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How Design Thinking Could Improve LIS Education

As a library practitioner it’s rare to have occasions to speak with LIS faculty about the education of our future library colleagues. So I considered myself fortunate to be in that position recently when I attended the 15th anniversary celebration for the Internet Public Library (which I wrote about here), and a meeting of the re-accreditation advisory board for Drexel University’s iSchool, of which I am a member. Over the course of two days there were multiple conversations about what today’s LIS students need to learn in order to be well prepared for tomorrow’s challenging library environment.

LIS students still need to gain proficiency with important skills, such as the organization of material, reference work, subject specialization and digital development. No one argues that. But where the need seems more acute, and where there is less certainty about how to teach, is with the less tangible skills sets such as listening and observing, problem analysis or critical thinking. That’s where much of the conversation focused; what could practitioners share to help educators design a better curriculum for LIS students. That’s when it occurred to me. We should be talking about integrating design thinking into the LIS curriculum.

What would it mean to do that? Taking some cues from two advocates for integrating design thinking into the business school curriculum, let me synthesize some ideas from David Kelley (watch short video), a co-founder of IDEO, and Roger Martin. Dean the Rotman Business School. LIS education infused with design thinking principles would teach students to be more intuitive and creative and less analytical – aiming for more of a balance. Saying you want to teach students to be design thinkers means helping them to internalize a methodology that focuses on making innovation a more routine part of work. The application of the design thinking method incorporates many of those difficult-to-teach soft skills.

For example, the first stage of the design thinking method is empathic design – learning to put yourself in the place of the user. Let’s say that we currently educate students to ask reference interview questions aimed at narrowing the possibilities so that the librarian can impose a solution on the user. That may lead to giving the user an inappropriate or incomplete solution if we fail to adequately capture the true need of the user. Now imagine we were to educate LIS students to first think about the user and what he or she is trying to accomplish and the factors driving them to ask the question. The student would learn to understand the need for help from that user’s unique perspective. A design thinking approach to providing reference service might also encourage the use of more social techniques, from seeking greater input from colleagues to using networks to find the best solutions. Too often LIS students see reference as a “lone genius” activity when in fact the best results can emerge from an enlightened team of diverse experts.

Design thinkers are problem finders. Having a design thinking mentality in any library setting could improve the operation of the organization. Instead of focusing too quickly on solutions, a new generation of librarians would learn the value of thoughtfulness and patience in confronting complex problems. LIS programs teach skills for use in building solutions, but are they teaching a thought process that guides the application of the skills in different situations? A design thinking influenced curriculum could better prepare students to make good decisions in complicated or complex situations.

So how might LIS educators create a design thinking curriculum? There are few possibilities for getting started:

* Begin by having faculty read core materials about design thinking, and then exchange ideas about how the design thinking methodology could be integrated throughout the curriculum.

* Invite Roger Martin to speak at the next ALISE conference. LIS educators can learn how he is tranforming business education to include more balance between analytical left brain thinking and intuitive right brain thinking.

* Work with a design firm to create a prototype of a design thinking curriculum. Firms such as IDEO that traditionally design products now consult with organizations to help them transition to a design thinking organization.

* Involve current students and alumni in the exploration of a design thinking curriculum. Have the groups work together to explore how design thinking could improve the LIS learning experience for students and provide benefits to the employers who will hire them.

* Invite students from design education programs such as the d. school at Stanford University or the IIT Institute of Design to visit LIS programs to share perspectives on what makes their the learning process and the curriculum at their institution unique.

I would look forward to a future in which LIS graduates emerge from their programs as design thinkers (not to mention UX advocates). It would lead to a more innovative profession with a common tool for approaching the challenges of librarianship. As David Kelley puts it in the video, design thinking compliments how you normally think and work, but equips you with a methodology for a consistent approach to change and innovation. I believe that the first LIS program that declares itself the “design thinking iSchool” is going to set the standard for the future of library education. Is there a forward thinking LIS program that is ready to give this a try?

BTW, integrating design thinking into learning at all levels, including LIS programs, may be the wave of the future. Here’s an article that discusses integrating design education into K-12 schools.


Comment from James Neal
Posted: March 31, 2010 at 1:51 pm

Perfect post for me as I prepare to enter my first year in a LIS program in August with a focus on design. Perfect … perfect .. perfect … Thanks.

Comment from David Walczyk
Posted: April 7, 2010 at 3:00 pm


Excellent post. It was forwarded to me by one of my students.

As an FYI these ideas have been inside of LIS and LIS education for some time. Although not in the mainstream.

For instance I have been teaching human-centered design in a studio environment at Pratt SILS for over four years and work with libraries on “design thinking” and design doing. I use the phrase “designer librarian” frequently.

A/the problem, IMHO, is that when LIS had to choose where to situate it’s future it chose techno-centric (e.g., iSchools) rather than human-centric (e.g., dSchools). An unfortunate error – not easily fixable – for which we are now paying dearly (e.g., massive cuts in libraries and thousands of unemployed MLSs). Mostly because we within LIS have failed to develop the human connection between people and libraries [which is more than just a connection with information]. The connection is embodied and, I think, quite a bit allopoetic.

I’m generalizing a bit of course – but my general thesis, I think, holds up quite nicely.



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