Tipping Point for Design Thinking in Libraries (finally..?)

There are a couple of new developments that could speed up the rate at which “design thinking” is catching on with librarians. If and when it does, will it be mostly about space design or really motivate more librarians to integrate design into their practice?

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:

tweet that mentions elliott shore speaking about design thinking
Sign that design thinking is about to hit the big time?

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.

IDEO Was Here

“[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”.

Sharing Designerly Advice

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.

What’s Next For Design Thinking

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.

IDEO Shares Design Thinking Toolkit for Libraries

After it’s groundbreaking work in bringing design thinking to the field of education, what was next for IDEO? Libraries!

While librarians across the different spheres of the profession have paid more attention to user experience, the virtues of design thinking as a method for identifying and then developing appropriate solutions for challenging problems is rarely discussed in the library literature. One exception – my 2008 article on design thinking that appeared in American Libraries. The new Design Thinking for Libraries: A Toolkit for Patron-Centered Design could change how librarians respond to design thinking as a method they can use to improve their libraries.

What may have been off-putting in the past about design thinking from the librarian perspective is the possible association with business. It was perhaps perceived as a business driven process. Librarians and business don’t always mix well. You know…libraries are not businesses and shouldn’t be run like they are…resisting the corporatization of libraries. Whatever your position on that observation, let’s agree that business can offer some potentially good ideas that librarians may want to adopt. While its true that many of the examples of what IDEO can do with design thinking have a business orientation to them (such as the shopping cart project), what IDEO is offering is unrelated to business. It’s about design. The Toolkit makes clear that what really matters is the value of design in developing thoughtful solutions regardless of the environment in which it is applied.

There are three components to the toolkit.

The first document is the core component that goes into depth about what design thinking is and provides details on each phase of a design thinking process. What’s presented here is slightly different than the key areas of design thinking one discovers in the video that covers the shopping cart project (empathize; information sharing; deep dive; prototype; evaluation). Rather, it is based on Tim Brown’s classic article on design thinking that appeared in Harvard Business Review. That breaks design thinking down into three components: inspiration; ideation; iteration.

For those new to design thinking this will be of little consequence. Over the course of the toolkit, the reader is introduced to all these component parts in one way or another. What’s great about the toolkit is the level of detail it provides on how to conduct the different parts of the design thinking process. Whether it’s a brainstorm session or creating prototypes, there’s practically a step-by-step approach to getting it done.

The second document is an activities workbook. This is chock full of resources that would be helpful to support a design thinking project. It’s got worksheets for everything from icebreakers to creating prototypes to obtaining evaluation feedback. I wish I had this workbook the first time I tried a staff retreat based on design thinking practices.

The third document is a “quick guide” for those constrained by time (who among us isn’t these days). It’s a condensed version of the full blown toolkit. This might be useful for introducing colleagues to the ideas behind design thinking, but to really get a design thinking project underway, it will require a more serious investment of time – using the toolkit and activities workbook.

No doubt, with the growing popularity of ethnographic studies in academic libraries, some of the toolkit content will be familiar to librarians, but this new IDEO toolkit will really enable librarians who want to establish design challenges for themselves and their patrons to finally make great use of the design thinking process. While it may take some time for design thinking to enter into the mainstream of librarians’ conversation, I think this guide will play a significant role in bringing more attention to the benefits of the design approach. I don’t doubt that come a year a two from now, librarian conferences will be featuring more than a few presentations on design challenge projects.