Reimagining Design: 5 Takeaways From a Conversation With Innovation Leader, Kevin Bethune
Here’s part two of our riveting two-part series with the digital innovator, author, founder and Chief Creative Officer
From mechanical engineering to designing Air Jordans for Nike, the career of BCGDV founding team member Kevin Bethune has taken a fascinating set of twists and turns. And with each career leap, he learned something new about himself, about innovation, about humanity, and about life.
Kevin is now the Founder and Chief Creative Officer of dreams • design + life, a think-tank that delivers design and innovation services using a human-centered approach. As one of the most sought-after design and innovation consultants — and one of our favorite BCGDV alums — we couldn’t wait to pick his brain about his new book, Reimagining Design: Unlocking Strategic Innovation (The MIT Press).
As part of BCG’s internal Racial Equity Engagement Series, we recently sat down with Kevin to learn more about the reflections he shares in his book. Marrying his personal experience as a Black professional navigating corporate America with lessons on innovation, design, and inclusion, Kevin’s insights come from a deeply personal and unflinchingly honest place.
For more from Kevin, don’t miss part one and our full Q&A.
Here are five key takeaways from our conversation with Kevin on the transformative power of design, multidisciplinary leaps, and diversity:
1. The future is multidisciplinary
With a career spanning the disciplines of engineering, design, and business, the diversity of Kevin’s career path is remarkable. He started his career upgrading nuclear reactors at Westinghouse before moving on to designing sneakers at Nike. A lifelong learner, he also earned an MBA before going back to grad school later in life for design.
But, says Kevin, all of those multidisciplinary jumps weren’t necessarily easy — or even accepted at the time. “Coming out of my second dose of grad school, most of the recruiting conversations I was a part of didn’t necessarily embrace the hybridity that I represented,” he says.
And yet, multidisciplinary collaboration is the only way forward. It unlocks innovation, creativity, and growth in ways that homogenous teams simply can’t. “The future will require us to be in multidisciplinary settings more than ever before,” adds Kevin.
So, how can we all prepare for an increasingly multidisciplinary future? Kevin says that all of us — regardless of discipline — will have to figure out our unique way of communicating, collaborating, and aligning with people that are different from us. We’re all going to feel like an “other” at some point — like an outsider that doesn’t fit in. Whether it’s because of our background, race, gender, or education — working in multidisciplinary settings will require all of us to build empathy and humility.
2. Leaning into “otherness”
In Kevin’s new book, he shares his wisdom and lived experiences that can benefit anyone who has ever felt like an “other” — and allies who want to create more diverse, equitable, and inclusive workplaces.
Supporting marginalized creatives, says Kevin, starts by ensuring teams match the composition of the world. In design today, however, most teams are made up of less than 3 percent Black creatives — although the Black community represents 13 to 40 percent of the population in North America, depending on location.
Kevin adds that many Black creatives — because the representation has been so low and the pedagogies defined by so few — have not had the luxury to start in a creative discipline at the start of their careers. Arts, for example, are often the first thing to be cut in school systems. And because of the lack of generational wealth, marginalized groups often have to begin in more pragmatic places to start their careers.
But, says Kevin, there is power in leaning into that uniqueness.
“We come to design from a different vantage point, a different angle. And based on what the world needs, I think that is perhaps more beneficial than if we went down the same trodden path as some of our more privileged peers in the space,” he says.
3. Design must be inclusive
It’s that feeling of “otherness” that has also shaped Kevin’s perspective on the importance of design being inclusive — of designing “with” others, not “for” others.
“I can say from personal experience of knowing what it feels like to be marginalized or not seen — I think it builds a humility and a sensitivity to wanting to lean further into the notion of designing with someone,” says Kevin. “This means treating someone as a human being — not just someone to be researched, to be just exploited for the sake of a ‘click to buy.’”
Instead of designing for, Kevin says the next evolution is to design with. And designing with requires engaging in co-creative participatory exchanges with the people you’re serving — entrusting them as co-creators, as thought partners — not just subjects to be studied.
4. Taking a participatory design approach
Kevin says that participatory design — the process of including stakeholders in the early stages of design — requires creating safe spaces of honesty. So, what does that look like in practice?
It means having a space — even if it requires convening outside of your day-to-day workplace — where everyone abides by pre-established ground rules. From leaving titles at the door to being upfront and transparent about everything being worked on, participatory design demands safe environments where knowledge is shared freely and open communication is the norm.
And, says Kevin, it’s important to remember that participatory design doesn’t stop at the end of the workshop. “The research sprint is not a one-and-done act where we finish, hand the insights over, and move on. Let’s stay engaged with the community — even if we’re building products and services — and keep the community vested,” he adds.
5. Transformation demands servant leadership
When writing his book, Kevin says he was forced to reflect on where he has experienced both good leadership and tenuous leadership. “As I was examining all of this,” he says, “I found a spectrum in leadership behaviors — and the notions of gatekeeping and servant leadership were the endpoints.”
Design transformation takes leadership — leaders who do not act as gatekeepers but instead have a “serve first” mentality.
When setting direction for any new initiative, for example, a gatekeeper may demand compliance. On the other end, a servant leader may help articulate a vision but will give structured runway, carve out the work, and create autonomy among the different members of the team to help them be successful.
Another dimension to consider is the hiring process, says Kevin. Are you hiring to your comfort zone — or are you hiring for potential? It’s not so much asking questions like “Is this person a culture fit?” or “Could I see myself having a beer with this person?” Instead, says Kevin, it’s about finding people representative of the world who can push your thinking and pedagogies forward.
Building the Future of Innovation
Kevin is well-known for his strategic expertise in design and innovation, but interestingly what makes him such an influential leader are all the different roads he took to get there. His ability to think outside of just one disciplinary box is what makes him such a driving force for innovation.
Innovation never has — and never will — come from the same old bag of tricks. It’s why, Kevin says, multidisciplinary team collaboration is truly the foundation of all future innovation.
Design leaders of the future will need to be multidisciplinary — both in their backgrounds and how they approach building their teams. They’ll also need to honestly and openly acknowledge the threads of systemic injustice to build teams that are genuinely representative of the beautiful mosaic that is the world. But fortunately, says Kevin, the tides are beginning to shift. “I think the design field is starting to wake up to the reality that it can’t just function as an ivory tower anymore,” he says. “Potential can come from any vantage point if we’re open-minded enough.”
Want more insights from Kevin?
Grab a copy of his new book, Reimagining Design: Unlocking Strategic Innovation.