EP 71: How Will We Design the Future?
Kelly: So welcome to this week's episode of Thrive. I'm here with Boyuan Gao, co-founder of Project Inkblot, which is a design for diversity consultancy—a team of designers, futurists—partnering with companies to create equitable products, services, content and experiences. Welcome to the show. I'm super excited to see you again. And thank you so much for joining me.
Boyuan: Thanks so much. I’m so excited. Good to see you too.
Kelly: So you and your business partner, Jahan come from like this incredibly diverse background. Each of you has had like a million jobs. And I think there's sort of something in that in the way that your experiences have kind of brought you to this place where you've created Project Inkblot and you talk about it in terms of filling a gap that you call plurality. Can you talk a little bit about that?
Boyuan: Yeah, sure. Yes. So both of us have had so many different jobs as you just mentioned. I come from a nonprofit background mostly. And when I first got out of college, I worked in youth development. I taught a basketball program in the South Bronx with middle school boys, which is really random. And Jahan worked at a church of All Things. She's half Jewish and her mom's side is atheist. She works at an Episcopalian Church. So things like that, really, really random.
Kelly: But not.
Boyuan: But not. Right. And this is what we're seeing now, like 12 years later. We met at a music and culture magazine. And both of us wanted to do our own thing. And I think what fair it is to say is that even though our journey seemed really circuitous where at the beginning there wasn't a clear, clear purpose. We always just chased our purpose. That was the commonality between the two of us.
And so when we were at this music and culture magazine, we started to do our own thing. The first thing that came to mind was to create an alternative online magazine that really showcases the voices and the talents of people of color and women. And we did that showcasing folks from all over the world, like the first we had many women photographer to food justice activists in Oakland and all over the place.
And what really came about is just this desire to look at the creative process, and how that could actually really benefit folks who are looking to transition out of purposeless work into purposeful work. And that really illuminated this gap where we just saw that there were a lot of tools like this, that we're available to folks, but not to people who look like us.
And so when we started doing this work, we moved it into in real life, and created a workshop series for folks just like us. We're like, how do we start a painting practice while also being an accountant at the same time, right? And then that led us to doing consultative work with creative institutions. And then the thing that really jelled us before we started Project Inkblot, as the consultancy that it is now, is that we started doing consultative work with big agencies and corporate organizations that were trying to fill this gap, try to bridge this gap between people who are from what we call misrepresented communities and the agencies themselves. So, namely women, people of color, how do we reach them? We don't know how to reach them.
And for us, it's kind of like, well, you just go and talk to them. Yeah, like, wow, what a novel thought. But I think what really was illuminated there is that we apply a process. There's a process that can be codified that can actually be taught to people. And in this case for agencies that are moving so quickly. Companies are trying to find partnerships that help them with the bottom line. There are all these things that are agenda points that are not actually beneficial to the communities that they're trying to reach in terms of marginalized communities. And so for us, it's like, how do we codify a process that allows this win-win orientation? How do we reframe how we create these partnerships with communities of people who are “diverse”.
Kelly: So, I mean, we do have to talk about this current landscape that we're in, this whole Coronavirus pandemic. I think beyond the remote workforce aspect of it, though, how do we really rely on our people to co-create solutions together?
Boyuan: Yeah, oh my goodness, this is the best time to think about these things. So with design for diversity, I just want to backtrack and just say that it's the methodology that we developed that marries design thinking with a lot of really standard practices around community organizing, code design, participatory design. And there are tools out there to do these things. People have been working in this way. And if we look at our society as a whole, if we just look at, we just name what it is, right? We live in this capitalistic society where we're really focused on the bottom line. And a lot of it is individualistic. There's no make wrong to it. It just is what it is. And we see ourselves now in a situation where we're now forced to collaborate in these really remarkable ways, but it's actually a need to us to do that.
And so looking at this landscape now, there's a lot of pivoting that has to happen just out of force, out of necessity, out of whatever we need to do in order to survive. But there are a lot of really beautiful opportunities that have already come out of that, that we can just take a moment to see. Oh, actually, this does work better for everybody. So if we look at something very macro like the healthcare system. And we were talking a little bit about this before we hit record, which is that if we're focused on this really industrialized system that is like you get health care if you work for a corporation, and that's how it works, that actually works for no one at this point because of the scarcity of medical equipment and also the limitations and the capacities at the hospitals.
But if you take a very micro look at that, and then you just look at how we've been so focused on take the toilet paper thing, people are hoarding toilet paper. That's a very individualistic thing that people can actually take a moment to see. Why am I doing this? Is there a way that I can actually share the resources that I have, especially if you are somebody with more privilege, or you're in a situation where you have an abundance of resources or extra resources, where there's a neighbor, by you who doesn't have those things. It's not just to be a Good Samaritan or a good person to provide that but if this virus spreads, or if one person is in a dire situation, infectious diseases don't care. It really didn't care about our human desires. It's just like, it's going to spread, and it's going to impact everyone. So now we're seeing more than ever how actually connected we are, like biologically, spiritually so on and so forth.
Kelly: Yeah, all of it. And I think that kind of leads to this idea that like, the old paradigm, we'll call it, of how we were working, did actually work for some people. I think we have to be realistic about that. The problem that comes up is that it didn't actually work for the majority of people. And we have to be sort of realistic about that too. I think that that inward reflection—it is inward but it's also external—it's sort of looking at those things, as you said, sort of on the micro and the macro at the same time. When we think a little bit past that, long term, how will we design the future? How will this look different? And like what benefits can we start to imagine if we were to just design for diversity and really be more empathetic and do this in a way where we are co-creating and not checking boxes?
Boyuan: Yeah, that's a great question. And that's really the core of what we do. So just to level set a little bit with language. When we talk about design in our practice at our agency, and when we work with our clients, we're not talking about designer in your title. We're talking about everybody who has the ability to create is a designer. And if you look at the flip side of it, we have all these things that are defaults, which we call cultural defaults. They could be so many things. Like the way that I developed my website, for instance. Was it necessarily initially thinking about ADA compliance or how do I make this accessible? There's so many examples in our world where we're just defaulting to the “norm”. But that actually impedes our ability to be creative. It's actually the opposite of design. Because if you think about design, there's like intentionality, there's creativity. There's some sort of ingenuity around it. But a default is we're just saying this is business as usual. And we see ourselves in this unprecedented situation right now with Coronavirus, and the world isn't going to be the same.
And so right now we have this amazing inflection point, both as individuals and also as leaders in the world, in our organizations, companies, so on and so forth, to ask that question—how can we design a future that works for all? And a lot of people haven't been asking that question. They've been thinking about how do we keep moving on, how do we keep the lights on, how do we do all those types of things, and that's still going to assist with this all of a sudden, like we're in survival mode. But then once the dust settles a little bit, and then this becomes really the new normal, we had that moment to meditate on that question.
Kelly: Yeah. So speaking about questions, what are some of the questions that we should be asking ourselves during this opportunity of reflection? As creative leaders, however you define that, what are some of those questions that we can start to really anchor into?
Boyuan: Well, the first one that we always start with, and this is just pulling it from somebody else. We didn't create this. Einstein quote. So he said something to the effect of, if I had one hour to come up with a solution for a problem, I would spend the first 55 minutes asking the right question. So that's a little bit meta coz you’re asking. What's the right question to ask? That’s the first question.
But then there are so many other things that is just within our own framework designed for diversity. We ask and we employ other people and leaders, especially to think about this, which is, what are my cultural defaults? And if you are a business leader, and I know that there are a lot as part of your audience, right? The question is, what are the cultural default that exist in my organization? What are the cultural defaults that use this within my team? What are my cultural defaults?
And so I can tell you right now, for me, I'm an able bodied, this gender woman. So there are a lot of things that I just don't see. And it's not a make wrong. It’s just they're things that I don't consider on a day to day basis. So my defaults could be, I think about everything, I think normal is like able bodied, I think normal as like binary genders or so on and so forth. And, I don't necessarily think about that all the time, but it flows into how I design things, it flows into how I make things.
So now is a good time to ask, what are those cultural defaults? And then the next question is, what are the impacts of those defaults on the people that I'm creating for? So whether you're developing a campaign or a project or a piece of tech or a campaign, whatever it is that you're creating, there's always an impact that is distinct from the intention. Because the intention is personal to us. It's actually nobody else's business. It's just personal to us.
And then the impact is how it's lived out in the world, in actual communities and oftentimes, we conflate those things. And now is a good time to actually take them apart and see, okay, this is my intention. But what's the worst case scenario and on home? And we don't like to ask that question. But have we thought about that in terms of a lot of our social structures right now? Long, long ago, maybe we would be better prepared for this Coronavirus.
Kelly: Yeah, that's a good point. I'm just curious in the work that you do with Project Inkblot. I know that you've worked with so many incredible organizations. Is there sort of one example that you can share where speaking about impact, the work that you did, coming into an organization, an organization that was clearly self-aware enough to hire the two of you? Is there an organization or an impact that you can share that you felt like, wow, this is a really great analogy to all of the work that we're doing as an organization ourselves, but then also, what that could look like going forward.
Boyuan: Yeah, sure. I mean, there's so many, but one that just comes to me right away is advertising agency that we work with, and we train their entire team. So again, with design for diversity there. One thing to just break it down into is that there are five main modules. There are 5 key components to this framework that we train teams on. And the important thing here is, if you don't have a shared language and a shared framework, then as a team, you do not have a shared operating system. So it's really important to create a mindset shift on this new way of thinking before you start to introduce new processes, because you're gonna have all the tools and processes in the world but if you don't have the mindset shift, then ain't nothing gonna happen. Right?
So we did that work with them. But in the middle of this training, the strategists came up to us and they're like, dang, we just had an aha like, we are the gatekeepers for our company in a lot of ways. Like we're doing the research, we're writing the brief, we're doing all of these things that then get passed over to creative and then they build the thing. So there's something that can be illuminated in both their own tools in terms of the brief itself, but also how they work together, the brief process, their creative team, and just with their whole team.
So we started to deconstruct what their process look like. And then also the tools that they used, to start pulling out these inflection points of like, this is where bias can come into play. And then you have campaigns that are disseminated across the globe in front of millions of eyeballs.
So it's really important, not just from a harm mitigation standpoint, which a lot of people who are risk-averse, they think about diversity in terms of harm mitigation, but it's really about cultural strategies. So it's like how do we teach a team to use cultural strategy? And just to break that down. Cultural strategy is just being able to adapt to whatever the scenario is at the time. So there's a cultural strategy for anything that meets the moment and meets the needs of people at the moment. So the impact of that is that they actually change their entire brief process
And then they actually incorporated it into how they're briefing their clients. So they work with huge retailers, some of the biggest across the country in the world. And they also work with just so many different types of clients, but now it's part of how they reach their clients. So now there's an external commitment to doing this work. But also, there's a why.
So we were talking earlier about root cause analysis, right? Oftentimes in a fast-paced agency environment, we’re just doing, doing, doing, and then there's sometimes not the opportunity to ask why. And it's not just asking the first why, it's getting beneath the first one and getting to the second why. And then the third why and the fourth why and the fifth why until you get to a root cause, like, why is this important? And how is this going to benefit the lives of people? And you can do that personally. You can do that around a project.
And I'll give you an example of that. So you can do that in terms of if something isn't working, and I'm going to bring up an example around diversity. So we're working with a tech company, and they're an e-commerce company, and they were having a really hard time reaching black and brown sellers on their site.
So, initially, their inclination was, well, we just have to create some partnerships with black business organizations. That doesn't ask why, that doesn't address the root cause. So if you really get to the root cause of why don't we have black and brown sellers? Oh, it's because we don't know how to reach them. Why don't you know how to reach them? Okay, we don't have anybody who's black or brown on our team that's doing this work. Well, why is that? So you keep on getting to the bottom of it. And the answer is always that, dominant culture defines the design. It is not to get to that answer. It's the process of getting that answer. It doesn't matter what the answer is, it's the process of getting there and that you start to eliminate all these reasons, that then you can start building a strategy that's going to impact that root cause. Because if you don't do that, then you're just going to keep on being at the surface.
And before we hit record, we were also talking about root cause in terms of our own selves, our own personal development. And so we can ask the same set of questions to ourselves, like, why is this occurring? Whatever the experience is, and why, why, why—going vertically, not horizontally so we really get to the truth.
Kelly: Yeah. Oh, my God. I love this conversation so much. Boyuan, thank you so much for joining me on the show today. I know it's a really timely topic. I think it gives people a lens to look at the future which then sort of gives people more hope about what that future could look like and how we might all sort of co-create that together. So thank you again for coming on the show. I really appreciate it.
Boyuan: Thank you so much. And yeah, just to leave on. Yeah. How will we all design the future?
Kelly: It's such a great question and thank you again.
Boyuan: Thank you.