Keeping Up With… Design Thinking

KUW Design Thinking

This edition of Keeping Up With... was written by Ryne Leuzinger, Gina Kessler Lee, and Irene Korber.

Ryne Leuzinger is a Research and Instruction Librarian at California State University-Monterey Bay, email:

Gina Kessler Lee is the library’s Instruction and Outreach Coordinator at Saint Mary’s College of California, email:

Irene Korber is Head of Research, Instruction, and Outreach at Meriam Library, California State University-Chico, email:

The authors serve on the steering committee for California Conference on Library Instruction 2018: “Library Instruction by Design: Using Design Thinking to Meet Evolving Needs.”


Design thinking is an iterative, human-centered approach to understanding the needs of a specific group and developing services, spaces, and products in response. While the term arose to describe the creative process of design professionals like architects, it has since been applied to a more general process of innovation, popularized by the design consultancy IDEO and the Stanford, among others. Design thinking was first connected with academic librarianship in Steven J. Bell and John D. Shank’s 2007 book Academic Librarianship by Design: A Blended Librarian's Guide to the Tools and Techniques [1], and it has spread further in the literature since IDEO's free toolkit Design Thinking for Libraries [2] appeared in 2015. Design thinking serves as a supportive and creative methodology for academic librarians, who must constantly invent, refine, and indeed design spaces, services, and tools (often with tight constraints) for distinct groups of users with evolving needs.

What is design thinking?

Design thinking is a method of creative problem solving that has historically been used in management and design fields [3], and has become increasingly popular amongst educational institutions. Design thinking is described as a process composed of a cycle of “inspiration, ideation, and iteration,” [4] and is generally considered to have a series of five design phases:

  1. Understanding
  2. Observation
  3. Visualization
  4. Evaluation
  5. Implementation [5]

Rather than being viewed and implemented as a sequential process, design thinking posits that these five phases should be non-linear and iterative. This has been described as “inherently a prototyping process.” [6] For example, a designer may get to phase four of evaluation, and realize that in order to create a product or service that would best meet user needs, s/he needs to circle back to phase two and redesign a space based on how patrons are using it. This process is known as rapid prototyping, and is used to collect user feedback in the early phases of the design process. [7]

Design thinking has been utilized in a wide range of institutions. In the context of medical care, design thinking has been used to gain a better understanding of patient needs [8] and better support the provision of services to people with disabilities. [9] In higher education, design thinking has been used to envision a large scale curriculum redesign. [10] The bicycle manufacturer Shimano, working with IDEO, discovered a whole new market of people who missed riding for pleasure rather than sport, and developed coasting bikes in response. [11]

The image below from IDEO provides an overview of getting started with design thinking. [12]

How is design thinking being applied in academic librarianship?

For academic libraries, design thinking serves as a human-centered practice that can be utilized to enhance user experience, innovate services and systems, and improve space usage. Librarians may find the design thinking framework familiar as there is significant overlap with the methodologies associated with library user experience (UX). UX and design thinking intersect in that they take into account user interactions with and perceptions of physical and digital spaces and services to provide evidence-based solutions. [13]

You may be using a design thinking process without knowing you are doing so! By offering “an end-to-end process for conceptualizing a problem or project, generating solutions, and testing and refining both the solutions and the underlying problem statement” [14] design thinking affords librarians with a means of better understanding the students and faculty that they serve and evolving services and spaces in response to input from these library users. Increasing interest in design thinking within librarianship is evident in courses offered via professional development organizations like Library Juice Academy [15] and LIS programs like the University of Wisconsin [16] and San Jose State University. [17] Design thinking has relevance to a range of different projects in libraries including revisioning signage [18], assessing data management needs [19], and understanding the transfer student experience. [20] Key benefits of design thinking for libraries include the support that it provides for creating and testing multiple models of a given service or space while gathering feedback from stakeholders, as well as the way in which it incorporates collective expertise.

What are some critiques of design thinking?

A clear definition of design thinking can be difficult to pin down: Is it a philosophy, a process, or a toolbox of methods? [21] The literature shows distinct rifts between how “designerly thinking” is discussed in design theory versus how design thinking has been co-opted in more popular management applications. [22]

In business and in design professions, there have been calls for alternatives to design thinking that acknowledge other drivers of progress, take financial and environmental costs into account, and look to the future rather than responding to what users say they need now. [23] Others have also criticized the “craze” of design thinking that has put designers on a pedestal [24] or co-opted the design thinking process but not the ethos of creativity. [25]

Academic librarians especially may encounter resistance to design thinking. (“Quick and dirty are not values academe typically embraces,” the Chronicle of Higher Education’s Lee Gardner has pointed out. [26]) The process of design thinking requires empathic methodologies that can be more time-consuming than administering a survey or running usage statistics. Tight budgets and approval bureaucracies may make it difficult to prototype solutions and accept and learn from failures. But as the previous sections demonstrate, there are academic librarians who have found design thinking helpful in identifying “wicked problems” and getting unstuck from old assumptions as they work to best meet the varied needs of library users.


You may be wondering, “How do I get started with design thinking?” Through resources such as Design Thinking for Libraries one can start utilizing the design thinking framework on a modest scale and subsequently scale up to something larger like program assessment or assessment of library space. As digital and physical library spaces increase in complexity and as our profession continues to strive to better provide equitable experiences for all library users, this iterative, human-centered approach to understanding user needs may come to have a more expansive role in our field.

Resources to Learn More

Library 2.018 Worldwide Virtual Conference: “Design Thinking: How Librarians Are Incorporating It Into Their Practice,” March 8, 2018,

California Conference on Library Instruction: “Library Instruction by Design: Using Design Thinking to Meet Evolving Needs,” June 1, 2018, San Francisco,

IDEO, Design Thinking for Libraries,

IDEO, Design Thinking for Educators,

Stanford, The Bootcamp Bootleg,


[1] Steven J. Bell and John D. Shank, Academic Librarianship by Design: A Blended Librarian’s Guide to the Tools and Techniques (Chicago: American Library Association, 2007),

[2] IDEO, Design Thinking for Libraries: A Toolkit for Patron-Centered Design (Palo Alto: IDEO, 2015),

[3] Johansson-Sköldberg, Ulla, Jill Woodilla, and Mehves Çetinkaya. “Design thinking: past, present and possible futures.” Creativity and Innovation Management 22, no. 2 (2013): 121-146,

[4] IDEO, Design Thinking for Libraries: A Toolkit for Patron-Centered Design.

[5] Steven J. Bell "Design Thinking." American Libraries 39, no. 1/2 (2008): 44-49,

[6] Tim Brown. “Strategy By Design.” Fast Company. June 2005.

[7] John J. Meier and Rebecca K. Miller. "Turning the Revolution into an Evolution: The Case for Design Thinking and Rapid Prototyping in Libraries." College & Research Libraries News 77, no. 6 (2016): 283-286.

[8] Dirk Deichmann and Roel van der Heijde, “How Design Thinking Turned One Hospital into a Bright and Comforting Place,” Harvard Business Review, December 2, 2016,

[9] Robert I. Sutton and David Hoyt, “Better Service, Faster: A Design Thinking Case Study,” Harvard Business Review, January 6, 2016,

[10] Dan Berrett, “Boston College, to Refresh Its Aging Curriculum, Turns to Design Thinkers,” The Chroncile of Higher Education, April 6, 2015,

[11] Tim Brown and Barry Katz, Change by Design: How Design Thinking Transforms Organizations and Inspires Innovation (New York: HarperCollins, 2009), 13-15,

[12] IDEO, Design Thinking for Libraries, 9. CC BY-NC-SA 3.0.

[13] Graham Walton. “What User Experience (UX) Means for Academic Libraries." New Review of Academic Librarianship 21, no. 1 (2015): 1-3,

[14] Michael Fosmire, “What Can Design Thinking Do for Libraries?,” Issues in Science and Technology Librarianship 83, (2016),




[18] Edward Luca and Bhuva Narayan, “Signage by Design: A Design-Thinking Approach to Library User Experience,” Weave: Journal of Library User Experience 1, no. 5 (2016),;rgn=main.         

[19] Cinthya Ippolitti. "Research as Design—Design as Research: Applying Design Thinking to Data Management Needs Assessment," Paper presented at The 2016 Library Assessment Conference: Building Effective, Sustainable, Practical Assessment, Arlington, VA, October 31–November 2, 2016. Washington, D.C.: Association of Research Libraries,

[20] Linda Whang et al., "Understanding the Transfer Student Experience Using Design Thinking," Reference Services Review 45, no. 2 (2017),

[21] Ingo Rauth, Lisa Carlgren, and Maria Elmquist, “Making It Happen: Legitimizing Design Thinking in Large Organizations,” Design Management Journal 9, no. 1 (October 1, 2014): 47–60,

[22] Johansson-Sköldberg, Woodilla, and Çetinkaya, “Design Thinking: Past, Present and Possible Futures.”

[23] James Woudhuysen, “The Craze for Design Thinking: Roots, A Critique, and toward an Alternative,” Design Principles & Practice: An International Journal 5, no. 6 (June 2011): 235–48,

[24] Ibid.

[25] Bruce Nussbaum, “Design Thinking Is A Failed Experiment. So What’s Next?,” Co.Design, April 5, 2011,

[26] Lee Gardner, “How Design Thinking Can Be Applied Across the Campus,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, September 10, 2017,