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 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.

A Manual For Design Thinkers

One of the knocks against design thinking is that it’s too much about thinking and too little about taking practical action – getting things done. I wrote about this reaction, which calls into question the value of design thinking, and suggested that we needed to focus more on the design approach as a practical method for putting our design thinking tools and techniques to work. In seeking out more ideas on how to accomplish this I acquired a copy of “Designing for Growth: A Design Toolkit for Managers.”. I believe the book has lived up to expectations. Of the numerous books and articles I’ve read about design thinking, this one is the best at providing a concrete approach to applying design thinking in your practice. Yet in many ways the book sticks to the blueprint for design thinking, albeit broken down into more steps with a variety of techniques organized into “ten tools”.

Let me give you an example. In the classic IDEO method, the first phase of the design thinking process is to be an empathic designer – to put yourself into the place of the end user of your service or product. As was famously said about designers in the Deep Dive video by David Kelley, “We not experts at anything. The only things we’re experts at is the design process.” The video then goes on to illustrate how designers go out into the field to study the existing experience and learn from the experts – those who either create or use the product or service. The second tool in the Toolkit is Journey Mapping. This is an exercise the design team conducts to create a graphic flowchart of the customer’s experience as he or she interacts with the products and services provided by the library. The whole point of Mapping is to deeply understand things from the point of view of the end user. What’s the first tool? That’s another thing I really liked; it’s visualization. The authors, right off the bat, emphasize the importance of visual communication throughout the design process. There’s a chapter dedicated to each of the ten tools, and the one on visualization even has some sketching tips.

Many of the steps, processes and tools discussed in the book really connect back to the basic fundamentals of design thinking. The difference is in the way the ideas, practices and techniques are organized around four phases of the design process: (1) What Is? (2) What If? (3) What Wows? (4) What Works. It’s interesting that steps one and two are all about discovering what the gap is between the problem and potential solution. Again, that’s classic design thinking. What Wows is all about prototyping, and What Works is about implementation and evaluation. It’s all there. That said, I see this book as being somewhat different from others on design thinking. Others, like The Art of Innovation or The Design of Business, are more like straight read throughs. This book really is more like a toolkit. You just use your hammer or screwdriver when you need it to get a job done; you don’t take out every tool in the box. Likewise, if I just want to invite our community members to work with us in developing a new service, I can just make use of the chapter on customer co-creation. It offers me the steps I need to follow to get this done successfully. While some may come away with the impression that the book is a bit on the busy side and that there are many possible distractions within the book, I tend to prefer the many sidebars used throughout the book. They may be a bit of a distraction on the first reading, but then you discover there’s lots of practical advice and ideas found within those sidebars.

If you want to get a taste of the book Designing for Growth, you may want to read an article based on the book, “Learning to use design thinking tools for successful innovation” that was authored by Jeanne Liedtka in the journal Strategy & Leadership (Vol. 39 No. 5, pgs. 13-19). It is behind a paywall, and your library may or may not provide access (NOTE: it can be “rented” for $3.99 via DeepDyve if that option works for you). When librarians ask me to provide more practical ideas for how they can implement design thinking in their libraries, I’m going to point them to Designing for Growth. I think the authors are on the right track when it comes to moving potential design thinkers from thinking to doing.