The Art of Hosting Creativity and Innovation: Applying Design Thinking at the University of Minnesota

Virajita Singh and Nick Rosencrans

Design Thinking is an emerging field applying the tools and processes from the design disciplines (architecture, landscape architecture, interior design, graphic design, product design, apparel design, and others) to complex, system-wide problems (Brown, 2009; Wolfe Wood, 2013). Here, we propose that Design Thinking be included as one of the tools within The Art of Hosting Conversations That Matter (hereafter referred to as “Art of Hosting”) frameworks, like Appreciative Inquiry, and techniques like Open Space Technology. The Art of Hosting approach is intended to host conversations and bring people together to communicate and collaborate in conversation, which it does quite effectively. Yet, often people are interested in going beyond conversations; integrating Design Thinking within the Art of Hosting collection helps in creating tangible results. Design Thinking takes conversations beyond just conversations, and effectively taps imagination towards action by developing ideas into tangible prototypes.

We see an opportunity for Design Thinking to complement and contribute to Art of Hosting in five ways:

  1. Taking conversations to action
  2. Building on Art of Hosting principles and themes, specifically, Hosting Others and Co-creation
  3. Creating an individual and group experience of applied creativity
  4. Teaching people to frame and work on Design Challenges
  5. Give feedback and give people permission to fail (low stakes, fail early and fail often)

We have observed that many people come back from Art of Hosting trainings and conversations having had a breakthrough and a new experience of the potential of effective and meaningful conversations in community. Design Thinking has similar breakthrough potential because it introduces people to a new way of thinking beyond their past experiences, and gives them creative tools to apply in their daily work.

As the core focus of this eBook is change in the academy, we propose that Design Thinking can build on, and take to the next level the Art of Hosting’s significant successes in improving conversations and building community towards effective action at the University of Minnesota. In fact, we propose the University of Minnesota Art of Hosting community intentionally experiment with combining these methodologies, documenting the process, and results of our experiments.

We have begun to explore this direction in the University portal. The Enterprise Portal Project is intended to serve all users with audience-specific communication, employee benefits, payroll, grades, course information, events, training, and so on. University users are being engaged in the process of design and prototyping; the delivery of the new platform will occur in the fall of 2014.

Because the University of Minnesota community is large and diverse with five campuses across the state, the design team is partnering with Usability Services (where Nick works) that works with University teams to objectively evaluate user interface issues during vendor selection or development of an application for the University community and the College of Design (where Virajita works). As a team, we have collaborated on how the portal design goals and design thinking might intersect to develop portal design. We developed the workshop design and hosted seven workshops, anticipating that learning from each would affect the next delivery. This was applying design thinking to the design of design thinking workshops! On March 5th, it was time to test our approach and enter into the unknown.

Design Thinking Process

There are a few different ways the design thinking process is described. We had the participants work in teams with the following five-step process:

  1. Empathy: building empathy between users
  2. Problem Definition: clarifying the focus of the problem to be solved
  3. Ideation: generating an abundance of creative ideas and selecting from them
  4. Prototyping: giving the ideas physical form using art materials to rapidly to evolve the thinking and details of the solution for implementation
  5. Test: testing the ideas in real life for further development

The participants of the workshops would apply the first four steps; the Enterprise Portal Team designers responsible for creating the final design would apply the fifth step.

The teams created prototypes to mock up what the portal might look like and what features it might have. After the prototype was created, the teams were given the chance to develop a brief presentation on a pre-created format that included names of the team, a title and description for the prototype, as well as a list of design features that were unique to that prototype. This was useful not only to clarify to what the team members thought were the best and unique features of the prototype, but also to consider the audience to whom they would present.

Singh1In developing the workshops, we recognized the need to gain feedback from all of the participants who would observe one another’s presentations. Traditional models for capturing feedback—question and answer periods, voting, contests—didn’t seem like the right fit to quickly harvest meaningful, critical data from all participants equally. In order to engage participants in one another’s designs, we considered a number of approaches. The approach that garnered the most interest in the team was to provide stickers to everyone so they could express their feedback as they listened to each team describe their designs. Once the team explained their design in a few minutes, then the large group could apply their stickers on whatever facets of the design captured their interest the most. The stickers they used would be given specific meanings, and their value would come from them being limited in quantity: for each design, there would be only two copies of each sticker to use. This way, the team hoped, the key aspects of each design would become apparent by the presence of these stickers surrounding them.

But what kind of stickers would engage the participants in one another’s design? At first we thought about using smiley-faces and frowny-faces, allowing the team to gauge consensus and get visual impact on aspects to avoid. This approach seemed to be lacking something; it seemed that the smileys and frownies were just positive and negative points on the same scale, so we looked for other models of feedback that could offer more depth. We turned to the model of feedback called the Kano Model. Sometimes included in six sigma techniques, this model is used to assess how features compare to one another by classifying each one according to two variables: fulfillment and satisfaction.

If a participant in the Design Thinking Workshop gave up one of their two smiley-face stickers to a given feature over another, we would interpret that feature as something that was exciting to the participant. But to capture the risk component, the sense of dissatisfaction if a feature was done poorly, a frowny-face sticker would not work. We needed something that related to the sense of upset that might occur if something wasn’t given the attention it needs. In order to graphically represent this in an understandable way, the team elected to use a sticker with a shield on it. We told participants that the shield sticker represented a sense of protection: by giving up one of their two shield stickers on a given feature over some alternative, they were protecting that feature so it might be more likely to be carried forward in the resulting development work.

The relationship between these two stickers seemed to work: once applied to the prototypes created by the Design Thinking Workshop participants, their stickers would not be simply opposite versions of one another, and their presence could tip us off to areas of opportunity and areas of risk as seen by the participants. Further, this depth of feedback could be harvested from the Design Thinking Workshop experience quickly enough to be employed with every team’s prototype.


More than 260 people from 171 units participated in the seven workshops held across University system-wide campuses; they created thirty-six prototypes. The workshops were successful, based on participant feedback:

  • “It was a wonderful experience. The Design Thinking lens is the perfect way through which all major changes at the University (and elsewhere) should take place. As an employee, it made me feel that my ideas and input might matter and that being a user of the tool is the only expertise one needs to be seen as a valued contributor. I felt inspired by the event and the conversations that took place at our table and around the room.”
  • “I went in kind of skeptical that I wouldn’t be of much help, but left feeling energized and excited about the portal.”
  • “This is going to be quite the undertaking and I am happy to see that key stakeholders are being engaged right from the beginning. I’m excited to see how this project progresses.”

During and after the workshops, we compiled the materials and results in a few ways—prototypes photos, summary documents, and team presentation videos for each prototype were posted on the portal project website. After all workshops were completed the 36 total prototypes were posted on Pinterest. Also, a spreadsheet of design features was created where all the data from sticker counts were added as well as information from the post-workshop evaluation feedback.

New Technique for the Art of Hosting Collection

As we reflect upon the connection between the existing Art of Hosting techniques and Design Thinking used in this project, a few elements come into focus.

  • First, Design Thinking connects with two important aspects of the Four-Fold Practice, hosting others and co-creation. It provides additional techniques that fit within other existing methods.
  • Second, because Design Thinking is hands-on and takes conversations to action, it is appropriate for additional steps in any change process. It is an individual and group experience of applied creativity and that manifests co-creation.
  • Third, Design Thinking focuses on particular challenges, pushing them to frame issues carefully. The methods provide people mechanisms for giving feedback. Through the use of prototypes, people also have permission to fail (low stakes, fail early, and fail often).

In conclusion, we propose that Design Thinking be integrated into the Art of Hosting approach, with the University of Minnesota being a test set for this integration. We can design intentional experiments in the coming years and report the results of this to the global Art of Hosting community.