Surviving IDEO

George Aye
May 24 · 20 min read

Content warning: This letter discusses multiple forms of trauma, including workplace abuse, power, and manipulation, and struggles with surviving trauma.

This letter retells my personal experiences as a former employee at IDEO, as well as stories of other alumni (who gave me permission to include their stories). This letter is a means of recovery for me and I hope it can support others on their journey of healing by giving vocabulary to behaviors that are common in an unhealthy workplace. I am compelled to name the harms I experienced as well as report on the ones that were shared with me.

UPDATE: A new companion piece written by Rachael Dietkus, LCSW, is now available. It shares a number of resources for people who have been impacted by workplace trauma.

UPDATE 2: Another IDEO alum, Elizabeth Johansen, has shared their story called, “Breaking the trance: how I escaped IDEO’s biased career labyrinth”.

UPDATE 3: Elizabeth Johanson, shares part 2 called, “IDEO equal pay commitments are very little, very late

I. Introduction

In the wake of George Floyd’s and Breonna Taylor’s deaths in the summer of 2020, the renowned global design consultancy IDEO announced their solidarity with Black and Brown communities on their social media accounts. That post was quickly retracted but not before being panned by both alumni of the firm and the wider design community for its performative, equity-washing shallowness.

IDEO is the most recognized design firm in the world, with over 700 employees in nine global offices, generating over $100M in yearly revenue. They are known for helping Apple design the world’s first mouse and have led the charge for bringing design thinking to the world of business. They play a unique role in the design industry and are often seen as the ‘gold standard.’ Competitors try to be like them, clients want to work with them, and employees want to be hired by them.

In June 2020, undeterred, IDEO doubled down and publicly shared a new set of commitments to racial equity. As an alum of the firm, reading the culture section (see screen capture below) resurfaced feelings that I had buried for over ten years. I was caught off-guard by how triggering it felt. I was reminded of the times when I had been bullied and humiliated in the studio, and where my lived experience as a person of color working at the firm was consistently negative. So many traits of white supremacy culture were rebranded as professionalism. Perfectionism, a perpetual sense of urgency, paternalism, power hoarding, fear of open conflict, and individualism were proudly on full display.

Screen capture from IDEO’s commitments dated June 15, 2020, https://www.ideo.com/equity/commitments

After seven years of working in the Chicago office, I quit in 2008, accumulating significant amounts of karmic debt designing products and services for Pepsi, BP, and Kool-Aid. I’m not so naive as to look down upon all corporate design work, but I do take umbrage when a studio deliberately promotes projects about positive social good while hiding the remaining portfolio behind the secrecy of a non-disclosure agreement.

In response to this type of rampant self-deception prevalent in the design industry, I co-founded a studio focused exclusively on the non-profit sector in 2011. I also teach, write, and present on social innovation and design ethics.

Since I was so triggered by those social media posts, I wondered, are others having these same feelings? The response was a resounding yes. In total, 47 alumni and current employees reached out wanting to share their stories. I was blown away by the heartbreakingly consistent pattern — so many thought it was just them. They had no idea that others had suffered in the same way. Even a decade or so later, many are still coping with the fallout.

I went on an extensive research journey, interviewing alumni about their experiences working at IDEO. I felt so overwhelmed by the weight of each story that I only talked to fewer than half of the people who originally reached out. I heard accounts of gaslighting, micro-aggressions, bullying, and years of unprocessed workplace trauma. Who knows what other stories are going untold? I synthesized that research and saw three patterns of harm emerge: psychological risk, professional risk, and ethical risk.

After 23 interviews over twelve months, I believe that without significant reform, IDEO is an unsafe workplace for women, PoC (People of Color) and WoC (Women of Color).

II. Psychological risk to your mental health

For some organizations, a robust culture is a huge asset. It’s known, it’s well understood, and it can even be written down into an employee handbook. And to the outside world, one mostly hears a positive narrative about the firm’s culture: IDEO is a grown-up playground, unbound by the rules and cubicles of lesser workplaces. And for some individuals (white males), it is. But you can’t spell culture without the word cult.

“This place is sink or swim. If you don’t make it here it’s ’cause you aren’t cut out to be here,” said my white, male location lead to me one day. And I remember thinking, “Oh thank goodness—at least he’s not talking about me. I’ve made it in. I’m safe.” It’s only now that I can see more clearly how manipulative this was—it weaponized my own imposter syndrome. I consistently worked 60–80 hour weeks, terrified that the little voice inside my head screaming, “Fraud!” was right.

Within my first year at the Chicago office, a well-established, senior business development leader (white, tall, older male) accused me of being a grifter — trying to game the system for money and opportunity. In my final year at the studio, another senior white, male (in the design team) decided to eviscerate me via a studio-wide email on my performance, publicly humiliating me in front of all my peers. Each time, I received no apologies, no outreach, and no validation that these attacks were completely unprofessional and unjustified. The silence was deafening. These are the unspoken rules of the studio: your performance is at risk of public shaming and abusers can cause harm with little to no consequences.

During my interviews with other alumni of color, workplace trauma showed up again and again. And when I tried to name the feelings that were consistent across the conversations, I came across research by Jennifer J. Freyd Ph.D., who described the kind of pain that I felt.

Institutional betrayal refers to wrongdoings perpetrated by an institution upon individuals dependent on that institution, including failure to prevent or respond supportively to wrongdoings by individuals (e.g. sexual assault) committed within the context of the institution.”

I felt betrayed by the warmness of the open arms the firm presented and sobered by the coldness of the cruelty that I experienced as an employee. As with any light, there’s also a shadow. But how can an organization that’s been around this long, be so reticent to work on these issues? As one alum put it:

And while this kind of environment has led to much-lauded success to the firm, it can be particularly challenging for PoC who work there. The cognitive dissonance that they encounter at IDEO (a predominately white organization) can feel like they’re showing up on their first day, every day — like an interview that never ends.

In speaking with another former employee, they recounted being called upon by the global marketing and communications team to review external content related to diversity and inclusion. Despite having a job title that didn’t remotely intersect with the MarCom team, they and other employees became leadership’s go-to people to represent IDEO’s public voice on sensitive social issues. Even as they recounted the memory, I could hear the conflict in their voice. Getting exposure to partner-level leadership on company-wide communications came with the cost of being flattened to walking, woke spell-checkers.

“At IDEO, we are committed to the work of advancing diversity, equity, and inclusion within our organization and in the world.”
“At IDEO, we are committed to the work of advancing diversity, equity, and inclusion within our organization and in the world.”
Screen capture from IDEOs recruiting page (https://www.ideo.com/jobs).

III. Professional risks to your career trajectory

For many, the lack of psychological safety, in turn, affects professional reputations, potential prospects, and future earnings. Those who escalate concerns and/or push back on the organization’s unchecked balance of power are professionally neutered — often wiped entirely off the IDEO org chart.

My time at IDEO is colored by the fact that I was a non-US citizen, so my entire existence in the United States was dependent on IDEO’s sponsorship of my H-1B work visa. While I appreciate the non-trivial costs of the visa, it put me in a very precarious position. Speaking up about my mistreatment was always tempered by my fear of losing my job, as that also meant losing my residency.

So when I was invited to relocate to the Bay Area for six months to work on a ‘frozen pizza aisle innovation’ project by the architecture and environments practice, I felt worried about saying no. I’d never said no before. What would happen? Well, after mustering the courage to decline the project, I found out exactly what happens — I never heard from that powerful and influential team again, effectively blackballed from any further opportunities and exposure. Career death is better than being deported, I suppose.

Screen capture from IDEO’s ‘Little Book of IDEO’, an informal employee manual https://lboi.ideo.com

An alumnus of color talked of her experience and named a phenomenon during her tenure, using a term that I had never heard before — but that eerily matched my own lived experience — from pet to threat. (This article by Erika Stallings, “When Black Women Go From Office Pet to Office Threat,” is a good reference for the uninitiated.)

Because of her credentials and highly specialized knowledge, she had been brought into the studio with great fanfare. And, due to her competence and perseverance, she started to excel — the very thing that the culture purports to encourage and foster. Except excelling is the last thing that anyone in leadership actually wanted.

You see, the offer to join the team was corrupt from the start because it wasn’t the commitment to her career and her contributions to the team that she thought. Inviting her into the studio was only to burnish the social capital of the offer-makers themselves — as a demonstration of their largesse.

And when this ultra-competent WoC asked for more responsibility, the offer was then exposed for the counterfeit it really was. Soon, this individual got suggestions to ‘bide your time — be patient’, while less qualified and less competent peers were given opportunities to improve their mediocre selves on new and challenging projects. In the mind of leadership, her requests for more responsibility meant she transitioned from a pet to a threat.

Another former employee, Elizabeth Johansen, reached out to me when she heard of my interest in alumni stories. She had analyzed the pay equity data for IDEO U.S. by race and gender and discovered she was personally paid less than white men at the same level and career track year after year. She was pushed out of the company and never got to share her findings. Gender-based pay inequity is bad in of itself but has huge implications for company culture over time. Read her piece here.

The pathway to becoming a partner at IDEO means being offered a seat at that table, but you’ve also got to pay for that seat. If you’re being consistently paid less than your white, male colleagues, the chances of affording that partner seat (if you’re even offered it in the first place) are slim to none, which reduces the chances of diversifying the monolithic bloc of white, male partners at the top.

After a fractious year of working in the San Francisco office while pregnant in 2019, Diana Lyman was abruptly fired while on legally protected maternity leave by her white, male manager. Diana is suing IDEO for wrongful termination with alleged claims of gender and pregnancy discrimination and retaliation, with a claim — most notably — of a failure to prevent it. Citing the public records available from the Superior Court of California, County of San Francisco:

The complaint speaks to six different escalations to HR and IDEO leadership about a hostile work environment while Diana was pregnant.

Reading these court documents had me pause and check this wasn’t a script from an episode of Mad Men. Nope, this was filed in 2020. But here’s the part that still gives me chills. According to one of the briefs, Diana was offered a ‘very generous severance offer’ by the company and declined. From my alumni interviews, I know of many former employees who are contractually silenced from speaking out. They’re bound by an NDA as a result of their taking a paid severance or settlement package over their workplace disputes. Any lessons on how to prevent further harm are now sealed behind the impenetrable event horizon of those signed documents. That is, until this bill passes in California, where IDEO is incorporated, that expands on the existing protections for whistleblowers in instances of harassment, discrimination, and/or retaliation.

You can see the court documents yourself by visiting the SF court website and looking for case CGC20582985. Despite the risk to her career, Diana is scheduled for trial in October 2021 in service of holding IDEO accountable.

IV. Ethical risks to your moral compass

At IDEO, I often heard folks use phrases like “we won’t design for guns and tobacco.” This was known as a moral and ethical boundary that IDEO wouldn’t cross. But as I learned, many projects fell instead into a generously wide grey area of ‘positive impact’ that made me ask: positive for whom exactly?

It seems that ‘guns and tobacco’ is more of a rhetorical strawman than an actual, formal rubric for choosing clients. Whether it’s ConAgra, Rio Tinto, the DOD (Department of Defense), or the NSA (National Security Agency), employees are exposed to a variety of compromised positions that would give the gutted Ethics in AI team at Google a run for their money.

But is it possible to operate a reputable design studio without saying YES to everyone who calls? It might seem counterintuitive, but our studio runs through a weekly evaluation of incoming business development opportunities with the whole team. We invite dialogue, discuss pros and cons, and often turn down projects that don’t align with our mission. The largest single project that I’ve personally declined was for $2M from USAID. And we’re still here, 10 years later.

According to multiple alumni, the Chicago studio's leadership held an all-staff meeting in 2013 and asked employees if they saw any issues with working with Chick-Fil-A as their next big client. Perhaps they asked because designing more human-centered fast food might contribute to the obesity epidemic, or perhaps it’s because of Chick-Fil-A’s reputation for being actively anti-LGBTQ.

However, after several members of the studio spoke up in the all-staff meeting, leadership actually reprimanded them, saying that they should know better than to speak up in front of the whole team, and highlighting how their dissenting voices carried a lot of weight in the office. Backlash like this can only have a chilling effect on any future opportunities for critical feedback.

Predictably, the studio added Chick-Fil-A to the client roster and swept aside their own employees’ concerns, putting everyone in an ethically compromised position. But why ask the team for their feedback if dissenting voices are disallowed in the first place? Why not just go full Basecamp and say the quiet parts out loud? If they had just declared, “We’re only here to make money and everything else is a distraction,” then the disappointment that comes from a discussion on which projects to take on would have caused less whiplash.

But where does this moral ambiguity come from? Well, it appears that even David Kelley, one of the original co-founders of IDEO, is not immune to the confusion around the bright red line of guns and tobacco. In September 2019, when I was visiting the IDEO.org team in their New York office, I shared the public health disaster known as the Juul e-cigarette case study, created by two students attending Stanford’s d.school. As I was presenting, someone from the audience quipped that David Kelley was the thesis advisor to the Juul co-founders as they developed the idea on campus. Hearing that news made my stomach drop—I almost stopped the presentation right there.

While I might be able to forgive two ambitious design bros losing their moral compass in the face of a $15B valuation by Altria, how could David’s judgment be so obtuse? How did the d.school not see the risks for a new public health crisis staring them in the face?

Screen capture from IDEO’s ‘Little Book of IDEO’, an informal employee manual https://lboi.ideo.com/peopley.html#learnfromfailure

When it comes to harm at scale, IDEO’s adage is still tragically true — ask for forgiveness, not permission. Perhaps the CDC might not have had to create public safety campaigns warning teenagers of the addictive qualities of the fruit-flavored vaping product if Juul’s founders weren’t literally taught how to be so cavalier about the risk of designing harm. The caucacity seems boundless.

But what happens if the stakes get even higher? From multiple alumni, I learned that IDEO created an education-focused mini-studio, called Design for Learning, or just D4L for short. Allegedly, this new mini-studio found a wealthy new client, a member of the Saudi Royal family. One alumnus described the engagement as “A vanity project for the kids of Mohammed bin Salman’s friends and family.”

Considering the brutal killing of Jamal Khashoggi, a well-known reporter for the Washington Post, I felt grave concern for any teammates working on projects in the region. Seeing how casually MBS approved the murder of this prominent US national, who’s going to protect a team member on that project when they tweet about human rights violations by the Saudi government? I heard from multiple alumni working within D4L, who spoke about the in-country research team being sent there with little to no safety protocols in place.

But even if the project had some risks involved, it offered very tangible value to the firm. According to several alumni, it brought years of financial stability for the new mini-studio and its leader who was trying to establish herself amongst the mostly male partners. Multiple alumni who worked within D4L spoke of the persistent pressure to perform, where long hours were frequently demanded, and the casual dismissal of boundaries when employees spoke out about work-life balance. D4L’s leadership was known for being competitive and as one alumni put it, “Felt the need to beat the numbers each year so she could prove herself in front of the partners.”

I’ve never spoken to the leader of this studio directly, but I can only imagine the immense pressure this person must have felt, trying to make a case for this new endeavor within the larger organization, fighting to have education recognized as a viable market. But somewhere along the way, questions about unintended harm were put aside and concerns about the team’s personal safety hushed into silence. For it to be considered a success, the mini-studio’s finances were given top priority over all other considerations.

Perhaps this is one of the under-documented costs of leadership at IDEO — the cost to your own personal moral compass. As of April 4th, 2020, the Design for Learning studio leader became the new Chief Executive at IDEO.

V. Why speak up now?

Unprocessed trauma doesn’t have an expiration date. Mine has been in my body for over a decade. I’m tired of hurting from the hidden humiliation, and I’m tired of pretending that I wasn’t a victim of the workplace culture.

The more alumni stories I heard, the more it pained me to not bring this story to light sooner. I asked myself, “At what point do I become complicit through my silence?” But gathering the receipts is a slow process, as is the emotional labor of digging back into moments of my own shame.

This past year also helped me reset expectations for this effort. Rather than addressing this letter to IDEO’s leadership, I’m writing this letter to the current employees at IDEO trying to make sense of where they work. This is the letter I wish I had read when I joined the firm at the age of 25. I don’t doubt that there are many who wish they could speak out right now, but can’t. Only each individual can calculate their own true cost. Either from fear of further abuse, retribution, or getting fired, they have learned to stomach the silence.

But until this letter is published, I won’t know the true price I’ve paid for speaking up. I fear retaliation from IDEO of course. But I can definitely speak to what not speaking up has cost me so far.

In 2005, a new female teammate joined a healthcare project I was working on. She had just joined the firm and was suddenly thrown into a kick-off meeting in Florida, with a whole new set of teammates. But as we headed to the rental car agency, this new teammate was nominated to be the driver. She had to drive all five of us, including the partner-level head of the architecture and environments practice.

Unfortunately, my new teammate had a minor lapse of judgment while driving, and we almost got in an accident. Even more unfortunately, this gave the senior practice leader an opportunity to ridicule and humiliate her in front of us all. Like some sort of high-school bully, he created a cruel test: “Is this someone to respect or treat like dirt?”

Instead of validating and supporting her through that moment of humiliation, I stayed silent. Later, she asked me why there seemed to be so much pressure to perform. But like some sort of sadistic pep talk, I said, “You’re only as valuable as the last project you’ve done around here.” This is a culture that rewards workplace trauma and calls it professional development.

I took perverse pleasure in seeing someone else go through the same indignities I experienced because I thought it might bring some meaning to my own senseless suffering. I also knew that supporting her would likely bring that laser-focused critique to me. I spoke to several alumni who were the focus of, or witness to, this kind of cruelty during their time at IDEO. Similar to how someone who has been abused in their past is more likely to become an abuser.

What kinds of traumas are raging, undiagnosed and untreated in the bodies of senior leadership at IDEO? What kinds of perverse mentorship did they receive in their careers? What else would explain their commitment to repeating cycles of abuse and cruelty as though it’s a legitimate rite of passage to leadership? I feel less angry towards them than I did twelve months ago. That feeling has slowly been replaced with just deep sadness for them.

As Resmaa Menakem says in his book, ‘My Grandmother’s Hands’:

In recounting this incident in Florida, I’m sickened and troubled by my role in the story. Seeing how easily I was able to inflict pain at that moment, I believe I am fully capable of inflicting pain again in a heartbeat. Even after all this time, I still don’t trust myself with too much power.

To my friend and colleague, I’m sorry for not supporting you then, and not speaking up against the transgressor. I should have done more in the moment.

VI. Who does IDEO center when they say, “Human-Centered Design”?

When I read the commitments on IDEO’s site, I was left with the impression that they had just realized their own internal cultural issues, and were trying their gosh darndest to do their best. In fact, in the culture section of their commitments they state, “We are launching a company-wide survey that will measure our cultural diversity and attitudes towards inclusion by the end of 2020. We commit to sharing these attitudes and insights externally to learn and share best practices.”

But according to multiple alumni, the global leadership team was well aware of the deep cultural rot inside the company for years. After internal stakeholders pleaded with them to act, IDEO commissioned Paradigm, an external third-party consultancy, to conduct stakeholder interviews and share recommendations. Published on November 30, 2017, the “Diversity & Inclusion Assessment” shared an unflattering look at the deep issues that saturated the organization. I’ve taken a screen capture of a poignant section below.

For example, IDEO’s tendency to embrace chaos over structure has led to areas of ambiguity that impact the employee experience. IDEO’s vision of creating a workplace where people can do impactful work with their friends has led to a homogenous organization and an over-reliance on social currency, which benefits employees from majority groups. For example, men and White employees are most likely to feel that they belong, that they are involved in decision-making, and that their voices are heard.
An excerpt from the Paradigm report titled, ‘Diversity & Inclusion Assessment’, November 30, 2017

Sitting in the download folders of senior leaders across the globe, the report was known for its damning indictment of the leadership’s failure to act on the knowledge that harmful norms in the culture were so codified over three decades. One senior alumnus who spoke to the legacy of the report said, “We got F’s across the board.” But despite the report having many actionable recommendations, the leadership refused to change and have become derelict in their duties.

While this letter focuses on the issues present at IDEO, they are not exclusive to it. These issues are absolutely industry-wide. I’ve spoken to alumni from global design firms and they agree that these issues are present in their work cultures too. But few design firms have anywhere near the same influence.

In many ways, IDEO is no different from the tobacco industry. They know they are causing harm, but they continue to suppress the evidence and ignore their own employee feedback in favor of business and profits as usual. IDEO markets a seductive, brilliantly creative workplace focused on the positive impact that continues to lure employees. I fell for it and I know so many others did too.

Timed with ever-widening wealth disparities, a rising global awareness of systemic racism, and the impact of COVID19, the design industry is on the cusp of a monumental sea change. Every year, new design-led organizations are emerging, designed differently from the ground up. Our studio joins over 200 organizations around the world, led by women, PoC, and WoC, who formed these studios, in part, as a critique and response to the old models of leadership and accountability.

Tragically, IDEO has everything it needs to be different. Below the senior leadership level, there is a world-class team of designers, researchers, systems thinkers, organizational change experts, behavioral economists, data scientists, and more. But nothing will change for my fellow IDEO’ers if the priority is to simply design better ways to make money for themselves and their clients. But the opportunity for something more lies right under their nose — the chance to design a better design firm.

VII. Epilogue

Of all the moments that I’ve endured these last twelve months, the scariest has been speaking on the phone with the person I referenced earlier—my friend and colleague who I let down so many years ago.

We spoke last week for ninety minutes. I cried most of the time. She had no idea that I had been on this journey. As has been so common, she was stunned to find out that it wasn’t just her.

Recalling the event made the shame of it come rushing back within seconds of starting the call. She remembered the scene in the car so freshly too. Despite her being a renowned professional before joining the firm, she shared how she cried most evenings after work, afraid of being fired. Even though this incident was over a decade old, she had internalized that painful period of time by believing it was her own fault — it’s sometimes the only way to make sense of something so senseless. Trauma has an arrestive quality to it — as if your life was abruptly interrupted and never allowed to fully recover. Those feelings are frozen in place.

Instead of apologizing to her in the abstract, I apologized to her on the phone. With my voice. In a real-time conversation. While the memory of the incident was certainly painful, she was taken aback by how much it was still impacting me. She released me of that pain. What kindness she showed me on that call. And perhaps by validating the senselessness of what she went through, I might have released her of some of her pain too. I don’t know what role a letter like this can aid in helping her heal, but I hope that she will never doubt her worth again. I will try and do the same.

If you are someone impacted by IDEO’s harmful work culture please reach out: survivingideo@gmail.com

There’s a small but mighty group of people supporting each other in a judgment-free space where we’re #survivingIDEO together.

UPDATE: A new companion piece written by Rachael Dietkus, LCSW, is now available. It shares a number of resources for people who have been impacted by workplace trauma.

Surviving IDEO

A virtual gathering place for IDEO’ers past and present to share stories and solidarity.

Surviving IDEO

An alumni-led publication created to surface and illuminate the persistent inequities at IDEO. This space is open to anyone impacted by IDEO harmful work culture (including folks who work at organizations led by IDEO alumni).

George Aye

Written by

Co-Founder and Director of Innovation at Greater Good Studio. Full Professor (Adj) at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago

Surviving IDEO

An alumni-led publication created to surface and illuminate the persistent inequities at IDEO. This space is open to anyone impacted by IDEO harmful work culture (including folks who work at organizations led by IDEO alumni).

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