The Design Process for Museum Learning Programmes

When I moved from the world of art and galleries to the world of design and museums, I assumed it would be a short walk between the two. This proved not to be the case and the differences are much greater than I’d anticipated. I thought art and design were close siblings, but really they are more like distant cousins who catch up occasionally at family weddings.

The use of language is an obvious example. The art world is awash with dealer gallery press releases dense with florid, paragraph-long sentences that leave me none the wiser about the work or the artist. The ‘liminal spaces’ that everyone is so keen on must be getting pretty crowded by now. The design world doesn’t allow for such flights of fancy and I find the writing more grounded, pragmatic and to the point. There seems to be less wriggle room in design, fewer blurred and clouded edges that allow vague descriptions to flourish.

Another distinction is between how the creative and design processes are described. I’m comfortable with my understanding of the creative process. Although it retains its mysteries, I trust that it works and I know how to utilise it to work with others and generate programmes and projects. I like that it has an aspect of the dark arts and alchemy to it. When I’m working with artists and stakeholders, there is a leap of faith at the beginning of the process that it will come together, that our ideas will pan out, that audiences will engage, that the work will be authentic. With the right people and the right planning, this is usually (fortunately) the case. Each time, the application of the creative process feels slightly different and specific to that set of conditions. The design process, in comparison, is a step-by-step replicable approach that fosters creativity and ideas generation through the constructive use of parameters and constraints.

Stanford University’s has created a clear Introduction to Design Thinking Process Guide, outlining the human-centred design process. Their website is a treasure trove of tools and tips for using this approach. The steps are:

  • Empathize: audience research – listen to users and understand their needs.
  • Define: ‘craft a meaningful and actionable problem statement’.
  • Ideate: ideas generation – get as many ideas on the table as possible, deferring judgement.
  • Prototype: select a few of the strongest ideas and make examples, quickly and cheaply.
  • Test: this step goes hand-in-hand with prototyping; try out your prototypes with the user/audience. Improve, refine, repeat. ‘Built to think and test to learn’.

This process provides an ideal structure for supporting the development of museum learning programmes. While it takes some of the mystery out of it, I like that it’s still a highly creative and generative process. I also like the emphasis on doing – taking an idea and trying it out rather than just talking about it (I’m often guilty of the latter). There is something liberating about viewing our programmes as a series of prototypes – we can test several ideas with audiences as part of an ongoing process. If this way of working floats your boat, there is a whole blog devoted to it – check out Design Thinking for Museums. A recent post, titled Managing up design thinking: 5 steps for promoting human-centered design in museums, gives a really good overview of the design process in more detail.

Closer to home, ImaginationLancaster is a design-led research centre at Lancaster University and they are doing fantastic work around co-design. Their current AHRC-funded project, Leapfrog, brings together the public sector and community partners to devise consultation tools, all available free for use from their website. The team is very creative and genuinely committed to empowering communities to input into decisions that affect their lives. As part of my Churchill Fellowship preparation, I have been working with ImaginationLancaster to devise an interview format to explore my key research questions:

  • How can museum educators better understand their creative process?
  • How can that greater understanding improve and inform programming?

More information on our work-in-progress can be found here.


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