Design thinking & equity in design with guest Dee Lanier (podcast)
In episode 157 of The Content Strategy Experts Podcast, Sarah O’Keefe and special guest Dee Lanier discuss design thinking: what it is, what it isn’t, and obstacles and ideas for equity in design.
“Design thinking is not a model first. It is a mindset that incorporates a strong inquisitiveness. What’s happening here? Who are the people that are being affected by whatever problems that are happening here? And what don’t I know that I need to learn before proposing any solutions? That’s design thinking in a larger understanding.”
— Dee Lanier
Dee’s top 4 design models:
- IDEO, 1978
- Stanford d.school, 2005
- Liberatory Design, 2016 (updated 2021)
- Solve in Time!, 2019 (solveintime.com)
- Demarginalizing Design: Elevating Equity for Real World Problem Solving by Dee Lanier
- The Inner Work of Racial Justice by Rhonda V. Magee
- Website: https://www.lanierlearning.com/
- Email: [email protected]
- Twitter/X: https://twitter.com/deelanier
Sarah O’Keefe: Welcome to the Content Strategy Experts podcast, brought to you by Scriptorium. Since 1997, Scriptorium has helped companies manage, structure, organize, and distribute content in an efficient way.
In this episode, we’re talking about design thinking with a special guest, Dee Lanier. Hi, everyone. I’m Sarah O’Keefe, and welcome, Dee.
Dee Lanier: Hi. Thank you so much for having me.
SO: It is great to have you. For those in our audience who don’t know, we literally met on a plane. So we were both headed to San Diego for different reasons, and had a really great discussion. And then I decided that that discussion really needed to be recorded, so, here we are. And thank you for being here.
DL: It was a fantastic conversation, and so I’m happy to continue it now.
SO: So, we complained a lot about AI and the state of the universe and a bunch of other things. But Dee, you’re a published author and a consultant, running around doing cool workshops. Tell us a little bit about what you do and how and where.
DL: The where part will probably be the most difficult because it’s literally all across the country, and sometimes internationally. But I am oftentimes brought in to do human-centered design, also known as design thinking work, helping organizations tackle challenges that they are experiencing, and then come up with some form of contract or goals. And then coaching them longer term in executing on their stated goals, and really being one who can infuse some form of instruction and help and supports in some cases. But also just being responsive to the roadblocks that they’re experiencing, some of their communication challenges, things of that nature, and helping them see their goals through. And then celebrating what they have accomplished as well as setting up some of their longer term goals that need to be evaluated over the course of three to five years.
SO: And so, this really sounds a lot like what we do here at Scriptorium, except where you’re talking about design thinking and human-centered kind of approaches, I’m deeply afraid that we are more about the systems and the tools and the software and the, I guess, automation centered approaches. But how do you define, for this audience that sits more on the techie software side of the world, how do you define design thinking for them, for us?
DL: Sure. Well, I feel like I have to always start off with helping people understand what I don’t mean by design thinking. And that is if your brain lights up, and I’m sure some listeners say, “Oh, I know exactly what design thinking is,” and what immediately comes to mind is a model or a process. That is what first comes to mind. And I would venture to say it’s either coming from IDEO’s Model established in 1978, or it’s Stanford D School’s model established 2002 or five, something of that nature. So by and large, what they’re thinking of is a model and they’re thinking of a fairly recent phenomenon. And I like to say first and foremost, design thinking is exactly what it sounds like. It is thinking like a designer.
So if you’ve ever been in contact with any form of designer, someone who does graphic design, industrial design, interior design, you start to notice that these people think differently. And I would say it’s not just different in they just think in a manner that is different than other people. But they literally, they slow down and they ask questions and they seek to understand. And that really is the goal, is the seeking to understand before proposing any solutions.
So with that, I say, “Well, design thinking is not a model first. It is a mindset. And that mindset incorporates a strong inquisitiveness about what’s happening here. Who are the people that are being affected by whatever said problems that are happening here? And what don’t I know that I need to learn before proposing any solutions?” So, that is design thinking in a larger sort of understanding. And then if you’re curious about models, I could share a couple, because you can Google search at least 10. Which again becomes something that sometimes blows some people’s minds when they’ve been introduced to design thinking through a particular model.
SO: Well, we’ll take your top three or four and stick them in the show notes. And I wanted to touch… I mean, it’s interesting, right? Because we go in and we will look at things, and a lot of times we’ll say, “That’s not actually the problem. That’s the symptom.” Right? You see these issues, but you have to figure out what’s the root cause. And so I think really at the end of the day, there’s a lot of overlap there.
And I know that one of your focuses in addition to this design thinking lens and this really understanding the stakeholders and the organization and how they need to change to address the issue that you’re dealing with, is that you have a strong focus on design equity or equity in design. And I wanted to touch on that. I mean, I think most of us are familiar with the really obvious problems like you ask a search engine for images of a CEO and you get a collection of white men with good hair. But your practice goes way beyond this. And so what I wanted to ask you was, how do you look at equity and design? And what are some of the issues that leak into that work in ways that are not as obvious as my really dumb CEO example?
DL: That’s not a dumb example, that’s an excellent example. Or even just doing a Google image search on good hair or professional hairstyles versus unprofessional hairstyles, and then we’ll see what you discover. But that is part of it, even doing that, starting with an investigative practice or a prompt to get the conversation going. But equity and design or elevating, as I like to say, elevating equity in the problem solving process is twofold. The first being making sure that you’re actually gathering the people that are most proximate to whatever pain that is being experienced as part of the process. And so it is not just an expert or consultant who’s coming in, who’s taking inventory of whatever’s happening. And then going off to the side and developing whatever their solutions are. And then coming back to the team and say, “This is what I got. This is what you hired me as a professional or as an expert to do.”
I think that there’s a need for that in certain instances, but when you think about problems or challenges that affect a community, it requires that the community is engaged in identifying what is the root problem, what is the core of the problem. And being a part of the process for describing not just what the problem is, but also gathering the research so that they can see for themselves that they can also share the antidotes of their experience and their exposure to whatever the challenge is. And then them also ideating and being a part of, “Well, we could do this, we could do this, we could do this, we could do this.” And bringing in their thoughts, their brilliance, but really it’s because they’re bringing their pain to the table, and they want to be a part of the solutions.
Because then lastly, whenever their solution is then proposed, and then there are goals set and there’s some action planning and some execution of those things. And if they’re a part of that process all the way through, then that sort of eliminates the blame game of, “Well, this outsider told us we should do this. We never understood or agreed with that. We attempted it didn’t work. And I could have told you from the very beginning, it never would’ve worked.” It kind of separates that us versus them mentality, and instead invites everyone who’s really deeply vested in seeing that problem overcome as a part of the solution. So, that is long-winded answer to part one of, that is what it means to elevate equity and problem solving.
Secondarily, it is literally taking on particular topics that are related to equity in whatever the setting. And so whether that be anti-bias work, which is what I’m oftentimes brought in to do. Or sometimes it is, and giving a distinction between, what are the differences between individual and collective bias versus different forms of discrimination? Anti-racism work. And then also there’s an opportunity, and I see this last category primarily in schools, and that being civic engagement. And so it’s identifying a problem, understanding what the big problem is, and then spending the time with the collective group to problem solve.
But part of the work that I do in the pre-work is really listening well to leadership. And then having them help me identify who are other people I should be talking to learn what is the core issue. So then we just propose, “Okay, this is where we’re going to go with this next.” And it may be starting with bias or it may be going into anti-discrimination. Or it may go into, “Okay, it seems like this is an issue that is particularly related to racism and we need to do some, not just anti-racism training in the sense of me giving you a bunch of terminology. And building up your lexicon and helping you have a better understanding of what these things are. But really being a part of problem solving, identifying the particular challenges that are being experienced typically by people of color within your organization. And then how can we rectify those issues?”
SO: It’s interesting because in many cases, I think the projects that we come into, nine times out of 10, the people on the ground, the line employees that are in the trenches doing the work have a really, really good understanding of what the problem is and how to solve it. They know. I mean, they know what’s wrong and they know how to fix it, and they’ve already figured it out. But because as somebody or others said, infamously, “You get more credibility when you commute on an airplane.” So because we’re outsiders coming in, we get additional credibility, even though we’re potentially saying the same things that your staff, your long-term employees are saying.
And I’ve had, I mean many conversations where I would say to somebody, “Okay, you’re absolutely right about the problem here, and this is exactly the solution. You’re absolutely right about the solution, and this is what we’re going to propose. Now, would you like us to give you credit for it?” And 100%, I’ve never had anybody say anything other than, “No, you have to take credit for this because if I propose it will not get done.”
DL: Very, very interesting.
SO: It is an uncomfortable place to be. Right? But basically what they’re saying is, “Look, Sarah, we are going to leverage your credibility as an outsider to get the thing that we all agree we need.”
DL: Makes sense. Makes sense.
DL: Right. Makes sense.
SO: I mean, I can accommodate that, assuming… I mean in the scenario where we all agree that that is the right answer. But it is very upsetting to have person after person after person say, “I know the answer, I just can’t get them to listen to me.”
DL: You’re right. Well, and we may differ in approaches as well as how we differ in particular work that we do, in me more doing design thinking, you doing systems design. But what I like to do is help equip the community with the skills and the actual data that they need to move forward. Which is to say, “If you’re going to argue with this, know that you’re arguing against what the data says. And we are looking at the data.”
So if we can, attempting to be careful with my words, not to be taken in a different sense, but if we can objectify the scenario a bit… Which sidebar, when I do anti-racism work, part of the reason why I work more as a facilitator and guide the process is because it’s also extremely harmful for me to experience microaggressions, even in someone’s question. If I am being looked at as the expert who has the knowledge base, who has to respond to you, when you raise your hand and you have a critical question that also comes across like a confrontation. That can be incredibly challenging.
So instead, if it can be set up where there are small groups and small groups are where in collaboration with one another, they’re also utilizing the same level setting of background knowledge that was not only given, but really facilitated. Because what I do is I try and propose questions and give the tools for people to discover on their own. And then we come to agreements, “Is this what we all saw? Is this what we all heard? Is this what we all understand? Any objections to that?” So I’m objectifying the scenario a little bit to say, “If you are having an argument still, it’s not with me.”
Because that can, for me as a facilitator, as a person of color, trying to lead a workshop that is oftentimes for the sake of helping the people of color within that community to not feel abused, I don’t want to experience the same abuse that they’ve been experiencing. I know why I am there. It’s typically due to a scenario, something that happened. And so, let’s have a conversation about what happened, and then let’s have some conversation about what else is happening. And then, what is your community most interested in tackling primarily? And then let’s discover how to do that. If I can stand more on the side and help lead in that regard, then I also protect myself. And that is honest and real.
SO: Yes. And thank you for doing this work because the whole thing just makes me twitch. Just listening to this, it sounds painful.
DL: Yes. Yes, it can be very painful, ’cause I’ve been saying it. Part of what I do is anti-racism work, part of what I do is anti-racism work. Well, I’ve had to learn a lot even in doing that. Now, my background is totally in this field. My undergrad and graduate work is primarily focused on race relations from a sociological perspective. But knowing about something does not make it easier in a situation where you find yourself being tokenized in the moment, experiencing a microaggression in the moment, noticing someone centering on themselves and their experience. And then confronting you to have to try and counter what they are saying because they see you as the enemy in this setup.
All of that is hard, so I’ve had to learn some things. Had to learn some things such as being mindful in the moment. I will give a shout-out to Rhonda V. Magee and her book, I want to quote it or name the title properly. It’s, The Inner Work of Racial Justice, which is to take a deep breath and pause when experiencing something offensive in the moment. How do we stay professional when we notice that something that is being said or done causes harm, whether it’s to me directly or to others around? And how do we address that situation? So, doing the inner work.
Secondly, making a huge point to level set, to say, “What we’re going to do is attempt to make sure that everyone has the same baseline understanding.” So therefore, if I am brought in to do anti-racism work, I first have a large conversation about the concept of race. Because we’re not going to talk about an ism if we don’t understand the structure in which it’s being built upon.
And I ask three questions and give time and space and also some resources, so that a group can investigate on their own and say, “When was race created? Why was race created and how was race created?” So again, once those things are being investigated and discovered, they’re not doing battle with me, they’re doing battle with research, they’re doing battle with history. They’re doing battle with what is real and not what’s imagined. There are people in that room who could say, “I can tell you this right now,” but there are others in the room that need to discover that for the first time. So, that is part of what I do.
And then the next thing I do is ensure that we don’t move on with doing design thinking through these particular challenges, until we have set some expectations and some commitments from the people that are in that space individually. Because we’re going to work corporately, but we are going to need to individually agree on some things. And so, those things become things that I can always call back on and say, “Remember you said that you would commit to the following.” And so if there’s any need to address any issues, it’s based on their commitments, not the thing that I’ve imposed upon them.
And then of course, I’ve already brought up bringing in definitions of terms so that people aren’t just going off of their understanding of a concept. But at least we’re all utilizing the same definitions, as we talk and discuss them. But then what everyone is able to bring to the table is their experience with those particular concepts.
Those are things I attempt to do to create safety, in a sense, for the participants as well as for myself. But safety cannot be demanded or controlled in a sense of saying to the group, “This is a safe space.” Who says it’s a safe space? Safe for who? And how do we know? But we can do certain things to attempt to create safety. And then we can always stop and pause and call back to, are we actually doing what we committed to do or are we doing something different now?
SO: And so, some of the conversations that we had when we first met were actually revolving around some of these concepts you’re talking about, in terms of safety and bias. But what actually led us off was AI, right? We started in on this question of, “Oh, well, what does it look like to start to bring AI into some of these settings?” Whether it’s to support design work or it’s to support corporate training, K through 12 education, or anything else. The AI is out there, the tools are happening. What do you see? I mean, what’s your sort of capsule view of what’s going to happen, as we go forward with these tools in a variety of settings?
DL: Part of our conversation was acknowledging that AI and the various tools that exist, they’re not going away. We know that that is the case. I wanted it to kind of feel like, “Oh, let’s see if this is a trend that will fizzle away, like Wordle and Bitcoin.”
SO: Wait, one of those has actual value, and it’s not Bitcoin.
DL: I see what you did there. Exactly. But there are billions of dollars being invested in by big corporations. So part of what I do is try and say, “Well, let’s effectively utilize AI or let’s attempt to effectively utilize AI in a research process.” And so that is skill development, much of what it requires to not only participate in design thinking, but then to slow down, stop after what would oftentimes be like a rapid prototype. We quickly, within a very condensed timeframe, came up with what our proposed solutions to whatever said problem is based on this very limited amount of time.
But now that we have more time, extended time, we need to fill in the gaps with what is missing. Some of those may be interviews, and some empathy mapping. But it also requires deeper research. And part of that research requires understanding the tools that exist and how to use them effectively, and being mindful of things such as the bias that exists within them. And so, that becomes a whole workshop in and of itself.
We are going to deep dive into AI because people come to the table. Similarly, as we were talking about race and racism, people come to the table with varying degrees of understanding. And what ends up happening is some people presume that others know exactly what they’re talking about when they say whatever they say. Or there are others that have very, very strong opinions on certain things that it’s clear in certain cases, that they actually haven’t done much research, nor have they actually participated in or evaluated something critically from using. But they’re just like, they heard on NPR, they watched on CNN, they listened on Fox News, and now they have opinions. And I always say opinions matter, but they’re not more important than research.
And so, having people actually deep dive into research, and that includes just starting off with, I got three companies to name to you, Google, Microsoft, and Amazon. What all do they have in common? They are big data corporations. So, let’s start there. And if I say, “One is invested $10 billion here, another has invested $4 billion there, another has invested $2 billion externally here. And who knows how many dollars they’ve invested, invested internally for the development of their tools. And they own the space of data. It’s not going away. What kind of data do they have? How is that data being utilized? How can you be mindful of those things? And then how can you utilize these tools effectively, while also being mindful of the ways in which, if you’re not careful… You are the contributor to the data, and so you can be bringing your bias to the table as well.”
And so yeah, it’s a big, big, big, big discussion that’s still results similar to how all I think design thinking activities should result. And that is concluding with some commitments. And so whether it is revolving around the particular challenge that people are experiencing or with AI and the challenges that it presents, I always bring up a fourfold framework for goal setting. And that is what is it that we are trying to prevent, correct, improve, and excel in? And if we can set our feet on those four foundational pillars, then they become our guide as we continue to move forward. And AI is now just another part of that.
SO: So Dee, thank you. We could probably keep talking for a couple of hours, and I would appreciate that, and I suspect our audience would as well. But if people want to reach out, what’s the best way to find you? And we’ll, of course, also embed information in the show notes.
DL: Sure, sure. Thank you. Well, my website is Lanier Learning, my name, L-A-N-I-E-R, lanierlearning.com. Can also be emailed at [email protected]. I’m still on the Twitter or X or whatever that thing is called @DeeLanier. You can also find me at LinkedIn @DeeLanier. So my name is easy to find, and I would love to hear from some folks.
SO: So, Dee has a book out there in the world called Demarginalizing Design, which I would strongly recommend. And we didn’t have time to get into this, but some really interesting workshop techniques around how to get people engaged doing different kinds of things. Not just talk in a small group, but do some more creative things, which I believe is called, Solve in Time.
DL: That’s correct.
SO: So, that’s out on your website. We will get all of that into the show notes. And I hope that we’ll have an opportunity to have some further conversations about where this mess is going.
DL: We’re all learning, right? Absolutely. Well, hopefully we will have more opportunities such as this. Maybe we’ll even find ourselves on another plane together, having a conversation.
SO: Seems likely. So Dee, thank you so much for being here. And with that, thank you for listening to the Content Strategy Experts Podcast, brought to you by Scriptorium. For more information, visit scriptorium.com or check the show notes for relevant links.