that mattered to each of them in different ways. For the IDEO facilitators it was important to make staff comfortable talking about the intersection of space and programmatic concerns, to serve, as one IDEO staff member described it, as “spatial psychologists.”

Applying a user-centered process

The 5-step Design Thinking process
Image by the Stanford

In October 2016, IDEO conducted a kick-off meeting with about 25 CHM staff to introduce the user-centered design process and understand the staff’s issues and expectations for the space. When deciding who should participate, Silver made sure to invite staff representatives of different departments and functions across the Museum:

I chose a variety of staff because I wanted their expertise and even their dissent. I included registrars because I knew I wanted to have artifacts displayed in the center; curators who might use the center as a teaching space; financial and development staff, so they would have a deeper understanding of the center’s concept and mission to better inform related fundraising efforts; and staff who produce live events, since I knew I’d want to hold events in the space.
– Lauren Silver, Vice President of Education, Computer History Museum

To prepare for the meeting, IDEO asked CHM staff to think about the following:

  1. Space: What is your favorite public building or museum space to visit (other than the Computer History Museum)? How does this space inspire or educate you?
  2. Curiosity and discovery: What past event or situation pushed you farthest out of your comfort zone and also resulted in personal growth?
  3. The digital spark: What early experience related to computers or digital technology excited you? Who were you with at the time?
  4. Content: When was the last time you visited a museum that changed the way you see the world or shifted your behavior or habits?

IDEO distilled information from the kickoff meeting to build the structure of subsequent co-creation sessions with members of the community (to be discussed in a subsequent CHM blog post). After completing the community sessions, IDEO asked CHM staff to respond to a broad set of images and symbols (also used with community groups) that corresponded to issues involved in the design of learning spaces; for example, “What is your preferred learning mode?” and “What is your dream classroom?” These images ranged from traditional to highly unconventional and were meant to prompt conversation and encourage diverse thinking. Both the process of arriving at answers and the answers themselves helped IDEO identify assumptions, requirements, and ambitions underlying staff’s ideas about how the space should look, feel, and function. By involving CHM in this manner, IDEO asked staff to make a kind of interpretive or imaginative jump.

According to the IDEO team, the inclusion of so many staff from CHM demonstrated the organization’s commitment to the project. Often client organizations are a level or so removed from their customers, but in this case, CHM staff were eager to be heard on issues of space design and functionality.

Putting the process to work

Sam Starr of IDEO
Sam Starr from IDEO leads the CHM team through collaborative exercises. Photo © Computer History Museum.

With no previous education space from which to draw ideas or inspiration, the project had a feeling of starting from a blank slate. Not only was there a multitude of ideas about how the education space should look, but also an equally open (and uncertain) lack of consensus and clarity among staff about curriculum, content, and pedagogical methodology. As a result, IDEO was faced with a chicken-or-the-egg dilemma: Should curricula drive the space or vice-versa? Faced with this dilemma, the IDEO team facilitated discussion and exercises aimed at helping staff imagine what and how they would teach in the new space. It soon became apparent that staff were concentrating more on curriculum development than on space and functional design. This drove the realization that IDEO’s ultimate design approach had to be open enough to accommodate many different curricula and methods of instruction.

The best way to understand a museum visitor’s experience is to bring their journey to life. Hosting interactive, co-creation sessions with educators and community leaders gave us an early glimpse at how people’s unique values could each be fulfilled by the design of the space.
– Sam Starr, Product Designer, IDEO

What made this process alternately challenging and exciting for CHM staff was IDEO’s focus on “invisible” and abstract issues. Trying to imagine how a visitor feels when entering a space is not easy for many museum professionals, who typically think about space in more literal or physical ways. This exercise created an awareness that changing a space can have a huge impact on visitor interaction. In other words, by more clearly defining the kinds of visitor interactions the museum desires, staff can help designers create a space that better meets visitor goals.

Building consensus

Brainstorming ideas on whiteboard
CHM Education Department brainstorming ideas for the Education Center. Photo © Computer History Museum.

Throughout the workshops, all participating CHM staff were given a voice and encouraged to articulate their concerns. At the beginning of the engagement, IDEO experienced some skepticism and pushback from CHM staff — not everyone bought into the process. By the end of the engagement, however, IDEO staff observed that CHM staff (even some of the harshest critics) appeared to be much more invested. Dialogue focused more on identifying common solutions and ideas than protecting individual turf. Achieving this level of buy-in in just five weeks was enormous. Project architect Mark Horton believes there is tremendous value in this type of direct and open engagement with staff:

Staff realizes that what they say actually counts and becomes part of the process. That in and of itself I think is worth an immense amount. IDEO did a good job of collecting all this information, understanding it, and then using it to create an effective product.
– Mark Horton, Project Architect, Mark Horton/Architecture

IDEO believes that this kind of sustainable education can happen “underneath,” where methods applied during an engagement can be harnessed for other purposes within the Museum and for engaging new and diverse audiences. A number of CHM staff have remarked that while the design thinking process was difficult at first, they have developed an appreciation for it and will be looking for ways to adapt it for use within their departments and with constituent groups. Lauren Silver believes that it was important to have an outside agency like IDEO facilitate a process to challenge staff and create a safe and nonjudgmental space for an open flow of ideas:

For me, working with IDEO was important because they served as a kind of a neutral party and elevated the ways in which our varying visions did or did not come together. Everybody had to make trade-offs of what was or was not possible in the space. It was so valuable to have an outside agency come in and make this process a little bit more objective rather than me just saying, “Sorry, your idea is not going to cut it.”
-Lauren Silver, Vice President of Education, Computer History Museum

The power of collaboration

Rendering of CHM Education Center — Mark Horton/Architecture

Rendering of CHM Education Center. Image © Mark Horton/Architecture

These discussions and workshops demonstrated the power of collaborative design thinking. They created a process of collective inquiry and imagination in which diverse actors (CHM staff, architect, teachers, community constituents) jointly explore and define a problem and together develop and evaluate more daring and less predictable solutions. All participants were able to express and share their experiences, push back, reflect, discuss, and negotiate their roles and interests, and in the end jointly envision and realize positive change.

While IDEO staff were proud of the final design, they were particularly gratified when “the whole engagement catalyzed” as the process was coming to a close. Through the design process, IDEO was able to synthesize what all participants had to say and encouraged dialogue (sometimes difficult) among CHM staff. This made the final design concept representative, inclusive, and tangible. It was an accomplishment to provide a number of design directions that staff could either agree with in total or work collectively with the project architect to refine.

As CHM continues to think more deeply about use of space and adopts new methods of learning and instruction, the Education Center can change as well. User-centered design assumes a necessary degree of fluidity and adaptability, underlying the understanding that a community’s needs and expectations are not static and will evolve.

Mark Horton, charged with taking IDEO’s education center design concept and working with CHM staff to make it a reality, feels that his task has been made much easier as a result of these user-centered staff workshops.

If IDEO’s workshops hadn’t taken place, this would have been a very different project because many parties would have felt as if they had nothing to do with its progress. Bringing these different constituencies together to talk was well worth it on multiple levels.
-Mark Horton, Project Architect, Mark Horton/Architecture


This post, authored by Scott Burg, originally appeared on the blog of the Computer History Museum and on Medium, and was republished here with permission. Scott is a Senior Researcher at Rockman et al, and has a formal background in adult education, instructional systems design, and qualitative research. You can follow him on Twitter here.

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Making the Workplace We Want: 4 Lessons from the Getty

Ten-minute Tech pitch card
Image © The J. Paul Getty Trust

Staff at J. Paul Getty Trust have been increasingly focusing on incorporating design thinking strategies and user-centered design practices into the public-facing work of various groups inside the MuseumTrust, Research Institute, and Conservation Institute. I’ve been honored to work with the Getty over the past few years on training various Getty teams in design thinking and conducting user research, and am thrilled to see the latest development in their work.

At the most recent Museum Computer Network conference, I attended an unconference-style session in which Getty staffers Annelisa Stephan and Greg Albers shared how they are applying human-centered design practices to affect culture change inside the organization and led conference attendees through small group brainstorms and hands-on activities.

It is rewarding to me, both professionally and personally, to see how staff inside an institution as large and complex as the Getty have adapted tangible activities from human-centered design and “hacked” them to affect small, incremental changes. This parallels work I’m currently doing with School Retool, a professional development fellowship that helps public school leaders redesign school culture using small, scrappy experiments called “hacks” that can lead to big organizational changes.

(I’m also immensely impressed with the work that the Getty is doing around adopting a more user-focused and audience-based approach to social media. You can read more on the Getty Iris blog about the launch of the @GettyHub pilot project and, if you really want to geek out, the complete project plan.)

The story below, originally published under a CC BY 4.0 license on The Iris blog, outlines how the Getty has leveraged human-centered design to increase internal digital literacy and build a more joyful and human-centered culture.

. . . . . . . . . . . .

What do you want your workplace to be, and how can you make positive change this year? Here are a few things we’ve learned from experiments at the Getty.

The two of us work on digital publications and digital engagement respectively here at the Getty, but in between building books and running social media projects we often find ourselves hatching plans to increase digital literacy and joyful culture across the institution. Over the last couple years we’ve run a series of 10-minute peer-to-peer technology classes, gone semi-rogue introducing new communications tools and meeting formats, and co-hosted a 100-person on-site retreat for staff working on digital projects, among other drinks things. The premise of these side projects has always been that individuals like us, at any spot in the org chart (we’re each sort of in the middle of ours) can and should strive to make meaningful cultural change where and when they can.

Aside from making for a better workplace for us individually, we believe this kind of grassroots effort can have a cumulative and lasting positive impact across an organization over the long term. The effect may be magnified as more staff are motivated to participate similarly, though we’ve struggled with this here at the Getty.

We started with the idea that if we created some of the interactions we wished existed, at least a few of our peers would be inspired to join us and come forward with their own ideas. We’ve also hosted meetups where our colleagues have come up with all sorts of amazing ideas for demos, workshops, trainings, lunch circles, and other skill-building, knowledge-sharing schemes. Together we’re on the right track, but so far only a few of these great ideas have materialized. We’ve been thinking a lot about why this is, and what gives an idea momentum.

For a session at the most recent MCN (Museum Computer Network) conference (held November 1–4, 2016, in New Orleans; the theme was The Human-Centered Museum), we wanted to mirror the culture-changing side projects we’ve been doing, but we also took the opportunity to tackle this empowerment/agency problem for ourselves—and for session attendees. We started by honing in on our process. What is at the core of what we’re doing here, and how could we codify that in as minimal a way possible? Through this, we’ve realized that all our efforts, no matter how big or small, have always started with two very simple questions:

  1. What kind of workplace do we want?
  2. What one thing will we do to help create it?

Step 1: Understand what it is you really want

We’ve found it helpful to take a moment to think about what it is we want out of work, and this goes deeper than things like better pay or a better boss. (Our bosses are great. We’re talking hypotheticals here.)

Instead, we try to consider the root emotional and social qualities that are most important to us, and how it would look if these qualities were present. So, you might think not (or not only) better pay but acknowledgment of your hard work. Not a better boss but support to keep growing in your job. Your guiding values or ideals. Here are some of ours:

Annelisa: Generosity, Integrity, Kindness, Play
Greg: Creativity, Community, Equity, Joy

The idea here is: a) it’s healthy to have a better sense of your own needs and how they may be affecting your work culture/experience for better or worse, b) you can create immediate positive change to fulfill those needs, and c) if you want something, chances are that at least some of your colleagues do as well. So if you can address your needs, you’ll also be addressing some of theirs.

Step 2: Formulate those wants into questions begging for answers

Over the last two or three years, staff around the Getty have increasingly been using design-thinking methodologies to tackle new projects. We cherry-picked a couple of those techniques for this process. One was using “How might we…” questions. By framing challenges as questions starting with “How might we…,” you lead yourself to start thinking of solutions.

For example, let’s say you’ve identified kindness as one of your core workplace wants, and you know that certain meetings tend to be contentious, unkind spaces. If you say, “the problem is that people are rude to one another in meetings,” it’s a mental dead end. The answer to that statement, if you bother to answer it at all, is “Yes, that’s a problem.” If, however, you reframe that problem as a “How might we…” question, you suggest that a solution is possible and give yourself an opening for brainstorming one:

“How might we encourage staff to be polite in meetings?”

Or, better yet, really own the kindness aspect you’re after:

“How might we make meetings feel like a hug?”

Step 3: Brainstorm solutions and make them tangible

When you start brainstorming answers to your “How might we…” questions, don’t feel like you have to find the perfect idea right away, or that it has to be the most all-encompassing be-all and end-all solution to the problem. The goal is to find a single, achievable idea that you can use to address the issue and bring a bit of positive change to your workplace. This is what we call our “one thing.” When you come up with your most promising “one thing” the next step is to test and refine it. For that, we can turn to another key component of the design-thinking process, prototyping.

Creating a prototype, or mock-up, of your solution gives you something you can put in front of real users to get their feedback. The simpler and quicker-to-make your mock-up is (they’re often made with paper and markers), the less you have to lose if your testers find some problem with it and the easier it is to iterate on your idea and try again. The goal is to do just enough to communicate the key parts of the project or idea you want to test. But what are the key parts of these culture-changing projects we’re trying to get off the ground?

Looking back and evaluating some of the past projects we’ve been part of, we realized they had two very simple common traits. The staff retreat was called the Getty Digital Share—not “conference” or “summit”—and Getty folks responded as if “digital shares” were a thing people did elsewhere, like unconferences or meetups. This helped us all feel excited to participate. The digital-skill-building program, led by a team of volunteer teachers, was described as peer-to-peer drop-in classes and called 10-Minute Tech. It even had its own logo, which staff UX designer Cathy Bell did for us! In our experience, successful ideas had a catchy name and a brief description that struck a chord and were short enough for people remember and pass on.

At its most basic, then, a successful idea prototype has only two things:

  1. Name or identity
  2. Elevator pitch

Elevator pitch

For the prototype itself, we think it’s important to have something tangible, so we created some simple cards for MCN, and brought a pile of colorful markers, asked participants to think of names and an elevator pitch for their idea, and then asked them to write or draw it. The card made it physically tangible, the name gave it an identity, and the elevator pitch gave them a way to test it by pitching it to potential collaborators. This is the minimum viable product, or as Allegra Burnette (of Forrester Research and formerly MoMA) put it in another MCN session, the minimum loveable product.

Image © The J. Paul Getty Trust

As a side note, the “How might we…” + “one thing” model is also helpful to improve existing processes or projects—it doesn’t have to be the beginning of a big new initiative. Making a recurring meeting more productive, or changing the tone of an email chain, can have a big emotional impact. For example, a monthly info-sharing meeting of social media folks became a biweekly collaborative brainstorm known as POST Office, got an emoji (the horn), and has been re-energized with a new process. (Thanks to our Getty Publications colleague Miranda Sklaroff, founding POST Office captain and bringer of treats!)

Step 4: Make your “one thing” happen

Download the 1Thing worksheet PDF

The cards and the process are a way to distill positive change into manageable, vision-able bits. You don’t need a massive institutional effort. You don’t need to accomplish everything at once. Just find one thing you can do that will help make the workplace you want and try to do it. And when that succeeds or fails, find another one thing and try again.

Ultimately, of course, a cute name and sales pitch aren’t enough to make a thing happen. What everyone really needs is agency from within and support from their colleagues and their supervisors to take on a side project, no matter how small—and the time and resources, both financial and social, to make it happen. But we’ve found that by packaging ideas with a simple name and elevator pitch description we have what we need to start seeking collaborators (or co-conspirators) and support. It’s a tool both for testing and implementation. And we also have what we need to motivate ourselves and remind us what we’re trying to do, and why it is worth the effort.

We’d love to hear from you! What strategies for positive change have you tried in your workplace? What are your aspirations for making the workplace you want in 2017?

This post, co-authored by Annelisa Stephan and Greg Albers, was originally published under a CC BY 4.0 license on The Iris blog on January 2, 2017. 

You can subscribe to The Iris here, and follow Annelisa and Greg on Twitter here and here.

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Why play is essential to the design thinking process

Playing a warm-up game at the National Gallery of Art

Playing warm-up games at the National Gallery of Art

“The creation of something new is not accomplished by the intellect but by the play instinct . . . ”
– Carl Jung

I recently taught an introductory design thinking workshop for a corporate team holding a two-day retreat. I drove to the retreat center, an old farmhouse surrounded by hundreds of acres north of San Francisco, and arrived after dinner, when the team was relaxing and enjoying drinks.

The VP opened the door wearing a pirate costume and hat adorned with LED lights. And I could not have been more thrilled. I knew this team was ready for design thinking.

When I entered the room where the team was hanging out, the VP casually explained that they were playing a game called “Vikings vs. pirates.” Half the room was wearing pirate hats and pirate attire, and the other half was decked out in Viking horns.

The company is not a high tech start-up, and their office is not in Silicon Valley. But, like many Silicon Valley companies, they recognize that a playful and exploratory attitude leads to move innovative, competitive, and breakthrough ideas.

As a design thinking facilitator, coach, and consultant who works primarily with museums as well as different types of companies, I am brought in to help teams approach problems differently and better understand the needs of the people they serve, whether those are museum visitors, customers, or users of digital products.

Design thinking comprises a set of methods and strategies for interviewing people, synthesizing insights, building rough and rapid prototypes, and testing and iterating on solutions. I have used it for projects ranging from reimagining the audio tour in a museum to redesigning the new employee onboarding experience for a tech start-up. The design thinking process is best learned by doing, and ideally when it’s applied to a timely, real-world challenge or project. Short games and activities are integral to this, and in my experience, the most successful design thinkers are the ones who embrace the notion of play.

When I speak of play in the context of design thinking, I am referring to short, interactive games and activities played with partners or in small groups, borrowed from improvisational theater. (Here are three posts detailing some of the games I use: Using improv games to foster creativity and collaborationUsing improv games for brainstorming and embracing failureUsing improv games to warm up for user testing and prototyping).

There is a lot of academic research on the value of play and its importance not just to childhood development, but to adult life. Play, games, and the principles that underlie them have vital roles in “building critical skills like systems thinking, creative problem solving, collaboration, empathy and innovation,” according to the National Institute of Play.

Playing a game called the "one-minute gift" with Post-its
Playing a warm-up game before user testing at the National Gallery of Art, the “Two-Minute Invention

The five reasons that play is critical to the design thinking process are as follows:

1) Play enriches work

After another recent workshop, one of the participants commented in the evaluation form that there was “too much silliness.” This person added that everyone in the room was a “professional” and should be treated as such.

Fortunately, in other workshops, I hear more positive reactions, such as the self-proclaimed “IT guy who has to say ‘no’ all the time” who felt “liberated by the ‘yes, and’ stuff” or the “introvert who usually cringes at typical ‘ice breakers’” but felt that the activities were “accessible and enjoyable.”

Sadly, the notion that play is unprofessional, silly, and not befitting of qualified, hard-working adults is all too common in many organizations. We dismiss play as frivolous, irrelevant, and a waste of time. In fact, many people think that playfulness and fun are the polar opposite of work.

‘Play’ is sometimes contrasted with ‘work’ and characterised as a type of activity which is essentially unimportant, trivial and lacking in any serious purpose. . . (T)his view is mistaken. Play in all its rich variety is one of the highest achievements of the human species, alongside language, culture and technology . . .  The value of play is increasingly recognised, by researchers and within the policy arena, for adults as well as children, as the evidence mounts of its relationship with intellectual achievement and emotional well-being.
– Dr. David Whitebread, The Importance of Play2012

Instead of thinking of play as the opposite of work, let’s consider play as a way to enrich and strengthen our work.

2) Play builds team connections and trust

Many of the games and activities we incorporate into design thinking are meant to be far more than traditional “ice breakers.” They are intended to facilitate connections and build bridges between colleagues who might not normally interact together on a day-to-day basis. These connections create a platform where teams can do new and innovative work.

One of the games I have groups play, Three Things in Common in Three Minutes (which I learned from one of my favorite improv teachers, Rebecca Stockley), is a quick way to get people talking but has powerful results. I’ve seen colleagues who have worked together for years discover amazing connections, ranging from “We both have an adopted 11-year-old daughter from Guatemala” to “Our moms went to high school together in Detroit”! (Both are real examples!)

Play also builds trust among team members. In his TED talk, author and research Dr. Stuart Brown, talks about how play can help override a “differential in power” among participants. This is especially important in hierarchical and status-conscious organizations. Play can create a safe space where all ideas and input are welcome, no matter one’s job title or seniority inside an organization.

3) Play unlocks creativity and opens up new perspectives

Play helps us access places we might not normally go. For most of us, our best ideas don’t come when sitting in yet another time-sucking meeting or staring at a blank screen. They come when we are not actively trying to solve the problem at hand — tossing a ball for the dog, jamming on the guitar, taking a shower, or daydreaming.

Play allows us to tap into other parts of our brains, which provides new perspectives and enables us to see things differently. The state of play allows us to “explore the possible,” in the words of Dr. Stuart Brown.

For example, a critical aspect of the design thinking process is the notion of divergent thinking. This is the “dream big” phase of the process when we turn off our inner censors and think expansively. In order to get into this mindset, we play a game that develops what is called a “Yes, and” mindset.

An example is a “Shared Memory” game, which invites players to build on their partner’s ideas by saying “yes, and” to each other. Whenever I teach a workshop, we take 15 minutes from a two- or three-day agenda to play this game, yet almost every single participant mentions how powerful the 15-minute “yes, and” exercise was for them. I often hear from people years after a workshop that they still incorporate learnings from this activity into their current work.

Testing a prototype
Testing a playful prototype with visitors at the National Gallery of Art


4) Play gets us out of our heads

Play grounds us in the present moment. It helps turn off the analytical part of our brain that can cause “analysis paralysis.” Play helps get us into a state of what psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls “flow.”

“Bringing the dynamic of play into my work helps me to respond to surprises with curiosity, and it helps me get to get into creative flow with others while getting out of my own head and ego.”
– Kendra Shimmell, Head of Service Design, Capital One

5) Play builds energy

One of the simplest reasons I incorporate play into the design thinking process is that design thinking is hard work. It’s an exhausting process that requires intensive team collaboration balanced with solo work, and it’s demanding.

Games and activities serve to wake people up, energize the group, and get the endorphins flowing.

Summing up

For organizations that truly want to think differently, develop new and breakthrough ideas, and survive in the competitive, always-connected 21st century landscape, play is critical. A playful and exploratory mindset enriches work, strengthens teams, provides new ways of seeing, and builds energy.

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Design sprints for visitor experience advocacy: 5 lessons from the British Museum

staff testing prototypes outside the British Museum
Testing prototypes outside the British Museum.
Testing prototypes outside the British Museum.

This is the second in a two-part series about running design sprints in museums. The first post discussed using design sprints for content development at Phoenix Art Museum, and this post examines how the British Museum is experimenting with design sprints in the Product Development Group. (This post is also published on Medium here.)

A design sprint is a multi-step team process for answering critical business questions through researching, prototyping, and testing ideas with customers or—in the case of a museum—visitors. Design sprints combine tools and methods from design thinking, business strategy, and product innovation, and have been popularized and codified by Google Ventures with the Sprint book.

Kevin Bickham conducts visitor observations.
Kevin Bickham conducts visitor observations in the galleries.

Introducing the design sprint approach to product development into an organization as large and traditional as the British Museum is no small feat. I spoke with Shelley Mannion, the Head of Digital Product Development, and Kevin Bickham, the Lead Interaction Designer, about running a sprint focused on improving wayfinding at the Museum.

I was particularly impressed with their openness to trying this new way of working and their candidness around their learnings and mistakes. In my conversation with them, I identified five key lessons that apply to any team running a design sprint.

1) Choose your problem carefully

conducting visitor observations
Shelley Mannion conducts visitor observations in the Great Court.

One of the most important discussions the team had before they ran their sprint was around what problem to tackle. Even though Mannion and Bickham work in the Digital Product Group, they picked a problem that was broad and lent itself to both digital and analog solutions so that staff from different departments could feel invested in the outcomes.

The Digital Product team had been doing user research as part of website redesign project, and learned that visitors were not planning their visits before arriving. “There is this assumption that people are using our website and our digital offerings before they arrive, but they are not,” explained Mannion. “They arrive and ask, ‘Where do I start? What do I do?’”

So the team decided to focus on wayfinding, and framed the sprint problem as:

“How might we improve wayfinding in the British Museum?”

2) Start small and be willing to feel your way through it

Mannion and Bickham chose to experiment with their own team for their first sprint as a way to test-drive the process and “work out the kinks,” in Mannion’s words.

To kick off the sprint, they signed up for GV’s Design Sprint Week, referenced IDEO’s Design Kit, and referred to slides from a workshop I led at the 2016 Museums and the Web conference on running design sprints for rapid digital product development.

“We are not experts . . . and this is not something we do regularly or methodically. But we did it quickly with our own team first in an effort to teach ourselves,” said Mannion. “We went into and said, ‘OK, let’s give it a go!’”

British Museum team at work
British Museum team members kicking off their sprint.

“The design sprint approach freed things up,” added Bickham. “It gave us an opportunity to break with our usual, solutions-oriented way of thinking.”

The team relied on their collective knowledge and experience (Bickham is a graduate of Stanford’s Product Design program and Mannion is an experienced product developer), but admitted they “felt their way through” at points. But they kept on going, working quickly. They compressed their sprint into two half-days, and conducted a total of 25 interviews with and observations of visitors.

3) Use the sprint as an opportunity to evangelize

Armed with a one-year-old department and a fairly new digital strategy, the Product Development team has been adopting aspects of  The Lean Startup and Business Model Canvas and working in ways that differ from the wider organization.

Instead of trying to sell the rest of the Museum on the new disciplines of product management and user experience design, Mannion and Bickham used a sprint as a way to demonstrate their process and approach.

“One of our motivations in running a design sprint was to show the strengths of our user-centered process,” explained Mannion. “It helped us to evangelize and advocate for the way we work and to help colleagues from other disciplines understand what product management and UX are.”

For example, in some areas of the organization, there is a culture of decision-making based on stakeholder opinion rather than on visitor research. Although these teams have “visitors’ best interests at heart,” they are not used to working in a process that relies so heavily on user input, noted Mannion. So one of the hidden agendas of their sprint was to demonstrate the power and value of a user-centered process.

4) Make your sprint work visible

The British Museum team didn’t have a dedicated space for their design sprint, which turned out to be an advantage.

After the first day of their sprint, they left their work up in a shared meeting area used by other departments. This meant that colleagues walked by and saw their work, and it became a talking point and conversation starter.

sprint room and visible work
The team left their work up in the room between sprint sessions, and after the sprint.

Staff were surprised to see that the “digital team was using markers and paper,” said Mannion. “Our colleagues’ expectations of what our department can offer them were challenged. This was a way of saying, ‘We are not just here to make websites, we want to work with you to solve big, important problems.’ It was advocacy.”

They also discovered that having their work posted made it easier to jump back in on the second day, and that explaining it to colleagues was easier. “We could show people visually what was coming out of the sprint, and it was very rich,” noted Mannion.

5) Build on your failed prototypes

Staff testing the "Can I Help?" prototype
The “meeter-greeter” prototype.

One of the ideas that the team prototyped was the concept of a “meeter-greeter”—a staff member or volunteer who greets visitors and answers questions.

The team created a simple sign that said, “Can I help?” and went in front of the Museum and into the Great Court. One person held the sign while another person stood off to the side to take notes and photos.

Their assumption was that visitors would ask about objects in the collection. However, aside from questions about the Rosetta Stone and mummies, there was not much about the objects.

“Many staff, ourselves included, often assume that visitors are coming for this particular object or this particular collection, yet we got very few questions about objects. One group of tourists didn’t make it beyond the souvenir shop,” noted Mannion. “There were lots of questions about the coat check and bathrooms!”

What they did discover, though, was that visitors who speak languages other than English are delighted when they discover a staff member speaks their language. “We know that visitors are not clear which visitor services staff members speak which languages, and they discover by luck,” Mannion explains. “So we experimented with holding up a sign in English while wearing something that says, ‘I speak French’ for example. And we discovered that this made visitors felt welcomed and relieved.”

They then took these findings to a new cross-departmental working group on wayfinding that has begun since the design sprint. This is one of the initiatives they are looking to pilot over the next year.

Summing up

The Product Development team plans to run at least one design sprint per quarter going forward, with the next one planned for October. This next sprint will focus on creating content for Chinese tourists, who are one of the fastest growing audience groups.

“Museums are notoriously siloed organizations,” said Mannion. “They can be territorial and people often work in isolation. Applying the design sprint approach really helps break down those traditional boundaries and demonstrates how, working together with colleagues from other disciplines, we can tackle tough problems that impact the visitor experience.”

All images courtesy the British Museum.

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

I'm Here on a Date
"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.