Design Thinking in museums: a conversation

The latest update from our One by One Digital Fellows is a conversation between Karin de Wild and Marco Mason about Design Thinking.

Sheets of white paper covered in handwritten diagrams, one with the word INSIGHTS written in bright pink

Karin de Wild: What is human-centred Design Thinking?

Marco Mason: It is not easy to give a single definition for Design Thinking, because it depends on the organisational context and therefore it varies from institution to institution.

However, we can identify some characteristics that are often part of the Design Thinking process:

  • First, it is a human-centred design practice that aims to develop a deep and empathic understanding of visitor experience.
  • Second, it is a collaborative practice carried out by multidisciplinary teams and, often, with visitors.
  • Third, this team follows an iterative process that helps them to move from generating insights about people (e.g. visitors) to generating ideas, testing them and finally implementation.
  • Fourth, within this iterative process prototyping is considered an integral practice.
  • And fifth, to accelerate learning and foster collaboration, one makes use of visualisation methods such as sketches and diagrams.

For more information, see Mason, Marco. “Design-driven innovation for museum entrances.” Museum Thresholds: The Design and Media of Arrival (2018): 47. (Please click here for a preprint version).

KdW: How can Design Thinking support museums in their digital transformation?

MM: The way museums see digital has changed, and as a result museum practices are also changing radically. Most notably, digital, physical, and organisational dimensions are intertwining. Ross Parry describes the emerging of the “post-digital museum” in which digital has become normative and is penetrating the museum’s missions, structures, and practices (Parry 2013: 24-39).

The “post-digital turn” asks museums to develop new strategies to face unprecedented challenges. For example, problems have been expanding from usability between user and technology to the overall visitor experience. Museums have started to think in terms of service-based experiences, considering the whole visitor experience as a run of different input. In addition, a growing demand by digital native audiences for novel ways of engagement between digital and physical worlds is leading to the adoption of creative practices within museums to envision effective responses that intertwine physical and digital dimensions.

Design Thinking is considered a “driving force for innovation and change” (Yee, Jefferies 2017). It can be considered as a strategic resource to improve existing practices within organisations, and to promote creative practice to find solutions to overcome new challenges. In my article Design-driven innovation for museum entrances I attempt to describe the value of Design Thinking for museums:

“In the museum world, as in other settings, the contribution of embracing a design thinking [practice] consists of innovation that originates from multidisciplinary processes; methods to foster teamwork and creativity and advanced prototyping practices in which different human-centred design methods are employed to address the visitors’ needs and pursue twenty-first- century museums’ [challenges] (Mason 2018).”

A mug labelled Museum Rebel on a desk in front of a green wall covered in post-it notes

KdW: Your ideas are grounded in years of research into Design Thinking that you conducted in partnership with museums, like the Fitzwilliam Museum (University of Cambridge) and Derby Museums. Which insights did you gain, and how do these add towards the wider field? 

MM: The most important lesson I have learnt (and experienced) is that Design Thinking is not just a set of methods or techniques nor just a process, but it is a practice, a social practice. A ‘practice’ is a routine, it is accomplished every day through a network of social interactions among people within a museum. What this means for museum people (and researchers) is that Design Thinking is more than learning techniques, it is about cultivating these social interactions.

As Giasemi Vavoula and I recently wrote:

“This [emerging design practice] results in change: in new types of social interactions, work patterns and structures within the organization that stem from the introduction of new physical and conceptual tools for creativity and collaboration, the re-configuration of workspaces, and more generally the re-alignment of the organization’s working practices (Mason, Vavoula 2019).”

We can see first signs of these kinds of design practices in an increasing number of museums. There are some exceptional cases that will lead the way. Thanks to my Marie Curie fellowship and, especially, my current role as a One by One Digital Fellow, I am directly involved in one. Derby Museums – recently funded with around £16 million from the National Lottery Heritage Fund and Arts Council England – is becoming an international example of a successful adoption of human-centred design into its practice and organisational culture as a way of thinking, exploring, experimenting and creating. Design thinking is permeating their working culture, it’s very interesting!

KdW: That’s definitely interesting! If we’d like to know more about Design Thinking within museums, where can we find more information? 

MM: Here are three articles I’ve written on the subject:

Finally, I’d like to mention my latest writing. Together with Dr Giasemi Vavoula, I have just submitted an article proposing a new research agenda and outlining a conceptual framework for cultural heritage research that takes human-centred Design Thinking practice as the focus of analysis. We are quite excited about this publication as it is the result of my last European Marie Skłodowska Curie fellowship. I will share the article as soon as it is published.

I’ve been using this recent research as teaching material at seminars in the UK, USA, Italy and Switzerland, and when I lead professional workshops on design thinking, such as my talk at the 2018 ICOM International Conference.