Kevin G. Bethune is the founder of the aptly named dreams • design + life, a consultancy based in Southern California that explores innovative experience through multidisciplinary collaboration. But enough of the buzz (SEO) words. Bethune’s years of experience in various business and design disciplines (he designed Air Jordan shoes for Nike, redesigned nuclear reactors as a mechanical engineer for Westinghouse, earned an elite MBA and joined Nike as a business planner) led him to author one of the most compelling and engaging, inspirational and aspirational volumes of these fluid and uncertain times.
Bethune’s book Reimagining Design: Unlocking Strategic Innovation (part of the Simplicity, Design, Technology, Business, Life series edited by John Maeda for MIT Press) is a guide to the future(s) of design. It is built on the foundation of a professional memoir and soars from there. I found much to learn from Bethune, indeed too much for this brief intro (order the book here). So, instead of summarizing the book, I have asked Bethune to discuss some hot-button concerns of this broadly reaching yet continually evolving essential profession.
Whether you identify as a graphic, industrial, product, strategy, service or whatever designer, Bethune’s Reimaginings are as essential as the industry’s many fields. As I said, there is much to learn from him.
I was raised in a personal and professional environment mostly characterized as a meritocracy. But at this late date I feel more and more that my assumption of merit and opportunity have been a fool’s paradise. The idea that the future invariably leads to progress and progress is a priori positive is flawed. I’ve witnessed and have lived through a generation that has been duped by a selective American Dream. Kevin, answer this: Do I suffer from a case of overblown pessimism or am I a realist?
Definitely a realist. I think we are in a time where we are all forced to ask some hard questions and challenge previously held beliefs. The pace of change has quickened and the last two years have definitely revealed that things break when our models prove unsustainable, unethical, and feed into systemic imbalance. Within our own personal and professional lived experiences, we may have felt that meritocracy was the measuring stick, but now we see the variables of subjective bias, racism, power and privilege playing a serious role. We need to bravely lean into these conversations. It makes me think of Mellody Hobson on the subject of race—she encouraged us to be “color brave” versus color blind in her TED talk from 2014. We have to discuss and learn from each other to shape a better future together.
To that point, you write about microaggressions (this term has much currency now): “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. … By sheer existence, I was a threat. … Why was I implicitly being told to ‘know my place’ and stick with the status quo?” Did you know before entering the design profession that a racial and class hierarchy existed? How did you reconcile that with what you wanted to accomplish as a designer?
Upon reflecting across my different polymath experiences, I really began to feel this when I transitioned from engineer to businessperson. I had just completed my MBA, and I really felt that hierarchy and overt specialization as I navigated into my first business planning roles. As I leveraged my engineering and business expertise to transition into more product-driven operational roles, that phenomenon continued.
I felt my race more indirectly through passive aggressive behaviors from others (i.e., being a threat), and that probably felt more awful than making a misstep in the work itself. But as I observed how internal politics, bias and overspecialization created more friction that got in the way of critical work, and also observed the way the world was shifting outside of the company walls, I wanted to be a part of connecting the dots. I wanted to be that problem-solver who could take on those gnarly challenges. Over time, I had to learn how to lean into that curiosity, begin some experimentation and eventually develop the confidence, credibility and desire to play against my convictions.
When it came time to want to transition into design (while also continuing to leverage my engineering and business backgrounds), that resistance only increased. Nondesigners who didn’t understand design would tell me they “didn’t see that” for me and expected me to just accept that. Thankfully I didn’t. After my formal education in design, I realized how very little folks like me were represented in my newfound field (1–3%, depending on specialty). Looking back in history, I had to learn how generational wealth, privilege and exclusivity informed the way the field looks today. The design field can reinforce and find comfort in its way of doing things, but I still saw the field not directly addressing the challenges that awaited in the marketplace.
You rightly identify one of the key issues: “The composition of leaders guiding the future course of enterprises, governments and institutions, that composition is sorely lacking in terms of its representation mirroring the world. If you are the other, we need more of you.” You wouldn’t have written this book if there was substantive change from when you entered design to now. But have you, indeed, watched the mountain moving? If so, how far has it changed direction?
I won’t say that change has not occurred in that span of time, but representation (especially at leadership levels) is still abysmally off the mark. I think we’ve seen little change. In design, there’s way too much deference and pedigree assigned to self-proclaimed world-class design organizations (i.e., ivory towers) who may have been able to sell a unique approach, but when you look under the hood, their skewed composition of leaders truly inhibits their empathy, creativity and ability to fully appreciate the richness of latent opportunities that exist in the market. Their false sense of meritocracy and culture-fit end up leaving them a bit blind to the changing dynamics of diverse demographics they claim to serve.
You say that Reimagining Design speaks to the “other” and also to the “majority.” There is an increase of diversity and inequity/equity courses in design schools today. These are intended to generate antiracist, antisexist and antiageist attitudes and behavior (microaggressions) in the office. Do you believe that new educational initiatives will truly alter what you’ve called the “realities of systemic imbalance”?
These educational initiatives within academia and enterprises are a healthy start, but it’s still very early in the necessary journey of “DEI & design transformation” that awaits most organizations. A couple years of piloting courses will not address the understanding necessary to unpack decades (if not centuries) of systemic inequities. What still grieves me is that it took Black bodies having to die in the street from police brutality for most of the “majority” to wake up and realize that Black and Indigenous people have been telling the truth about systemic imbalance all along. Change will take a balance of bold action right now (e.g., cede power, make space, hire, sponsor, fund, etc.) as well as a thoughtful strategy to ensure organizations are methodically transforming themselves to mirror the world through a commitment to inclusive, equitable practices over the long run.
I am curious about this statement: “Creativity has been stripped from us as we mature in our professions.” Are you saying that a sector of the design field, at its core, does not overtly encourage the unique, untried or experimental? Or worse, discourages it in many?
Hmm, I think I made this statement more as a general phenomenon across disciplines, and especially as one is supposed to “mature” in their careers. If we think about the calories we spend level-setting expectations, aligning to corporate norms, satiating client stakeholders and exercising production tasks to generate outputs, there is little time for creativity. In that paradigm, creativity is an act that is perceived to breed uncertainty, ambiguity and unknowns. The other demands can snuff it out if we’re not careful.
To your point, design is supposed to be the discipline perceived to lead the way on exploring the untried, unique and experimental. However, even design can fall victim to the grinding forces that exist in corporate America. Business mechanics can mire a designer in the weeds of a given product line or affordance, but rarely afford the designer time to take a step back, breath and assess the bigger picture or larger systematic opportunity. Thanks to computation, the speed of the clock is also an implied authority that might check creativity at the door.
In the first part of Reimagining Design, you relate your own narrative and how design transformed your life. You write, “My lived experiences laid the groundwork for this book. Honestly, I never predicted my journey playing out the way it did.” What was the impetus for digging deep into the weeds of design and dedicating your life to it?
My answer probably comes to mind in layers. It’s easy for me to say this now (24 years into my career), but curiosity begets experimentation, and experimentation begets strong convictions. The creative inclination I felt came from drawing as it was my primary hobby and a means to “see the world.” I loved the art and science of at least making a drawing or sketch work to reflect my imagination. Fast forward, I wanted to use my imagination to solve real-world problems that I didn’t see being addressed by organizations mired in politics and over-specialization. I would eventually learn that design could serve as my tip of the spear to use my imagination and creativity to think about problems and opportunities in new ways. I learned I could do this through my own two hands as a designer, or catalyze a cross-functional team to embrace creative acts of optimism to unearth future potential. With evidence, my convictions became stronger, and I knew I wanted to cement my career at the intersections of design, business and technology.
Also, as a Black man, constantly I heard something wasn’t “for me.” I channeled the strength of my parents and ancestors, and had to remember who I was as a person. Regardless what you might say about me, I am still gonna figure it out. I will find a way.
You acknowledge that the curriculum at ArtCenter introduced you to the Bauhaus school. And you “grew enamored with the legacies of Ray and Charles Eames, Buckminster Fuller, and other archetypes that exemplified creative courage.” This legacy is rooted in white Eurocentric methods and concepts. In today’s design pantheon(s), there is a mission among many practitioners and educators to find under-represented models, heroes and icons. Does this search for “other” change the influence or the significance of what has been an accepted modern canon as represented mostly by white archetypes?
I’m not taking much away from the ingenuity in those midcentury heroes or the Bauhaus. There was something special happening in those circles that definitely had a huge impact in shaping our modern notions of design and innovation. However, there was also potential for harm (and harm surely did manifest through our different industrial revolutions), in that many of their approaches may have chased standards rooted in aggressive-industrialization, white supremacy and classism. As much as I appreciate the work of the Eames’, Fuller, etc., I am careful not to gush as them being the end-all, be-all standard for design. Let’s keep finding new inspirations, voices and cultural frames to push the pedagogy to new places and even abandon what isn’t serving us anymore. If anything, we should seek different points of view on how to approach a new opportunity. We need to include more diverse folks and lean into their difference. We can’t shy away from difference, else our field will remain stagnant. There is genius everywhere. We must go find it and have it push us to new places.
How, at this stage of your career and life, do you believe you have reimagined design? And in addition to your exceptionally written book of that name, has reimagination become real?
I’m never done reimagining, I suppose. I think in recent experiences at firms like BCG Digital Ventures and now dreams • design + life, I have felt that reimagination occur. BCGDV provided a rare runway to leverage design differently than how design is typically positioned across industries. I am forever grateful for BCG taking a bet on us and giving us some breathing room to show what design could do to inform every single corporate venture.
Now, with dreams • design + life, I don’t think of it like an agency, though we do sell our services in the form of consulting. However, we are moreso a “think tank” because we leverage our existing network of relationships before we start any project. Any engagement we take on must have a healthy appetite to exhibit breath and depth in our collaboration with potential client partners. Our network usually affords us the privilege to hit a whiteboard with our executive stakeholders before being handed any brief. For potential client leads that want to transact us, we tend to shy away and prioritize our time with referrals that share our values for breadth and depth collaboration.
As a result, our client partners have turned into true partners. We share risk and rewards together. We’re not selling them sprints, we fully attach ourselves to their realities. Through breadth and depth, we find a thoughtful way to work together over the long haul, guiding executive stakeholders and also peeling away from the team room to flush out a design affordance through our industrial design, UX, brand and strategic design capabilities, exhibiting depth of craft. For the client partners who are on the startup end of the spectrum, I tend to serve as a de facto head of design on their executive teams (even though I am not on the formal payroll) and attend their board meetings. Through our relationships, they get a strong sense of what design can really do in contrast to their past perceptions. The transformations I get to see in my client partners inspire me everyday.
In terms of redefining, reorganizing, reinventing and rehabilitating design practice, how do you foresee transforming educational institutions? Can or should design education run on existing models?
I honestly believe the future of design education requires breadth and depth of educational rigor, mentorship and exposure. When I mention breadth, I’m talking about the design capabilities that give the designer enough range, common language and empathy to embrace businesspeople, technologists and other important stakeholders in their purview, and figure out how to problem-solve with them collectively. When I speak of depth, there are capabilities that require tons of practice and project-based learning simulations to develop craft and subject matter expertise. We have to balance the two.
Institutions should also offer varying degrees of course offerings that translate to the level of commitment that can be managed by the student. Our youth should have options to learn the basics of design before committing to a formal undergraduate degree experience. For lifelong learners, there should be courses for those that want to learn something after the work day or on weekends. Our educational system should not just cater to the acute degree experiences anymore. There’s tons of opportunity to build relationships with lifelong learners and help them through their different learning needs.