Design Thinking is a method of innovation and problem solving created by IDEO in the 1990’s. It is a method of collaborative problem solving that starts with feedback from the end-user, in this case the library patron, and creates a program or design based on the information received in the survey. This reversal of the traditional top-down method of change initiation helps ensure that what will be created is useful, engaging, and appropriate for the intended audience (Design Thinking, ALA, 2018).

How Design Thinking Works

IDEO and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation created a design thinking toolkit for libraries in 2015 that is free to download and use and has been translated into 14 languages. It starts by explaining that design thinking is the intersection of three elements, “desirability, feasibility, and viability” (Toolkit, 2015). This means that a design can work when it is wanted, it is financially possible, and it is possible with the resources available. The second vital aspect of Design Thinking is collaboration. There must be collaboration between the end-users and the managers as well as collaboration among the persons responsible for the outcomes, such as the library staff. Another key to design thinking is that it requires flexibility and creativity, along with a willingness to go back and refine processes that don’t work, in order to be successful (Toolkit, 2015).

The Toolkit identifies four areas where design thinking can be used to improve library services: “programs, services, space, and systems.” One example of a library that used design thinking for programming improvement occurred at the Chicago Public Library where the book club events were poorly attended. The librarian in charge of this program spoke to patrons and discovered that they would prefer to meet in another setting such as a coffee shop, like a traditional book club might do. The librarian changed the location of the book club meetings to the coffee shop near the library and patrons started attending (Toolkit, 2015).

Another library, this time in Denmark, wanted to increase the number of teen patrons in their library. They started by realizing that they did not know the teens very well and resolved this by asking teens what they wanted in the library. The teens were then asked to vote on the 10 most viable options and “The Chocolate Corner” was created as a result. The Chocolate Corner is a space in the library with comfortable seating and free hot cocoa. Involvement with the design process helped create ownership of the space among the teens. It has become a popular space for teens and older patrons alike and is often the seat of collaboration and conversation (Teens, Design Thinking for Libraries, n.d.).

Equally important to collaboration with the end user is a willingness to start small and revise a plan. This was demonstrated in the Chicago Public Library’s project to increase play at their local branches. They started with one branch and the original design included a puppet and costume area with the idea that children would create and act out stories with a beginning, middle, and end. The props were engaging but not in a way that the library staff and parents found particularly useful or education for the children. The staff went back to the drawing table with this new information and the result was a story-telling window where young patrons could create cartoon drawings and speech bubbles that were then attached to the windows to tell stories. This was highly engaging and provided enough structure to guide the children to play in a way that was fun and educational (Toolkit, 2015).

Benefits and Challenges of Design Thinking Methodology

According to Amol Kadam’s 2018 article for Entrepreneur, design thinking is an important and useful way to think about problem-solving and the focus on the end-user experience is vital for the success of any consumer- or in this case, patron-facing project. He bucks, however, that the concept is a new one.

Kadam also sees a potential pitfall in the ways that people can oversimplify and “streamline” the design-thinking process until it loses its essence and becomes useless, creating more problems and uninspired solutions than before. Design thinking at its best is a process driven, multi-step, non-linear process where an idea is created, observed, modified, and re-tried over and over until the desired results are achieved. It is the opposite of a quick fix and requires patience and mental flexibility to be utilized well (Kadam, 2018).

Well executed design thinking starts with curiosity and empathy for the end-user. When the design team can put themselves into the shoes of the client or patron, the result is more likely to be appreciated and engaged with by the people it is intended for (Kadam, 2018). This can be most readily accomplished through interviews, surveys, and advisory groups (Teens, 2018).

The downsides to design thinking become apparent when it is used as a short-cut to addressing systemic problems by solving one aspect of the problem or when the problem is institutional and needs to be resolved using a more in-depth cultural change within the organization. Other problems could arise when the public who engages with the organization expects for products and services to be completed and perfected at the time of roll-out. Design thinking relies on constant innovation and modification (Design Thinking, ALA, 2018).


Design thinking is a process that focuses on providing value to the end-user. A product or service that is not engaging or valuable will quickly be discarded for a different product, service, or way to spend time (Design Thinking, ALA, 2018). In today’s rapidly changing environment, librarians must become adaptive thinkers and innovative leaders in order to best meet the needs of patrons in a world inundated with ways to be educated, stimulated, entertained, and connected. The library should be a place where members of our community can go to find all of these things in a patron-centered, forward-looking facility with empathetic and creative staff who curate and collaborate with the multi-faceted needs of their communities in mind.


“Design Thinking”, American Library Association, May 4, 2018. (Accessed November 19, 2018)

Kadam, A. (2018). Design Thinking Is Not a Process, It’s a Mindset. Entrepreneur Middle East. Retrieved from

IDEO, (2015). Design Thinking for Libraries Toolkit. Retrieved from via

IDEO, (2015). A Branch Library Builds Trust with Local Teens. Retrieved from