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What Is Design Thinking for Museums?

Simply put, Design Thinking is a creative mindset that can be used as a methodology for bringing together input from various points of view in order to solve complicated problems and to think of novel solutions which may never have been tried before. The concept comes from the sort of development processes that big manufacturing firms have adopted in innovative industries, such as consumer electronics, for example. However, it is not restricted to forward-thinking smart device prototype studios, only. You will see it used in architecture, machining systems, industrial processes and all sorts of other commercial areas.

For the museum sector, Design Thinking can transform the way an institution puts forward its visitor experiences, whether that is online or in person. It can also assist with understanding visitors better by offering museum staff the sort of analytical tools they need to do their jobs. For example, Design Thinking can be used to come up with creative responses to issues identified from qualitative and quantitative observations made in the institution. In some cases, it is used to help address multi-faceted problems which on the face of it may seem to be diverse but, when viewed in greater detail, share common issues.

Indeed, in the setting of a museum, designing your way through problems should not be thought of as in the same context as coming up with new products or objects, but of developing the same sorts of processes that teams of designers use to work with one another successfully. As such, Design Thinking is a process for both framing problems as well as discovering new approaches to overcoming them rather than the traditional view of design – with a single person drawing up an idea in creative isolation.

design thinking workshop

What Sort of Processes Can DT Be Used For?

In an engineering setting, Design Thinking is there to help with ideation, the creative process that allows for new ways of communicating ideas, sometimes ones for which no language currently exists. The same approach can be taken in the museum sector, too, of course, especially when a completely new approach is being sought. Indeed, in many sectors, Design Thinking is also used for so-called context analysis, something that takes into account the various factors that apply within certain industries more than others. These might range from environmental considerations to macro-economic conditions. A typical form of context analysis that might be applied today is the widely used SWOT analytical method, for example. By employing context analysis as well as ideation, it is, therefore, possible for museums to come up with a Design Thinking methodology that is not only suited to the museum and gallery sector but which is perfectly well defined for the priorities and niches of the particular institution concerned.

In addition to ideation and context analysis, Design Thinking also incorporates system modelling, something that can also be of huge benefit to certain aspects of the museum sector. In system modelling which, itself, is an interdisciplinary analytical technique, it is possible to pull apart the concepts that go behind the structure or behaviour of a system so that it can be improved. Typically, such modelling uses functional workflow diagrams or simulations to identify ways in which systems can be bettered. In the context of a museum, system modelling – as a part of a wider Design Thinking project – could help to improve anything from human resource allocation, approaches to management communications or even museum queuing systems to minimise the amount of time people spend in line.

Along with problem finding and framing, Design Thinking must involve creative approaches to solving them. Of course, Design Thinking places a big emphasis on innovating and coming up with bespoke solutions. That said, the idea that a response to any problem that has been identified and framed properly within a certain scope has to be unique is a mistake. As most designers would agree, using pre-existing systems and adapting them to a particular problem is a much better approach with more likelihood of long-term success than coming up with something entirely from scratch. Of course, Design Thinking can lead to something completely innovative, too. The point is that this is not always necessary, especially when there is so much innovation in the museum sector right now, the right solution for your institution may have already been discovered elsewhere and can be adopted straightforwardly by simply ‘borrowing’ the idea.

What Steps Are Involved In DT for Museums?

There are five steps that museum professionals need to know about if they are to invoke the Design Thinking approach in their institution. They are, in order, empathising, defining, ideating, prototyping and testing. We will examine these in greater depth but first, it is important to note that jumping to the end steps is a common problem that leads to errors being made. Without truly empathising about all the issues that surround a problem that a museum wants to overcome, it is very easy to ideate in a way that does not address them all and, consequently, only achieves partial results at best. Likewise, without a fully fledged definition of what you are trying to address, your prototyping and testing may easily miss the mark or be diluted. In other words, your solution may work very well but not deal with the substantive issue at hand.

When taking a Design Thinking approach, plenty of resources and time should be allocated to steps one and two, empathy and definition. If you proceed directly to ideation, then you are bound to come up with some genuinely creative ideas. However, in such circumstances, how and where your ideas should be applied, to what end and who for would remain unanswered questions. Only when you have empathised and defined the problem you wish to solve will your ideas really address the issue at hand. Then, it is a question of thinking of solutions that can be tested meaningfully within your institution. A process of trial and error may ensue as your ideation leads to different prototype solutions which you test, in turn, until the best one presents itself.

Given that most institutions struggle with Design Thinking at the first two steps, empathising and defining issues, let’s spend a little more time focussing on them.

Empathy and Definition In Design Thinking

Few museums employ designers with direct experience of Design Thinking and they consequently find it hard to meet the crucial requirements of the first two steps of the method. Firstly, empathy for a problem means fully understanding what it is that is causing the issue at all. So, if you were looking at your ticketing system, for example, you would need to empathise with the issue from a customer’s point of view. Emphatically, you must not think of the problem as one from your institution’s perspective, that is, ‘How do we sell more tickets?’ but as, ‘What are the blockages customers face that mean fewer tickets are sold than we would like?’ From this perspective, you are placing yourself in the shoes of the people concerned which helps you, therefore, to come up with a truly Design Thinking solution.

Of course, empathy means looking at the situation from all angles and perspectives. In this example, of selling more tickets, you should also look at the problem from the point of view of specific demographics. Few institutions don’t want to sell more tickets but to what end? Ask yourself whether you want younger attendees, families or more academic interest? Whatever your aim, role-playing and gaining the insights of a wide range of attendees are two methods that will help you to come up with more empathetic understanding.

Design Sprint Book

Only with adequate empathy for the employee, visitor or disengaged member of the public that you are trying to solve an issue for will you be able to properly define what it is that the ‘problem’ is. In this example, you may find that there a few blockages for buying tickets from certain demographics with time on their hands but others simply don’t have the patience to queue at peak visiting hours. You might then define the issue around your speed of sales and consequently ideate on ways you can make ticket sales a more rapid process.

It is only by applying what you have learned from your first step in empathy that you will be able to define your problem in a way that makes ideation really possible. Without the first two steps, you are likely to come up with ideas that are tangential to the real issues at play. Consequently, your prototyping and testing of solutions will be inadequate. Incidentally, that is why a broad spectrum of opinion is important at stage one of a Design Thinking process. Since different people empathise differently with different individuals, the more people you have involved at the outset of the process, the better it turns out to be generally speaking. As you move onwards throughout the five steps, so less and less input is required until the full evaluation of your project at the very end, perhaps via a visitor feedback survey.

Some Case Studies of Design Thinking in the Museum Sector

When professionals at the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC set about trying to establish better connections between visitors and their institution, it took a radical approach to the process. At the ideation stage, a cross-disciplinary group of museum professionals were asked to sketch or write down only bad ideas and put them forward to the Design Thinking team. In fact, the more bizarre the approach to innovating better connections between the art collection and the public, the more they were encouraged. As a result, some truly strange ideas emerged, such as offering pony rides in the reception area or free skateboards for visitors to zoom along the gallery’s corridors. Then, there were crazy ideas like offering visitors spray cans or glitter bombs next to works of art. What was going on?

The National Gallery of Art was charged with fostering playfulness to improve its connections with the public, so the idea of coming up with bad ideas was really there to enable some truly good ones. The so-called ‘wrong thinking’ approach was put in place to make everyone who was contributing to the exercise feel relaxed and on an even footing with one another. Both junior and senior members of staff could come up with bad ideas in a consequence-free environment that allowed them, through their own playfulness, to start seeing things from a visitor’s point of view and, subsequently, to empathise with them. By loosening up the assembled team and breaking down formal hierarchical structures, the Design Thinking approach was able to move from bad ideation to good.

At Coventry Transport Museum, the Community Engagement Officer used a similar approach to Design Thinking in her work. After a redevelopment programme that would end in a museum relaunch back in June 2015, Laura Musgrave had just 18 months to ensure the voice of the local community was heard in the visitor experience that would be offered at the museum’s augmented space. The involvement of the community in the city had hitherto been minimal at the museum which is why Musgrave chose a Design Thinking approach. Understandably, the professionals concerned wanted to reach as many people in the community as possible in order to maximise their empathetic understanding.

design thinking workshop

The first thing the community engagement team did under Musgrave was to forge new contacts with the community. For instance, the local city library became an important place to exchange views about the role of the museum. There was also a programme that was aimed specifically at after-school carers and another one that focussed on a senior citizens’ nursing home. As you can see, the team were clearly making sure that their empathetic studies broadened the demographics of the museum and did not merely seek the views of its ‘traditional’ sort of visitor. Indeed, it was also important to get a good geographical spread of people’s views from all over Coventry, not just one or two neighbourhoods. As the team put it, the Design Thinking approach was there to get to know their audiences, what their experiences had been in the past and what their motivations for future engagement might be.

As a result of the museum’s proactive approach, the local community in Coventry ended up with a hand in many aspects of the decision-making processes prior to the relaunch. This included what was on display in the galleries, as well as things like graphical styling and layout engagement. However, it also fed into other important aspects of the museum which helped the team to meet accessibility issues, as well.

Guidance for Deploying Design Thinking Successfully at Your Institution

So far, we have looked at the way Design Thinking is used in both the museum sector and outside of it with the basic five-step process explained. Plenty of emphasis has been placed on stage one. However, it cannot be said too often that for Design Thinking to work, empathetic exploration – as shown by the experience of Coventry Transport Museum’s community engagement programme – is essential. As such, the first and best tip to offer is that you cannot really make Design Thinking work from behind your desk. You need to talk to visitors and non-visitors alike, face-to-face wherever possible. You should also never underestimate the input of colleagues in this part of the process, either. Places like the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, pioneers of Design Thinking in the museum sector in many regards, even produce training material for employees about how to be more empathetic with visitors for this very purpose.

At the ideation stage, it is important not to rule anything out. A common approach to Design Thinking is to have a facilitator who takes all of the ideas and collates them, sometimes on nothing more than sticky notepads which are placed on the wall. Ideally, you and your team will saturate the wall with ideas, both good and bad with no preconceived judgements. As the experience of Washington’s National Gallery of Art demonstrates, bad ideas, if allowed to stand alongside good ones, will often lead to improved thought processes which are genuinely more creative. This comes down to basic human psychology whereby people are more willing to think in creative ways if they don’t think they will be immediately shot down for proposing unconventional ideas.

Setting a time limit on your Design Thinking processes is also important. This can be especially useful when you are at the back end of the methodology, focussing on prototyping and testing. Essentially, it is possible to get so into the Design Thinking method that you end up aiming for perfection rather than a substantial improvement of a given problem. Most professional designers would tell you that they, too, strive for the most elegant, perfect solution possible but fall short of it. Bear in mind that Design Thinking can get you only so far so you should agree a time limit on when you will stop and fully implement your tested ideas. Otherwise, you may spend so long that important factors have since changed and you need to restart the entire process anyway.

In Summary

Design Thinking is just one way of problem-solving of many that you could choose. You can take other approaches but Design Thinking has certain advantages in the museum sector which should not be overlooked. These include, but are not limited to, the improvements in collaborative working and engendering better innovation. In addition, Design Thinking should offer the ability to remodel your institution based on empathy for visitors rather than a top-down approach which tends to have a negative impact no matter how well intentioned.

About the author – Manuel Charr

Manuel Charr is a journalist working in the arts and cultural sectors. With a background in marketing, Manuel is drawn to arts organizations which are prepared to try inventive ways to reach new audiences.

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