I just wrapped up my second year teaching a course on design thinking for the San Jose State University iSchool.
Years after promoting the idea that LIS education programs should pay more attention to design thinking – and even going so far to suggest that our profession would benefit from a Masters of Library Design – it has been an incredible experience to develop this course from the ground up and to have the privilege to share what I’ve learned about design thinking with our next generation of librarians.
One of the challenges in preparing for the second year was making a decision about how to define and present the design thinking process. Knowing that my students would be encountering a number of different definitions and presentations of the process, I thought it might be best to decide on one definition and make that the standard for the duration of the course.
Perhaps a bit controlling but at least it provides a consistent approach to learning design thinking, as well as a standard platform for conversation. I also let the students know that they should use the course to either define design thinking on their own terms or identify a definition that most resonates them. What definition, graphics or examples, I asked them, would best enable them to explain design thinking to their colleagues? So while I maintained a somewhat strict approach to defining design thinking for the course, I made it clear that after the course, students were free to develop their own way of defining and describing it.
I suppose that’s why this article resonated with me. Even when a group of experts were asked, there was no exact agreement or consensus on the definition of design thinking. While some might take that as a sign that design thinking shouldn’t be taken seriously if it can’t be consistently defined, I tend to see it differently. The author says as much in writing:
One of the greatest strengths but also weaknesses of design thinking is that there is no single, widely used definition for it. This flexibility in meaning is beneficial because it encourages challenge, exploration, and inquiry, and allows people to morph the concept to their needs.
In the post “What is Design Thinking, Really? (What Practitioners Say)” by Sarah Gibbons, she describes research involving interviews with industry experts. They were asked a series of questions, such as “What do you think of when you hear the phrase “design thinking” and “How would you define design thinking?”. I tend to see lack of a single definition more strength than weakness precisely because if offers the opportunity to bring some individuality to it – though there are clearly some constraints to which any definition would need to conform.
The responses reflect the lack of consensus among these experts in their description and definition of design thinking. But the responses do reflect the core process and activities involved in design thinking. There is a breakdown of the terms and phrases used by experts to define design thinking. Some, such as “problem-solving”, “process” and “human-centered design” are totally expected. They are organized into multiple thematic categories such as “uses” and “specific steps”.
While the experts had no shared definition, their responses point to three shared ideas that come closest to a common understand of what constitutes a design thinking approach:
*It is a process for problem solving (though I prefer to emphasize it’s about problem finding).
*It is a change in the way you think, a mindset shift, about how you do your work.
*It is a toolkit, a set of strategies and approaches for solving a problem.
Gibbons suggests that there is also a scaffolding effect that shapes how we define design thinking. It starts with defining it as a process, then evolves into a mindset and then becomes the toolkit used for applying design thinking in practice. That strikes me as a good way to define design thinking when I explain to someone coming to is as a blank slate.
You should make of it what you will to rethink or refine your own way of defining design thinking. I will point my future students to this article as a way of demonstrating why they need to ultimately shape their own definition while being true to the value of design thinking and the process they will make their own.
I’m glad to have discovered this article because I plan to adopt the (six) process steps it identifies – and make that the new standard for my course. It’s quite close to what I already use, but I think it will be an easier set of terms for students to remember – and it has a solid diagram to illustrate the process. This article is a solid addition to the core literature of design thinking.
When librarians hear about design thinking they quite naturally ask, “Well, how would I use that at my library?”
Librarian reactions to design thinking can include vagueness, uncertainty, and even some degree of writing it off entirely because it sounds too corporate – or like some kind of business jargon.
But what most librarians want are simply examples of design thinking – in practice – in libraries.
Well, that’s exactly what they got at the March 8, 2018 Library 2.018 virtual conference, “Design Thinking: How Librarians Are Incorporating it Into Their Practice“. I was pleased to have been invited to organize the conference and the keynote panel, along with delivering a 30-minute closing summary of the conference.
The Conference was sponsored by the San Jose State University School of Information, so thanks to Sandy Hirsh and her colleagues from SJSU for choosing design thinking as one of their three Library 2.018 conferences for 2018.
You can catch the keynote panel featuring Rachel Ivy Clarke (Syracuse U), Sidsel Bech-Petersen (DOKK1 Library) and Greg Diaz (Chicago Public Library), and all the concurrent sessions. If you have a chance, check out my 30-minute closing keynote in which I attempt to summarize the conference. I come back to three main themes across the presentations:
1. Better to fail small than fail big, so take advantage of prototyping a new service or resource in your library.
2. Design thinking is about problem finding. You can’t solve the problem if you don’t truly know what the problem is (from the user perspective)
3. Design thinking is a group activity. It’s a great way to engage library staff to work together to make a better library.
Here’s the link to the conference video archive:
http://www.library20.com/page/library-2-01-design-thinking-recordings (you need to be registered and logged into Library20.com) or at the Library 2.018 YouTube channel: http://www.youtube.com/user/library20conference
While the Library 2.018 conference certainly moves the design thinking movement in librarianship in the direction of the tipping point for more widespread awareness and adoption, we are not there yet.
Happy listening – and if anyone says they don’t see how librarians would use design thinking – you know where to send them.
Confirmation bias is a real problem.
We create our own filter bubbles in which we expose ourselves only to those ideas that support what we already believe. We may do this subconsciously in choosing what newspapers, magazines and programs to follow – as well as who we follow on social media. When we expose ourselves to content that challenges what we think or believe we simply, our biases cause us to ignore or dismiss it.
Those who believe in the value of design thinking may be inclined to write off its critics as jaded, thin skinned designers who are angry that non-design professionals now think they too can be designers if they just know of and practice design thinking.
Would you watch Natasha Jen’s video titled “Design Thinking is Bullshit? Or would you just move on to the next piece of content, writing that video off as just another disgruntled designer out to dismiss design thinking.
If we take the time to dig deeper into these critiques, beyond the point where they talk about the weaknesses of design thinking, we might actually learn something useful. For example, I found it helpful to listen to Jen discuss the role of “crit” in design professions. How might librarians who want to practice design thinking explore the need to have their solutions subjected to some version of the design crit?
“The Problem With Design Thinking is That I Still Don’t Know What Design Thinking Is” shares another common refrain from critics, which is that design thinking is too vague, no one really gets what it is and that it’s too much about thinking and too little about doing (hence the term “design doing“). This blog post is a good read with some realistic concerns about design thinking, coming from someone who’s organization had adopted design thinking. There is a good argument here for why it needs to be more actionable.
Then you have a sarcastic, hostile takedown of design thinking in Lee Vinsel’s “Design Thinking is Kind of Like Syphilis — It’s Contagious and Rots Your Brains“. Well, if I had said nothing, the title would have told you all you need to know. It’s a long read that rehashes previous takedowns of design thinking. These posts can be helpful for the comments (there are many), from both those who agree and disagree. Have a look.
Critiques of design thinking are hardly new. For as long as non-designers have adopted design thinking as a positive force for their work, someone has found something negative to say about design thinking.
In the post-design thinking toolkit environment, I think most of the critics overlook how practical, actionable and concrete design thinking has become for many non-designers. I would agree that prior to the toolkit, design thinking was somewhat vague. With the toolkit in hand, you don’t need to be a designer to get closer to working and thinking like one. What would the critics have to say about it? Would it change their thinking?
It would help if we could all get over this designer vs. non-designer conflict. I think I speak for most librarians who practice design thinking when I say we would never think we’re on the same level as a professional designer. Most of us simply see it as a practical tool that is sometimes applicable in a particular situation.
When encountering critiques of design thinking, no matter how hostile an approach the critic may take, it is best to avoid becoming defensive – or simply writing off the piece as unworthy of your time. Whatever it is, it’s unlikely to change your overall perspective on the value of design thinking for problem identification and solution development. So why not go ahead and take a closer look at what’s being said.
It matters little what subject we’re talking about. It could be libraries. The important point is that advocates need to be aware of and understand the naysayers and critics. We avoid them at our own risk. The more we know about the critics’ arguments the better prepared we are to counter it and prepare ourselves for the inevitable attack on our thinking.
Imagine you’re in a meeting to discuss organizing a design challenge and an adversarial colleague says “I heard that real designers are calling bullshit on design thinking. They say it’s just business jargon that librarians adopt so they can make pretend they know something about design”. Your turn to respond. What do you say?
Here’s a good opportunity to get a global perspective on how design thinking is being used in libraries to promote better services, as well as help staff go through a change process and adapt to new ways of delivering services.
You can learn more here and get the link to the webinar, which takes place on Thursday, July 6 at 1:00 pm CT.
Here’s a description of the webinar from the official site:
How can libraries adopt “design thinking” to improve their library services, programming and spaces? What do libraries need to do to prepare staff for the change? According to Tim Brown, president and CEO of IDEO, “Design thinking is a human-centered approach to innovation that draws from the designer’s toolkit to integrate the needs of people, the possibilities of technology, and the requirements for business success.”
This webinar explores design thinking principles, showcases how design thinking can be used to improve what libraries do and how libraries address user needs, and identifies strategies that libraries can use to adopt design thinking into their own work.
Full disclosure: I am one of the invited speakers and I am looking forward to sharing an experience from my library with a design challenge we took on to rethink and redesign our service delivery model.
The keynote speaker is Rolf Hapel, Director of Citizens’ Services and Libraries in Aarhus, Denmark. I know they are doing some amazing work at the Aarhus public library system – and they partnered with IDEO and Chicago Public Library for a well known application of design thinking to improve library service.
I hope you will join in for the conversation.
Design thinking is about problem solving.
Ultimately, I’d say that’s true. Properly applied, it’s a process that should lead to an elegant, thoughtful solution.
Where I tend to deviate from most of what I read about design thinking in the library literature is that to my way of thinking it’s much more about problem finding than problem solving. If you want to solve the problem you need to truly understand what the problem is.
Go back to the 1991 “Deep Dive” episode of Nightline. The designers at IDEO have little expertise other than their understanding of and ability to carry out the design thinking process. Whatever the challenge, be it designing a better shopping cart or revolutionizing the education system for an entire country, it all starts with finding the problem.
I was reminded of this when watching Bill Burnett, Executive Director of the Stanford Design School, and Dave Evans of Electronic Arts, talk about their book Designing Your Best Life in this video. Go to the 4:05 mark and you will hear Burnett say:
Designers look around and they try to find the right problem because problem finding turns out to be way more important than problem solving ’cause if you’re working on the wrong problem you will get the wrong answer every single time.
Thomas Wedell-Wedellsborg’s expands on Burnett’s point in his article “Are You Solving the Right Problem” found in the January-February 2017 issue of Harvard Business Review. The gist of his global research into the problem-solving behavior of executives at 91 private and public-sector organizations is that “managers tend to switch quickly into solution mode without checking whether they really understand the problem.”
The way design thinking is discussed in libraryland, the focus is frequently on the solving and not so much the finding. We need to rethink that.
One way is to pay more attention to those initial phases of design thinking. Early on the team has a mission, a desired outcome, but has only a vague sense of what’s broken. By starting off with efforts to understand the problem from the user’s perspective (thus “human-centered design”) and then analyzing the accumulated intelligence, a more accurate definition of the problem precedes any deep dive into potential solutions. Wedell-Wedellsborg offers us some advice on how to get better at problem finding by using a “problem-diagnosis framework”.
It starts with reframing the problem. Instead of responding to the problem with the most obvious, and possibly costly solution, the idea is to examine the problem from a different perspective. One of Wedell-Wedellsborg’s examples is the slow elevator problem. When people complain about long waits, what’s the solution? Get a faster elevator? Turns out there is a better solution that costs almost nothing – if you reframe it from a slowness problem to a waiting problem.
As s I’ve written previously, this is easily said but hard to accomplish. Wedell-Wedellsborg offers seven practices to help us with the reframing task:
* Establish Legitimacy – Get the rest of the team on board with the idea of reframing the problem and looking beyond the most obvious solutions; is there more to the problem than meets the eye?
* Invite outsiders into the discussion – Get the viewpoint of someone detached from the situation; not necessarily an outside consultant but possibly someone else in the organization with a different view.
* Get it in writing – There could be a considerable difference between what we say we think the problem and how we define it in writing; ask team members or outsiders to write down how they perceive the problem and then make sure everyone agrees on what the actual problem is.
* What are we missing – With a good written description in hand a more methodical review is possible; focus on what’s missing. Keys to solutions are often in what’s been overlooked.
* Consider multiple categories – Broaden the perspective of a problem situation by identifying more than one or two categories (e.g., incentive problem; money problem; apathy problem) into which it could fit. This exercise can help avoid groupthink and a too narrow view of the problem.
* Analyze positive exceptions – When didn’t this problem happen? What were the circumstances at that time that kept it from happening? An analysis of a problem-free time may help identify what’s no longer working and how to correct things.
* Question the objective – Keep asking questions about each possible problem scenario. What is it we really want to accomplish? What does success look like? Only then can we be clear about what solutions will get us to that end.
It’s encouraging to see more librarians viewing their problems as design challenges. It is a refreshing change from a past where we jumped quickly to solutions. Too often it was based on assumptions about what librarians thought was right for community members, rather than a human-centered design process.
No doubt we can get even better at using design for better libraries. Let’s continue to work on putting problem finding ahead of problem solving.
Designing Better Libraries has offered posts about design thinking, on and off, for nearly a decade now.
During that time the global interest in design thinking has grown considerably, but not so much in the library world. Other than an occasional glimpse of the possibility that design thinking was catching on in a bigger way with librarians, it is mostly the case that the interest is limited at best.
I thought that publishing this article would stimulate more interest but other than an “Oh, that’s interesting” reaction and a few invitations to talk on design thinking, I’ve witnessed only minimal progress in librarians’ awareness of or adoption of design thinking as a tool for problem finding and solution development.
At the risk of being wrong again, Designing Better Libraries thinks the tipping point for design thinking in librarianship is perhaps upon us – or getting closer. Here are two indicators.
Design Thinking Toolkit for Libraries
This was probably the most exciting development in terms of bringing design thinking into mainstream library practice. When I wrote about Design Thinking for Libraries: A Toolkit for Patron-Centered Design, I really believed it had the capacity to generate interest about design thinking. One of the problems with design thinking, is that it tends to be rather abstract for many librarians. What does it mean to think like a designer? How does a librarian actually do that?
The Toolkit puts design thinking into concrete terms by delivering practical examples, tools and techniques that any library staff can implement. Someone even wrote about it in American Libraries. I’m expecting more conference talks and local workshop events on design thinking as a result of the Toolkit. Whether that translates into more instances of design thinking activity in libraries is less certain.
Library Journal Design Programming
For a number of years the folks at Library Journal have been issuing special design supplements to highlight new library building projects along with renovations and other matters related to the design of library space. So the LJ take on design has mostly been “library design = space design”. Focusing more on building and space design, LJ has offered a series of Design Institutes that move around the country. Librarians gather with architects to explore space challenges and using design to solve them.
More recently, perhaps spurred by the Design Thinking Toolkit, LJ is moving more directly into promoting design thinking as a resource librarians can use to improve their libraries and practitioner skills. For the first time they are offering a design thinking workshop in partnership with the Chicago Public Library. A look at the program indicates that attendees will learn how to put what’s in the Toolkit into practice. It’s just one workshop, but I think it will put lots more eyeballs on the term “design thinking” and make the connection with libraries.
If we add this, maybe it’s two and a quarter indicators:
I’m not quite sure what to make of this tweet, and I wasn’t at this program. Whatever you may think about the interchangeability of design thinking and strategic planning, does this suggest that the ARL group will soon be talking about how to integrate design thinking into their libraries. Only time will tell if that turns into more than a tweet-worthy statement.
By themselves these indicators are unlikely to provide the necessary momentum to generate large scale interest in design thinking. I thought the delivery of the openly available Design Thinking Toolkit would have a major impact. Just one significant advancement is not quite enough.
Perhaps it will take three or four events coming together, fairly close to one in another in time, to achieve the tipping point. Taken together, there is greater likelihood to generate the necessary energy to get more librarians to connect with the possibilities of design thinking. What would that look like?
What remains a barrier is “the example”. Librarians are practical. Before they buy into a new idea (and not that design thinking is particularly new) they want some evidence. They want to know how it works, how to make it happen and who is using it to create positive change. The design toolkit does that to an extent and certainly brings design thinking into the domain of practical application.
After all, it is a step-by-step how-to-get-it-done manual. That moves design thinking from the abstract to the concrete.
What LJ is doing will put more examples, even if they are limited to space design, in front of large numbers of librarians. It also gets librarians connected to the term “design thinking”.
From there, it may be possible to make the leap from “design thinking contributes to better library space owing to its human-centered philosophy” to “we apply design thinking to improve library service as many touchpoints”.
Perhaps “tipping point” is too strong a term for what is happening with design thinking right now in librarianship. What is happening might be more accurately described as “growing interest”. I’ll be watching for more growth.
“[Enter Name] consulted/partnered/teamed [choose one] with IDEO to transform/re-imagine/design [choose one] an innovative/revolutionary/empathic [choose one] solution.”
Is it my imagination or does it seem that a sentence like this one appears with increasing frequency.
It certainly is a long way from shopping cart re-design projects. In addition to product design, IDEO and other firms now bring their design thinking process to industries of all types, for- and non-profit. Librarians, for example, can use IDEO’s Design Thinking Toolkit for Libraries to create challenges for the improvement of services, workflows and more.
It is not my imagination. Design firms, according to this article have conquered the world. They are everywhere. It suggests that the selling of design thinking as a competitive advantage for organizations is itself a competitive advantage. Design firms that don’t offer IDEO-type consulting services may find themselves losing business to the ones that do.
Why is design riding so high these days? In the article “Why Design Thinking Conquered the World” Phil Roberts offers several reasons:
* Organizations are looking to gain a competitive advantage when factors such as cost or features no longer offer much leverage;
* Desire for an organizational creative culture – or at least one that lends itself to creativity
* Improving services from the customer’s perspective
Given the number of industries where there is interest in adopting design thinking, it seems there currently is no limit to the ways in which organizations will seek to apply it nor is it limited to any one type of organization.
Of course, large corporations know this too. They’ve realized design’s importance in nearly everything they do, and are either acquiring independent firms, or developing their own internal capabilities.
As more organizations catch on they are realizing the value of moving to a design culture, and they will go to design firms like IDEO or they will try to develop the appropriate resources in house. In his essay “The Next Big Thing in Design” Tim Brown, CEO of IDEO, writes:
We’re excited that design has become the keystone of doing business. That’s good for everyone. But when a company of tens or even hundreds of thousands hires a few hundred designers, the practice is still being treated as a tool, not as a core competence. That makes the longevity of independent design companies—and collectives that have creative mastery at their core—all the more important.
Just as design thinking is sweeping through multiple industries, the library world’s interest in it is expanding as well. While it’s unlikely most library organizations will partner with IDEO the way this one did, more libraries across all sectors of the profession can use IDEO’s library toolkit to explore design thinking as an option for tackling challenging problems where a design approach could make a difference. Some libraries may discover design thinking through an exploration of user experience, which is catching on even more quickly as a way to design better libraries.
Libraries may be lagging a number of other industries (e.g.,hospitality, health care, automotive) when it comes to design thinking, but at least we can say “IDEO was here”.
When commencement time rolls around we are suddenly inundated with reports of all the wise advice for future success that college graduates receive. Whether it’s celebrities, politicians, newscasters or scholars, all seek to impart some wisdom on this year’s crop of graduating students. What happens when experts are asked to give design advice to graduating design students? Some potentially useful advice for librarians who have a passion for (or even serious interest) design is what happens.
In the article “9 Top Designers On What Every New Grad Should Know” we learn what the experienced designers think is the best advice for the new designers. Learn to code? Hire on with a top design firm or go out on your own? How to apply what you learned? Some of that to be sure but also some basics that we can all appreciate.
For example, Tim Brown, the president and CEO of Ideo, recommends paying attention to organizational culture. It won’t matter how creative you if you fail to understand how the organization behaves. He advises approaching organizational culture as one more constraint with which designers must work.
Gadi Amit, president and principal designer of New Deal Design, also has some basic advice about complexity. Use design to bring about the clarity from within complexity. Use the constraints to create “one magical experience of physical and digital design.” Likewise, Kate Aronowitz, vice president of design at Wealthfront, advises grads to keep it simple and be intentional. Don’t wait for luck to shape your career with a big surprise.
Jessica Walsh, partner at Sagmeister & Walsh, advocates for new designers to take risks. Worry less about a big paycheck than understanding what type of work ignites your passion. Also, be nice because no one wants to hire a-holes or egomaniacs. Definitely advice we can all use.
Maria Giudice, vice president of user experience at Autodesk, believes it’s important to think of oneself as a leader or future leader. She believes that everything that students are learning in design school today, from design thinking to learning how to execute, is what is needed to be a great leader. As always, don’t wait to be asked to take a leadership role.
Aron Shapiro, CEO of Huge, says that it’s important to keep the focus on what products do as a way to inform what they look like. The future of products and services is to design so that people’s needs are anticipated and decisions are made for them. Understand that and the opportunities are limitless.
My takeaway from all this advice is that a passion for design, a desire to help people find clarity when confronting confusion and paying attention to people’s needs are a large part of what designers need to do to be successful. It helps to work well with others and believe in yourself, but it’s important to understand the constraints of the workplace and our projects if we are to make the most of our talent.
And yeah, learn to code – says Irene Au, design partner at Khosla Ventures.
In the approximately 8 years since I first began reading about design thinking, as a strategy for user-centered problem solving, I have probably seen an equal number of articles touting the glory of design thinking and those predicting its demise as an approach to thoughtful problem resolution. Neither side has quite gotten it right. Design thinking is no cure all for what ails society (thought IDEO has been exploring how design thinking can solve global problems) but it has certainly survived Nussbaum’s declaration that it was over. [NOTE – if you are new to design thinking click on “design thinking” in the category list to find and read any of the many prior posts on design thinking here at DBL]
Design thinking has never really caught on in the library community the way that user experience has, though I’ve always thought of these two as being connected. Done well, a user experience should be the result of a design process. Design thinking might help get it right. The IDEO Design Thinking toolkit for libraries might change that though. I was at a conference just recently where the theme was user experience, and the individual who gave the opening welcome surprised me by speaking to the importance of design thinking as an approach for developing thoughtful solutions to challenging problems. It was good to see design thinking getting a mention, but I suspect we will still rarely encounter design thinking workshops at library conferences.
Part of the problem is that the library community has yet to really figure out how to use design thinking. I would include myself among those who see value in design thinking but can be challenged to find good opportunities to put it to use. We get that it’s important to adopt a user-centered approach to planning library services and spaces, but it should be more than that. The attraction of design thinking is having a systematic approach to tackling a truly challenging problem. There are few case studies of librarians using design thinking to solve a wicked problem such as local (campus) scholarly communications reform or a dramatic decline in library gate count.
In his essay on the failings and end of design thinking Nussbaum asked “what’s next?”. For him the answer was creative intelligence. For others it was strategic design or perhaps the design approach. Several years after Nussbaum asked the question, it’s still being asked. Mark Payne is a cofounder of Fahrenheit and author of the new book “How to Kill a Unicorn”, and he argues that design thinking still falls short of what it needs to be. Unlike Nussbaum, Payne sees value in design thinking but believes that design needs strategy to help organizations succeed. He offers some examples of how some businesses are using design thinking in tandem with analytical thinking to achieve better solutions. What’s next for design thinking, according to Payne, is moving beyond user-center design to design that seeks balance between what the user needs and the organization can deliver.
Larry Keeler is an innovation expert who also suggests we need to enter a post-design thinking phase. In a long post titled “Beyond Design Thinking” Keeler explores territory similar to Payne: design thinking must be more than just design. He writes:
Design thinking without deep analysis and synthesis can be reckless. Leading companies are seeking to do both recursively and in integrated new ways to manage complexity, derive insights, and catalyze innovation in fast-changing ecosystems.
Keeler amplifies on this statement by reminding us that we must refrain from believing that design thinking alone will solve all of our problems. That’s not a particularly new piece of advice, but a good reminder that we all need multiple problem-solving tools in our box. Like Payne, Keeler advocates that design without analysis is reckless. So what does Keeler suggest should come next for design thinking? Not unlike Payne he sees a growing blend of design and analysis. He writes, “What works today is deep, informed analysis seamlessly synthesized into coherent, beautiful solutions.”
Payne and Keeler offer interesting visions for how design thinking needs to evolve. Both point to integrating a more analytical approach into the design. Whether some next-generation of design thinking will soon emerge is not yet clear. What seems to be happening now is some new exploration on what design thinking could be with a greater emphasis on analysis.
Wherever design thinking may be headed I would encourage library workers to follow the conversation and pay attention to the ways in which designers, innovators, educators and others are applying design thinking for everyday and complex problem solving. I think it’s great that so many more librarians are learning about user experience and wanting their community members to have a better library experience, but let’s not overlook design thinking as a tool that can help us figure out how to get there.