What is Design Thinking?


Visitor-centered approaches like design thinking lie at the heart of the call for museums to be more socially responsive and inclusive.

Elsa Smithgall, Curator, The Phillips Collection

What is design thinking?

Design thinking is framework for problem-solving, creativity, and innovation that leverages the principles of design for solving complex challenges. Also referred to as human-centered design, it helps teams solve problems by understanding human needs and motivations, discovering opportunities, generating user-centered solutions, building and testing  prototypes, and iterating on solutions.

Design thinking is a cousin to many other user-centered methodologies, and shares many traits—such as an emphasis on iteration and testing—with the Agile and Lean methodologies. It’s a complement to quantitative research, and provides the human stories and insights behind data.

Why design thinking for museums?

In the 21st century, museum professionals face challenges such as deepening diversity among audiences and within the workforce, shifting authority, and keeping pace with the delivery of digital offerings in the new shared economy. Furthermore, it is no longer sufficient for museums to deliver knowledge as information. Museums are now seeking to be relevant to their audiences and meaningful in society, and are thus shifting to visitor-centered paradigms.

The rigorous nature of the design thinking framework is well-suited for museum professionals and the challenges they face in today’s world. Design thinking offers a practical methodology and process of inquiry for tackling complex challenges that cut across issues related to leadership, diversity and inclusion, innovation, and sustainability.

Our approach to design thinking

We ground our practice in design thinking as it’s practiced at the Stanford d.school and design sprints as practiced in the Sprint framework, but we also blend methods and tools from Applied Improvisation, the LUMA System of Innovation, and best-practices from the fields of systems thinking, user experience and service design.

We practice design thinking with an eye towards equity and inclusion. We recognize that many systems have inherent inequities, so we, as designers, must be aware and intentional in our work of the potentials to continue perpetuating the status quo.

As such, we look to leaders in the field such as the the National Equity Project and the Stanford d.school K12 Lab’s work in Equity-Centered Design. These approaches expand the design thinking framework to bring awareness to the impact of the designer’s identity, values, emotions, biases, and assumptions on the process, and consider ways to work collaboratively with stakeholders through co-design and participatory design work.

Have questions about design thinking?