What is a Design Hack?

May 10, 2017

What if there was an easy way for you create ideas that helped you prepare for the future whilst engaging your staff or community. There is, it's called a Design Hack.

We spent a night in the museum just recently, yes the night. From 7pm - 7am. This wasn't a rerun of a popular movie, we weren't breaking in to steal ancient relics, we were facilitating a Design Hack as part of Melbourne Knowledge Week. Melbourne Museum have the challenge of wanting to create an exhibition about humans that provides visitors with a greater sense of wellbeing. This exhibit would last 15 years and touch millions of people.

The extremely talented and knowledgable museum crew could have created this exhibition themselves, however, they saw this as an opportunity to engage with a new demographic, one that has fewer numbers of visitors to the museum, and one that could help foresee how changes in science, medicine, health or the wider world could impact human wellbeing.

Melbourne Museum Night Hack  



design hack

It was a cold and rainy Saturday evening in Melbourne (a sure sign that we would have a few drop-offs). We had had 80 people register to attend after several emails detailing that this was a 12 hour through-the-night experience. We predicted we would get 50 people at most. At 6pm we were surprised to see people already waiting to get in. At 7pm we had more than 80 people in total and had to scramble for extra tables and chairs. It turns out that the chance to be part of an innovative process to design a new exhibit as well as the once in a lifetime opportunity to spend the night in the museum was a big draw card.


So what is a design hack and how does this process get people excited about participating? 

The design element comes from Design Thinking or Human Centred Design. Essentially a mindset, however simplified, it is a name for the method that can be used to enable people to develop creative solutions to existing or future problems. Design Thinking has grown in popularity, dispersed from the design world into the business world and is now taught at top level MBAs as a way to help businesses adapt in our world of accelerated change.

The reason for its growth in popularity is because the way that we market has evolved. Consumers are savvier than ever before and engage with businesses that provide real value to them as a customer. Our expectations of how we should be treated have changed, we don't want to be sold to. Businesses have to focus on value creation, ultimately being human-centred themselves. You can read more on why your business should be human centred in this blog post.

The 'Hack' part is borrowed from the technology world. It doesn't mean that you are using computers for malicious intent, rather it references a trick or shortcut to something. Similar to life 'hack' or growth 'hack'.

Putting together a hack is a shortcut to you being able to develop a creative solution to a complex problem. Usually, these hacks run no more than 24 hours and have been adopted in quite a few ways. There are Global GovJams, design hacks for government and the public sector, Hacks for good, Random Hacks of Kindness. All with the solid purpose of trying to solve existing or future problems.

The reason people love to do them is they get to contribute to the process. They love the creative journey and the spectacular (which the results often are) ideas they come up with collaboratively to solve challenging problems. People love to be asked their opinion, especially when it comes to something that they feel very passionately about too, and then getting their idea being put to action. 

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What is the process?

Before your begin,  you would have identified a particular challenge that you want help to solve and then you would have selected or invited a group of people (we had 80 at the museum) who will participate in the hack.


Design Hack at the Museum.001.jpeg

The first stage of the process is to understand who you are 'designing' for. This is where the human-centred bit comes in and why actively engaging your target audience always creates results that will provide value to them. We want participants to feel empathy towards the target audience. In the normal human centred design process we would spend a lot of time researching and conducting ethnography studies to develop this understanding, in a hack, we use the data we have available, specialist mentors and frameworks to help people gain different perspectives.

Next we define our problem statement. We want to understand the 'actual' problem we are solving. Notice how we start with understanding our audience before defining the problem we are solving. This allows us to interpret our observations of the people we are designing for and draw connection and patterns to help develop deeper insights into what the problem actually is.

The brainstorming session then begins and teams work to generate as many ideas on possible solutions to the problem they have just identified. The idea is not to get stuck on one idea, but to come up with as many as possible. Once the team has exhausted all possibilities, they begin to look for patterns and similarities. At the end of this session the ideal is to have two or three ideas to take into the next stage.

This next stage is always my favourite. Here, you get to prototype your idea. It seems premature at first as you haven't solidified your idea in your mind and you may have two options, but it helps bring clarity. The trick is to start building, sketch, use lego, use Play-Doh, use cardboard, use a computer. Whatever it is that you use, build something that someone else can interact with.

The next stage asks you to take your prototype and test it with the people you have designed for. At a hack, you can test this with other teams to get their feedback. Show, don't tell, to see how others interact and use your design. Take the feedback you get and refine, test, refine, test.

At the end of the hacks we facilitate, we ask the teams to present their idea in front of a panel of expert judges. Following a high energy, intensive 12 hours, they have three minutes to articulate their idea and value proposition.

The results are usually amazing!

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How can you use a Design Hack to help you engage your staff or community in the creation of innovative ideas, products, services or strategy?

Start by thinking a little differently. Be open to the possibility that involving the community in the design of an idea or strategy may result in possibilities that the senior team could never have come up with alone.

If you use this as a strategy to engage with staff internally, see the time away from day-to-day responsibilities as an investment. Not only will the staff help develop potential future strategies, they will also gain new skills, new ways of thinking, and a greater sense of commitment to the organisation.

Using this strategy to engage with your target audience, be that the whole community or a specific interest group, not only brings you insights into what they see of value, but usually results in a greater sense of brand loyalty.

Win-wins for any organisation.

Design Hacks are fun, challenging, high-energy, and collaborative. If you'd like to explore how you could create one for your organisation we'd love to chat this through with you. 

design hack

Here's a video of a Design Hack we ran for the City of Melbourne in 2016. Open to the public, this engaged the community to develop ideas for Future Melbourne 2026.



by Samantha Hurley

Samantha Hurley

Written by Samantha Hurley

Sam co-founded Marketing Entourage after spending 18 years in senior sales & marketing positions for companies such as Lonely Planet and The Press Association in Melbourne, New York and London. Sam started out in a design agency and used design thinking to help develop a product that went on to revolutionise the media industry in 2002. Sam also teaches Digital Marketing and Data Driven Marketing at General Assembly. The daughter of an engineer and a designer, she learned to code and design at a young age. She feels she has the mind of a scientist and the heart of an artist and likes to sit in the space where creativity, technology and business converge.

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