11.02.23
Lee Moreau | Audio

Design As S1E0: Introduction


In the spring of 2023, Design Observer partnered with Mastercard to co-host a series of intimate conversations about design. Our provocations were culture, complexity, and citizenship.

Over three days in March, we gathered some sixty people—designers and scholars, social entrepreneurs and independent consultants, creative leaders and senior practitioners from across a range of industries—to discuss the current state of their work. Nothing was off the table: from collaboration and craft to cultural transformation and inclusion, to innovation and failure, and the social and systemic issues redefining the ways we think about life and work.

Things got real very quickly.

In the spirit of real talk and camaraderie, Design Observer has kept the conversation alive with a new podcast, “Design As,” which over six episodes, brings together a new group of people for rich discussions on the same prompts: culture, complexity, citizenship, and the world. You can find it on Apple, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts.

Our first episode will air November 9, 2023.

Be sure to start with episode zero, which originally aired as a follow-up to the March convening and inspired this new podcast. In it, Cindy Chastain, SVP Customer Experience & Design Mastercard Foundry, Jessica Helfand, co-founder Design Observer, Ellen McGirt, Editor-in-Chief of Design Observer, and Lee Moreau, founder of Other Tomorrows and host of "Design As", make the case for design’s role in solving the big problems of a changing world. “[It’s] A complicated, fascinating, existentially potentially nefarious, creatively fantastic, new set of opportunities for all of us,” says Chastain.



Transcript

Lee Moreau
Hi, everyone. It's me, Lee Moreau, host of Design As, and also host of The Futures Archive. You might have heard this episode when we first released it on another channel earlier in May, but it's getting its own feed now and really it's getting its own, its own show, its own podcast. So just to summarize, back in March, we had these closed door sessions in partnership with MasterCard. So Design Observer and MasterCard partnered and sort of co-hosted these intimate conversations with a series of design leaders in a three day session focused on culture, complexity, and citizenship. And there were no recordings— Chatham House rules applied — this was just really intimate. And what we realized was really necessary, the kind of real talk and the sense of camaraderie that was fostered in those rooms. And we were wanting to create something that would, sort of, honor that and hopefully be able to present it out to our listeners. And so on this show, what we're going to do is sort of restructure these conversations, framed again about the same words: culture, complexity, and citizenship — but we're bringing a whole new group of people in for each of the conversations. These are really three hour dialogs that are trimmed down into these episodes. So there's a lot of rich talk and we are really excited to share this with you. Starting next Thursday, November 9th, that will be our first conversation or the first part of our conversation on culture. It's going to be the first of two episodes, we'll want you to listen to both, and it's probably best to do them in order. But we don't want you to miss out on any of that, so please go and subscribe to us, the show Design As, on Apple Podcasts or Spotify or wherever you're listening to us. And for now, please enjoy this conversation that really started it all.

Jessica Helfand
Here at Design Observer we’ve been hosting podcasts since 2012. They’re often framed as conversations. Hosting conversations is, after all, something we’ve been doing on our site and in our conferences since 2003, if you can imagine that. But what we have in store for you today isn’t a new podcast. It’s not even a feed drop episode in our usual style. It is, I can tell you, a conversation. I’m Jessica Helfand and I’m one of the founders of Design Observer.

Ellen McGirt
And I’m Ellen McGirt. I’m an editor at Fortune, where I focus on race, culture, and inclusion and a past co-host of The Design of Business | The Business of Design podcast from Design Observer.

Lee Moraeu
And I’m Lee Moraeu, founding director of Other Tomorrows, professor of The Practice in Design at Northeastern University, and host of The Futures Archive on Design Observer.

Cindy Chastain
And I’m Cindy Chastain. I lead experience design at Mastercard, where we recently partnered with Design Observer to co-host a series of three design leadership symposia. And that’s what we’d like to talk about.

Jessica Helfand
I mentioned that here at Design Observer. We’ve been podcasting since 2012. But there’s another thing I wanted to say about this. Sometime in, I think 2015 or so, we piloted an informal series we called "The Next Stage." It’s actually how I initially met you, Lee. Can you say a little bit more about this?

Lee Moraeu
Well, the way I remember it was "The Next Stage" was sort of conceived as the anti TED talk or a TED Talk alternative or something like that. There were no headsets. There was no sort of podium, no pontificating, and there was no stage at all. So I think, you know, now we’re in this like post-Trump, post-pandemic, I don’t know...I don’t think we can say "post-" anything. But it was attempting to be sort of post-head at that time. And the sense was that there was a need for a different type of conversation or a different type of talking. And that kind of led to what we did here with Mastercard, which was really a hypothesis around what we felt was a renewed hunger for togetherness and for intimacy, but also some straight talk within a safe space and focused on the design community. So, you know, we’ve been doing a lot of talking outside, and that’s great for design, for us to be talking to other communities. But this was a moment kind of for a safe reset to talk amongst ourselves. Cindy, you spoke at our conference at MIT in 2019, which was maybe, you know, back before everything, and that was a big event — 400 people, very different kind of format. This idea resonated with you now. Can you talk a little bit about what you were looking for?

Cindy Chastain
You know, quite frankly, conversation. It’s that simple.

Ellen McGirt
Yeah.

Cindy Chastain
And it’s funny that you say, are we post-anything or we just post-everything, Lee, really. And I thought this was a particularly interesting time. Not only that we could be together, but it feels like because of all this change, I see the design profession facing questions. Altogether new things, you know, it hadn’t been asking before, or perhaps quite as deeply. And I think that’s what made these conversations so successful. It was, it was all about bringing a mix of people in the room. It wasn’t just leaders from corporations. We had agency, consultancy, co-founders, entrepreneurs, I think authors, and academics, including someone who teaches social psychology at Yale. So it was just fantastic not only to have the intimacy, but the diversity in that room. You know, in my day to day, I just feel like I have blinders on all the time focused on what needs to get done. And I craved personally having conversation with colleagues, peers, people where you can just sit around and unpack things. And think about and reflect on what’s happening in the world in ways that you just don’t get to do. And so the opportunity to bring people together to do just that and hoping that it would work was really behind it all.

Jessica Helfand
I think we framed this, you and I, Cindy, and Lee and Ellen and others — we thought about, I think very carefully, the idea that conversations were happening, but they weren’t happening at the same time in the same place, around the same issues.

Cindy Chastain
Mhm.

Jessica Helfand
And figuring out what those issues might be so that we weren’t there for, you know, soliloquies and filibusters that went on endlessly, which might have been fun, I don’t know, was actually part of the work. And so one of the things that we started with — I want to talk and dig in a little bit to these themes. One of the themes, as long as I’ve known you, Cindy, you’ve been talking about your interest in culture, and I started to think about what that meant inside the design community, outside the design community, in a corporation for a consultant, for an academic. Can you talk a bit about how culture has manifested for you both in your work at Mastercard and how it became a guiding principle for these conversations?

Cindy Chastain
Yeah, I mean, you know, Jessica, as long as we’ve known each other, this theme has been a topic of passion for me. And I discovered in the one-on-one conversations I was having with folks in the industry and even gave a talk about it a couple of years ago, this notion of culture and the importance of it, particularly inside of a large organization like the one that I work, is becoming increasingly important. It’s also something that we’ve learned is top of mind for CEOs. And I’m so curious because something about culture is ineffable— What does it actually mean? To me it really does come down to mindsets and behaviors. But what we were seeing is, you know, post-pandemic many organizations were, or are, undergoing real transformational change. They’re either becoming more digital, they’re adapting to new business models or responding to new customers and new behaviors with culture at the center. And the reason is to be able to change, you need to adapt in the way you work. And so, for example, at Mastercard, there is a CEO-led effort to cultivate customer centricity and new ways of working tied to something we call the Mastercard way. And within this framework, their behaviors and habits employees are and will be evaluated against, such as, you know, innovate with intention—bring in different perspectives and prioritize what matters. And to me, these not only resonated, but they felt like things that were also deeply tied to the culture of design. And so I’ve seen many instances, you know, of how design can organically play a role in the culture and the teams that they work with. For example, product and engineering teams start to see why it’s important to have actionable insights that will inform product decisions that get more comfortable with collaboration. When they’ve been used to working in silos, they get, you know, comfortable with iteration and experimentation. And sure, you can teach some of these things in a class, but it doesn’t really land until you’re doing it. And I’ve seen designers having led that way. So I was really interested in hearing about other experiences.

Jessica Helfand
You mentioned behaviors and you talked about the diversity of people in the room. And I wondered, Ellen, you have so much experience working in some of these different frequencies and across disciplines and industries, but also at a leadership level. And leadership typically in the past has been such a hierarchical mandate, a conceit that really was triangular. And when I listen to Cindy talk, when I think about the kinds of people who are invested in these questions, it’s a much more horizontal playing field, except that maybe it’s not. And I wondered if you could share your insights about what you think is going on here.

Ellen McGirt
Cindy, I was very moved and interested in what you were reporting from inside the C-suite there at Mastercard. And, you know, we’ve talked about this before, it absolutely tracks with all of the reporting that I’ve done at Fortune. We fetishized power at Fortune, and we spent a lot of time trying to get people with with C-suite titles to tell us what they’re thinking about. And I’ll tell you the need for transformation, the need for change is real. And nobody pays a CEO not to know what to do. But CEOs increasingly do not know what to do, but they know what the elements that they’re looking for. They’re bringing some fundamental convictions about what it means to have diverse voices around the table. There’s some fundamental questions about what businesses purpose is and a broader world at a very basic level to fix what has been broken, even if they broke it. These are very complex conversations to have. They happen at the board level, they happen at the shareholder level, and they happen at the community and customer level. You know, we increasingly have a real access to each other and we have access to people in power. So, you know, it becomes so clear in my reporting that asking these questions and asking them out loud and requiring people to be accountable for the answers to these questions is a huge culture shift in and of itself.

Cindy Chastain
Mhm.

Ellen McGirt
Right. And that’s a system redesign. And I sit around a lot of tables and I listen to a lot of people talking about a lot of very difficult issues. You know, as someone who reports on race and inclusion and, you know, I tip my hat and I open my heart to you all because you created an environment where people felt safe and welcome to share what was actually on their minds, what they were actually worried about, redesigning an uncertain future, what they were actually worried about in terms of getting the attention of other stakeholders within an organization for the things that they felt urgency around. That’s a very, very powerful thing.

Lee Moraeu
Ellen, I want to touch on this notion that, you know, I’m glad that you felt the sense of confidence coming out of that, but there was also a sort of fragility.

Ellen McGirt
Yes.

Lee Moraeu
Right. That was on display, right. So we had this balance like, oh, thank goodness, we all have a place where we can talk. And this conversation is happening not just in this room, but outside. But we really need the conversation that’s happening right here and right now. And so it was a tension between this and you said confidence. And if I felt fragility or like, you know, we needed the safe space in order to have both of those in the air at the same time?

Ellen McGirt
Well, that’s inclusion for you. We are increasingly asking people at every level of work to be vulnerable, to bring their full selves to work, which is, you know, is the changing identity issue. We are all different people every day in and outside of whatever marginalized identity that we may be bringing to the workplace. And we’re asking people to talk about what makes us nervous, where we are biased. These are very, very fragile issues, and you have to be very vulnerable to admit that, you know, you yourself may have been a barrier to the progress of a person or a principal in some way, shape or form. But that’s the job. That’s the job. And, you know, the ability to do it together is really the only way I can see moving forward at all.

Cindy Chastain
To build on to what you were saying, one of the things I love the most is that we didn’t walk away with any definitive answers, but more questions.

Jessica Helfand
Which, which I think comes back to—Lee framed this as an experiment from the beginning, as a hypothesis.

Cindy Chastain
Exactly. And I do think there was a level of humility, or at least a recognition of the need for humility in the face of this massive ambiguity and change.

Ellen McGirt
You know, can I add on to that? I, I thought about this quite a bit, and I feel like what we, many of us, came away with was the sense of relationship, which I didn’t expect to have. This was not a we didn’t you know, we didn’t have a trust fall, we didn’t have—there was no Post-it notes—we really shared from our hearts and what we were observing in the world and where it hurt and where we were afraid and, you know, where we might fall short. And the seeing the humanity in others around that. I’m sensitive to the very real issues around the mastery and practice of design and the common tools that we now are everywhere that non practitioners use to, you know, quote unquote design their work in their lives. If everything is a design problem to be solved and I can just buy something off the shelf to solve it, the nothing is a design problem. But you know, from my reporting and where I sit in my life, everything is in fact a design problem from the bigger picture of a better world. Every product we hold or process, you know, that has excluded someone has a designer imprint at its origin. And this is about purpose. This is about examining the problem that needed to be solved, for whom. This is about becoming aware or interested in the downstream problems that that happen, you know, every time something is made or decided. And that’s that’s where we all are, you know. We, you know, we could have substituted a lot of people around that table and we would end up talking about a lot of the things that we talked about, including, you know, the sustainable world and barriers to voting. And that was the citizenship piece that you cued us up to talk about, which was really important, and that we quickly got into the wobbly economy and what that was going to mean for people, and health, and equity. And, you know, when people and planet are in peril and we had a good, good group hug at the end right when we needed it. But to me, that’s what makes this the observing piece so powerful. It’s the ability of, you know, the design profession and minds that to draw our attention to the issues of the world and see them as they really are.

Jessica Helfand
My fervent hope is that these kinds of conversations are happening everywhere, and it’s the conversation piece to come back to where we started that it’s, it’s an exchange of information. We’re not programed to transmit and not receive.

Ellen McGirt
Mhm.

Jessica Helfand
Very fluid three days of that, which I think sets the tone for a different kind of engagement investigation, interrogating our assumptions about our role in the world, in cultures that we are placed in by choice, and in cultures that we’re not placed in by choice. It’s a complicated thing. And this this leads us to, I think, the topic of complexity. And I wonder, Lee, if you could talk a little bit about your observations, maybe about how the rules of the rules are changing in this extremely complex world.

Lee Moraeu
There was a kind of robustness of conversation, of questioning that. Because we’re not, we don’t actually have permission to question the very merits of design in most of our contexts, right? We have to kind of perform as the designer with the design function, and that’s our role. And so, you know, we are the change makers. And to sort of go to complexity, I really believe that, you know, yes, the world is complex and it’s getting more uncertain and uncertainty is being weaponized right now. So I don’t want to go use that overused, that term. But certainly there’s a lot of concern about where things are heading and what’s really driving the change. But I think designers have to be at the forefront of that. And so it was a really great to have a conversation where we could be comfortable in that space, the space of, you know, being aware that we are going to be navigating change, we’re going to be putting ourselves out there and we’re going to be shepherding others through this process of-of managing that.

Jessica Helfand
Yes. One thing that I think is interesting that you’re teasing out here Lee, is the fact that all of the work, and all of the thinking, and all of the adjudicating, and nuance making has always to do with some capitalist enterprise. And so belt tightening, the fact that we know there’s a lot of internal corporate designers whose jobs are being written off for reasons that we don’t have time to get into today. But, but certainly the community is feeling the pain of that. Our friends are feeling the pain of that. Many of us are really struggling to understand how this, the choices we made for reasons that have nothing to do with money, really, because I think that a lot of people get into this profession because they’re passionate about making things and making a difference. And suddenly the economic reality of a corporation or of this economy or this president or, or the world that we live in means that things are actually shifting. And so for all the pivoting we plan to do as people with really agile minds, this is not a pivot anybody anticipated. And I think being able to talk about that, as you say, in a safe space, was extremely important and continues to be extremely important.

Lee Moraeu
I mean, purpose appears to be the central topic of conversation in design right now in beyond mere product and service development. When you think about what can design do, it’s in the storytelling, narrative building, and articulating of why we’re here. Companies do that really well. They often put a lot of resources behind doing this. So meaning they put, they build the infrastructure, but they don’t actually know why they exist. And so a lot of the design work that that I’ve been doing is solely focused on this in various forms and fashion.

Ellen McGirt
Mhhm.

Lee Moraeu
Whether that’s trying to articulate, you know, why people should come to work here, or why people should be consuming your potato chips, and everything in between. I mean, because that’s all part of the broader experience, the brand and the purpose. I think the central conversation of purpose is actually a question of why, like, why are we here? Why do we all show up and do this thing together? And when I think back to the conversations we were having in your offices, Cindy, it was really all about, why are we here? Why are we doing this? That was a kind of, there was a kind of openness toward rethinking things. So the question of purpose, which we usually use in the professional world to think of like, how we’re going to reimagine what this institution or a corporation should be doing, what who should it serve, etc. We were actually taking that way, way down a notch and talk about ourselves as human beings, which is the most essential framing of purpose. And we don’t often operate at both altitudes.

Cindy Chastain
Mhhm.

Lee Moraeu
And that was a really nice thing that was starting to happen in those conversations. And one of the big takeaways, I think, for many of the participants.

Jessica Helfand
I think that when you get a group of people together, any group of people together and you really are listening to each other, it means you’re paying attention not only to your own purpose but to theirs.

Lee Moraeu
Right.

Jessica Helfand
And I think at a moment of complexity, like the one we’re living in now and here I want to just flag the moment in time that we’re recording this podcast, this conversation today, how much every day my newsfeed, certainly, my world is filled with new information about artificial intelligence.

Ellen McGirt
Mhhm.

Cindy Chastain
A complicated, fascinating, existentially potentially nefarious, creatively fantastic, new set of opportunities for all of us. And I think embracing that uncertainty with your own sense of citizenship and inclusion, and embracing all the things you don’t know is a kind of purpose that gets it away from the myopic relatability of just trolling your Instagram feed. I got excited about that, even though, you know, it’s not about purpose with an endgame in mind, it couldn’t possibly be, changes every 5 seconds. But so does everything, change every five seconds.

Lee Moraeu
So we had this remarkable three day event, which was, I guess in aggregate, probably 10 hours of seasoned practitioners sitting in a room just talking about their lives in practice and the things that they’re concerned about in a really intimate way. So we went into this thinking, let’s have some conversations and see what that yields. There was a kind of sense that a new framework for conversation was important and we just want to be together and maybe that will yield something. I think a lot of people walked away from that feeling like, yes, this certainly resonated with me. It’s a space that I’ve not had permission to be in before. I wouldn’t even necessarily allow myself to have these thoughts or conversations with other people, partly because design can often be a competitive environment or fraught or urgent, or there’s so much demand for our time and attention and so many diverse concerns. So I think it was just a place for people to to feel comfortable with where they were. And I think a lot of people had, had really kind of therapeutic feelings coming out of that. What did you think?

Cindy Chastain
Totally. Yeah, you know, I agree with all of that. And what I felt really interesting was the momentum forward on new threads, right. We started with these themes, culture, complexity, citizenship, and out of those, there were some really interesting things that I just want to dig into further.

Jessica Helfand
I think we did it today. I think the premise of this hypothesis, if I can say that— it bears saying that we went from talking about complexity, citizenship, and culture to purpose.

Lee Moraeu
Mh-hm.

Jessica Helfand
And change today in this conversation.

Cindy Chastain
Mm hmm.

Jessica Helfand
And so I so I think there’s something I would also say that it was surprisingly impactful to me to realize that in a world full of hubris, that we could bring this many people together and see how humble they are about what they don’t know. It’s kind of beautiful.

Lee Moraeu
I was grateful to see other people that I didn’t know very well, but I consider colleagues appreciating that they were taking time. And I don’t think we take time enough for ourselves and for our community. And, you know, designers are often talking to non-designers. And so just to have a moment to talk to other designers was, I mean, enormously beneficial for me.

Jessica Helfand
Right. So that implicit humanism of this kind of gathering...

Ellen McGirt
Mh-hm.

Jessica Helfand
...When the minute you get rid of the headsets and the stage and the podium and the fortification and the hubris, I think that that gives me hope for the future.

Ellen McGirt
I love that. Jessica, stay with that. I want to hear from everybody. And I was only there for one of the three days you were there for all of them. I left inspired and energized, I second all of the takeaways that you’ve all just shared. It was extraordinary. But what are we all hopeful about going forward? Like, what is what is—not a call to action, what’s a call to hope that we can all share based on that experience and what we think the world needs from us next? Jessica, I’m going to stick with you.

Jessica Helfand
Well, I’ve been thinking about this a lot because this Design Observer’s 20th year and we’re thinking about how to pay it forward. We’re thinking about what the last 20 years has wrought and brought, what has been impactful, transformative, and enduring real sustainability, like really things we’re still thinking about. And I think for me, that’s doing something for someone who’s not you. I think that’s paying it forward. I think that’s the idea that we have to get rid of the idolatry of the high priests of design, of the designer as the savior of the, you know, Ayn Rand model of designers. I think we’re human. We do better work when we’re human. Part of being human is having conversations. I want more conversations like this. I’m really excited about what the next 20 years. I hope I’m around for much of them, all of them, some of them. I applaud people who are doing the real work. And the real work means getting your hands dirty and asking the tough questions and not just making things look shiny and pretty.

Ellen McGirt
Lee, what’s your call the hope?

Lee Moraeu
Well, I have no shortage of hope because I among other things, I teach. And so when you’re around university students, you see the future in front of you and you realize, I mean, I get, everything gets questioned in every class all the time. Why do you think this way? Why did these people write this way? I mean, just the everything’s being dismantled and that’s wonderful. So I’m very hopeful about that because there’s a lot of things we need to get better at. And that’s, I think, at a macro scale and at a very micro scale, too. And so I think the event we’re talking about were a series of micro interventions in our lives. And I’m, I’m very grateful for that. And it gives me hope as well.

Ellen McGirt
Cindy, I’m going to jump in because I bet you got a really good one to end us with. I’m just gonna scootch right in here and say mine. I spend a lot of time talking to people who are feeling some level of despair wherever they are, in the world. A lot of them are in corporate life, but they, you know, we are, we’re literally talking about banning books. You know, they’re coming for the drag queens now. It’s just anybody who is in inclusion work, in building work just feels like, how did all get knocked down so quickly. And how I’ve learned to think about it and what I’ve learned to say about it is that knocking something down is easy. These are people with talking points, and money, and access, and they just kick things over. But there’s not a lot of them. There’s just enough to make some noise and kick up some dust. There’s a lot more people who are building things up. And as I’ve learned from my reporting and from hanging out with with you wonderful people, building takes time, it takes vision, it takes empathy, it takes observation. But it happens. And it’s  happening all around. So my call for hope is to not to give in to despair, but to notice the people around you who are building something beautiful, and take joy in that moment. Because I think at times when things are really difficult, joy goes out the window. We’re allowed to feel it. Even when we’re in the middle of something difficult, we’re allowed to feel it, even when we’re afraid and we’re allowed to feel it, even when we think: Oh my God, I’m going to have to make a drag queen story time in my basement just to, you know, piss off my neighbors. We are allowed to feel it, and we can’t do the building without it. All right, Cindy, take us home, baby.

Cindy Chastain
Oh, wow. All right, This is going to be tough follow Ellen. You know what I hope for is that there’s an opportunity to break through our assumptions about what design is, and does collectively. That’s a really important part of it. With all the people we’ve been talking to, all the, all the people we can continue to have conversations with, and finding a path to evolution because I think we need it. If we don’t evolve and yes, there’s always been an evolution, we don’t want to be, you know, that hammer looking for a whole bunch of nails, right? We want to give fresh intent for designers to have an impact in new ways and also bringing along an entirely new generation. This was a big topic. Designers are being educated in new ways. I wasn’t even educated because it didn’t exist, right. Or at least in the form that I practice design today. And they’re looking for their own path. And how do we help guide them in a way that sets us on the path to a better world? You know, one of my other hopes, Ellen, is we need more conversation, and I hope for a tighter community of leaders passionate about the simplicity of convening like we did. And I think we can do that if we take this on the road.

Jessica Helfand
That is a note of optimism to end on. I’m going to thank my esteemed colleagues, Lee Moreau from Other Tomorrows and host of our wonderful podcast, The Futures Archive. Ellen McGirt, my dear sister in all things my friend from Fortune, who writes a wonderful column you should all be reading on inclusion and leadership for Fortune, and Cindy Chastain from Mastercard, who partnered with us for this experiment. I hope there will be more of them. Our producer today was Adina Karp. Design Observer’s executive producer is Betsy Vardell. This conversation was edited by Judybelle Camangyan, special thanks to CDM Studios in New York City and Michael Bognar. To keep up with everything Design Observer related follow us on Twitter or Instagram at Design Observer. Check our Design Observer dot com feeds and please follow all the things we’re doing this year for our 20th anniversary. We need you, our readers, listeners, and compatriots.


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