Kevin Bethune Says Building a Brighter Design Future Means Taking a Hard Look at the Industry's Deepest Flaws

Our Core77 Design Awards are always led by experts in their field with fascinating stories as to how they got there—that’s why we love getting to know them better in interviews we share with our Core77 audience. In 2021, we’re proud to have a number of judges out there actively changing the industry as we know it, including this year’s Consumer Technology Jury Captain, Kevin Bethune.

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Bethune is the Founder & Chief Creative Officer of dreams • design + life, a consultancy that balances clients’ business objectives using a combination of Strategic Design and Industrial Design. Growing up in Downriver Detroit, Bethune’s experience surrounded by technical professionals working in the auto industry naturally led to a curiosity in engineering. After studying mechanical engineering at Notre Dame, he took his first job in the nuclear power industry at Westinghouse Electric Company, which offered rare opportunities to work on new product development fresh out of school. Exposure to conversations around business at Westinghouse stoked an interest in learning more, and he went back to school at Carnegie Mellon University to merge his knowledge of technology with an MBA.

Despite his deep knowledge in engineering and business, a lifelong creative curiosity lingered. While working for Nike after graduating with his MBA and making friends with lead Nike footwear designers, he got his first chance to work on a design project, side-hustling with footwear projects on top of his business role at the company. This opportunity motivated Bethune to eventually graduate from ArtCenter with a MS in Industrial Design, which solidified Bethune with the knowledge trifecta of technology, business and design that allowed him to carve a unique space within the industry. Bethune has gone on to help build the consulting powerhouse that is BCG Digital Ventures, and just three years ago started his very own think tank in dreams • design + life.

We spoke with Bethune about his journey from nuclear engineering to founder of his own design think tank, the dwindling boundaries between design and business, and the importance of leaders tackling issues of racial inequity within the industry head on.

I wanted to ask about dreams • design + life. Maybe you could expand on what you focus on most particularly there and what made you want to go out on your own specifically?

So with dreams • design + life, I love to really focus on strategic design, to help companies shape their future opportunities, and then industrial design, to really make sure that design outcomes are reflective of the context that we surface in those strategies.

We focus on two things that inform our filters of the types of projects we take on. The first is, is there an opportunity to actually focus on a human centric problem, no matter if it’s b2b, b2c, or b2b to b2c? There has to be an unlock of human potential and human performance, really addressing the human centered value criteria that’s playing in any ecology that we’re working on. A lot of companies may have different agendas that may contrast that; it might be to digitize, it might be to transform. You know, I think we dealt with that a lot in my past chapter with BCG, and now, I want to really address those human-centered problems with my business.

The second filter is, because my experience has been very multidisciplinary—through a thread of physical product creation, combining some digital—I really focus on those opportunities that can yield new experiences across physical, digital and human-based service touch points. We’re really working on ecologies of opportunity, not just thinking about what is reflected in rectangular viewports or apps—there needs to be more than that for us to take on the work. So those are the two filters, and it’s funny, being all of those things to all industries on the BCG platform, it made me think, “where do you want to really steer your calories?” And that’s why I decided to eventually leave.

Your expertise lies just as equally in business as it does in design and strategy. And it sounds like you were really far ahead of the curve when it came to understanding the importance of merging these elements together. So as someone well informed personally in the space, why would you say it’s so important for designers working today to now understand aspects of business? How do you see this sort of co-collaborative state evolving in the near future?

Honestly, [my interest in both] came from an initial point of challenge where it wasn’t easy to go through those inflection points between engineering and business. But you sort of look forward and see what’s happening in the marketplace. You see these needs coalescing. And to answer your question, as we look to the future, I think designers find themselves in the room with more diverse actors than ever before. Every organization, big and small, is thinking about their future relevance. And especially if 2020 has taught us anything, the paradigms of change can happen and are definitely happening more exponentially than we ever thought was possible before.

So for a business to understand that the world can move out from underneath your feet in an instant, business folks, designers, technology professionals need to be in the room together, at least some of the time. When we talked about this convergence [years ago], it was more of the exception, not the rule, especially in my experience navigating larger organizations. But I think now, especially with clients that I serve, we’re having a conversation of, how do we open the aperture and create more space for this multidisciplinary collaboration? And they feel the potential, but we’re actually working on true innovation opportunities that their existing business didn’t have the appetite or the attention span to even think about. Now we’re enabling them to think about these things. And it’s exciting. And they feel like they can actually have some license through these winds of disruption. So we’re designed to handle that and understand their role in that. That’s where I want to bring these lessons to life and how I mentor designers, as well as how I mentor organizations to change.

I’m curious to hear your thoughts about all the talk within the business world around bringing design thinking into the fray. Do you have any examples of what you would consider a shallow perspective of what that is, and conversely, truly effective ways of implementing design into business?

It definitely reflected a worry that I had as we were cultivating design within the BCG environment; they hadn’t known the power of design. But to their credit, BCG gave us the trust and runway to prove ourselves. I think we did fight the perceptions, not just BCG, but maybe their executive clientele, where they’d heard of design thinking, but design to them felt like post-it note exercises, the brainstorms, the workshops that was a part of—that, arguably, to their eyes was design.

They didn’t see the deep work that was happening, the iterations before the designer is comfortable putting up a wireframe or an industrial design sketch. The creative process was quite foreign, like, “what do you mean by ‘discovery’? We hire a market research agency to go do discovery for us.”

So we said, let me show you what design investigation means and the superpowers that are required to do that well. Let me show you what the ideation process means and how prototypes and stories can actually propel us forward into better thinking. And a lot of that doesn’t happen in the team room always. We have to actually give the experts that we’re bringing into this multidisciplinary conversation some room to breathe. I started writing about those experiences, those concerns. And that actually led to an invitation to give a talk at a TED Institute event in partnership with BCG in Milan, Italy, where we talked about the four superpowers of design. I shed a light on applications of design thinking and practice, but also sharing how to really give design as an expertise the ability to shine and to really go deep on opportunities. That balancing act is still very nebulous for most organizations.

So I think another interesting thing to flow into is one aspect of design thinking, this idea of quote-unquote, empathy. And I think that definition has really evolved even in this past year, because we’re seeing the short handedness of that definition in design. This also relates to the discussion on design equity.

There are a number of organizations like Where Are the Black Designers? that have risen in the past year, and you’ve noted personally that promoting more black, BIPOC designers is a particular mission to you. This is such a huge question, but it’s really just a starting point to our discussion. Where do you personally think employers and fellow designers are missing the mark in this regard?

It is a big question, but we need to talk about this more. Unfortunately I think we have a sort of an ivory tower problem in design, that’s fair to say. And the reason why I say we have an ivory tower problem is, many times, whether we’re embracing a design-thinking mindset, human-centric mindset, we tend to relish in the pedigree of our studios or teams. And we talked about walking in someone’s shoes or designing for the audience that we’re serving and we run the risk of designing with inherent biases, of making gross or hasty assumptions about people and we may design stuff that we like, or that we can envision ourselves going through. But we might not realize that, in the act of doing that, we exclude so many, we exclude some important value criteria, sensitivities, realities that our audiences, our increasingly diverse and interconnected audiences are going through.

And we’re not just talking about society as one-note people, by race or gender or whatever it might be, we’re talking about intersectional human beings that have many layers of diverse perspectives informed by their lived experience. And when I look at a lot of design studios, innovation studios, they don’t represent the world that they’re arguing that they’re serving. They’re not mirroring the world in terms of representation. And oftentimes, I hear the rhetoric of, “There are just not enough black designers to hire, BIPOC designers to hire.” Yes, the community, the population is small, and I think there are a number of forces that feed into that. For example, there’s the lack of investment in the arts and design education in the early years of primary school and study so people can even realize it could be a career path.

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There’s also the lack of diversity at top design institutions, and these kinds of things play into it. But there still is a pipeline—it’s a myth to say that there’s not a pipeline there. There are minority or underrepresented designers of every sort out there pioneering and finding their own voice in the industry. But unfortunately, the industry doesn’t necessarily look for or celebrate their voices. And I think thanks to the Internet and the advances of connectivity, black designers are sort of peeking up from their efforts to burrow and carve new lanes. They are looking up for the first time and waving at each other like, “Hey, here I am! I’m over here!” This person over here’s doing a similar thing, let’s connect. And that’s when you see platforms, like Where Are the Black Designers, and kudos to Mitzi [Okou, WATBD founder] and those who are pioneering the formation of these communities. So it’s a testimony of, hey there is a pipeline.

When I look at my peers and friends who come from HBCUs, where the industry doesn’t talk to them or doesn’t even think of them as credible players when they absolutely are, they overlook that incredible talent coming out of those schools. Again, we have a perception problem that the pipeline is a problem when it’s not, that’s a myth. It almost feeds into an excuse that a lot of design teams make around their next generation of hires.

Another part of this whole struggle is, like you were saying, getting more BIPOC designers in those roles. And I’m really interested in that question around, how do designers and organizations begin to invest in those designers with great potential, but maybe less of the extensive credentials we see listed on job descriptions?

Yeah, it’s an unfortunate conversation. Because I listen to all these conversations, whether it’s design Twitter or whatever, around these pedantic requirements and these platitudes around requirements being floated around, like what makes a good portfolio or what makes a good design interview. And I watch the people that are making those claims or asserting those requirements. And if they were honest with themselves, looking at themselves in the mirror, I don’t think they can measure up to the pedagogy that’s being espoused in these conversations.

And honestly, after touching many Fortune 100 enterprises and navigating large organizations and helping startups, when you look at the work, and perhaps the lack of empathy, the lack of relevance to the dynamic paradigm changes that are happening in the marketplace, that lack of humility, ultimately their posture shows itself in the work.

Now, in my experience, and at least the BCG example, we were cultivating digital ventures and building and design functions out of nothing. You know, of course we were victims of habit to where, for example, I came from ArtCenter. And naturally operating out of LA, the school was right in my backyard so of course, I’m going to go to my ArtCenter network to find my first hires for the growing design function.

But after a little while, I felt uncomfortable with that because we need different points of view on the pedagogy, because the market needs are vacillating all over the place. And we need a diversity of lived experiences, approaches to methods, approaches to empathy and compassion and idea creation. We need people to really push us—every hire is critical and diversifying our ability to be nimble and flexible and agile to the needs of the market. And so we had to think about, where else on the planet do we need to go to find like-minded practitioners? Yes, in terms of the fundamental things that we know are needed, but we need diverse actors to come in—women, BIPOC people, you know, people with different lived experiences, different backgrounds, different pedagogies. We need different people pushing us and really breaking our methods physically for the better, so that we can come up with new methods that are more relevant and more impactful. And sure enough, you know, after a handful of years, you look back and realize, oh, wow, this is the most diverse place I’ve ever worked because we really pushed ourselves to find additional hires who were going to push us and take us to new realms of performance and possibility.

And in your experience, how do you think the process of design changes when there are more BIPOC and women designers who are a part of or leading that conversation?

First is, in many ways navigating industry, our lived experiences put us in a position to hyper empathize, if that makes sense, because we’ve had to do everything to not just do the work but also make our teammates or stakeholders comfortable with our very being in the room. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been mischaracterized just based on people’s initial impression of my sitting in the room. You know, not to conjure up all the negative things, and there’s been a ton of positive things that I’ve had the privilege of experiencing, but I think the BIPOC person does have those challenges of being perceived as a junior person in the room, of being the quiet person in the room, or being the one that’s expected to be the most calm and comforting to make sure the room is okay versus bringing bold assertion.

But what’s interesting is that I think those experiences help us be hyper empathetic when we’re dealing with folks that are different from us, when it comes to investigating things happening in the field, of having a volition to ensure that any audience that we engage, we’re actually treating them as respected co-creators, not just as research subjects to study. That includes practicing inclusion, and deliberately conveying what inclusion means based on our normal everyday habits, because we’ve had to do that ourselves. And having an eye toward diversity as not just some extracurricular social impact endeavor, that it actually will move us forward or move us to a bad place if we’re not careful, if we’re not invested in the practices of diversifying as we’re growing and designing capabilities.

I think a lot of design organizations historically have thought their intent was enough to show that they are harbingers of change, yet movements to illuminate the lack of women and BIPOC leaders in the industry are showing there’s an enormous amount of work still to be done. In your opinion, how can organizations prove their dedication to this mission? And how do you think we make sure it isn’t strictly left to BIPOC individuals to fight for change?

There’s a lot of conversation happening right now around, how do you become a better ally? Folks like Ti [Chang] and Raja [Schaar], incredible women out there in the field are definitely leading these conversations of how do you, as a white design leader or design practitioner, become a better ally in these situations? Where the burden isn’t always on BIPOC or women, you know, folks trying to be at least be considered, respected, included members.

I think an education is required in terms of just recognizing that it’s not enough to think about design thinking as a human-centered mindset and that if you do those things, empathy is taken care of, compassion is taken care of, and we’re all good. It’s not enough to think about business, design, and technology being integrated, even though that’s a new novelty over the last 10 years. Still, that’s not enough to think that way. We have to humble ourselves and recognize that every design decision, every business decision, every application topology, there are broader ramifications that we need to think about now because the world is especially hyper-connected.

If we reinforce messages from folks like John Maeda or Kat Holmes around the power of computation and the need for inclusion, you know, these elements are so intertwined now. And so that white male design constituent definitely needs to educate themselves on the interconnectedness, and also the threads of historic inequities that have shaped the BIPOC pipeline. That there is a pipeline, but just recognize that your pedantic requirements around what constitutes a successful designer need to be questioned, those assumptions need to be dismantled, because many of us who have had to figure out creative ways to even thrive and survive in this industry are not getting celebrated for it and being rewarded for it.

We found design through unconventional means because we didn’t have the pathways of privilege that some others have had. And not to say that they didn’t work hard, we’re not taking anything away from our white brothers and sisters in the field, you’ve worked hard for sure. But at the same time, recognize that your BIPOC constituents have worked incredibly hard to survive. And we’ve had to bring atypical experiences to find our way into the lane of design. And so your evaluation methods against us add an additional burden. And I honestly felt it where I’ve walked through the lobbies of your favorite world class design studios only to be completely insulted in terms of how I was treated. I’ve sometimes felt the insulting nature of the interview process where I’m already on unfair ground because I’m not part of your clique and don’t understand your language, or the pedigrees that you think are important that I clearly haven’t had, or haven’t had the luxury of even having because I wasn’t afforded those paths of privilege. So you’re already discounting me before I can even open my mouth or crack open my portfolio.

And I’m not just sharing this from my own experience. With my BIPOC friends, we hold up receipts with each other as these companies espouse platitudes of wanting to do the right thing. But we share receipts about what has happened to us. There’s been gross mistreatment by the industry toward us. And so all that BS, if you will, has to stop. And the industry needs to humble itself to realize that your world class design studios of XY and Z do not mirror the world. And this is not about social impact. This is about, for one, human imperative to do the right thing. But secondly, you’re missing out and the organizations you’re serving are clearly missing out on business opportunity, because you can’t respond to the market.

Just a quick benchmark to add to that idea—We started BCG Digital Ventures (BCGDV), or restarted I should say with BCG backing us, at the start of 2014. And you know, we started as a no-name entity, no one knew who BCGDV was. But going from a handful of us to almost 1000 people by the time I left in the spring of 2018, and one third of that organization was design, and Forrester rated Digital Ventures as the number one digital transformation capability in the marketplace… You know, I credit diversity as being a huge catalyst for us to be able to have that level of recognized impact.

I wanted to talk a little bit about your involvement on the board of Don Norman’s Future of Design Education Initiative [Bethune is a Steering Committee Member]. I feel that fits well into our conversation right now of, what responsibility design education has today and making room for more voices in the industry. I’m curious about the conversations you’re having and what you’re working on within that team.

The initial Future of Design Education Initiative group consisted of roughly 16 steering committee members who are reflective of the world in terms of BIPOC women, cross gender representation. Once formed, we essentially then problem solved, thinking, if we were to talk to the world’s collective of academic institutions and community of design practitioners around the future of design education, we need to comprehend what has been working in the field in terms existing pedagogy, foundational elements of learning, and make sure we don’t erode that or dilute that. Make sure that the strong things continue forward.

But we also need to shake up and recognize that much of the pedagogy has come from, again, circles of or threads of systemic inequity, privilege, and power dynamics that have shaped how we think about what constitutes good design education. There’s probably an opportunity to hold up a mirror on the changing nature and changing nuances of that to reflect the world paradigms, and to ask ourselves, does the present pedagogy measure up? Can we actually handle the shifts that are happening in the world and ensure that our students are prepared to address those future challenges?

And in some cases, we can say yep, we tick the boxes, these methods still make sense to move forward in other areas, and we have some glaring gaps. And part of that conversation is taking stock of all the other pedagogies that exist in the world that we’ve just completely overlooked, other cultures and how they think about creativity, how they think about prototyping to address human needs. There are things happening in the emerging markets that we need to take stock of, new dynamic methods of education that are being employed in pockets that didn’t have a voice. We want to have this platform and give them a voice. And then all of a sudden, you have this new set of recommendations that I think, reflect a couple of things.

I think the recommendations we’ll make to the community after [our initial research is done] is to say, okay, how are we actually leveraging a new sense of breadth of how design collaborates with the world? And by breadth I mean, how do we coach our future designers to collaborate in a hyper-diverse, hyper-connected world? How do we get them to appreciate respectfully as well as ethically the power of computation, that being such a huge threat in our lives moving forward? How do we get future designers to recognize the threads of systemic imbalance and recognize ways to dismantle or reimagine or disrupt, to create opportunities for everyone, not just some and that is going to be a part of that future pedagogy. Then still, beyond breadth, which which involves collaborating and communicating differently, bring your depth of design expertise. And that’s an additive conversation because a lot of the pedagogy—in terms of visualization and prototyping and form making, sense making, investigation—those things are absolutely still required to move forward. But we need to build on them and ensure designers feel they are empowered and enabled and understand where they need to go deep with their craft, to make sure that we’re still championing the best practices of design to their fullest potential in every opportunity we find ourselves in.

Lastly, as the Consumer Tech Jury Captain in this years Core77 Design Awards, I’m curious to hear what you’re hoping to see and what type of work will stand out to you?

My hope is that we can serve as a new exemplar of sort of reimagining and re-questioning, do we have the right success criteria to evaluate each of the proposed submissions as relevant to the needs of a changing world, inclusive of different audiences? I would definitely be curious, and I’m sure my fellow jury members would be very curious in terms of, what were the initial tipping point inspirations or insights that led to each of the design proposals or submissions? Were they coming from a place of really finding that hidden voice and underserved voice, are they really tapping into the deeper value criteria that makes us human? Just designing for existing sensibilities with market convention, projects that are really pushing the needle toward making a new level of impact that can be inspiring, and creating a new way for how designers proceed. Those are just a few elements that I hope will come out of the conversation this year.

Thinking of submitting to the Consumer Technology category in the 2021 Core77 Design Awards? Submit today—Regular Deadline ends March 9th.

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