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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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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.