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.