Design Thinking in Museums Studies

For the past few weeks, I’ve been seeking to change my frame—remove the tired eyes through which I’ve seen the world for the past thirty years, and to look anew. A class in which I’m enrolled, Intro to Design Thinking, has inspired this ocular change—one that asks us to look at what is and imagine what might be.

Design thinking is described in different ways, perhaps because it is perceived by just as many different eyes. The definition I’ve become most fond of so far is from IDEO’s Field Guide (download it for free). It is a series of “seven mindsets that set us apart: Empathy, Optimism, Iteration, Creative Confidence, Making, Embracing Ambiguity, and Learning from Failure.”

What interests me most about design thinking, and perhaps what feels the most relatable to the world of museums, is the idea of empathy in design. In her article “Becoming human through human centered design,” Dana Mitroff Silvers describes empathy as “not just walking in someone else’s shoes” but “seeing myself in that person and that person in myself.” Museums have the potential to act as a mirror to humanity, and design thinking can perhaps help the reflection.

One articulation of the design thinking process from Paris. 

Design thinking asks museums to make decisions not based on stakeholder opinions but on user (read: visitor) research. It reminds us that the answers to the problems we face in declining attendance or inviting new populations into our spaces are with the people we seek to serve. It’s instrumental as a tool for breaking down silos by bringing many and diverse voices into dialogue. It urges us to prototype as a means of combating the often “glacial” pace of development in museums. And most thrilling, it tells us to embrace failure.

An early prototype of an exhibit interactive for “The New Women of Harrison’s Era” 

I’ve found this way of thinking is already taking hold in my internship at the Benjamin Harrison Presidential Site. I’m charged with realizing an exhibit that was conceptualized through the eyes of my classmates. This has been the first delight of trying on new eyes. I’ve been thinking about how Anne, Shelby, Diana, Brittany and Rebekah arrived at the idea of “The New Women of Harrison’s Era,” and am attempting to align my research to their conception.

I’m prototyping interactive ideas and discovering a sense of play as part of the process. Having the tangible object in hand makes ideas, and the possibility of failure, real. I’m finding “visitors” to test my ideas on, and basing my decisions on their experiences. I’m hosting biweekly charrettes, or collaborative brainstorming sessions, as a means of bringing together stakeholders at the Benjamin Harrison Presidential Site into the process of creating this exhibit. And I’m valuing the opportunity to rely on varied perspectives as we encounter new challenges in the process.

My new mantra (courtesy of the design firm IDEO): “Fail early to succeed sooner.” In its most refreshing form, design thinking frees us to fail, and tells us to lean into failure as a path to success. This way of thinking excites me.

Katelyn Coyne is a second year IUPUI Museum Studies Master’s candidate.



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