Kevin Bethune seated in his Redondo Beach studio, with books in front of him (out of focus) on a coffee table and to his left, on an accent table.
Kevin Bethune in his Redondo Beach studio.

feature / diversity / on-01
September 27, 2023
Written by Kevin Bethune
Photographed by Juan Posada

The Key to Critical Transformation

To Dismantle What’s Not Working, Organizations Must Embrace Diversity, Equity and Inclusivity

Adapted from Reimagining Design: Unlocking Strategic Innovation, by Kevin Bethune. Copyright 2022. Reprinted with permission from The MIT Press.

From Chapter 1: Facing Uncertainty With Hope

Reimagining Design represents my statement of optimism for a world undergoing exponential change and critical uncertainty. Whether from accelerating computation, political division, or macroeconomic forces, periods of uncertainty increase our disposition for wanting improvement and, in some cases, revolution. I believe in creativity and critical thinking as necessary vehicles to instigate forward progress. Let’s use our creativity to imagine new futures that can inspire hope. Equitable, sustainable, ethical, and culturally imaginative futures give us a better sense of direction and helpful visionary context to steer the things we build today. We now have the opportunity to embrace uncertainty as the real variable that it is and to take a proactive stance versus just reacting to it. I write to you with a sense of hope, pulling from my lived experiences and lessons learned as a multidisciplinary Black professional navigating corporate America. In my unorthodox path through engineering, business, and design, curiosity has been the defining thread through every chapter of my experience. It guided me through many unexpected transitions and forks in the road. Despite my being an introvert, my curiosity gave me the energy to reach out and connect with others to learn, investigate, and take on new challenges. Conversations led to opportunities to experiment and stretch myself, sometimes while working for free. Those experiments bred evidence, and that evidence helped me navigate key decisions that would radically change my life.

I had people scowl at me for having the audacity to network with folks above my pay grade when they would applaud others for doing the same.

At the same time, following my curiosity did not mean the journey would be easy. A simple desire to connect the dots was sometimes met with indifference. While working for companies, some didn’t see it as my place to inquire about things happening outside my immediate department. As my career progressed, my experience begun to cut across disciplines. Some interpreted that as me being too generalist or fickle with my career. I remember one person wiggling their hand in my face, the gesture meant to indicate that I was unfocused because I did not follow the same career steps they did. Life did not afford me the same opportunities to enjoy their starting point. I took nothing away from them, but they were taking the validity of my lived experiences away from me. As I journeyed forward, I learned to ask questions of senior leaders to help develop my strategic intuition. I had people scowl at me for having the audacity to network with folks above my pay grade when they would applaud others for doing the same. I simply wanted to learn from these leaders and seek their mentorship, but others found that ambition threatening. I have had folks smile in my face and undercut me behind my back. Their insults, innuendos, and casting of doubt eventually found their way back to me. It hurt. I’ve spoken in meetings and had peers pretend not to hear me—and then recognize someone else for saying the exact same thing.

By sheer existence, I was a threat. I sometimes wondered why these moments were happening to me. Why was I implicitly told to “know my place” and stick with the status quo? A number of reasons ran through my head. Was I crossing a political line and encroaching on someone else’s territory? Would that make my own team look bad if I reached across departments? Maybe someone stuck in their own details was threatened by my taking the leap to connect the dots and rationalize the bigger picture. Often, I felt their body language, their tone, and their visceral indifference. They said so much without saying a word. I found myself constantly being put in a position to mentally put two and two together, while trying not to overtly judge the people that clearly had the freedom and power to judge me. I spent so much energy trying to make others comfortable, while subversively wanting to make an impact with good intentions. I get politics, and I’ve learned to walk with tact in corporate America. What I struggled with the most were the negative reactions to my curiosity, presented without the honesty about what motivated the antagonists who chose to resist me. I couldn’t help but wonder if it was covert bias, ignorance, or racism toward my skin color. Maybe it was? Maybe it wasn’t, but it was a terrible mental position to be in nonetheless: a common reality for many Black professionals who grow accustomed to being the other in the room as an underrepresented minority.

Despite spending so much effort rationalizing people’s behavior or trying to make them comfortable with my presence, I can say that I listened to my gut when it mattered. I surely had my share of trials and tribulations, but my convictions carried me to unique career opportunities via which I could leverage all of my experiences to help others solve new problems. My curiosity eventually became a strength. I could help teams address newly emerging realities because my aperture was wide open. Ultimately, any antagonist behavior stemmed from their fear and insecurity, not mine. But I must admit, I am human. I am a Black man who is sometimes exhausted from constant microaggressions. I would be lying to say those slights didn’t cause me to shrink. Over time, I learned to discard the negative energy and find sources of positivity to propel me forward. Thankfully, for every nine detractors I would encounter, I would find one advocate (coming from all races, genders, and creeds) who encouraged me to follow my heart. Those generous souls would coach me to do the deep work in exploring what was possible, while transforming myself in the process to walk forward with greater confidence and credibility. I no longer shrink. I only share this to inspire you to keep going when the world sometimes pushes back on you.

I must admit, I am human. I am a Black man who is sometimes exhausted from constant microaggressions. I would be lying to say those slights didn’t cause me to shrink.

From Chapter 7: Design Transformation

Many of us work inside large established firms, where you can’t just shift an org chart overnight. Despite our aspiration, design may not be instrumented in the ways that can foster multidisciplinary innovation. Many of us may work in startups for which design does not yet play a significant strategic role, especially when we’re running with limited budget until the next fundraising round. We can’t be naïve enough to think it will be simple to change the paradigm. Yet the times require us to move fast and with conviction. My friend and mentor John Maeda, chief experience officer at Everbridge, regularly issues his annual Design in Tech Report, recently rebranded as the CX Report at the start of 2020. Within it, he celebrates design having an important influence on computation and raises questions about the impact computation will undoubtedly have on business, society, and the environment. I believe John probably had most of his new report roughed out by the beginning of 2020, but the arrival of COVID-19 sent everything into a spin. John’s predictions only magnified in a matter of days and weeks, not years and decades. COVID-19 isolated us, made us uncomfortable, put us on edge, and forced us to grapple with grave concern for our loved ones. For anyone who experienced a loss or suffered from COVID-19, my heart goes out to you. Many safeguards that were supposed to protect us did not, and that made us question the integrity of the systems within our global society. 

Beyond COVID-19, something else was brewing that would ultimately shake us to our core. On May 25, 2020, George Floyd was murdered by police in Minneapolis, Minnesota, after a string of killings, including Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia, Breonna Taylor in Kentucky, and many other told or untold stories, setting off the reawakening of the Civil Rights Movement. Black Americans witnessed these events with a usual state of numbness that our community has endured for over four centuries. Non-Black Americans and the broader world witnessed this tragedy with sheer horror, as the events were vividly displayed by the power of social media. These moments shook the world and helped everyone understand that they should have been listening to the stories of Black Americans all along. As a member of the Black community, these stories were not new. My friend Nikole Hannah-Jones brought threads of systemic racism to life in her opus work, The New York Times Magazine’s “The 1619 Project,” which illustrates how chattel slavery influenced the wiring of many of America’s institutions that we navigate today. Stories of tragedies and assault within my own family were recounted often by my parents. When my mom was about two years old, white supremacists burned down her family home. A newspaper clipping shows my mom being held by my grandmother, with some of her other siblings lined up along the burnt ruins in the background. When I was roughly that young, our family home was targeted with spray paint (reading “ni**er get out”), and a brick was thrown through the window of the backyard patio door.

Black-and-white photograph of Kevin Bethune’s family (his mother held by his grandmother) stands in front of the ruins of their home, which was burned down by white supremacists.
Kevin Bethune’s family (his mother held by his grandmother) stands in front of the ruins of their home, which was burned down by white supremacists. Courtesy of MIT Press.

There is clearly a mismatch when you look at self-proclaimed “world leading” or “industry-leading” brands not mirroring the societies they serve.

Despite the jarring shock of overt racial attacks, Black Americans also remember the covert racism they deal with in the places where they spend a lot of time. Within companies and academic institutions, Black Americans experience racism in the form of microaggressions, gatekeeping, and passive-aggressive manipulation that manifests in glass ceilings and exclusion. Often, these behaviors get couched under the haze of “unconscious bias” or seeking “culture fit” as organizations evolve. I believe these behaviors are actually very conscious, based on the choice to not educate oneself about the threads of systemic racism in America and not recognize power and privilege in one’s present position. For my white colleagues, this does not mean that you didn’t work hard to achieve your post or that you didn’t have difficulties in life. However, Black Americans have been one demographic that’s been completely left out of the American dream, and we have to recognize the systemic barriers that are hardwired into our society and that inhibit real progress. When thinking about the trends in John’s CX Report, I worry that many of these injustices will further exacerbate and multiply under the exponential power of computation. Take, for instance, the fact that artificial intelligence and facial recognition technology incorrectly identified a burglary suspect, resulting in the wrongful arrest of Robert Julian-Borchak Williams in Detroit, Michigan. If we design without eradicating bias and the threads of white supremacy, then the systems we create will become exponentially harmful and further widen socioeconomic disparities.

When we look at most institutions and enterprises, the systemic threads of racism and injustice have influenced a lot of the tendencies and cultural norms we feel and experience every day. We feel it when there’s so much pressure to encourage our youth to find “good jobs” so that they can grow up and feed institutions of extreme capitalism, gentrification, and exploitation with their money. We feel it at work when there’s a heightened sense of urgency over everything, it seems, versus what’s actually important, which may be better served by slowing down to address critical matters of concern. These threads come from white supremacist cultures of exploitation and winning at any cost, especially at the expense of others. We can see it based on the history of enterprises’ hiring, the diversity (or lack thereof) of their teams, and the lack of authentic connection with the market. There is clearly a mismatch when you look at self-proclaimed “world leading” or “industry-leading” brands not mirroring the societies they serve when you peel back the curtains. My friend and author-confidant Kat Holmes dealt with this directly with ableism in her book Mismatch. She offers as rubrics: “Recognize exclusion…Learn from diversity…Solve for one. Extend to many.” I think these also apply to examining systemic injustice and how we might influence change. We miss out on key insights, human connections, and significant business value creation when Black, Brown, and Indigenous voices are left out of opportunity.

I see this continuing to play out in the design field, with Black representation being approximately 3 percent and Brown 7 percent, respectively, in the United States. This is unacceptable when compared to the demographic makeup of our nation. Although we are a small community, Black and Brown designers are out there, and we represent a pipeline of exceptional talent. It’s been extremely challenging to find sustainable pathways that invest in our long-term success. Also, many of us found our way into design through unconventional means because design wasn’t celebrated as a viable path at the beginning of our careers. Often that’s held against us when interviewing for self-proclaimed “world-class” studios that fail to include any of us within their walls. I think about outstanding design voices like Aida Davis (founder and CEO of Decolonize Design, a global consultancy delivering transformative change to individuals, organizations and communities), who found her way into design conversations from a prior background in community organizing. Follow her work if you want to see examples of how she’s elevating above existing design thinking pedagogies to promote a unique approach toward community-centered design. Many design studios hire to “comfort fit,” and it shows in their makeup and cultures. In my experience shaping design at BCGDV, I can truly say that we tried to hire folks with different backgrounds, lived experiences, and talents to really push our thinking—and push they did. Amazing designers like Ronald Clark, Leticia Cervantes, Lydia Timlin-Broussard and La Mer Walker really shaped our approaches and culture.

I believe diversity, equity, and inclusion needs to be treated as a critical business imperative. This is not some touchy-feely, feel-good extracurricular project.

I believe diversity, equity, and inclusion needs to be treated as a critical business imperative. This is not some touchy-feely, feel-good extracurricular project. Enterprises need to address this as a systematic transformation, inclusive of a cohesive strategy, with rigorous implementation at every step. In the wake of George Floyd, some companies felt pressured to acknowledge the moment by placing a black square on Instagram or light platitudes on LinkedIn. But audiences are far savvier and more connected. We can easily see what employees were saying inside their walls behind the external messaging. “Receipts” (evidence of past transgressions) are being shared on Twitter all the time. Who’s for real and who’s faking it? Who’s paying lip service and who is holding themselves accountable to the expectations of their audiences? A few design executives pulled me into conversations with their teams at large multinational corporations. Online, you can find a discussion with my good friend Mauro Porcini, chief design officer of PepsiCo, in which we addressed some of these issues out in the open. I often advise these companies to consult real DEI experts who can offer their teams honest and objective counsel. At the very least, I encourage them to begin with an education on systemic racism and white supremacy. Reading stories like The Warmth of Other Suns, by Isabel Wilkerson, or The New York Times Magazine’s “The 1619 Project” is a healthy start to begin to understand the systemic roots of injustice for Black people trying to find a way for themselves after slavery ended.

Once everyone reaches a baseline of understanding and adopts an antiracism posture, they can begin to drive a strategy and enact bold steps of change. What does this have to do with design transformation? We can see that design, computation, business, and social injustice are now incredibly intertwined. Since my conversation with Mauro, I’ve been approached by more companies and with increasing frequency. My design executive peers want to see transformation in their own ranks and feel that I could offer some objective perspective as a Black professional with unique lived experiences. The more conversations I have, the more I realize that transformation related to diversity, equity, and inclusion cannot sit in isolation to design transformation. It just can’t. If we believe that our potential to serve the world is contingent on our ability to ensure that our teams are representative of the world’s diverse makeup, I think we should see a lot more DEI traction. People need to start believing this. The more connected the world becomes, the more demographics will look at brands, saying, “Who are you, and where are the people that look like me inside your walls?” Taking DEI seriously will lead to relevant, sustainable, and viable business growth. 

If we want growth, then we need to fuel it with viable innovation, inclusive of the different innovation growth archetypes. To fuel innovation, we need to empower our teams to make creative sparks and connections among a diversity of inputs and insights. We need their creativity, and we also need them to push hard against the status quo, which often hides bias and systemic imbalance. A diverse, equitable, and inclusive organization has a better shot to dismantle what is not working. We have to honestly evaluate our team makeup and lead with courage to shift to a more representative composition. As Kat Holmes provoked us to do in Mismatch, we need to question the “how” behind our approaches too. Design thinking has provided significant business value, but it can also spread considerable harm when we conceive of solutions from an ivory tower, without adequate, diverse representation. The tools become harmful in the hands of folks with bias, prejudice, and approaches, only to be validated by more folks with bias. How should our methodologies change? If we want folks to leverage their diversity, creativity, and convictions to achieve successful innovations, what enablers do we need to put in place to support and empower our people to do their best work at an optimal level? Ultimately, we need to treat this as a critical transformation.

Kevin Bethune (MS 12) is the founder and chief creative officer of dreams • design + life, a think tank that delivers design and innovation services using a humancentered approach. Bethune’s background has spanned engineering, business and design in equal proportions over his 25-year career. He also serves on the Board of Trustees for ArtCenter College of Design and as Board Chair for the Design Management Institute (DMI).