Ideas / Design Thinking

Applying design thinking to the arts.

James Young, Principal

Recently, I’ve been working with a friend of mine to bring Design Thinking and innovation to artistic institutions and similar non-profits. He sent me an interesting article from The New York Times about the Metropolitan Opera (the Met) in New York.

Singing the blues, opera-style

According to the Times article, the Met is on track to take in just two-thirds of its potential box-office revenue through the end of the season on Saturday. That’s down slightly – but worryingly – from the previous season.

The article then lists several ideas for ending the Met’s slump. I thought the ideas were interesting, and I love the effort the contributors to the article put into their thinking … but as they admitted, it still amounts to mere “spit-balling.” What I have come to learn is that most of the ideas have been tried before with other arts group with small or little success and none of them really address the long-term issues of the cultural sector. What I believe the Met needs is a more rigorous approach to innovation than just “throwing some ideas out there.”

Enter, stage left: Design Thinking

A more effective method of generating successful ideas is Design Thinking, and one of the most significant aspects of Design Thinking is gaining deep empathy for your target patrons, donors, subscribers etc. The Met’s target audience are current, and future, donors and ticket buyers. So, what do they want from the Met? (Hint: someone needs to talk with them to find out.)

From there, a design thinker would assemble his/her team; brainstorm A LOT of ideas and solutions without judgment; narrow the resulting solutions to a workable number; show the potential solutions to donors and audiences; and do rapid prototyping and testing with them to learn what works (and to gain tangible PROOF that it works).

That’s the vital difference between true Design Thinking and just “coming up with ideas” … if the ideas don’t come from deep empathy for their target audience, they’re just guesses.

Artist, disrupt thyself…

I feel what the Met, and every other arts group experiencing declining adoption, needs to do is disrupt itself. When I talk about disruption, I mean it in a positive way (and not in terms of, say, texting during a performance – I don’t want to get thrown out of the theater!).

Rather, I define disruption as the practical resolution of problems and creation of solutions, with the intent of improving future results. Design Thinking provides a formal and proven method for successful disruption.

…or someone else will

“The Arts” or “Cultural Sector” is a very interesting space to think about disrupting, regardless of whether it’s opera, dance, theater, symphony, or visual arts. Such institutions’ processes and approaches are often deeply ingrained, with centuries of tradition and history. But no matter how many sacred cows an institution has, it needs to innovate SOON – or some other entity could disrupt the space FOR them, and they may not like the results.

So, if you and your organization can identify with the predicament faced by the Met, let’s get started NOW. Together, we can apply Design Thinking to create a better future.