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Design Thinking for Museums

Design Thinking for Museums

Design thinking for museums is a process of understanding and solving challenges.   The process of design thinking can be applied to any issue within a museum; as examples “how do we increase attendance?”, “how do we raise more money?”, “how do we create better museum programming?”.

An important part of design thinking is to try to see the issue as a challenge instead of a problem, this first step is important as challenges are issues that can be solved.  As a first post in a multi-part series, outlining the general steps of design thinking for museums.

Steps of Design Thinking for Museums

  • Empathize – Define who is your user and what are their thoughts ? emotions ? how do they make decisions ?
  • Define – What is the Challenge ?  This is often the most difficult step defining the challenge.
  • Ideate – Try to create solutions called “what ifs”.  An important part of design thinking is to think without restrictions, “what if the museum was free, would we have more visitors ?”, “what if we every visitor was a potential donor?”, “what if we could crowd source all of our museum programming?” as examples of “what ifs”
  • Prototype – How could you go about recreating your “what ifs” for testing.
  • Test – Test your ideas and repeat until the challenge has “actionable” items.  An important part of design thinking is to get out of the mind set of “solutions” and instead think of  the challenge as iterative steps

Often it is steps 1. Empathy and 2. Defining the Challenge that are the most difficult.  A few examples using “how do we increase attendance” as the challenge:

Empathy, within which museum customer group do you want to increase attendance ? …and “everyone for 1 to 101” is not an answer.  “We want to attract more twenty somethings”, start by going out and speaking with your twenty something visitors.  Really talking, where do they live?, what do they do?, what are their interests?  try to forget that you are interviewing them as part of a challenge of increasing attendance and instead just have a conversation.  Try to get to get know them and their concerns unrelated to the museum.   Now go out and talk to twenty somethings in your community, using the same “just talking, getting to know you” attitude.

Define, what did you learn by have empathy for your user ?  With your new found empathy for the user reframe the challenge.  Speaking to the twenty somethings you might realize they don’t have time to visit a museum because of their college assignments.  Is their a way your museum can help twenty somethings with their assignments and increase visitation?  You have know reframed your challenge.  The process is iterative, with no end.  This is an important point as there is not “a solution” but instead many ways to solve multiple ongoing challenges.

Future posts about design thinking for museums will include background on design thinking, further defining each step in the design thinking process and giving concrete examples of how museums can use design thinking.

Starting work on a second book, a follow up to Museums 101, the new book is called the Museum Customer Experience (CX).  The book is part design thinking for museums and part museum branding.

About Mark Walhimer

Mark is Managing Partner of Museum Planning, LLC, a museum planning and exhibition project management firm of interactive educational environments for Science Centers, Children's Museums and Natural History Museums. You can reach Mark at

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  1. Empathize – define…The issue I’ve been facing across the industries ever since started developing communication strategies. Wording and methodologies change but the problem remains the same- it’s about product definition, target description and the fine tuned relation among them. Sometimes it was called unique selling proposal, or consumer insights, or product proposition -still, people tend to skip the step, filling in the boxes with a dry product (or service, or destination or museum) development characteristics and numerical soc. dem. consumer definition. I think the same as you state in the article- it is the core of any planning process. Looking forward to the new posts and advices.

  2. Dear Ira,
    Thank you for the kind words.

    Value Proposition is a new way of thinking for most museums, will plan on discussing in a future post.

    All the best,
    – Mark

  3. duangthip chomprang

    Love your web page especially on museum design and emerging trends in museum experiences. Could you recommend some great books on the two topics? Great work and thank you.

  4. Thank you for the kind words !
    Put together a list of my favorite books about museums
    All the best,
    P.S. Of course will put in a plug for Museums 101 (my book)

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