Idea Lab In The Library

Librarians like to talk about innovation. We want to be innovative, we believe innovation will lead to a better library future, and we even have a journal dedicated to it so we can write more articles about innovation. Despite all of our talking and writing about innovation, we may be overlooking a more obvious way to create an innovative library work environment. How about creating a physical workplace that is all about facilitating innovation.

What would such a workplace look like? Probably a lot like the Idea Lab at the Stanford University The Idea Lab is profiled in the June 2010 issue of FastCompany. Perhaps most of what you need to know about the lab is found in this statement by David Kelley, who is a founder of IDEO and, “We’re looking for better ideas – not keep your feet off the furniture.” Can the right environment really contribute to more innovation? According to director George Kembel, “Creativity follows context. If I want an organization to behave in a certain way, I need to design for that.” The article explains how the idea lab, with its open spaces, walls that double as note and sketch pads, its easy-to-rearrange layout, and students are encouraged to add to others’ work, or invite others to collaborate on their own.

I doubt there is any library that has already created an idea lab for its staff. If I’m wrong about that and your library has put together something along the lines of the Stanford d. school Idea Lab, please let me know. Since we have few models for how it might work in a library, I’m taking a shot at it here with a sketch of what it could look like.

idea lab
Possible Layout of a Library Idea Lab

I imagine it having walls/panels that are transparent and could double as space for drawings, notes, ideas, etc. that could be shared and commented on by others. It is easily accessible to the user community; it reduces or eliminates barriers between the librarian and the user – and should promote open innovation with the public. The core of the lab space is a hub that features collaborative furniture where librarians can interact with members of the user community. I’ve been in many libraries where the librarians are tucked away in offices spread throughout the building. A more communal space such as this one where the offices circle the collaborative hub could lead to more group problem sharing and solving – and then more innovation. A variety of technology devices/gadgets could be easily accessible to the staff in the idea lab and it facilitates experimentation. A wall-mounted panel display could serve as a space for presentations, demonstrations and even for librarians to share electronic messages. Maybe there are even some toys and games for visitors to play with – or for the staff whenever they might need a diversion (some of you best thinking comes when you are thinking about something else or nothing at all).

There just might be something to the Idea Lab concept as demonstrated by the folks at the Stanford d. school. Providing the right setting to library workers could indeed promote their innovative spirit, and in the long run contribute to a better library experience for the user community.

The “Thinking” In Design Thinking

Here’s is some more good reading that helps librarians to better grasp what design thinking really means – although there’s one aspect of this post with which I’d quibble. What I like about it though is that it does a good job of pointing out that the “thinking” in design thinking really refers to a process designers use to solve problems – or is that FIND problems.

Edwin Gardner, of the blog Creating Knowledge Through Practice, wrote an essay titled “Thinking through Design Thinking” in which he takes issue with some of the concepts of design thinking as they are promoted by the folks at IDEO and Bruce Nussbaum of BusinessWeek. Although the essay was written in 2009 I discovered it only more recently here. Gardner first takes on design thinking as a process for problem solving (although I’ve heard design thinkers refer to themselves as problem finders, not problem solvers) and innovation. I have some problems with Gardner’s suggestion that design thinking is coupled with technology solutions for innovation, that it is “technocratic”. But many design-based innovations could have little to do with technology, and may focus instead on human-based change.

Where things get interesting is with Gardner’s contention that:

the real problem with design thinking is that [it] mostly deals with methodology, process, ‘how-to,’ it doesn’t deal with how design thinking actually works. Usually cases are brought forward of how a typical design approach has been successful in tackling a problem, but from this we don’t learn how thoughts unfold in the design process, how thinking unfolds. Thus design thinking currently deals with describing behavior, symptoms, the consequence of thoughts but not what design thinking consists of itself.

I agree that there is little about design thinking that actually explains what the “thinking” is, but should we expect it to? We can certainly learn from designers how they approach their work, identify problems, obtain solutions, etc., but does Gardner expect us to go beyond that, to somehow peer into their minds. I think that’s why I like what Warren Berger brings to this issue when he says that one of his main goals is “understanding how designers think and what the rest of us can learn from that”. I understand Gardner’s point, and it is well taken. I certainly would like a more algorithmic explanation of the “thinking” part of design thinking – and I’d like someone to just tell me how and what to do – but I hardly expect that to happen. I do expect that librarians will better understand the thinking part of design thinking when we try to authentically integrate the processes into our own practice. We can learn more about how designers think based on what we see them do and what they share with us about their work – as the folks at IDEO do – even if we can’t look inside their minds.

Want Magazine Will Help Us Learn How Designers Think

I had seen the advance announcements about Want Magazine, and was eagerly looking forward to the debut of issue one (a/k/a Release 001). Now we can all read Want Magazine. The first issue became available just recently. Want Magazine looks like it will be a valuable learning source for those of us who want to better understand how designers think and what drives their creativity and creation. It appears that the format – and who knows just exactly how Want will evolve – is recorded interviews with a rich mix of designers. Each interview is posted with text notes from the interviewer – which is helpful if you don’t have time to watch the interview and want to know the key takeaways. According to its mission statement here’s what we can expect:

What makes our magazine unique is that we are willing to take an apparently mundane occurrence, and celebrate it. We do not take experiences for granted. We trust them to instill change, to have the power to transform, to improve lives and the lives of others. First and foremost, we intend to celebrate the makers of experience –those who devote their full time, energy and passion to making memorable moments and positive feelings. Among these people, we highlight the professionals in the field of User Experience Design. Their discipline is purposely centered on the research, planning and execution of strategies, activities and results that bring purpose to users of products, interactions and places.

The chief problem of Want is that I’ll never find the time to view all the great interviews. I’ve taken a look at the ones with Peter Merholz, Don Norman and Cordell Ratzlaff – and all were well worth the time. I hope to get back to check out a few more of the interviews. I think Norman has some profound thoughts about why people become enthusiastic about complex systems and the process by which that happens. I also like Ratzlaff’s view of what user experience is:

I think it encompasses the entire relationship that a person has with the device or product or application that they’re using. That includes the functionality of the device. It includes the physical relationship between the person and the product. And it includes the emotional relationship. It also encompasses every touch point between the person and the product.

What both Norman and Ratzlaff have to say strikes me as directly related to the library experience – or rather what we need to do to design a better one. There needs to be an emotional attachment and an emotional relationship. I see this in the students who win our library research prize. They are incredibly passionate about their research, and they’ve formed strong attachments with our collection and librarians. I recommend that you sign up for updates from Want Magazine. If you want to learn more about user experience, or even just want to understand it a little better, then take a closer look.