Square Peg, Round Hole: Big Picture Planning and the Opportunities and Limits of Design Thinking

By Ashley Roach-Freiman
Research and Instruction Librarian
University of Memphis


Strategic planning is an important issue in academic libraries, and a practice that doesn’t often come easily. Recent literature shows that academic libraries suffer the consequences of poor planning by struggling with low morale, personnel turnover, and burnout (Kendrick, 2017). In an effort to combat and prevent such situations, one Instructional Services department at a large Southern urban graduate-degree granting university library sought ways to plan for the future. As a department, we were in a unique position, having recently acquired several new faculty members, replacing others who had retired or otherwise left. The incoming librarians included a hire new to the university, a Department Head who had served recently as Interim Dean of Libraries, the former Dean of Libraries returning to the faculty,  and myself, a librarian formerly in a visiting position with this department who had left the university for a period of months before being rehired in a tenure-track position.  We needed an opportunity to both get to know one another as colleagues and determine the department’s vision at a crucial stage of growth. To help the department heal from the effects of high turnover, we planned for a two-day departmental retreat to take place during the university’s Fall Break. Inspired by recent trends in library planning, we decided to incorporate design thinking methods into the retreat’s structure. After discovering the open-access IDEO toolkit Design Thinking for Libraries, we created an agenda that led us through brainstorming, ideation, and goal-creation.

We found design thinking methods useful for our purpose, though ultimately not an exact fit for our needs. The prototype-oriented methods featured in design thinking were too limiting for our long-term departmental planning needs; we focused on brainstorming and team-building instead. This combination of activities was successful for our purposes, and ignited a creative energy in our future-thinking that allowed us to be both targeted and expansive in the same space. The following is an exploration of why the retreat was necessary, how the retreat was planned and implemented using selected strategies from design thinking methodology, and the creative energy that we cultivated as a result.

Our Library, Our Retreat, and Design Thinking (Almost) In Practice

Meier & Miller (2016) describe design thinking as “an entire toolbox of methods for solving complex problems, with a variety of tools that can be used in different situations or at different points within the design thinking process” (p. 283). This description is encompassing, hopeful, and difficult to parse. To aid libraries intrigued by design thinking, the global design firm IDEO co-created the freely-available Design Thinking in Libraries with the Chicago Public Library and Denmark’s Aarhus Public Libraries. This toolkit offers a philosophy of design thinking alongside a conceptual outline for how to use design thinking methods to assess and plan user-facing services. The introduction suggests that design thinking is “a deeply empathic and intuitive process that taps into abilities we inherently all have but often overlook” and that “the design thinking process starts by assessing people’s needs, which is why [it works with]…human-centered design”(p. 6).

The user-first paradigm makes it a natural fit for academic libraries—instructional settings more specifically, where the needs of students are in perpetual focus. Examples of successful applications for design thinking in library planning are abundant, including service point assessment, makerspace innovation, school library considerations, and many others (Blakemore, 2018; Bowler, 2014; Rentfro & Mann, 2017; Bradigan & Rodman, 2008). It seems that there is no problem that design thinking can’t help solve.

The Instructional Services department’s mission asserts that it is “committed to promoting information literacy: the ability to locate, evaluate, and use information to fulfill research and information needs” (Library). Within the last six years, the department employed up to five librarians dedicated to teaching students information literacy via classroom instruction, personal consultations, and traditional reference activities such as staffing the help desk and online chat service.  However, change rocked the department as librarians retired or otherwise moved on, leaving a skeleton crew that continually assumed shifting roles depending on the needs of the department. The instruction load at our library is demanding, with 300 or more one-shot sessions an academic year, but with so few librarians, maintaining this teaching load was impossible. The high turnover led to a feeling of instability and chaos as personnel struggled to meet the basic requirements of their mission, with instruction services constantly being scaled.

As a result of this stress, burnout became a real threat, and continued turnover a looming possibility. Sadly, this is not unusual in academic libraries. In a 2017 study of librarian morale, Kendrick identified the major issues that surface when academic librarians are faced with a low-morale trigger, and how that stress manifests in work relationships and roles.  Low morale was often incited by rapid turnover in staff and leadership (p. 853). Concerns about job security and redundancy, among many other anxieties, led to “fight or flight” physiological responses (p. 856). Kendrick’s participants, struggling with the development of low morale and the triggering events, reported feeling “deeper negative states of  frustration, hopelessness, powerlessness, anxiety, disillusion, stagnancy (feeling “stuck”), fear, apathy, and depression” (p. 859). The old personnel in Instructional Services complained of such emotions on a daily basis, questioning their role within the University Libraries as well as their ability to effectively meet their commitment to information literacy instruction. Because of this experience, the Instructional Services department learned to solve problems on the fly, establishing a practice of putting out fires.

As librarians were hired into the department, after years of negotiating with too few personnel, we had the luxury of considering how new approaches might apply to the department in the future. Our department had a significant and growing to-do list that seemed overwhelming and, at times, impossible. We wondered if a departmental retreat for faculty might be useful to allow us to tackle this list. Design Thinking for Libraries recommends that, to encourage team-building, there should be a designated leader to facilitate activities (p.21). I self-selected this role as I wanted to create a space for us outside the library to get to know each other and focus without work-related distractions like email and phone calls. I arranged for the five faculty members of the department to meet off campus at appropriate spaces, including a co-work space and the public library and scheduled our meals to be eaten together, allowing for a camaraderie to develop. I was excited for the opportunity for us to meld, and to try out design thinking methods that would require us to center students in our planning process.

Braun (2016) outlines the design thinking process as follows:

  1. Decide on a problem that needs solving. This decision making can happen through reading, conversation, and observation.
  2. Spend time learning about the problem through additional research, conversation, and observation.
  3. Brainstorm ways to solve the problem.
  4. Develop prototypes of potential solutions.
  5. Test the prototypes.
  6. Repeat the prototyping and testing phases. Design. (p. 80).

The IDEO book encapsulates the process under the umbrella terms: Inspiration, Ideation, and Iteration. The related IDEO book Design Thinking in a Day offers a way to engage with the principles of design thinking in a brief amount of time, making the process seem infinitely accessible.

In planning the retreat, I focused on what seemed attainable: time for us to visualize and draw, map, or write our jobs as we see them. For reference, I printed out and distributed IDEO’s brainstorming rules and facilitation guide, guide to making visual ideas, and heat mapping advice (IDEO Design Thinking in a Day, p. 62 – 66). I gathered a host of supplies: a large post-it pad, an array of markers, gel pens, and writing utensils, a large paper calendar, and stacks of small post-it notes (see Images #1 & 2). I also asked the librarians attending to read and reflect on our Instructional Services Mission Statement, Goals, and Five-Year Plan to keep us focused (Instructional Services Plan). We also had a copy of the University’s Strategic Plan to reflect on so that as we identified goals and brainstormed, we could align our thinking with the University’s goals and mission.

Image 1: Brainstorming Supplies
Image 1: Brainstorming Supplies
Image 2: Getting organized by making a mess.
Image 2: Getting organized by making a mess.

I structured the morning around three consecutive brainstorm activities. First, I asked us to think about how we visualized our roles as librarians. We agreed that we saw ourselves as collaborative teachers, engaged in listening and facilitating, and mindful of the student/teacher dynamic (see Image #3). To that end, inspired by IDEO’s suggestion to create as many ideas as possible, we identified projects in a “wouldn’t it be awesome” brainstorm that asked us to think of pie-in-the-sky goals. I then facilitated Crazy Eights, a design thinking strategy learned in a LeadLocal Digital Drop-In (Library Collective, 2018). This strategy required participants to come up with as many ideas as possible in a short amount of time with the understanding that there are no bad ideas.

Image 3: Brainstorm - how do we see ourselves as practitioners?
Image 3: Brainstorm – how do we see ourselves as practitioners?

We sorted our Crazy Eights results into major categories (i.e. training, outreach, funding, etc.), then heat-mapped the results of this brainstorm with colored markers to identify what we as individuals recognized as our priorities, and collectively considered essential (Image #4). In group discussion, we referred back to the first brainstorm activity (about how we thought of ourselves as workers functioning in a department, and our philosophical ideas of what our jobs included). We asked ourselves: What is it that we want most? What is attainable? What coincides with our core values and those of the University? Considering how design thinking centers user experience, I encouraged us to interrogate our ideas: is the student the focus here? The goals everyone agreed were essential for the progress of our department, and of information literacy at the University, were to: design and seek support for an updated classroom, to create a collaborative relationship with the quickly expanding online arm of the University, and to develop a credit-bearing information literacy course taught by librarians.

Image 4: Organizing and heat mapping our “Wouldn’t It Be Awesome if….” brainstorm.
Image 4: Organizing and heat mapping our “Wouldn’t It Be Awesome if….” brainstorm.

Only about a third of Design Thinking for Libraries focuses on idea-creation; the rest of the text outlines means of prototyping and testing model solutions. Initially, in an attempt to include some sort of prototype development, I planned for the creation of a mini-pilot at the end of morning one. Without knowing what projects would be prioritized, I hoped that the prototyping aspects of design thinking would come into play in an organic way. However, we spent most of our time on brainstorming and discussion, time that was necessary for us to understand our goals for the coming year, and each other. We quickly recognized that the time limitation and loosely structured plan would keep us from pursuing some of the hallmark design thinking strategies such as making a prototype, testing on users, or reflecting on iteration. Attempting to do so would disrupt the flow of progress.

In the related book Design Thinking in a Day, the IDEO authors posit that “design thinking is an approach and a mindset that can help you solve everyday challenges at the library” (p. 2), suggesting that design thinking is not ideal for big-picture planning. Howard and Davis (2011) found success combining the problem-solving innovation of design thinking with the concrete analysis of evidence-based practice to solve the “wicked problems” of rapidly evolving library technology. In the case of our big-picture planning and departmental bonding, a fusion of design thinking and team-building strategies allowed for more truly effective outcomes. On the second half of day one, and leading into day two, the department decided to forego the mini-pilot to focus on team-building activities such as presenting the individual results of a Myers-Briggs-influenced online quiz and personal SWOT charts, which allowed us to identify our own internal strengths, weaknesses, external opportunities, and threats. We also worked on a project-oriented RACI matrix, a chart in which responsibility and accountability are delegated, for our goal of designing and advocating for an updated classroom. We ended the retreat by creating a timeline for the implementation of all of our goals and designating responsibilities (Images #5 & 6).

Image 5: Making a calendar, reminding ourselves what is Desirable, Feasible, and Viable (IDEO Design Thinking for Libraries, p. 6).
Image 5: Making a calendar, reminding ourselves what is Desirable, Feasible, and
Viable (IDEO Design Thinking for Libraries, p. 6).
Image 6: Designating responsibility with a RACI chart.
Image 6: Designating responsibility with a RACI chart.

Outcomes of the Retreat

Design thinking methods, in conjunction with team-building strategies, allowed us to co-create priorities, plans, and timelines, allowing us to focus, work together, and buy-in to the success of our department. Participants report feeling like they had a voice, and felt included, and that the process felt creative and organic. They found the retreat “wonderful!” and that the associated spaces and sessions were “great for team building in the more non-traditional sense.” Also, the retreat “helped for [this librarian] to get to know people better since [they were] still very new at that point.” This point about team-building and creating a stronger acquaintance was repeated by another participant who said that “it helped us get to know each other better, and the external locations allowed us to get out from under all of the other ‘stuff’ we’re required to do in the library.” The same participant appreciated the structure of the retreat, saying “the activities were very useful, and created direction and guidelines for us as a department. It also put us all on the same page, so we know what everyone’s sort of working on (when not teaching / at desk/chat). It also gave us a chance to show strengths and opportunities within projects.” It seems evident that small successes have led to bigger successes, elevating librarian morale, engagement and sense of community, and limiting the impact of stress and burnout.

Our use of design thinking was engineered not to improve a user’s particular experience, but to allow us to collaboratively prioritize and set goals. While design thinking as a user-centered approach is clearly useful, we needed creative ways to untangle ourselves before we could “see” the user, our students. We focused on consensus-building: coming to a shared philosophy that would encapsulate all of our job roles by applying brainstorming activities that kept us thinking and moving, together. We created three actionable goals to focus on the coming months with responsibilities assigned and understood. We would have needed more time and a narrower focus to implement prototyping and testing. One lesson I learned is to plan for planning; it was fortunate that the methods used for the retreat were beneficial. There were moments in the retreat that felt a little unclear in term of purpose. The personal SWOT charts were not the best use of time, and perhaps creating them felt too vulnerable to individual personnel. We probably could have used more planned breaks from work and from each other since everyone was exhausted at the end of day two. In the future, more carefully structured plans will help us assess and strategize in directed and intentional ways.

Though we didn’t complete a design thinking cycle, the desired outcomes of using design thinking as inspiration exceeded expectations. In the future, we may focus on a concrete goal we could prototype, making use of the more time-intensive measures suggested by IDEO, such as patron observation, prototyping, and iterative re-design. The brainstorming tools were useful, and we all enjoyed learning about one another’s personalities. Participants agreed that the overall retreat was a success, and a creative win for a department that needed a little fire.  We are planning another retreat for summer, to work on a single outcome. Now that we are goal-focused and have a stronger awareness and understanding of one another, and some practice with design thinking, I feel confident in the possibilities.


Blakemore, M. (2018). Problem scoping: Design thinking & close reading makerspaces in the school library. Knowledge Quest, 46(4), 66-69. Retrieved from https://eric.ed.gov          /?id=EJ1171732

Bowler, L. (2014). Creativity through “maker” experiences and design thinking in the             education of librarians. Knowledge Quest, 42(5), 58-61. Retrieved from https://eric.ed.gov/?id=EJ1041897

Bradigan, P. S., & Rodman, R. L. (2008). Single service point: It’s all in the design.             Medical Reference Services Quarterly, 27(4), 367-378. DOI  10.1080/02763860802367755

Braun, L. W. (2016). Using design thinking. American Libraries, 47(6), 80. Retrieved from        https://americanlibrariesmagazine.org/2016/05/31/using-design-thinking/

Howard, Z., & Davis, K. (2011). From solving puzzles to designing solutions: Integrating design thinking into evidence based practice. Evidence Based Library & Information Practice, 6(4), 15-21. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.18438/B8TC81

IDEO. (2015). Design thinking for libraries: A toolkit for patron-centered design. Retrieved from http://designthinkingforlibraries.com/

IDEO. (2015). Design thinking in a day: An at-a-glance guide for advancing your library. Retrieved from http://designthinkingforlibraries.com/

Instructional Services Dept. (2017). Instruction services plan 2017 – 2021. University of Memphis. Retrieved from http://libguides.[redacted].edu/instruction/plan

Kendrick, K. D. (2017). The low morale experience of academic librarians: A phenomenological study. Journal of Library Administration, 57(8), 846-878. doi:10.1080/01930826.2017.1368325

Library Collective. (2018, May). Leading with creative confidence [Webinar]. In Design thinking for library leadership digital drop-in series. Retrieved from            http://www.thelibrarycollective.org/lead

Library Instructional Services Department. (n.d.) Our mission. Retrieved from https://www.memphis.edu/libraries/instruction/index.php

Meier, J. J., & Miller, R. (2016). Turning the revolution into an evolution: The case for design thinking and rapid prototyping in libraries College & Research Libraries News, 77(6), 283-286. Retrieved from https://crln.acrl.org/index.php/crlnews/article/view/9506

Rentfro, J., & Mann, L. (2017). Partners in learning creating a 21st-century school experience. Knowledge Quest, 46(2), 56-61. Retrieved from https://eric.ed.gov/?id=EJ1159452

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