Yen Trinh on how museums are now facing ongoing pressures to innovate, enhance business and excite visitors. Design thinking is a method being used in different business fields that can also be applied in the museum sector. It guides organisations with a clear process to encourage new approaches and fresh ideas. Design thinking is based on the process that designers often use to solve complex problems. It is now being applied outside traditional design worlds and has been used in areas of social development, education and health, and in big global companies to drive more customer-focused solutions. Too often “design” in museums is still commonly misunderstood as the look of physical spaces, graphic design or way-finding. Whereas, design thinking in museums is a distinct mind shift to a creative, user-focused process that can be used in any given challenge.
The industrial design world has been using design thinking to move away from just making products to designing services and systems. Similarly in order to innovate, museums are moving away from just traditional exhibitions to more collaborative and multifaceted experiences and services.
The Queensland Museum Context
The Queensland Museum in Brisbane, Australia, is the custodian of the state’s natural and cultural heritage. The Museum’s network includes campuses in regional centres and collectively, has an annual visitation of over 1 million people.
In 2011 as part of an organisational refresh, the Museum began to adopt new practices and included the establishment of QMX (Queensland Museum Experience). QMX acted as an “internal creative agency” to facilitate design thinking, strengthen audience engagement and introduced new frameworks for 5 Year Exhibition and Experience Planning.
Design thinking can be used in almost any stage and at any scale in a museum project, and QMX used it on a wide range of strategic projects including exhibitions spaces, public programs, uniforms and retail experiences.
The process gives a clear pathway to involve audiences, drive investments and build better staff collaborations. For museum staff and project delivery, advantages to applying design thinking include:
• breaking down the “silos” of organisational projects which might be isolated in curatorial or exhibition areas
• involving staff, audience and people from many fields and backgrounds helps to energise and widen the innovation process
• giving museum staff “fresh eyes” to a project, and by talking to visitors directly helps avoid assumptions or abstract stereotypes
• defining clearer challenges and project scopes, helps avoid designing for too many groups which can result in “watered-down” ideas
• testing of fast and rapid prototypes helps avoid wasting investment (capital, time or emotional attachment) in a project going in a wrong direction
• valuing time constraints and forcing faster and stronger choices helps avoid too much “overthinking” or stalling of projects.
Design Thinking Process
The Queensland Museum uses the term “design thinking” based on the teachings of Stanford University’s Hasso Plattner Institute of Design (or d.school) and also adapted the “human centred design” approach of IDEO in San Francisco.
Design thinking is a clear step-by-step process, but it is also feels like a philosophy and mindset that takes strong organisational leadership and a willing work culture to support it. The process embraces strong levels of experimentation, values external feedback, requires fast action and decision making and supports very open collaboration. It can be challenging to some areas of museum practice where traditional roles are often more “expert-driven”.
The d.school has developed a process that includes the following steps:
This involves interviewing, researching, and observing in the field to understand museum users and their needs, wants and issues. It targets deeper individual insights to avoid generalisations and demographic-based assumptions.
This step involves synthesizing findings to define a user need and a clear design challenge. A compelling problem statement becomes the critical starting point for designing solutions and experiences.
Ideation or brainstorming is a high energy step which creates a large quantity and diversity of possible solutions to address user insights.
Prototypes moves ideas into a visual and physical form to help enable further testing, exploration, and to resolve possible questions. It is also a powerful tangible tool to inspire others about possibilities and change.
Testing prototypes with users, through interviews and observations, gives valuable feedback to further resolve issues, add improvements, and validate the solutions. This process can be repeated as many times as needed in a project.
A design thinking process can be as fast as 2 hours, or span many months on a project. QMX mostly adapted design thinking into half-day or 2-day workshop formats. At the end of each workshop, QMX would share findings and make recommendations to project teams.
Design Thinking Case Study: Lost Creatures
The palaeontology exhibition, Lost Creatures: Stories from Ancient Queensland will be used to demonstrate how the process was applied in our museum context. Lost Creatures was a design and build project for a 400m2 permanent gallery. The QMX design thinking process started with a 14 person, 2-day workshop in November 2012, which involved a mix of museum staff, volunteers and external community stakeholders.
1) Empathise and Define
(combined as “Discover Stage”)
QMX used tools such as interviews and “empathy maps” to find out what people said, heard, saw, thought and expected about exhibition topics. As part of the workshop, participants spent more than an hour finding and talking to diverse audiences within the museum precinct.
For Lost Creatures, QMX also asked audiences to pick from a selection of words to describe their most desired visitor experience (“experience criteria”). The most frequent responses helped formed possible project goals and visitors revealed that they sought a 1) Sense of fascination 2) Sense of beauty and 3) Togetherness.
In addition to talking to visitors, this first “Discover Stage” also included:
• Undertaking a space analysis with “fresh eyes” and recording strengths, weaknesses and opportunities
• Synthesising the prior work and proposals of curators
• Reviewing design case studies and different settings (retail spaces and festivals) to inspire more creative approaches
The more time spent on these early phases, the clearer design challenges will be and it sets the foundations for clearer decision making as concepts unfold.
In response to the users’ needs, the Lost Creatures workshop participants brainstormed ideas to deliver each of the top experience criteria. This created more than 50 ideas ranging from unexpected displays, tours, digital trail apps and lighting effects. The group voted on the best ideas to take into the prototype stage which included a creative geological timeline, iconic specimens, immersive atmosphere (using lighting, colour, landscape) and building connections to key fossil sites.
3) Prototype and Test
This step uses tools like “journey mapping” and utilised “lo-fi” materials to create rapid prototypes in small groups. In less than an hour, the workshop expanded their brainstorming ideas into testable prototypes in the form of notes, collages, drawings and cardboard models. These were presented back to visitors in the museum to test what worked and what improvements could be made.
The 3 prototypes for Lost Creatures included a central “timeline tunnel” of iconic objects, a large scale central reconstruction creating a sense of “wow” and modules with the overall theme of extinction.
Further Testing and Lessons Learnt
As projects evolve into more detail, design thinking steps (especially prototype and testing) can be repeated at different stages. Three months after the initial workshop, the Lost Creatures team tested design plans and a number of possible exhibition titles with visitors in the space. Prototype tests often work best at a real scale, and we used masking tape to show the proposed layout in the gallery. This rapid and simple method greatly helped museum staff and visitors to better understand the issues of spatial design.
At times, the design thinking process and innovation within Lost Creatures had still felt limited by time and practical delivery issues. However, in the end, some of the early workshop insights and ideas did remain in the final design and the exhibition has proven very popular with visitors since opening in December 2013. Other ambitious ideas from early ideation sessions, such as a digital tourism app for regional palaeontology sites, have also resurfaced as separate funded projects.
Design thinking gives museums a simple process to encourage innovation and new approaches. Most people and organisations are inherently creative problem solvers, but the clear processes of design thinking further help instil a creative culture and help build a common language. The process strongly supports innovation through collaboration internally with staff and externally with visitors. Projects become especially energised by the involvement of many diverse people, including those who might typically feel isolated from design processes.
Since the introduction of design thinking at Queensland Museum, it has planted the seeds to rethink, innovate, and enhance the business and visitor experience. Over the next 5 years, these will come to life in major projects like new buildings, gallery expansions, festivals and new public programs.
Yen Trinh – Experience Design Manager, Queensland Museum
Design thinking is best understood in practice. For more tools and free online courses see:
• Stanford dSchool – http://dschool.stanford.edu/
• Acumen and IDEO.org course – http://plusacumen.org/courses/hcd-for-social-innovation/
• IDEO – www.ideo.com, www.openideo.com and www.designthinkingforeducators.com
• Design Minds (Asia Pacific Design Library) – www.designminds.org.au
• Design Council UK – www.designcouncil.org.uk
• Business Model Generation, 2010, Alexander Osterwalder