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IDEO: Designing Better Libraries
Posted On February 24, 2015
Headquartered in Palo Alto, Calif., the IDEO design firm “takes a human-centered, design-based approach to helping organizations in the public and private sectors innovate and grow.” Those familiar with the firm’s Human-Centered Design Toolkit, a free innovation guide for social enterprises and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) worldwide, will be pleased to hear that the IDEO team has turned its attention to libraries with its newest offering, Design Thinking for Libraries, First Edition: A Toolkit for Patron-Centered Design. Its efforts were funded, in part, through a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

As you’d expect from one of the top design firms in the world, the toolkits (available for free as PDF downloads) are well-crafted, and, better yet, they rate enormously high on the usability scale—i.e., they are easy to understand and successfully execute. The IDEO team partnered with the Chicago Public Library and Denmark’s Aarhus Public Libraries and observed more than 40 librarians in 10 countries whose “lessons learned” from initial design experiments were synthesized to create the Design Thinking for Libraries toolkit.

Today’s libraries continue doing great things, especially considering their limited budgets and resources that are often stretched to the max. Because they are vital to communities, it’s easy to envision even greater potential for libraries, if only we are able to uncover the “right” path for each library to take. “[G]iven the rapidly evolving information landscape,” librarians “need new answers, which requires new perspectives, new tools, and new approaches,” according to the Design Thinking for Libraries website. Change is what it’s all about, but how to change—which direction to take—is where the IDEO process is most helpful. “Thinking like a designer can transform the way organizations develop products, services, processes, and strategy,” IDEO notes.

In short, this toolkit is an approach to improving each library through creative problem solving, understanding the needs of your patrons, and engaging communities. The IDEO team believes that everyone can be part of creating a more desirable future and that they should be part of that process. The toolkit provides new ways for libraries to be intentionally collaborative in addressing the challenges they face.

What Is Design Thinking?

“Design thinking” is defined by Design Thinking for Libraries as “a creative approach, or a series of steps, that will help you design meaningful solutions for your library.” According to the toolkit, “design thinking solutions exist at the intersection of three factors: desirability, feasibility, and viability. … [I]nnovation happens where these factors overlap. … Adopting a designer’s mindset enables you to see problems as opportunities and gives you confidence to start creating transformative solutions.”

IDEO’s About page says that design thinking “brings together what is desirable from a human point of view with what is technologically feasible and economically viable.” Also:

It relies on our ability to be intuitive, to recognize patterns, to construct ideas that are emotionally meaningful as well as functional, and to express ourselves through means beyond words or symbols. …

The design thinking process is best thought of as a system of overlapping spaces rather than a sequence of orderly steps. There are three spaces to keep in mind: inspiration, ideation, and implementation. Inspiration is the problem or opportunity that motivates the search for solutions. Ideation is the process of generating, developing, and testing ideas. Implementation is the path that leads from the project stage into people’s lives.

Under this system, IDEO uses both analytical tools and generative techniques to help clients see how their new or existing operations could look in the future—and build road maps for getting there.

What’s in the Toolkit?

The Design Thinking for Libraries toolkit consists of the toolkit itself (121 pages), Design Thinking in a Day: An At-A-Glance Guide for Advancing Your Library (17 pages), and the Activities Workbook (60 pages)—each color-coded and, as you’d expect, each making optimal use of white space. The beauty of the methodology is that librarians get to determine the appropriate starting point for their library. The toolkit walks the library through two preliminary steps and three phases in five chapters:

  • Chapter 1 discusses how to approach the preliminary steps of team building as well as habits and logistics.
  • Chapter 2 is devoted to research methods (the Inspiration phase). The following research methods are described, noting when each can be most effective: user interviews, expert interviews, observation, immersive experiences, analogous settings, personal diaries, photo essays, journey maps, card sorts, and concept provocations.

Chapters 3–5 are the heart of the toolkit:

  • Chapter 3 (the Ideation phase) is designed to help libraries interpret ideas, making them tangible. It shows how teams can share their stories, find themes (identify patterns, turn themes into insights, and apply frameworks), create brainstorm prompts, generate ideas (facilitate a brainstorm and use “heatmaps” to select ideas), and create prototypes (create a concept map, create a prototyping game plan, and plan a “make day”).
  • Chapter 4 (the Iteration phase) helps libraries answer the question, “How do I test my prototype, gather user feedback for continuing the experiment, and refine my product/service idea?”
  • Chapter 5 is all about scaling up, moving the pilot to new contexts, or making it sustainable in the long run by creating formal presentations, developing a roadmap (building a plan and evaluating outcomes), planning for stewardship, and evolving the project. By scaling an idea/project, you’ll create greater impact.

Don’t like the terms for the phases? IDEO provides alternative ways of expressing each sentiment so that no group is paralyzed over terminology and definitions. The toolkit provides plenty of references for further reading on the topics covered, as well as case studies that illustrate the process and describe the outcomes in a library that has used the process.

The workbook provides detailed activities associated with each chapter of the toolkit, along with suggested timing for each (e.g., 15 minutes, 50 minutes, or 1 hour), to keep meetings productive. A checklist of what should have been accomplished appears at the close of each chapter.

The at-a-glance guide is best used to introduce the process to management and skeptics. It could overcome any staff member trepidations about the validity of the process and their ability to participate.

Using the Toolkit as ‘a Working Prototype’

The IDEO team encourages libraries to share their stories from using the toolkit’s process to inspire change (for the better) in other libraries by emailing They consider the toolkit “a working prototype”— the first of many versions. “Let’s keep iterating, sharing, and learning together,” the website says.

There are other IDEO efforts worth exploring: The Design Thinking for Educators toolkit provides guidance to educators who wish to explore design thinking as it might apply in their classroom, school, and community. Recently, the firm teamed with Acumen, a nonprofit venture fund, to offer a free 7-week curriculum to introduce small groups “to the concepts of human-centered design and how this approach can be used to create innovative, effective, and sustainable solutions for social change.” No prior experience is required.

Barbie E. Keiser is an information resources management consultant located in the metropolitan Washington, D.C., area.

Email Barbie E. Keiser

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