Design Thinking & Museum Educators

Last week, I wrote about the design process as a useful means of structuring the development of museum learning programmes. This week I want to focus on design thinking as it also has many relevant applications to our work as museum educators.

In the 1970s, the Royal College of Art (RCA) conducted extensive research into Design in General Education and found it to be poorly understood. Design education at that time was predominantly specialist, vocational and skills-based, and its purpose was extrinsic – to train designers. Nigel Cross argues in his article, Designerly Ways of Knowing (Design Studies, Vol. 3, No. 4, October 1982, pp.221-227), that design education also has intrinsic benefits that can contribute to a well-rounded general education, and that ‘design thinking’ is a problem-solving mindset, distinct from both the sciences and humanities.

Cross identifies “five aspects of designerly ways of knowing:

  • Designers tackle ‘ill-defined’ problems,
  • Their mode of problem-solving is ‘solution-focused’,
  • Their mode of thinking is ‘constructive’,
  • They use ‘codes’ that translate abstract requirements into concrete objects, and
  • They use these codes to both ‘read’ and ‘write’ in ‘object languages’.”

I really like Cross’s observation that “design is a process of pattern synthesis, rather than pattern recognition. The solution is not simply lying there among the data, like the dog among the spots in the well-known perceptual puzzle; it has to be actively constructed by the designer’s own efforts”. This brings us neatly back to creativity and the ability to generate ‘outcomes that are original and of value’.

Helen Charman, Head of Learning at the Design Museum, has written a lot about how her team apply design thinking to their learning programmes; she uses the term designerly learning to describe their approach. Her 2010 article, Designerly Learning: Workshops for schools at the Design Museum (Design and Technology Education: An International Journal 15.3, pp28-40) is of particular interest to me because she turns the focus onto the museum educators. Charman interviewed five educators (three Learning Officers at the Design Museum, one RCA tutor who has also been a consultant for the Design Museum, and one freelance museum educator) to explore how they conceptualise their programmes and how that thinking then informs delivery.

Charman structures her findings around three themes: ‘shared perspectives on the content of learning; on the environment for learning; [and] on the process for learning’. It’s great to see museum educators’ work placed into a critical context and discussed against the broader trends of both museum learning and design practice. Charman writes: “All workshops give learners the opportunity to explore and experiment with a range of materials and techniques. This takes a relatively unstructured form that finds its analogy within research on ‘design thinking’ as the process of abductive thinking, that is, space to explore and deal with potentials rather than certainties.” (p.35)

Design thinking has a special relevance for design museums as the teaching is about design as well as through design. As ‘designers’ of learning programmes, I’m interested in how we can apply this thinking to our practice as museum educators in art museums. Learning programmes can feel organic in their development and can grow from a range of sources, such as: the diverse experience of museum educators; opportunities that arise through exhibitions, new funding streams or national initiatives; new thinking across the sector; or a change of staffing that brings different perspectives. These can all be forces for good, but without strategic planning it risks programming that is rudderless and adrift.

Alternatively, some learning programmes can feel set in aspic. A deeply-entrenched expectation from audiences to programme in a particular way, combined with an organisational reluctance to rock the boat and a preference for quantitative measures of success, can lead to programming that provides comfort and familiarity to a shrinking pool of regulars but does little to challenge their views or open up the museum to new audiences.

Applying design thinking to our programming offers a third way, separate from either of these drifting or fixed scenarios. Museum educators have constantly shifting problems (keeping relevant, meeting changing audience and organisational needs, reflecting contemporary practice) and this means we are in a generative cycle of constantly seeking new solutions. The action-oriented nature of design thinking, combined with the creative constraints of the design process, provides structure and direction. It enables us to be systematic and agile in our programming and it equips us with a greater understanding of our process, leading to stronger advocacy for our contribution to the arts sector. The work is never done.

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