Networked Journalism Education

Design thinking is useful for journalists. Discuss.

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[UPDATE: This was part of a  Carnival of Journalism conversation in 2014. Responses to the question have been posted separately: The Innovative Spark]

Have you applied design thinking in your work? Has it been useful? Why or why not?

Plenty has been written about the need for news organizations to be more innovative and entrepreneurial. Now the challenge is how to be innovative, both at the organizational and individual level. Design thinking is one process that many people have found useful for sparking innovation.

The Knight Foundation recently selected 24 projects to receive $35,000 each from the Knight Prototype Fund. As a first step, Knight provided each of the grantees an intensive two-day workshop in design thinking. [ADDENDUM Feb. 17: See this useful post from the Knight Foundation on using design thinking for community information needs.]

In December, the New York Times featured a story on the at Stanford, which champions design thinking, calling out the work of two students who created a news-reading app bought by LinkedIn for $90 million.

David Wright, formerly with NPR and now a designer at Twitter, gave a design-thinking presentation at ONA 2012 that received a lot of attention: Design is how it works.

What is design thinking?

Design thinking is a process that helps journalists think more explicitly about their work from the perspective of the people who read, watch, listen and share what journalists create.

This doesn’t mean that journalists give up their independence or dish up what they think audiences want. It’s not about focus groups or reader surveys. It requires, first of all, letting go of what we think the problem/story is and really listening to and observing the people who are experiencing whatever we’re concerned with. It starts with people, not technology.

Slide by Twitter Designer David Wright from a 2013 SND presentation Platform ≠ Content

Choosing people to talk with is key. Once the interviews are complete, the team focuses on looking for connections from the various interviews that lead to new insights about the challenge at hand. Discerning people’s needs (articulated or not) and how journalists might better respond to them, can spark new ways of approaching any problem or goal.

The next step also subverts traditional newsroom routines. Rather than planning to make a change and writing memos and forming committees, design thinking encourages people to sketch ideas, get feedback and iterate their ideas quickly. Rapid prototyping forces ideas to be articulated, tested, and improved in a short and low cost way. “Demo don’t memo” can be a useful mantra in faculty meetings or news meetings.

Slide by Twitter Designer David Wright from a 2013 SND presentation Platform ≠ Content

Building, implementing and marketing are separate activities from the design thinking process. The usefulness of the approach is in coming up with innovative ideas for addressing whatever the need is: a better process in the newsroom or classroom, a better story idea, better storytelling, better news product. It’s one way to improve routines, habits and products that we have long stopped seeing.

Design thinking is not new (read this wonderful article on Wicked Problems in Design Thinking from 1992) nor is it new to the news business (see these Gannett videos from 2008) and it’s not always well received (Gannett partnered with design thinking firm IDEO in Detroit in 2008 to some ridicule). Plenty of people have written about the limitations of design thinking. Helen Walters wrote a thoughtful piece in Fast Co. about what design thinking can and cannot do:

…design thinking does not replace the need for design specialists, nor does it magically appear out of some black box. Design thinking isn’t fairy dust. It’s a tool to be used appropriately. It might help to illuminate an answer but it is not the answer in and of itself.

Instead, it turns up insights galore, and there is real value and skill to be had from synthesizing the messy, chaotic, confusing and often contradictory intellect of experts gathered from different fields to tackle a particularly thorny problem.

No tool is a panacea for every problem. But plenty of people are finding success with incorporating design thinking skillfully at the right moments.

For example, media entrepreneur start-up accelerator Matter uses design thinking to foster the development of projects such as Zeega and OpenWatchmetaLAB projects at Harvard incorporate design thinking. Poynter wrote about design thinking at the Voice of San Diego and a news project in Brazil.

Have you applied design thinking in your work? Has it been useful? Why or why not?

Or, Plan B: How do you get your own creative juices flowing? What sparks innovation in your own thinking, your newsroom or classroom?

Blog your answers, post links in the comments below, share on Twitter (hashtag #jcarn) and I’ll provide a round-up of the responses after the Feb 28 deadline.

More resources on design thinking:

TED talk by IDEO CEO Tim Brown: Designers — Think Big!
TED talk by IDEO founder David Kelley: How to build your creative confidence
Helen Walters, Fast Co.:The Seven Deadly Sins that Choke out Innovation
Book by Jeanne Liedtka, Andrew King, and Kevin Bennett: Solving Problems with Design Thinking: Ten Stories of What Works, Columbia University Press
Sarah Soule: Why Design Thinking Is an Effective Tool for Social Entrepreneurs

MORE RESOURCES (added November, 2015)
Design Thinking for Educators (IDEO)
Design Thinking Comes of Age (Harvard Business Review, Sept. 2015)
Welcome to the Virtual Crash Course for Design Thinking (Stanford
Use Our Methods (Stanford d. school)
Free online course on design thinking, (+Acumen)

Written by Donica

January 26th, 2014 at 11:29 pm

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