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 a proven, 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 approach problems with the end-user in mind. It involves developing empathy for museum visitors, discovering opportunities, generating user-centered solutions, and building and testing prototypes.

The Steps

The steps we teach in our workshops, which are based on the Stanford d.school approach, are:

  • Empathize
  • Define
  • Ideate
  • Prototype
  • Test

Why does this matter for museums?

Museum visitors increasingly expect programs, services, and experiences that are intuitive, responsive, and well-designed. The design thinking process can transform the way a museum or cultural institution develops digital or analog products, visitor experiences, and services by giving staff the analytical, creative, and intuitive techniques and tools to develop visitor-centered offerings.

Design thinking is a close 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 evaluation and quantitative research, and provides the human stories and insights behind user data.