Anti-Black racism is an insidious problem in this country. It is steeped within the systems that many of us take for granted, ones often unseen by the privileged majority. For Black business students who have experienced overt and covert racism – both in the world and in the workplace – it is an unignorable reality.
As the first pair of Black co-presidents to lead the Innovation and Design Association at Kellogg School of Management, we believe that it is time for action to address and correct the lack of representation within our industry, and share ways that other MBA students can do the same.
That starts with design thinking, a process for human-centered problem-solving used to create innovative products, services, and systems. Now is the ideal time to leverage design and innovation to tackle societal issues that have stemmed from years of systematic inequality.
Here are four concrete ways we can use design to challenge anti-Black racism:
1. Understand the design of anti-Black systems
Taking action begins with the admission that systems within our society that generate and sustain oppression are by design. For centuries, the structural inequality in healthcare, housing, education, and other systems have defined Blackness as marginal.
Consider the healthcare system and the disproportionate impact that COVID-19 has had on Black communities. An empathy-led approach would have designers deep-dive with Black COVID-19 patients, discover how they feel about quality of care and resources available (or lack thereof), and design solutions that prioritize their individual needs. However, to fully combat anti-Black racism, the goal should not just be to humanize their experience, but to also confront biases that leave us blind to the policies and narratives that buttress a racist system. Doing so will reveal “insights” that yield intentionally-designed equitable solutions.
Design at its core is about understanding the depths of the human experience in order to solve the world’s most challenging problems, like anti-Black racism. Continue to look for ways to collaborate with other creative and strategic designers to dismantle the systems that hinder the Black identity.
One of our favorite examples of equity-centered design in action is the Creative Reaction Lab, which employs this model to catalyze Black and Latinx youth to design interventions that will dismantle structural racism. In September 2019, Creative Reaction Lab convened 25 Black and Latinx youth to develop interventions to address gun violence in the St. Louis region. Their theory of change can serve as a model for all designers.
2. Challenge empathy bias in the design thinking process
Empathizing—the ability to see the world through other people’s eyes, feel what they feel, and experience things as they do—is the first and most fundamental step in the design thinking process. However, our ability to empathize is often biased by our personal connections, beliefs, and perceptions. Further, our empathy often ignores the situational context that impacts broader communities and populations, leaving less room for designers to grapple with the systemic structures that reinforce inequality.
As you enter business school and begin to tackle assignments, challenges, and competitions, consider how using an empathy-led approach and designing solutions that prioritize marginalized groups’ individual needs, would be beneficial. Participating in case competitions is a great way to flex your empathy skills. For example, Microsoft holds a yearly Community Impact Pitch-off, where participants pitch ideas to solve some of their local communities’ most challenging problems. Applying an inclusive empathy-driven approach here will not only set you apart but also contribute to a lasting and meaningful impact for all community stakeholders.
3. Hold leaders in the Innovation & Design space accountable
There have been a significant number of articles, presentations, and even entire conferences that have addressed and documented the lack of diverse designers. But the gap is still stark. Many top design firms remain predominantly white with few Black members on staff even when diversity is shown to improve business performance! McKinsey has done research on racial diversity and companies and found that companies in the top quartile for racial and ethnic diversity are 35 percent more likely to have financial returns above their respective national industry medians. As practitioners, we bring unique perspectives to the table and benefit from the ability to share perspectives with our end users. It is important that Innovation & Design leaders recognize, employ, and amplify the perspectives of Black designers by actively building diverse teams to strengthen the scope and creativity for more impactful outcomes.
As students prepare for their roles in internships or post-MBA, it’s important to pay attention to how companies are responding and taking action. As you enter into the Innovation & Design space, hold yourself and your future leaders accountable to the recent public acknowledgment of statements about diversity and inclusion as well as their stated mission and values.
4. Co-design and co-create
Ethnography (the practice of observing and studying the end-user in context) is an important tenet of design thinking. However, it has the dangerous potential to allow teams to design for a user rather than with a user. This leaves the end-user out of the most important and impactful parts of the design process, which often perpetuates blind spots that exist outside of the community.
To combat anti-Black racism, designers should consider co-design – engaging marginalized communities and collaborating with community stakeholders to actualize the solution – using lived experiences and true perspectives. Ker-twang, a design agency focused on alleviating challenges related to poverty, routinely practices this by centering and building for marginalized low-income populations. A recent case study of their work on increasing earned income tax credit claims in Miami details how they work with the end-user throughout the entire process. Ker-twang begins with in-depth ethnographies, continuing with iterative user input in the design process, and incorporating their voices throughout each component of the implementation plan.
At its core, design is about problem-solving. If we believe design thinking is the right tool to spark innovation and contribute to business growth, it must also be used to examine the same innovations, institutions, and mindsets that promote inequality. Now is the time for action as the country confronts these issues. We challenge you to incorporate design to tackle anti-Black racism and drive business innovation that is inclusive and productive.
Marvin Harris is an MBA candidate at the Kellogg School of Management. Prior to Kellogg, Marvin worked at the intersection of real estate, strategy, and design to help organizations transform their workplace experience. He is passionate about applying inclusive, human-centered design principles to solve complex business challenges.
Hannah Anokye is an MBA and MSDI candidate at the Kellogg School of Management and McCormick School of Engineering. Prior to Kellogg, she worked in the e-commerce startup space through Venture for America, and was most recently a Design Researcher at United Way. She is passionate about innovation for social impact.