In 2007, when I first joined IDEO as an anthropologist-turned-business designer, a lot of the mindsets and methods of design were foreign to me. I had to embrace new ways of working. Perhaps the hardest one was that of showing work in progress.
Opening up unfinished work to critique, feedback, and collaboration demands copious amounts of vulnerability. But often the very feedback we’re nervous to get is what strengthens our work, surfaces blind spots, and helps us create more empathic solutions.
Over the past few years, one of my biggest design projects has been redesigning IDEO.org itself. As an organization working on challenges that disproportionately affect women and people of color, it’s critical to be truly representative of the people we’re designing for. This journey has led us to shift priorities, reshape our culture, and confront the truth about just how far we still have to go.
But like all worthy design efforts, we know that sharing our work in progress will make us stronger, so in the spirit of vulnerability, I’d like to share a glimpse into the lessons and challenges we’ve experienced along the way.
Approximately 86 percent of professional designers in the United States are caucasian. Only 45 percent are female, with very few occupying leadership positions—and that’s not including diversity of age, sexuality, ability/disability, location, socioeconomic background, and religious identity. The field of design will evolve only as it’s diversified. Yet the loudest and most visible design practices, discourses, and gatekeepers continue to be wildly homogenous and sometimes even discriminatory.
In 2015, as IDEO.org was nearing four years old, we hit a growth spurt. We had built our team “organically,” hiring mainly through referrals and word of mouth. As a result, the vast majority of people we hired were white—mirroring the state of the industry. But as a design organization working mostly with communities of color—both in the U.S. and overseas—we have a proactive responsibility to build an organization that is more representative of the diverse world we live and work in.
To change our habits and build stronger design teams, our leadership made diversity, equity, and inclusion a priority. As a first step, we committed our most precious resource—unrestricted funding—to bring in advisors from the Interaction Institute for Social Change to help kickstart our journey.
It was evident that several identities were underrepresented in our organization—including African Americans, Latinx people, LGBTQIA+ individuals, and first-generation immigrants. So we cast our recruiting net wider—explicitly naming the identities that were missing from our organization and enlisting the professors, alumni, and other designers in our network to help us find potential candidates. We also reframed our interview debrief process to mitigate the potential for groupthink and hired a recruiter who was passionate about exposing more people from underrepresented communities to design. Most importantly, we waited for the right people, even when that meant having open roles for several extra months.
Similarly, when seats opened on our board of directors, we looked for and found incredible candidates that could stretch and strengthen our practice in new ways. And when we launched our Nairobi studio, we committed to hiring only full-time designers from across the continent.
Over the past few years, our organization has become much more diverse than before—over half our current team identifies as people of color. But despite this progress, we still have significant work to do to ensure that diversity is balanced across all roles, levels, and studios. We also continue to struggle in New York and San Francisco to find and hire Black and Latinx designers from socioeconomic backgrounds similar to the communities we work with every day.
As our organization started to become more diverse, we had to confront some hard truths about our culture—one where only some people felt like they belonged. Our biases had crept into our rituals—from the food we served at community lunches to the ways we defined leisure and self-care. These choices and language reinforced certain identities and made others feel left out.
To foster inclusivity, we had to make space for everyone to shape the culture—not just participate in it. We started small—creating and circulating a zine that candidly explored the varied identities and experiences present at the organization. By celebrating our differences (instead of only our similarities), people’s unique backgrounds started informing and inspiring our day-to-day—from a Nowruz (Iranian New Year) celebration at our studio to a series of talks about personal creative inspiration during Asian American History Month.
But we also knew the burden of change could not rest solely on underrepresented groups. It was my responsibility to do my homework, overcome my fear of saying the wrong thing, and deepen my own understanding of how power, privilege, and race show up in our work. Reading and reflecting on books like White Fragility, How to be an Antiracist, and Winners Take All helped me find more nuanced language and frameworks to lead this conversation at IDEO.org.
Over time, our culture has started to shift—growing less monolithic day by day. We haven’t always moved quickly enough, but the messy process of dismantling the bias in our culture is one we must continue to commit to—no matter how many times we misstep.
Design excellence is often framed within adherence to European standards, and the individuals who make up the ‘canon’ are chiefly white, male, and privileged. But as an organization working in communities around the world, it’s dangerous for excellence to be defined so narrowly. As our culture shifts, so has our definition of great design. It’s more contextual and prismatic than it was before—drawing inspiration from a myriad of visual references, lived experiences, and storytelling traditions.
For example, when we designed a program for ‘tween girls experiencing the physical and emotional world of puberty in a Syrian refugee camp in Jordan, the firsthand experience of one of our designers (who grew up in neighboring Iraq and the UAE) played an invaluable role in the project’s success. Her familiarity with local euphemisms and boundaries helped the team navigate a culturally taboo topic in a sensitive way, while also creating illustrations for the program's materials that girls could really relate to. In our work, it’s the ability to understand and design for cultural nuance that defines excellence, not emulating the canon that's come before.
Our tools and practices have also evolved to make sure the people most closely impacted by the challenges we’re working on have greater authorship of the products and services we create. Whether that’s co-designing health services with young women in Ethiopia and Nigeria or hiring community fellows in New York City to research barriers to social mobility in their own neighborhoods, it’s imperative that we as designers make the space for people to define what success looks like. Only then will our work be anchored to their vision and aspirations.
Like the rest of the field, we have a long way to go in ensuring these practices become the norm. As we seek to redefine great design, we’ve been inspired by leaders like Antoinette Carroll and Greater Good Studio’s George Aye, each of whom is pioneering their own articulations of equity-centered design. We know for certain that the impact of design is inextricably tied to the equity, humility, and accountability of its process.
This journey to transform our organization hasn’t been an easy one—and we’ve faltered in many moments. But there’s one thing I know for sure: it’s never once felt like a sacrifice. With each challenge, each recruiting effort, each moment of cultural reckoning, our organization has gotten stronger.
Five years from now, I hope the field of design is a much more inclusive, more diverse, and more vibrant place, including and far beyond the walls of IDEO.org’s studios. I hope we can inspire and support more young designers to imagine and pursue a career in design. And I hope I’ll have arrived at a better, revised definition of what it means to do great design.
Illustrations by Carmen Deño