Why I picked it up: Design thinking is big. Bill Burnett and Dave Evans from Stanford are two of the most notable gurus of design thinking. Even though this book is written through the lens of designing your life, I thought it might serve as a good primer for design thinking in general.
What you need to know: To think like a designer, you need to internalize five mind-sets (pp. xxvi - xxvii):
1 - Be curious. See opportunities everywhere. "Get good at getting lucky." I would add to that the willingness to absorb a lot of disparate things and then work to make unusual connections. That's not luck. That's curiosity, thinking, and work. It just appears like luck to those who are not willing to put in that time and effort.
2 - Try stuff. Take risks, try different things. Prototype, fail, and try again. I would add to this perseverance.
3 - Reframe problems. Approach from many different angles. Don't anchor on one solution. It may not work. If you have ever heard me say "let's step back," that's me reframing a problem.
4 - Know it is a process. Toss out initial ideas or hypotheses if they are bad … or even simply not good enough.
5 - Ask for help. Participate in what they call "radical collaboration" so you get new advice, new ideas. I think this also helps tremendously with #3, reframe problems.
The mindset they don't include, though they hammer it home in the conclusion of the book, is that design thinking never ends. Ever. That's a pretty big one to come around to as well. Every project, program, exhibition, is part of a larger endeavor that never ends. We should know this. Museums are in the forever business after all, right? Yet we forget it all the time.
Implications for museums: Although this book focused on how to design your life, I found it more useful to think about how a savvy executive director/CEO could apply design thinking to the life of a museum. That is a rather smart, long-term, yet extraordinarily nimble perspective, and one that would likely do much to create deeper impact in a community and with audiences.
Read or skip? It depends on what you need.
My final response: I love design thinking, probably because it is how I operate already. What I appreciated about this book is that it has me thinking more deliberately about how I could develop ways to lead the senior leadership at a museum through a design-thinking process to plan their future. This isn't strategic planning (though it is both strategic and planning), but instead an exercise to open up paths of inquiry for research … which could all feed into a more effective strategic planning process.
The Nitty-Gritty (for those interested):
Design starts with a problem for which there is no one best solution. Because there is not necessarily a clear goal, or existing data to inform a decision, it requires new thinking to create a solution. How that problem is framed is crucial. To effectively design a solution start with empathy, and use empathy to reframe the problem from the perspective of those affected by it.
My response. That's why design thinking works well for human conditions. Emotion is involved, and humans are rarely that predictable. So of course empathy is the right place to start! If you want your museum to matter to your audience, to your community, you have to take the viewpoint of your audience and members of your community. What matters to them? What problems do they need solving? For a visitor, the problem they need solved is unlikely to be the science of bubbles, or class issues in 17th-century English portraiture. It is wanting to have well-rounded children, or to have an enjoyable outing with a loved one. It may even be wanting a powerfully human experience that puts what it means to be human in this world in perspective (though almost no one will be able to articulate that!). As museum professionals, if we can start with this empathy for our visitor, we'll be far more effective in what we do, and our museums will likely matter more. So yes. Love this (but then, when it comes to me, they were preaching to the choir here.)
"To speak authoritatively, you need data." (p. xxii)
My response. Amen.
Emphatic about enforcing risk, as it is less risky than the status quo (I think Seth Godin was the first to say that). And that the "... best results come from radical collaboration ... the principle that people with very different backgrounds will bring their idiosyncratic technical and human experiences to the team. This increases the chance that the team will have empathy for those who will use what they are designing, and that the collision of different backgrounds will generate truly unique solutions." (p. xxiv)
My response. This makes the case for museums of different types to work together. (I know from experience that history museum people think completely differently than children's museum people … and that they have much they can learn from each other.) But it also makes the case for museums to work with completely different organizations to solve community and societal needs. Go bold! Take risks!
They say a couple of times that designers build their way forward, not think (italics theirs).
My response. This I don't agree with. It takes both. If you are not thoughtful about what you are building, you are going to waste a lot of time and resources.
Goes on to discuss the five mind-sets, which I covered in "what you need to know."
The individual chapters of this book are the steps and framework for reinventing your life. I don't feel it is necessary to recap it here.
Full citation: Burnett, Bill, and Evans, Dave. Designing Your Life: How To Build a Well-Lived, Joyful Life. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2016.
Have a suggestion for my reading list? Email it to me at susie (at) wilkeningconsulting (dot) com.
I respectfully acknowledge that I live and work on the traditional lands of the Duwamish people. I thank them for the care of this land, and I endeavor to help museums bring forward a more complete and inclusive history and culture in their work.