Kindness in Design Thinking

The inspiration behind this article is twofold.

First, from the positive and inspiring feedback I received on my piece on ageism. In that article, I talk about an experience I had while talking to a client who shared a heart-wrenching story with me about the bias she was experiencing as a middle-aged woman, all because of her age. Secondly, I was inspired by Google X’s former head of business, Mo Gawdat, who, inspired by the sudden loss of his 21 year old son, rebuilt his life and searched for happiness. He chronicled his path back to happiness in a book, which I often gift to others, called Solve for Happy.

The one thing missing from design thinking is kindness.

As far as friends and family go, I didn’t grow up in a particularly creative environment. Coming up as a young, self-taught designer/developer who didn’t go to a top design school, resources weren’t nearly as abundant or accessible to me as they are today. Tutorials, how-tos, editable files, and live streams of top-shelf experts are now a Google search away for the modern-day professional. Access to knowledge has become infinitely easier with the proliferation of social media and Google has made the sharing and discovery of information practically effortless.

And as physical and digital assets have become more accessible, so have mental frameworks. Over the years, I’ve studied a number of different ones. I’ve studied academic implementations of design frameworks, design thinking, and design management. I've been an auditor and self-paced student of world-renowned curriculums, such as Stanford's D school. In my learnings and experiences in the design world, one consistent thing I’ve found interesting is that we always make sure we talk about empathy in terms of “human-centered” design. We, the designers, must empathize with our user if we want to create designs that will be usable and create enterprise value.

But what about the people we’re designing with? We never talk about showing empathy for the men and women who are physically with us in the same rooms. To me, it’s a glaring flaw of design thinking.

There are two big issues plaguing the design industry right now.

One, there aren't enough design leaders or designers inside of organizations. Organizations are starting to incorporate design leadership and according to Fortune, design-led companies outperform their peers by as much as 228%. Implementing design thinking has proven to lead to higher employee engagement rates, better customer experience, customer satisfaction, and a higher net present value or future value for the organization.

The second challenge facing the industry is the glaring lack of design leaders and lack of ethnic and gender diversity among the few design leaders being put forth. The recent push to create a more inclusive workforce is a promising remedy to the current “skinny and white, male hipster” stereotype of a designer.

The way to create a promising future for design thinking is to remember to be kind.

In order for the design industry to create the next wave of world-changing designers, entrepreneurs, and intrapreneurs, it’s imperative that we exercise kindness to those that might be wary of the industry. When I was forging my way into the world of design, I had the incredible fortune to meet a designer who opened his world to me. He showed me his tools, what he was doing, and how he thought about things. For me, it was that level of kindness and openness that demystified the overwhelming concept of design.

But many people, across a number of different organizations, operate from a place of fear. Fear of failure, fear of rejection, fear of speaking up for fear of losing their job or missing out on a promotion. Or simply, afraid to say what’s on their mind. I think that fear is born out of a lack of kindness. And because many people in design are operating from a place of fear, we end up with a field of unhappy people, who, in turn, are unkind to others. In my view this is a systemic issue facing today's creative workforce. First, it breeds people with chips on their shoulders who had to scratch, crawl, and struggle their way to the top – and then feel like they need to exclude others to protect their coveted spots.

But there’s something even more damaging than a leader with something to prove: a potentially amazing leader who is afraid to step into the field because the people at the top make a point to intimidate, ostracize, or discriminate them. And most of the time, this fear is born from self-doubt or self-hate – not of the fearful, but of the feared themselves.

To combat this fear, we need kindness, and kindness stems from and flourishes in people and places that feel safe. I love Brené Brown's work about the importance of vulnerability and psychological safety, and one of the most important tenets of those two things is being kind. But before we can be kind to others, we have to be kind to ourselves. It’s the only way it works. Yes, that might sound a little new age-y or crunchy, but if there's one thing I’ve learned over the past two years of having a daily meditation and mindfulness practice, it’s that having a beginner's mindset combined with kindness and self-love offers a really interesting – and considerate – perspective.

The future of design must be diverse.

We’re going to need more diversity of skills, talents, and people over the next twenty years to ensure that our projects, thinking, and the problems we're able to solve as a society don't get stale.

As important as programmers and engineers are, we need more than they can give. We have to look beyond the norm and begin attracting designers with unique backgrounds, as our infatuation with STEM has deprived our industry of creativity, empathy, and communication. Simply, we need a larger pool of different types of designers. Designers who can design for multiple different contexts. Designers who are more technologically inclined, designers who understand how to utilize the petabytes of big data flowing through our systems today, and designers who know how to utilize and manipulate algorithms and machine learning to further the human condition and society at large.

But in order to encourage and stimulate that kind of growth, it will require more than inclusion and empathy. It will also require a certain type of default kindness.

A foundation of principles built on humility and humanity.

In his book, Principles, Ray Dalio talks a lot about the importance of transparency and meritocracy. And while I’m not positing that those work for every company, I do find the idea of operating on a specific set of principles to be an interesting one. In order to foster a healthy work environment, one of the principles of any design-led company must be kindness.

When people feel connected, appreciated, safe, and assured that the people they’re working with are coming from a kind and genuine place rather than ego or malice, the potential for great work is born. When employees genuinely enjoy being around their coworkers, the quality of work improves, as do client relationships and engagements.

It all starts at the top.

Servant leadership is a powerful tool in the quest to spread kindness throughout an organization. The leaders of a team or organization must show kindness while serving their colleagues and collaborators. Helping their team identify and eliminate obstacles, and gain autonomy so that they might feel empowered to identify future problems on their own, is paramount. That kind of trust in one another cannot happen in an environment that is devoid of kindness. Fostering a healthy work environment begins with helping employees feel like valued members of a team, as opposed to human capital. And that takes kindness.

According to a workplace study, up to 30% of the global workforce is going to work remotely by 2025. It’s currently at 18%. Looking at those numbers, you have to wonder why so many people are making the choice to forgo a traditional work environment and work from home. Yes, the flexibility and commute – or lack thereof – are convenient, but could it be that work environments have become hostile? That we’ve forgotten to be kind? Could it be that we’re not respecting each others’ work styles and avoiding human connections?

Personally, I’ve played the role of many different types of managers and executives. I’ve been the aggressive, bull in a china shop. I’ve been the middle-of-the-road guy who didn’t ruffle any feathers. I’ve been the cheerleader. You name it, I’ve been it. And I’ve learned, in my trial and many errors, that the most effective kind of leadership comes from learning and understanding people’s intrinsic motivations. What makes them do what they do? How do you take that motivation and align it to the values and mission of the company? That way, your workforce is coming from a genuine place, rather than something they have to put on for work. “Fake it till you make it” doesn’t work in our industry. It’s too exhausting and certainly the opposite of genuine.

Purpose, autonomy, and mastery.

We can take a lot of inspiration from Daniel Pink's book, Drive. He talks about the three key things that drive people: purpose, autonomy, and mastery. You can’t have autonomy if there's not a level of trust and you can’t have trust if there's not a level of mutual respect and understanding for each other. And you can’t have either of those things without...you guessed it – kindness.

If people feel entirely comfortable walking up to their CEO or superior to spark up a conversation, or if people feel zero hesitation before speaking with their best or worst customers, then we can start going beyond empathy and beyond skill evolution, and ultimately get into purpose evolution.

If we can just spread a little bit more kindness in the workplace and the workforce, the quality and diversity of design leaders, those who are solving some of the world's greatest problems, will be better for it.

If we create an environment that’s not just empathetic and inclusive, but also genuinely respectful of one another, I think we’ll see more women and underrepresented ethnicities and individuals put themselves forward for positions in companies that they might otherwise not apply to. And it’s all because they won’t have to operate from a place of fear. They will feel like it’s OK for them to ask ‘that’ question, apply for ‘that’ promotion, or apply for ‘that’ job change, specifically because they’ll feel comfortable knowing the person on the other end of that interaction is kind.

Time. Time. Time.

Time is a killer, and in more ways than one. When we have a limited amount of time, and a full day’s work (or more) to pack into that time, it’s easy to forget to be kind in those thirty or sixty second interactions. But those moments add up quickly and create the foundation of an organization, dare I even say the fabric of the culture.

If you’ve come across kindness in your design thinking process, or have seen different ways to incorporate empathy that are non-traditional, I would love to hear from you. And if this article inspired you or is valuable to you in any way, I would really appreciate it if you'd share it with just one other person.

Who knows? That one other person could see this and potentially be kinder to their customer, executive, or intern tomorrow.

Remember: even though the technology we use is unfeeling, the users we design them for, and the people we design them with, are not. Treat them with kindness.


Have you tried implementing kindness in your design thinking processes? Tweet me some examples @petesena