Using design thinking for community information needs

Communities / Article

One of the most popular sessions at Knight’s 2013 Media Learning Seminar was from the company behind standup toothpaste and Sealy Mattresses. Related Links 

2014 tech trends that will impact foundations” by Elise Hu on

What do those two products have to do with meeting community information needs, the focus of the annual seminar for community foundations?

The products were derived through a process called “design thinking.” The speaker, Fred Dust of IDEO, advocated that funders in the audience use it to approach the way they think about informing communities.

The audience loved Dust’s insights, but wanted to know more about how they could apply “design thinking” to their work back home.

The 2014 seminar, taking place February 16-18, seeks to provide that answer. In addition to keynote speakers, the conference will center on a hands-on workshop by the Boston-based Design Studio for Social Intervention.

The goal?

“I want folks to leave with two things,” said the Design Studio’s Lori Lobenstine. “First, new ideas about information culture and how they can use it to impact change in their communities. Second, I want them to have new tools for testing their ideas when they get back to their communities.”

KnightBlog talked with Lobenstine ahead of the February conference on what attendees can expect.

Let’s start with a very basic question. What is design thinking?

It’s a process that can be used to approach any type of problem. It means looking closely at how we are framing the problem and how folks are experiencing the problem. These are often overlooked when people think about creating solutions to a complex issue. When we approach an issue, we want to make sure we understand: How are people reacting to what we think is a problem? How are we coming up with creative new ideas based on information from the communities we are working in? And, how are we testing those solutions?

Effective design thinking builds in time and tools for empathy, creativity and testing. It means not just asking people questions but observing their behavior and how they react to whatever problem needs solving. In this case, we’ll be using design thinking to better understand on-the-ground challenges around information culture and how we can better use information to create change.

How will the workshop make the process relevant to the seminar’s participants?

We’re bringing together a set of folks who really care about their communities – from a philanthropic perspective, a media perspective, a library perspective. And we’re creating a space where they can share ideas and knowledge about the information culture in their communities, and then begin to use some design tools to imagine new solutions.

We tend to think that if people are informed, they will make informed decisions. But we know it’s not as simple as that. We also frequently assume a one-way relationship for information: someone is the producer and someone is the consumer. So we fall into just trying to improve or update our information delivery mechanisms.  We want to use these workshops to think about ways to increase people’s access to information in ways that also increase their agency—their ability and willingness to act on that information. We want participants to leave with new ideas about how a rich and multi-directional information culture will engage their communities in using information to create change. And we want participants to have some clear strategies for testing and adjusting their ideas when they get home.

What will a design session look like?

Have you ever been to an interactive, hands-on exhibit? Day 1 will feel like that—participants will have the chance to browse through exhibit spaces on information culture, but also to take on adding to those spaces with the knowledge they bring from their field and their specific community. In addition, there will be exercises that engage participants in thinking about themselves as information users, thinking about their communities as both information producers and users, and adding some fun with the complexities of information subcultures, source suspicions, information grooming and more.

Tell me about some work that you have done in this realm.

In Boston, we worked with a set of young people around social violence. One of the things they told us was that you could tell what crew or gang a person belonged to based on their hat. Their hat was a non-verbal communications tool. They weren’t repping the Houston Astros, for example, but a particular neighborhood or gang.

The traditional approach would be to convince youth to take their hats off, to stop conveying information in that way. We wanted to inject some new ways of sharing information.

So we worked with youth to do user-research, and together we designed a campaign they called “Let’s Flip It,” since they felt youth had to be in the lead of flipping violence. The key component was a plain white hat – one that helped youth indicate to each other, “Look, I’m just trying to go on with my business.” It was a flexible way of injecting a new communication into the existing information system.

Can you use this process if you’ve already launched a project – or is it just for designing new ones?

You can use this at any time. It helps you adjust and react to what you’re learning about your project. If you’re in the middle of a three-year information project, for example, and then all of the sudden Twitter comes along, and all you’ve had is a Facebook approach, you may have to do something differently. Or, if you’re in the middle of an information initiative in your community and a new population starts to grow in your town, you have to think about how you integrate them into your plans. We can help participants find some new ways of thinking about these emergent issues, and new tools for incorporating them.

Any good reading or viewing suggestions on design thinking for people who are interested in preparing?

Sure, here are two pop culture examples of information culture:

To learn more about the 2014 Media Learning Seminar, visit