Design Thinking is all the rage these days in academic circles, often misused and overhyped as the perfect teaching tool. In fact, Design Thinking is an excellent process for advancing creativity and innovation when properly understood and applied.
Design thinking is the human-centered design process that helps you understand the emotional needs of the people whose problems you are solving through interviews and interaction with your audience. It also involves creating prototypes and testing your ideas with your audience until you get the best version.
There are many wonderful Design Thinking programs out there, starting with the D School at Stanford which introduced a 5-step model. If you are curious, download their terrific Design Thinking bootleg.
I use Design Thinking in my Innovation and Collaboration class at Yale because it dovetails beautifully with my project of teaching today’s musicians how to be innovative, collaborative entrepreneurs. For me, design thinking introduces 3 critical pieces to the innovation puzzle:
You design around the needs of your audience which you discover by interviews, interaction and even immersion in their environment.
You create a concrete prototype of your project so that your intended audience members can interact with and react to your project to make sure that what you are creating in fact meets their needs.
Test and ITERATE
Finally, based on your interviews and your prototyping, you keep improving and testing things out until you come up with the best version of your design.
I introduce design thinking after our students have:
- Zeroed in on the part of the classical music ecosystem that they want to work on;
- Clarified the problem they want to solve on behalf of a specific audience;
- Brainstormed and ideated to come up with a tentative solution to that problem; and,
- Developed their project ideas using the POINT analysis to come up with more workable, breakthrough solutions.
It’s at this stage that our students are ready to get out in the field and interact with the people who are actually going to benefit from these projects. We use design thinking to make sure that they are meeting the underlying needs of their intended audiences. Thus, design thinking is another process to facilitate innovation.
This step of the process was perhaps the most revealing for our students.
Here is how the project evolved thanks to a greater understanding of the needs of their audiences.
Concert in an Innovative Space with Relaxed Vibe
One of our groups took on the problem of young professional audiences who do not attend classical music concerts and are looking for exciting and satisfying ways to experience music. The group’s solution was to stage a concert at an unusual venue (in this case, an upscale hair salon in New Haven), serve alcohol and get the audience engaged with the performers.
For their interviews, the group found their target audience by going to bars and cafes around New Haven, campus meeting areas and reaching out to friends outside the School of Music. They showed them pictures of the venue and played sample clips of the music.
Many of the interviewees said that they were intimidated by the elite and formal nature of classical music. They preferred a more relaxed vibe and were intrigued by the notion of listening to music at the hair salon. They also reacted positively to the types of music that were slotted to be performed. Finally, they stressed the importance of having alcohol, viewing this concert as an alternative to spending an evening at a bar.
The concert group staged a free prototype concert at Salon Lulu in New Haven, offering chamber and vocal music in a variety of musical genres and styles. One of the group members served as the MC to keep things moving. Audiences members were also encouraged to express their reactions to the event by writing on poster paper. And of course, the alcohol flowed! The audience was primarily Yale School of Music students who came out to support their friends. The vibe was relaxed, lively and even a bit raucous and everyone had a great time.
The prototype concert was a terrific learning experience and the group decided that next time, they will do the following:
- Market the concert more effectively to attract more young professional non-classical music lovers
- Figure out how to monetize the concert and charge for admission and drinks
- Improve the poster activity to get more people engaged and to make it more about visual representations of their reactions as opposed to words.
Self-Esteem Workshop for High School Music Students
The second project group wanted to solve the problem of helping middle and high school students in underserved communities create a better life through the arts. The group started off with big dreams of serving as on-going mentors to middle and high-school students in underserved communities by showing them that the arts can be a pathway to a better life. The program would include seminars with parents about the benefits of studying the arts and the many scholarships available to arts students. The program would culminate in a community concert and a dinner.
The team received immediate feedback from educators that their program was too ambitious to do in one semester. Moreover, the group was told that similar interventions had failed in the past and that the project was not likely to succeed since it was very hard to gain the trust of students. The team also realized that it would be difficult to gain the trust of the parents so they scrapped that aspect of the project. In addition, there simply was not enough time to create a community where the students would feel comfortable playing and performing.
Undaunted, the team went ahead to conduct a prototype lesson in a middle school classroom. The result was far from satisfying! They discovered that the group was too big and too rowdy, the students were too young to focus on continuing with the arts in college and there were not enough students who really cared about music. As a result, they decided to focus on high-school music students who were genuinely interested in continuing with music.
Through additional interviews with band directors and high school students, the team learned that their sessions needed to be smaller and more personal. Ultimately, the group offered a small workshop with a few high-school music students with the goal of helping the high school musicians build their self-esteem through music. The team members kicked off the workshop by sharing their own experiences of how music had changed their lives. This personal sharing enabled our team members to gain the trust of the students and the high schoolers proceeded share their own life experiences (some very painful) and why music was so important to them. Another team member conducted similar workshops with groups of female high school guitar students and had a similar experience.
The team concluded that these small workshops were in fact a valuable and successful way to help high school music students find their voices through music as a way to gain more self-esteem and ultimately change their lives.
Practice Portal for Live Streaming
Our third project group created an on-line platform called Practice Portal to help accomplished professional musicians improve their musicianship through better practice techniques by offering live-streaming of their practice sessions. The objective is to create an international community of professional musicians who can get over their perfectionism and learn how to help each other become better musicians.
The team surveyed their friends and then interviewed students at a wide variety of conservatories both in the US and abroad to see how the idea resonated. They showed a variety of prototype websites to see which one was the most helpful. These inputs indicated that the target group consisted of college and graduate students (not all professional musicians), many of whom were intrigued by the notion of streaming their practicing. They were also interested in sharing about music beyond live-streaming and loved the idea of creating such a community. Some people, however, said that they would not live-stream their practicing because they were too intimidated to show their lack of perfection!
With this data in mind, the group decided to forge ahead with the live-streaming idea.
They created a Facebook group as a prototype and the two guitarists on the team took the plunge and began to live stream their practicing. The results were quite impressive and the group now has over 1200 followers. Moreover, the page goes beyond live-streaming since members are sharing about different techniques and resources.In addition, the group is creating a website and an app and continues to attract followers.
Practice Portal was aided by a $1,000 venture grant from the Yale Entrepreneurial Institute. They have been featured on Hartford’s NPR station and are continuing with this project thanks to the great progress that they have made in just one semester.
All 3 projects matured and advanced thanks to the principles of Design Thinking, especially:
- Listen to your audience so that you can provide them with the experience and the services that they are looking for.
- Don’t get too wedded to your initial ideas and remain open to feedback and inputs from mentors and audience members because you won’t be satisfying the essential needs of your audience.
- Be willing to experiment and change, come up with lots of ideas, take risks and persist until you get it right.
Design thinking is a terrific adjunct to the process of innovation since it emphasizes the idea of empathizing with your audience and designing to satisfy the underlying needs of that audience. Design thinking also encourages the growth mindset, which encourages experimentation, risk taking and learning from failure as a way to grow and create more success.
So let’s use Design Thinking as a helpful adjunct to fostering innovation in the arts!