How Design Thinking can shape the future of heritage

 11 July 2016

In a talk run by Creative & Cultural Skills at the Museums + Heritage Show, I made a provocation: the mindsets, skillsets and toolsets of Design Thinking can help the heritage sector ride its challenges.

Simon Callaghan Photography
Simon Callaghan Photography

My reflections draw on my work as director of Flow Associates helping arts, museums and heritage organisations to engage with learning audiences, to develop staff skills and build capacity. We design cultural experiences and organisations for change so that people, society and planet can learn, create, connect and flourish. However, we aren’t designers in the traditional sense. Instead, we use Design Thinking.  

My provocation is that Design Thinking can help the sector ride its challenges: 

  • to positively redesign museum and heritage services to meet future needs as work, society and environment change
  • to create compelling experiences as the cultural realm is transformed by technology  
  • and to demonstrate the value of the sector in order to sustain itself.

I borrowed these three categories of mindsets, skillsets and toolsets from a post by Doug Belshaw.

Shifting mindsets in museums and heritage

For me, the most important shift to make is in mindsets. In the museums and heritage sector, there are two dominant mindsets: Business Thinking and Creative Thinking.

I use Creative Thinking as a catch-all for the mindset of staff who pursue specialist research, develop public-facing services and experiences, or innovative and create digital projects.

Business Thinking is a catch-all for the mindset of staff who focus most on operations, finance, retail, development and public relations. This does not mean that everyone in either group conforms strictly to that mindset. Of course, marketing roles sit between the two, and some small organisations may try to cover either Creative or Business tasks without people of the right mindset.

These two mindsets can sometimes be in conflict because there can be different emotional drivers. People in Business Thinking roles tend to gain pleasure from achieving targets or maximizing income. The ethical challenges that motivate them tend to involve avoiding damage to reputation or saving resources in an efficient way.

People in Creative Thinking roles tend to gain most pleasure from engaging others, and to develop novel experiences or products in open-ended and playful ways. The ethical challenges that motivate them tend to come from the wider world of ideas and society.

Design Thinking could offer to us a set of skills suitable for leadership. 

Beneath these preferences and motivations lie more ingrained habits of thinking. For example, Business Thinking tends to focus on analysis, problems are seen as hurdles to overcome and mistakes make them uncomfortable. Creative Thinking tends to focus on synthesis, and problems and mistakes morph more easily into opportunities.

It’s hard to tell whether these mindset differences arise through individual personalities or the culture of a team or professional specialism. It’s one of those complex ‘nature or nurture’ questions. Team leaders or project contractors can ‘recruit to type’, make a positive virtue of a particular team ethos, and only network within their comfort zone. I think this is especially true in the museums and heritage sector.

Bringing in Design Thinking

Since the cuts have begun to bite into the sector, many developmental programmes led by sector policy bodies, funders or training agencies have emphasised two messages:

  • Your future resilience depends on getting more hard-nosed and business-like
  • The UK’s strongest economic asset is its creativity.

This can be confusing, and it’s not often clear how to balance the two.

In addition, because the role of Local Authorities is changing there are many new kinds of alliances to fill gaps, including Local Enterprise Partnerships. There can sometimes be gulfs in understanding between business-minded industry players, and the creative and cultural sector.

This is where Design Thinking comes in. It provides frameworks for planning and designing any kind of intervention, service or experience that enable you to balance the two mindsets, and shift smoothly and respectfully between the two. 

We tend to think of Design as a service role, of people who communicate ideas once they’ve been formed, or simply make our products attractive.

However, Design Thinking goes much deeper, and also could offer to us a set of skills suitable for leadership. What would our organisations look like if all managers (indeed, all staff) were well grounded in it?

Where can we learn more to develop these skillsets? There is a lot of material to help, especially from the emerging fields of digital and social enterprise. To name one resource, I was very inspired to read Bob Johansen’s Leaders make the future: Ten new leadership skills for an uncertain world

Putting design thinking skills to work

We are starting to see these skills explored in the Local Cultural Education Partnerships (LCEPs) run by ACE’s Bridge organisations.

For example, in our Future Views project working with three LCEPs in three Bridge regions, we are using Speculative Design methods with young people. They will be using the imagination to consider alternative futures, to prepare for a wide range of possible scenarios and to edge towards their preferable futures.

And also, we see these skills developed in museum staff through participatory design projects led by Derby Museums, for example their Re:make project.  

Turning skills into toolsets

So, how can we turn these skills of Design Thinking, and the broader range of future leadership skills, into toolsets?

In the museums and heritage sector, there are two dominant mindsets: Business Thinking and Creative Thinking.

It’s my hunch that such toolsets could really help arts, museums and heritage staff collaborate better:

  • with other sector organisations to save and generate resources
  • across silos within their organisations to reduce conflict
  • outwards with other sectors such as tourism, place-making, retail, education, sci-tech and digital industries, social enterprise, health, nature conservation, and broadcasting.

Maybe there’s potential for collaborations across organisations such as the Heritage Lottery Fund, Arts Council England and Creative & Cultural Skills to develop such future-proofed toolsets, building on their existing work.

To mark the founding of Flow exactly 10 years ago, we’re thinking how to evolve our offer to serve these sectors’ needs in the decade to come. With nice synchronicity, we’ve also been commissioned by three Bridge organisations to conduct a project called Future Views  – imagining the next generation of cultural learning. So the future of skills is much on our minds!


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