What’s Next for Design Thinking in Librarianship | From the Bell Tower

Librarians having been talking about design thinking for at least ten years. With growing interest surfacing in higher education and libraries, will we see broader adoption in academic libraries?
Librarians having been talking about design thinking for at least ten years. With growing interest surfacing in higher education and libraries, will we see broader adoption in academic libraries? My relationship with design thinking began over 15 years ago when I became more acquainted with the designer-practitioners teaching at the institution where I was library director. The design-heavy curriculum brought me into regular contact with graphic designers, web designers, fashion designers, industrial designers, architects, and, most important, instructional designers. I came to recognize what these designers had in common: The way they think and approach problems. It was unlike anything I had learned in library school, my doctoral studies, or any leadership training. In addition to focusing more on problems than solutions, because optimal solutions emerge only from a thorough understanding of the problem from a human-centered perspective, designers had a shared process that defined much of their work: design thinking.

Learning First Hand

To learn the way designers think and work, I decided to more fully immerse myself in a design profession. Learning about instructional design introduced me to processes such as ADDIE (short for Analysis, Design, Development, Implementation, and Evaluation) and learning object design. When exposed to new ideas foreign to our own profession, we academic librarians sometimes seek to integrate the theory and practice into our work. I realized that a design thinking mindset could make me a better practitioner and improve the quality of my library’s services and user experience. I blogged about it, wrote articles on design thinking, and shared even more ideas in a book. While there were other librarians exploring design thinking, the possibilities for integrating it into our professional practice more broadly were slow to gain attention. Now that may be changing.

Tipping Point?

While past developments, such as Library Journal’s growing interest around design or the publication of the Design Thinking Toolkit for Libraries, may have signaled that design thinking was catching on in our profession, it would be overly ambitious to suggest that a tipping point was reached. Then it gained considerable traction in higher education when featured prominently in the Chronicle of Higher Education. While the tipping point may yet be further off, two recent developments suggest that momentum is picking up for librarianship’s interest in design thinking—particularly in academic libraries. On March 8, the Library 2.018 community hosted a three-hour web conference on design thinking. Over 5,000 librarians registered and the keynote panel session was attended by more than 1,000. The other development is the growing interest among Library and Information Science (LIS) educators in incorporating design philosophy and learning methods into the curriculum. I recently attended a forum to explore how that might happen.

Less Vagueness, More Examples

What likely limits interest in design thinking among librarians is a lack of understanding about what design thinking is and how it can be used for problem identification and smart solutions. It’s hard to invest in a process that is vague. The Library 2.018 conference was titled “Design Thinking: How Librarians Are Incorporating it Into Their Practice” to emphasize the growing number of librarians that are applying design thinking to library improvement. In the keynote panel session, two librarians and an LIS faculty member provided an overview of design thinking and how it’s being applied at the Chicago Public Library and the DOKK1 Library in Aarhus, Denmark. Concurrent sessions demonstrated that design thinking is applicable for libraries of any size or type. [You can find session recordings here] What matters is applying it properly to address a problem that lacks a clear solution, then using the process described in detail in the Design Thinking Toolkit. Three big takeaways were common among these presentations:
  • Better to fail small than fail big, so take advantage of prototyping a new service or resource in your library.
  • Design thinking is about problem finding. To solve the problem you must truly know what the problem is from the user perspective.
  • Design thinking is a group activity. It’s a great way to engage library staff to work together to make a better library.
To advance the adoption of design thinking as a more widely accepted practice in librarianship, we need a new generation of librarians coming into the profession whose design skill set is acquired in an LIS program. That challenge is now being addressed within a segment of the LIS education community.

Learning How to Design Think

What’s the best way for librarians to learn design thinking? How about integrating design philosophy and practice into LIS education? How that might be accomplished and challenges to making it happen were among the topics addressed at the National Forum on Design Thinking. This IMLS-funded project is guided by Rachel Ivy Clarke, an assistant professor at the Syracuse University iSchool. She and colleagues at the University of Washington iSchool organized this meeting to bring together LIS educators, library practitioners, and designers experienced with design thinking, to explore the possibilities for integrating design into library science education. Clever mini-design challenges engaged attendees in exploring curriculum integration ideas while considering potential challenges. Although LIS programs are nowhere near the MLD, this was a great start toward preparing LIS students for a constantly changing information environment where design skills and strategies will be in demand.

What to Expect Next

With an uptick in the number of librarians interested in design thinking, expect to see more libraries sharing stories at conferences and in the literature about their experiences. The profession will move beyond “Sounds interesting but I don’t get it” to the “I see how this is useful for my library” stage. It will help to promote design thinking as a process to capture the community member perspective for better solutions, rather than as a cool way for librarians to be more like design professionals. When I hear designers critiquing design thinking as just some business bullshit, two things occur to me. First, I worry that some librarians will use that line of thinking to dissuade their colleagues from taking on a design challenge. Second, I question whether those critics actually know or understand how non-designers are using design in a challenge format to tackle specific situations. Librarians who grasp the value of design thinking and incorporate it into their practice have no illusions they are now big-time designers with a solve-it-all panacea. Whatever you hear about design thinking, avoid jumping to the conclusion that a library colleague is trying to heap some cool new jargon on you that’s just one more hyped-up business fad. Just bring an open mind to design thinking. Delve into a design challenge to try it. The rest is up to you, but I think we’ll be hearing more about design thinking and practice as an essential skill for academic librarians.
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