Reviewed April 2017
Stephanie Grimm, Art and Art History Librarian
George Mason University

For libraries or librarians interested in applying design thinking methods to their institution’s systems and services, it can seem like a daunting task – especially for those who have little experience or training in design. IDEO, an international design and consulting firm, created Design Thinking for Libraries with this population in mind. Working in collaboration with public libraries in the United States and northern Europe, and observing librarians in a range of other locations including Jamaica, Romania, and Nepal, IDEO developed a robust document (“Toolkit”) that provides case studies, methodologies, and activities to help libraries “create solutions to everyday challenges.” The Design Thinking for Libraries website is light on content, and mainly serves to host and give context for the aforementioned Toolkit, which is composed of two core PDFs and a supplemental guide. These documents are shared for free under a Creative Commons BY-NC-SA 3.0 license; however, users are required to fill out a short form to access and download the files.

designthinking 3Design thinking methods can be used in the creation, review, or reworking of library spaces and services, from one-time or “constrained” activities like a program or event to the total overhaul of an interlibrary lending system. The Toolkit breaks this process down into three components: inspiration, or the development and framing of your design challenge; ideation, where designers (in this case, librarians) generate a large number of ideas and develop tangible solutions; and iteration, in which those solutions are tested, adapted, and receive feedback from users.

The main component of the Toolkit is a 100-plus page “Guide” that provides directions on each stage of the process, including strategies for building a team and defining roles, managing research notes, conducting user research, and piloting a design “solution.” A separate “Activities Workbook” gives more detailed instructions and worksheets for each design or research activity. There are some redundancies between the two documents, which can be useful for reinforcing the methods, but also adds heft to the already-lengthy document. There are slight inconsistencies between the Guide and Workbook as well. In one exercise, the Workbook gives instructions to take notes during a “reporting back” session, but it’s not mentioned until a later step that these should be written on sticky notes. The Guide, meanwhile, makes this clear in its overview.

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It is vital to note that this is a time-intensive process, and requires a dedicated team to enact real, meaningful change. IDEO gives a conservative estimate of six to eight weeks to complete one iteration (from early discussions to final deployment and feedback). In consideration of those librarians who may lack the time, staffing, or support to feasibly manage such a lengthy endeavor, the designers have created an “At-a-Glance” guide, which provides an overview of the methods and a set of activities that can be reasonably completed in one day, by one person. This “At-a-Glance” guide may be useful material for librarians who are seeking collaborators or institutional support, as it clearly lays out the expectations and process involved in the larger Toolkit.

The Toolkit is a product of the same methods and iterative process that it champions, and the creators invite feedback on its content. Because the Toolkit was developed alongside public libraries and librarians, the sample “design challenges” and case studies may not wholly align with those in academic or museum libraries. The Toolkit would also benefit from additional strategies for implementation and working with reluctant administrations or users. Nonetheless, hearing the real challenges faced by the participating librarians provides valuable insight into the process. The methods and language used throughout the Toolkit are also fairly neutral, and do not necessarily favor one type of institution over another.

Given the above caveats, Design Thinking for Libraries is an accessible and well-produced resource that has the potential – if not to make designers out of librarians – to demystify some of the methods and applications of design thinking and user-centered design.

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