Design Thinking for Music Entrepreneurs: How to Generate Creative Solutions for Audience Engagement

How do we solve the problem of attracting millennials to classical music events and building an audience for the future?

My students at Mannes College of Music at the New School might have an answer!

Through a class project that lasted less than a week, our students used the 5-step Design Thinking process to understand the needs of their millennial peers and then come up with some prototype ideas for how to engage that audience.  They discovered that design thinking is a great way to foster innovation, as well as enhance collaboration, in coming up with creative solutions to engaging today’s audiences.

Design Thinking in 5 Steps

Here is how our students used the 5 steps of Design Thinking to generate creative audience engagement solutions:

  1. Empathize

Students conducted interviews with non-music majors at the New School to empathize with their target audience in order to understand the problems that millennials have with classical music.

  1. Define

Students met in small groups and synthesized the inputs from these audience interviews and articulated the main problem that their non-music peers experienced with classical music.

  1. Ideate

Once they defined the problem, our students brainstormed potential solutions to the problem in their small groups and selected the one that best solved the problem.

  1. Prototype

Each group then created quick and inexpensive prototypes of their solution and made media projects to present in class.

  1. Test and Iterate

Finally, each group presented their prototypes in class for class feedback and then incorporated the feedback to improve their media prototypes.

Bottom line:

Our students had a great time as they searched for creative ways to bring their peers to classical music events.  Here is how the process played out.

Creative Solutions for Engaging Millennial Audiences

Our students isolated 4 different problems and created a variety of prototypes, in the form of tangible media, in under one hour, with a variety of potential solutions to the problem how to engage millennial audiences in classical music.

Problem #1:

Audiences do not feel connected to the performers.

  • Solution:

An app and an accompanying website that links the audience to the performers in real time to get the performers’ input on the music being played.

  • Another Solution:

A poster of an informal concert involving a collaboration between musicians and a photographer featuring a discussion with the photographer and a listening guide.

  • A Third Solution:

A concert of Star Wars and Gustav Holst’s The Planets advertised with a video of people in Vancouver humming and singing theme songs to popular movies, thus showing that people are in fact able to connect to classical music.

Problem #2:

Concert halls are old-fashioned and stuffy.


Hold a concert in a jazz-club setting advertised with pictures of venues that have a cool club-like vibe.

Problem #3:

Classical music is boring and not fun and classical music performers are not attractive like pop stars.


A concert of opera music advertised with clips from great operas and posters with  attractive opera singers.

Problem #4:

Classical Music is not accessible and is too formal.


A poster advertising informal concerts featuring classical and popular music held in 5 high schools in the 5 boroughs with an informal social hour.

Value of Design Thinking to Today’s Entrepreneurial Artists

Ultimately, the value of doing this exercise boiled down to two broad categories:

  1. Design Thinking is a great way to innovate; and
  2. Design Thinking is a wonderful way to collaborate and leverage different skills and experience.

1. Design Thinking Fosters Creative Thinking and Innovation

  • Design thinking keeps your eye on the big picture

Creative thinking can be stumped by trying to get everything right from the get-go. Design thinking also helps overcome perfectionism because the process builds in testing and iteration. Creating rapid prototypes means that you do not get too attached to an idea so that if that idea does not work out, you move on. Often, if we belabor something and it is not the right solution, we can get discouraged from pursuing the idea. Prototyping is a great way to “just do it” and not get bogged down by the details.

  • Design thinking promotes efficiency in the creative process

Because my students had a limited amount of time to complete the assignment, they had to figure out how to get focused, prioritize and organize a lot of material very quickly.  Thus, Design Thinking is a way to be creative and efficient at the same time.

  • Design thinking is fun and fun promotes creativity

Working with others on a short time line can be fun!  And while our students were brainstorming and creating prototypes, they were able to let loose and enjoy the process.  One student remarked:

“Remembering that the media project was a prototype actually helped me enjoy the creative process more by realizing the product wasn’t something to which I should be attached, and remembering it was being created for the purpose of being tested (presented for feedback) and improved.”

  • Design Thinking promotes learning

Learning is an integral part of design thinking, particularly through rapid prototyping, testing and iteration. Our students enjoyed the feedback sessions and were encouraged to improve their prototypes based on the comments discussed in class.

  1. Design Thinking enhances collaboration

Another important benefit of design thinking how it encourages collaboration.   This project enabled  students to play to their strengths and seek collaborators with complementary skills and experience.   Moreover, the project encouraged students to share and blend ideas with different points of view, thus contributing to a stronger project design.

In addition, the collaborative process creates a bond among team members.  Another student observed:

“[Working through the design thinking process with a group] was a great exercise in empathy because even if we didn’t necessarily agree about something the discussion helped bring those things into focus for me.”

Finally, collaborative process encouraged students to go outside their comfort zones when they confronted different ideas. Indeed, one student who normally took the lead in projects was inspired to bend the passion of another collaborator and embrace that person’s vision.

So take a page from these creative young music entrepreneurs and see how design thinking can change your approach and liberate your creativity!