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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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Discovering design in every nook and cranny: the V&A Museum Residency Programme

Photo by Saskia Coulson
Photo by Saskia Coulson

This guest post is from Saskia Coulson, a PhD candidate at the Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art and Design, University of Dundee, Scotland.

My PhD focuses on how we can use design research to consider residency programs for museums and unite design thinking with museum practices. In this post, I explain how museum residency programs can be used as a lens to think about the traditional and emerging frameworks of design. This is then explored through a recent example of research I conducted on the V&A Museum Residency Programme in London.

So, what is a residency?

I spend a lot of time thinking about residencies, and sometimes I forget that the term “residency” in the context of museums and galleries is not a familiar one.  That’s why I always like to start off any discussion on residencies with a quick definition and some examples from the United Kingdom.

I define residencies as a provision of time and resources to innovate in practice, subsequently resulting in objects, events, or services that the resident, participating individual, and host organization may benefit from.  Residency programs can be at the core of an organization, or be provided as part of a wider program; and can include individuals or collectives from the full spectrum of the creative industries, including designers, artists, writers, and dancers.  Yet no two residency programs are alike because they all stem from the aims and objectives of the organization that is hosting them.

With residencies being increasingly offered to designers, there is an opportunity to use the residency as a lens to examine the agency of design in both a traditional sense (visual communication, industry design, etc.) as well as in emerging practices (service design, strategic management design, etc.).  In the following examples, I will provide an overview of various real-world practices to illustrate the main practical and strategic value offered by residencies.

A few examples…

Cove Park is a residency hothouse in the secluded area of Argyle and Bute in Scotland that focuses on the notion that innovation is stimulated through the process of the creative practitioner working in seclusion, relatively free from any external influences which could impede the creative process.

The Design Museum in London offers a yearly Designer in Residence program, which showcases emerging design talent by way of a group exhibition of new work.

The V&A Museum Residency Programme offers residents the opportunity to develop new work by responding to and working with the V&A collections, as well as use the Museum’s resources to promote greater understanding of the creative process for the public.

Each of these residencies are characteristically disparate, yet all are connected by the fact that they are all services designed by the host intended to deliver on a certain objective of the organization.  As with many museum programs, the application of service design can be considered in this context and as an approach for museum professionals to consider the value that the residency program brings to the organization, the resident, and the visitors.

View of the John Madejski Garden, taken from the roof of the V&A during an exclusive access building tour with James Rigler. Image by Saskia Coulson
View of the John Madejski Garden, taken from the roof of the V&A during an exclusive access building tour with Ceramist in Residence James Rigler. Photo by Saskia Coulson.

V&A Museum Residency Programme

I have recently returned to Scotland from a six-month research placement in London, where I was conducting a study on the V&A Museum Residency Programme.  During this time I witnessed two very different residencies in action: the very first Games Designer in Residence, Sophia George (this residency is made possible through a partnership between V&A, V&A Dundee, University of Abertay Dundee, and The Association for UKInteractive Entertainment); and the Ceramist in Residence, James Rigler. I was also able to observe how the Learning Department developed and managed the service, and how the Residency Programme was situated within the Museum’s wider organizational framework.  All three perspectives provided different lenses through which I could examine the value of design in a museum’s residency program.

Game Designer in Residence

As part of her residency, Game Designer in Residence Sophia George designed a new game based on William Morris’s Strawberry Thief printed fabric that is on display in the V&A British Galleries.  It was fascinating to watch the game evolve, and to capture key facets of design thinking that were evident in this process: ideation, a user-centered understanding, and problem-solving.  As part of her residency, Sophia also held Open Studio sessions where she invited visitors to play the game prototype. The V&A Museum was a great platform for this, and the exposure to such a high volume of visitors allowed her to test the game and gain valuable user feedback.

Ceramist in Residence

As part of his residency, Ceramist in Residence James Rigler was keen on exploring the “undiscovered museum” and spent a lot of his time in the hard-to-reach corners of the building. This type of exclusive access is very exciting, even to the permanent members of staff, and James worked with staff of the Learning Department to design workshops for school groups as part of program called DesignLab. His workshops replicated the discovery phase of the design process and demonstrated how it could inform the define, develop, and deliver phases.

What’s next?

Taking part in the V&A Museum Residency Programme was invaluable to my research, and as my PhD continues, I’m using human-centered design methods to understand the values and expectations of all stakeholders of a new design-specific residency.  My aim is to structure a theoretical framework that will be delivered to the V&A Museum of Design, Dundee, to provide the institution with the research to support the development of a residency programme.

Follow me on twitter @saskiacoulson to watch this process unfold.

Top image: Young visitors play the Strawberry Thief iPad game prototype. Photo by Saskia Coulson.

Saskia Coulson

Saskia CoulsonSaskia Coulson is a PhD candidate at the Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art and Design, University of Dundee, Scotland. Her research is funded by the Economic and Social Research Council capacity building cluster, “Capitalising on Creativity”, grant #res 187-24-0014 administered by the University of St Andrews, and sponsored by the V&A Museum of Design, Dundee.  Saskia is a co-author in the forthcoming Design Research Society paper, Making the Case: collaborative concept development of products and services for a new design museum.