Design Thinking and Cultural
Change in Aarhus Public Library 

Since the late 1990s, the public library in Aarhus, Denmark has used human-centered design methods to create relevant and vibrant libraries. Over time, this ongoing practice has transformed the culture of their organization.

In the early 2000s the leaders of the Aarhus Public Libraries, Rolf Hapel and Knud
Schulz, began asking new questions about how best to engage with their citizens. Technology, including the installation of a public-facing computer system, was quickly becoming central to library services, and there was concern that the library needed to build skills and knowledge to help prepare for this change. The leaders were aware that their current systems and services were not designed to incorporate this technology, and they were also aware of the need to bring in more knowledge to the organization about these new library services.

Collaborators to kick-start design
One way to address this need was to collaborate with local designers and researchers. For example, they formed a partnership with Aarhus University’s Computer Science Department, which had an Information Technology group working on issues regarding citizens and digital services. Their partners were a group of professors and students who were engaged in participatory design practices. Participatory design, which originated in Scandinavia, is a design approach that involves all stakeholders so that results meet everyone’s needs, are genuinely usable, and solve community problems. It is one of the earliest forms of human-centered design.

The Transformation Lab
The professors and students helped the Aarhus Library staff implement iterative design models so that they could engage community members to learn about their needs, do ongoing testing of ideas, and make prototypes. The library created a Transformation Lab, a space where they could begin to design projects that engaged library staff and community. In this space, they tested out participatory design methods and a host of other strategies to co-create the library with the users. Along the way, they teamed up with other partners who brought in new methods of exploring human-centered design.

From the librarian’s space to the citizen’s space
The team’s initial strategic approach within the organization was to bring as many staff members as possible on design projects. There were about 5-7 staff members on each project team who worked collaboratively to solve a citizen problem in the
library. These project participants ranged from librarians and information specialists to the building maintenance staff. Nearly everyone took part in these projects and worked in this human-centered way. Over the next 12 years, the library staff worked on design projects in their main public library and branch libraries. One of the major shifts that occurred during this time was that the library went from being the librarian’s space to the citizen’s space. Patrons started to feel ownership of the space and were more and more willing to participate as an active part of the library community. This was a critical shift in the Libraries’ human-centered design approach because citizens began to feel that they too could be involved in designing and shaping the space.

Design thinking to revitalize the approach
In 2013 a unique opportunity emerged, as Aarhus joined forces with the Chicago Public Library to create a new movement for human-centered design in libraries. Together they applied for a collaborative grant from the Gates Foundation and named IDEO as their innovation partner. For Aarhus, this was a new kind of collaboration, and an opportunity to revitalize their design approach.

Because they were already in the middle of a long-term engagement with human-centered design methods, some of the staff had started to experience innovation burnout. In part, this was the result of working on many projects, and their teams had been operating without a clear methodology. They had developed a pastiche approach, experimenting with many different kinds of methods. The Gates project represented an opportunity to try a new, focused approach that would allow them to get back to their core interest in human-centered methodologies. This project wasn’t about starting anew, but about renewing and revitalizing the approach. In taking it on, the Aarhus team learned a clearer design process that librarians could pick up and use on their own projects. It also gave them an opportunity to reflect on community issues and patron needs. Design Thinking methods have given them a more structured and more formalized way of engaging on projects.

Design thinking in use today
As human-centered design has become part of the DNA of Aarhus’ library culture, it has become a go-to strategy when library teams need to solve a problem or approach a new project. The teams are now more disposed toward action, spending less time talking about a problem and more time focused on how best to combine thinking and action to solve it. They are also keenly aware of the importance of partnerships in getting things done. They have at least 130 active partnerships from around the world on different projects and initiatives. This radical approach to partnerships is key to their successes and evidence of their experimental culture.

Along the way, they have also faced challenges. They haven’t found buy-in from all of their staff, there has been innovation burn out, and some feel frustration with not
seeing the expected outcomes from Design Thinking projects. Implementation phases can also take a long time, and that can cause impatience at not seeing more immediate results. Additionally, the Aarhus team moved into their new state-of-the art library, Dokk1, in 2015, a transition that required a tremendous amount of work and was an extraordinary accomplishment for the team. Much of their work over the past 12 years has been focused on learning to be ready to move into the new building. But once they moved into the new space, the questions they had asked and the challenges they had faced in their previous space were no longer an issue. As they settle into their new building, they are now inspired to reconnect with Design Thinking in new ways, to ask new questions about their purpose, and to decide how they will design for their new space and develop the services and programs they will offer to the public.

Advice from Aarhus Public Libraries
The Aarhus librarians also have advice to share for those engaging in human-centered methodologies in their libraries: You need to start somewhere, and don’t be afraid to start small. Do simple things like define areas where you need some development, choose 2-3 methods from the Design Thinking Toolkit to begin engaging citizens, and clear a space in your library to use for projects and experiments. The team’s overarching message is to just try it and don’t be too critical or over-complicate things.

Finally some advice from Rolf Hapel, the leader of Aarhus Public Libraries: "If libraries want to stay relevant they always need to ask the questions, To what problems in society are your libraries the answer? Why are we important?" And, in line with the mindset change that has happened in Aarhus library, he says you cannot decide what the answer is yourself: you need to learn from your patrons.