Design Thinking and Journalism: A Vital Match in Changing Times

This post is part of the Carnival of Journalism monthly blog conversation. Big thanks to University of Reno journalism professor Donica Mensing for posing a great question this round: Have you applied design thinking in your work? Has it been useful? Why or why not? 

I learned about design thinking only recently at the Memphis Innovation Bootcamp last fall, but it has had a major impact on both my research and teaching, dovetailing well with my interest in journalism innovation, organizational change, and media entrepreneurship.

#jpreneur students doing design thinking exercise at Crews Center

#jpreneur students doing design thinking exercise at Crews Center

Like any other process or tool, design thinking is not an end-all, be-all, but it’s valuable for journalism innovators for the following reasons: 1)For a long time, journalism was dominated by the ethos “the editor knows best, and will tell you what is important for you to know,” which often extended beyond standard news judgment to the way news organizations were run and new products decided on. Personally, I value the judgment of many of the excellent editors I’ve worked with, but in the digital age, the most important thing we can do to build news products that people will actually use is to learn what our audience really needs and wants. And to do this with empathy and care as design thinking suggests, not just through the use of metrics we may not fully understand.  2)Design thinking can be taught and practiced, making innovation more practical than relying on a sudden brilliant insight that may never come.  3)The newsroom of the future is nimble and capable of constant learning, and that’s a big part of the  overall philosophy of design thinking.

Developing empathy to discover user needs

Developing empathy to discover user needs

In the classroom, design thinking engages journalism students. It helps them unleash their creativity, reinforces the need to start building a new product only after talking to users, and to iterate constantly rather than waiting until you’ve invested many hours in your ideas to test it, a strategy also common to agile development. This semester, I took my entrepreneurial students over to  our brand new campus Crews Center for Entrepreneurship to do a design thinking exercise I learned about at the bootcamp. Instead of just telling them what design thinking is in a lecture, an exercise allows students to experience it.

The design thinking exercise, designed by Stanford’s d school, puts students in teams of two to solve a common problem, taking them through all of the crucial steps: Empathy, Define, Ideate, Prototype, Test. At the Crews Center, we were lucky to have access to lots of great prototyping materials – everything from pipe cleaners to modeling clay. It was fun. Then, throughout the semester, we use  design thinking as part of our process of developing media startups. Students talk to real potential customers for their products they are building, engage in lots of brainstorming, and do some basic prototyping using wireframes and other things. I’ve also started to incorporate this kind of thinking into my other classes as well, getting students talking to users before starting a new blog, social media strategy, etc.

Getting feedback on the prototypes

Getting feedback on the prototypes

Design thinking has also informed my research on organizational change in newsrooms. The ability of organizations to LEARN is a key element of the theory of organizational change,  as described by scholars Chris Argyris and Donald Schon. My research buddy Jonathan Groves and I are seeing many parallels between this body of theory and design thinking as well as the lean startup methodologies advocated by Eric Ries and others that we think could be useful for newsrooms, based on our extensive ethnographic fieldwork. We are going to be writing more on this topic  soon.



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7 responses to “Design Thinking and Journalism: A Vital Match in Changing Times

  1. grovesprof

    Brown, I love how you’ve incorporated design thinking into your classroom. I need to do that more deliberately. You ought to do a follow-up post that expands on the classroom section; I’d love to see how you’re working these ideas into your social-media classes.

  2. Carrie Brown

    Thanks Groves, and good idea. I do it in social media somewhat informally, but I’m constantly pushing them to take their “prototype” e.g. new blog or Twitter feed out to talk about it with users so they can make some iterations to be more useful to the readers. I’d bet there are even smarter ways than what I’m doing.

  3. I love this. And I have to say as a former designer, too often design thinking is missing from those processes as well. The idea of starting with users — and with a need that needs to be filled or a workflow/habit that needs to be respected — is so, so important.

  4. Pingback: The innovative spark: This month’s Carnival of Journalism wrap | Carnival of Journalism

  5. I was first introduced to the concept of ‘design thinking’ a couple years ago when I was tasked with writing this feature:

    I think that increasingly ‘user experience’ is a more straightforward way to describe it (especially from the journalist’s point of view) and one that most people can instantly grasp. ‘Design thinking’ still sometimes comes across a bit airy-fairy, but the idea of putting the user first is very concrete.

    • Carrie Brown

      Yeah, I can see that, and we do talk about “user experience” too in the class. Although I will say that sometimes I think that journalists resistance to things that come across as airy-fairy is what can, at times, make us less innovative that other professional groups that are more open to a variety of different ways of thinking and doing, or at least experimenting with them at times. .

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