Human-Centred Design

Dana Mitroff Silvers

Design Thinking for Museums

An interview by Diana Fehr / January 2023

Dana Mitroff Silvers is the Founder and Principal of Designing Insights LLC. After working at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art for over a decade, Dana founded Designing Insights in order to bring human-centered design methods and practices to the museum and cultural heritage sector. An early graduate of the Executive Education Program in Design Thinking at the Stanford Hasso Plattner Institute of Design, Dana is an instructor of human-centered design for the LUMA Institute, a former faculty member of the Museum Leadership Institute at Claremont Graduate University (formerly the Getty Leadership Institute), and a former instructor at the UC Berkeley Extension. She has authored numerous papers and articles and presented at international conferences on the application of human-centered design methods in museums. Dana holds an MA in Art History from the University of Chicago and a BA in Journalism with minors in Italian and Art History from the University of Southern California.

First of all, can you explain what design thinking is?

Design thinking, also referred to as human-centered design (or “HCD”), is a framework for collaboratively and creatively solving problems in the service of people. What this means is that HCD provides a set of methods, mindsets, and practices that can help organizations solve problems and arrive at innovative solutions that serve people.

Speaking of people, I have been moving away from the term “design thinking” and prefer the term “human-centered design,” as it puts the emphasis on humans—designing collaboratively for and with them.

The practices and methods that informed HCD emerged in the 20th century from the fields of human-computer interaction, ergonomics, engineering, psychology, cognitive science, and management science; the term “design thinking” was popularized and codified by the design firm IDEO in the last 15-20 years.

What do you say to the skeptics or detractors?

In the last five years, there have been some very vocal people proposing that design thinking does not work and that “it’s bullshit.” I find these conversations to be frustrating, because when you dig into their experience with HCD, you will often learn that they have not seen careful, rigorous, and thoughtful design thinking in action, or what they refer to as design thinking is the act of putting sticky notes on a wall, and design thinking is much more than that!

Design Thinking is often used as a recipe for the innovation of products and services within business but also in the social context. Why do you believe that Design Thinking is important for museums?

First of all, it’s important to clarify that design thinking, or human-centered design, is not a “recipe.” It is a framework for collaboratively and creatively solving problems that is comprised of methods, mindsets, and practices.

However, in the parlance of the LUMA System of Innovation (an approach that I teach in my work), individual methods can be combined into “recipes” that are implemented in the pursuit of specific outcomes. But the overall HCD framework itself is not a recipe, and it’s not something to be followed prescriptively, step-by-step.

But back to your question, yes, HCD is often used for the innovation of products, services, and experiences in both the business and social sector contexts. In fact, beyond business, HCD is being applied in schools, libraries, local governments, and NGOs with great success. And also to museums, which is where I come in!

How did you first get introduced to design thinking/human-centered design?

I was first introduced to HCD a decade ago at the Stanford Hasso Plattner Institute of Design, or, while I was working at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art as the head of web and digital. I had the opportunity to attend the Executive Education Program at the, and it was a transformative experience that changed my career path.

Having worked in both museums and in educational institutions for over 15 years at that point, I saw a great affinity between the mission of museums and the goals of human-centered design: to create meaningful products, services, and experiences that impact the lives of people and uplift the human experience.

I began applying HCD at SFMOMA in 2012 when the museum was closed for a massive expansion, and then ended up leaving SFMOMA and starting my consultancy, Designing Insights LLC. I have had the honor of working with art and science institutions across the US, including the Smithsonian’s National Air & Space Museum, J. Paul Getty Museum, National Gallery of Art, and Denver Museum of Nature & Science.

What are the main tools and resources used in Design Thinking? Which are your favourites?

There are numerous tools and resources out there, some which are excellent and some which, unfortunately, contribute to the poor reputation that design thinking has gained in the past several years.

One of my favorite resources is one I mentioned already: the LUMA System of Innovation, created by the LUMA Institute. Another favorite resource are the tools available on the Stanford website.

Another resource I find very valuable are the Liberatory Design Card Deck from the K12 Lab and National Equity Project. This resource reflects an important maturation I’ve seen in HCD in the past few years, which is a focus on applying the lens of equity and inclusion to the design approach.

Lastly, I also created a resource site specifically for museums interested in HCD, although it is embarrassingly out of date! This resource is the website Design Thinking for Museums.

How can they be included and applied in cultural institutions?

The resources I mention above offer information about methods, mindsets, and practices that, when applied together, create the conditions for innovation and change.

Let me give you an example. One of the methods I teach and apply is around idea-generation (what some people call “brainstorming” or “ideation”). This method is called Crazy8s and comes from the book Sprint: Solve Big Problems and Test New Ideas in Just Five Days by Jake Knapp and John Zeratsky.

The method itself is simple: everyone gets a blank piece of paper, you fold it into eight sections, and then each person generates and sketches at least eight ideas in eight minutes.

The method itself can lead to many “out of the box” ideas, but it’s the mindsets and larger practices that accompany the application of this method that make it powerful. The mindsets that accompany this method are empathy, optimism, iteration, and an embrace of ambiguity. And the practices that accompany it are communicating visually, and separating idea-generation from idea-selection.

My favorite application of this method was in my work with the National Gallery of Art, where I led a cross-disciplinary team through a five-day design sprint to imagine and prototype new digital offerings that promote access to the Collection and build. We leveraged this method during the sprint to generate breakthrough ideas that the team then went on to prototype, test, and implement.

If we talk about change in the museums sector one of the main buzz words is Visitor Engagement. You yourself said that Museums that cling to traditional, authoritative models will lose audiences on a dramatic scale to new types of experience-driven, guest-centered organizations that we cant even imagine today.” Besides being more guest-centered, why should museums become more socially responsible and inclusive?

I think of visitor engagement as much more than a buzzword; in my opinion, it is a critical and timely aspect of the museum experience that is finally being recognized. I think that museum educators have understood the importance of visitor engagement for the past 30 years, and now the field at large is beginning to understand that visitor engagement is as important as curatorial programming or institutional scholarship.

I believe it is  incumbent upon museums to be inclusive and socially responsible, and that the outcome of an inclusive and socially responsible museum is a welcoming, visitor-centered space.

Traditionally, museums have adopted a top-down approach, generally led by curators and “experts,” in which the institution determines the best programs and experiences without engaging with the community until it’s too late. An example of this in the US was the backlash around the delayed opening of the Philip Guston retrospective during the height of the Black Lives Matter protests. Had the institutions taken a human-centered design approach, they might have had a more nuanced and deeper understanding of the potential challenges, and they could have been more responsive.

How can Design Thinking help to drive this change?

I believe that HCD is important for museums because it provides not only a practical approach for solving complex problems, it also provides critical mindsets that are essential to innovation (e.g. empathy, flexibility, etc.). I have seen first-hand how transformative it can be for a museum to frame and solve problems differently and to commit to listening to and understanding the needs of stakeholders before assuming what the best programs or experiences might be.

In your experience what is the most effective way to engage target audiences? Both from the museum perspective addressing their visitors, but also from your standpoint in your role as an advisor engaging museum professionals?

I think the simple answer to this is to conduct qualitative, ethnographic research with audiences. And I don’t mean conduct surveys; I mean getting out there and talking to and observing audiences. In my work, I train museum professionals how to do this with limited time and resources. And some of the larger institutions will hire me to conduct and analyze the research for them, but there are small and inexpensive ways that institutions can do this themselves.

What are the main challenges to implement Design Thinking and sustainable Innovation Strategies in cultural organisations? How can obstacles be overcome? Especially if we consider that museums have fewer and fewer resources at their disposal, in addition to finance, time and above all human-resources.

I find the biggest challenge is around internal resistance to change. Museums are traditional institutions, and have followed traditional approaches for decades. Hierarchical ways of working are deeply ingrained in the cultural sector, and the iterative, collaborative approach of HCD can be threatening to some people. I find this to be a far bigger challenge than the resources of time, money, and people.

This is why applying HCD to internal ways of working is so important. By communicating and collaborating better internally, institutions are better positioned to develop sustainable new programs, offerings, and exhibitions.

One of the best ways to implement HCD and sustainable innovation strategies in museums is to start small, focus on internal collaboration, and enlist leadership support for experimentation and learning.

What are your next step and where are you going to place your focus on in the future?

Well, my dream would be to be able to work with every museum that contacts me–even those with no budget! (But I need a funder to make that possible!) I also want to create a new resource from my 10-years-worth of content, stories, and case studies on my blog (DesignThinkingforMuseums), but that also needs to be funded.

I worked on a project at the start of the pandemic that was funded by the Aspen Tech Policy Hub. With my colleague Mike Edson,we supported museums, libraries, and performing arts organizations from across the US with the accelerated development of experimental digital programs to mitigate social isolation. We were able to offer coaching and support in digital strategy, design thinking, creative development, and online audience engagement techniques. Doing more funded projects like this – that would be my dream for the future!

Thank you for this interview and I wish you the best of luck with your work!

Images: © Designing Insights LLC