February 16, 2018

What Wallets Have To Do with Libraries | Design4Impact

This is the first edition of Design4Impact, a monthly column on library design that was conceived in conversation with library architect Margaret Sullivan to explore the innovation taking place in the creation of library spaces and programs.

ljx140101webDesign4impactbHow would you reenvision a wallet to do what you really need it to, not just what you’re used to it doing? How about a wristwatch wallet, powered by body temperature and jammed with digital utility, plus a secret compartment for real money? The idea, articulated in this pipe cleaner and Post-its model (pictured) by Salt Lake County’s Jim Cooper and TLC Labs’ Will Evans, is the result of a Design Thinking exercise conducted at LJ’s Directors Summit, held November 19-20, 2013, in Chicago, in partnership with Chicago Public Library (CPL).

Last year, CPL garnered national attention and a million-dollar grant, via CPL’s foundation, from the Bill & ­Melinda Gates Foundation to partner with Denmark’s Aarhus Library. Both institutions would collaborate on innovation work with design firm IDEO, a specialist in the application of the Design Think strategy. Design Think applies the design process to all sorts of organizational problems, including but not limited to laying out physical spaces.

As part of the summit, representatives from IDEO and CPL walked participants through an example of the preliminary stages of the design process, using the creation of a better wallet as the focus.

A critical aspect of the scheme, it turns out, is mining for information about what a user wants the object to be like and why, accomplished through ever-deepening interviews about perceptions, needs, actual uses, and grand desires. The resulting discoveries spark ideas for solutions—some tweaks, some radical rethinks. The application to libraries is limitless, and CPL had some examples to share.

Coworking on coworking

Mark Kaplan, branch manager of CPL’s Bezazian Branch and lead of the Co-Working Team, used Design Thinking to create a coworking space.

With IDEO staff members Michelle Ha and Julka Almquist providing guidance and training, the team followed IDEO’s steps, first visiting several existing “and widely varying” coworking spaces, Kaplan told LJ. The team interviewed experts and users of those spaces, as well as library patrons. Kaplan explained, “Users don’t always know, or… express, exactly what their needs are…. The process requires thorough ‘downloading’ and ‘synthesis,’ ” postinterview communication techniques to help discern users’ true needs.

The team designed a Co-Lab proto­type and observed patrons working in the space. What didn’t function was eliminated and replaced; the results will be applied “to a next-level prototype in another location.”

The team also turned its Design Thinking eye on the process itself. After “reviewing the process, again with the aid of the IDEO team, we realized that we needed to focus more narrowly on a specific group,” Kaplan said. Homing in on a need for better services for job seekers, the team “went deeper” into interviews, discovering that while those looking for job and life skills were being better served elsewhere, career seekers and career changers needed more attention. CPL is developing prototype services to connect with this group.

Planning for play

John Glynn, a children’s and young adult services librarian and lead of CPL’s Play Team, was challenged to integrate learning through play into the library’s spaces and services.

The team again applied IDEO’s ­Design Thinking process, developing a brief and questions to ask, as well as brainstorming how the team could experiment and prototype within CPL. Team members reviewed the literature, visited organizations, and spoke with experts to gather inspiration and best practices, then interviewed library staff and users. They employed the results to create a prototype storytelling/dramatic play space at CPL’s Chinatown Branch.

The team then observed and talked to users of the space and discovered that younger children enjoyed dramatic play but did not create stories, while many older children were either too self-­conscious for or not interested in the space. Accordingly, the next iteration was designed to engage older elementary school students. The windows of the branch were “framed as if they were comic book panels,” Glynn said, and children were encouraged to design and write their own comics in the windows. This “was a huge success,” Glynn said. CPL plans to place the comic prototype in three more branches, with varying sizes and space constraints, develop a facilitator’s guide, and gather feedback from librarians and users.

Looking forward

No doubt, CPL will advance more Design Think implementations over the course of the grant and present them at the international Next Library conference, to be held in Chicago in June. But for those who can’t wait, an excellent, results-focused orientation can be found in Solving Problems with Design Thinking: Ten Stories of What Works by Jeanne Liedtka, Andrew King, and Kevin Bennett (Columbia Business Sch.). Are you using Design Thinking to reimagine your library? We’d love to share your story!

Rebecca T. Miller is Editor in Chief, and Meredith Schwartz is Senior Editor, News & Features, LJ

This article was published in Library Journal's January 1, 2014 issue. Subscribe today and save up to 35% off the regular subscription rate.



  1. I love libraries.

    A long-running joke in my family is that, every time I drive by one, my hands start to tremble on the steering wheel, and the car starts to drift and slow down near the entrance. And then I make a big deal of resisting the urge to turn there.

    I am also a huge proponent of Design Thinking. In fact, I am a co-organizer of a Meetup group in Chicago to create a community of Design Thinkers here (www.designchicago.org). So reading this article made me smile. I applaud the Chicago Public Library for engaging in the Design Thinking process and hope other libraries — and organizations — do the same.

    Having empathy and listening to the needs of your customers is a sure-fire way to create success, as is coming up with innovative solutions to the problems/issues at hand.

    So bravo, CPL, and keep up the great work!
    Carlos Briceno

    P.S. I love the idea for this column. Keep the great columns coming. :)

  2. I have been a proponent of design thinking for quite a few years. In 2007, I co-authored the book “Academic Librarianship by Design” with John Shank – a book that promotes using design thinking as an approach to better integrate academic libraries into their communities. I have written about it many times at the blog “Designing Better Libraries” (http://dbl.lishost.org) along with user experience and other related topics.

    It can be a challenge to apply design thinking to specific challenges in libraries. It doesn’t always fit so neatly as when you are rethinking a wallet. I do think it can help to take a design approach to some problems (a 5-step system similar to design thinking). We’ve have invited in some of our MBA students -where they learning the design approach is part of the curriculum – to tackle wayfinding problems in our library, and to look for ways to improve basic services such as placing items on reserve. The key piece of DT that has been widely accepted in the library world is ethnographic methods for better understanding user behavior.We are also doing more prototyping and summative evaluation.

    For example, we just were debating whether or not to invest in a glossy brochure targeted to faculty (modeled on one produced by our computer services – nice and costly – but they don’t know if it produced the desired result). We will instead brainstorm different ideas for developing the content and look, produce some prototypes, put them out to faculty to get reactions and feedback and then produce a new iteration. Hopefully, we’ll end up with something more useful or decide it’s not worth it.

    I’ve written at DBL about the need for LIS educators to explore DT and consider integrating it into the LIS curriculum – just as B-schools are doing. To my way of thinking, it will equip LIS grads with better problem solving methods and creativity skills.