Design Thinking for Advocates: Don’t Knock it Till You Try It

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Design Thinking for Advocates: Don’t Knock it Till You Try It

By Salem Tsegaye, Program Associate, New York Community Trust

You’ve probably heard of design thinking by now. It’s an approach to creating innovative products and services, in commerce and technology, for example. (Surely, you’ve seen those images of notes on colorful Post-its.)

If you’re a buzzword skeptic, it’s likely you’ve dismissed design thinking as yet another passing trend. But wait! Give me a moment to convince you otherwise.   

Last summer, the New York City Cultural Agenda Fund brought together 49 arts and cultural advocates for a design charrette. Over two days, i2i Experience helped advocates use design thinking skills as they sought ideas to improve arts advocacy, and to increase equity in the City’s cultural sector.

Facilitators shared their creative compass, asking users to: 1) make observations, 2) frame opportunities, 3) imagine ideas, and 4) prototype experiments.

Easy, right? Not quite.

We learned in our last training that negotiating differences among this large, representative group is hard. The challenge: Setting individual interests aside to advance the whole. This is the type of challenge design thinking seeks to overcome.

Step 1—make observations—already had been accomplished. Before the advocates’ arrival, i2i facilitators had covered the walls with Post-its with ideas from previous sessions. This charrette was dedicated to framing opportunities in the field (step 2) and imagining and prototyping ideas (steps 3and 4).

Advocates gave i2i’s creative compass a spin (check out this photo essay). We winnowed 20 opportunities to seven ideas, such as:

  • Diversifying the field of arts administration, using tactics like “meet the workers” videos in social media campaigns. This could help increase awareness about different jobs in the arts, and target groups that are not in arts organizations’ traditional hiring spheres.
  • Diversifying the boards of cultural organizations by creating a board residency exchange project. This could increase organizational capacities and establish greater trust between cultural institutions.
  • Conducting a citywide artist census, to create a database of the city’s cultural practitioners. This would include practitioners that don’t necessarily identify as artists and are left out of existing data-gathering efforts.
  • Developing a blueprint for culturally healthy communities, including culturally-inclusive asset maps of neighborhoods undergoing development. The purpose: To identify unmet needs and glean lessons learned to inform future development of rezoned neighborhoods.
  • Formalizing an arts advocacy coalition, to strengthen representation in public policy.

Great ideas, but they didn’t come easy. If there’s anything design thinking can teach, it’s how to operate within constraints, and still achieve your goals. Funders that support collaborative planning should consider the benefits of design thinking. It’s not just a catch-phrase, but a creative process for negotiating differences toward shared results.


In coming weeks, I’ll share highlights from our final workshop, as well as advocates’ constructive criticism. I’ll also discuss how the Fund is helping to further develop some of their ideas, so be sure to tune in.    

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