How design can help organizations create systemic change

4 min read
Liz Steelman
  •  Feb 9, 2021
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This winter, we’re publishing select interviews from the 2021 Product Design Trends Report. If you missed it, we’ve checked in with Nathan Curtis on design systems growth and changes, and also with Heidi Munc on how designers’ strengthened business muscle will lead to their continued success in 2021. This week, Inside Design talks with LinkedIn’s Jacob Hernandez on the potential for organizations to create systemic change.

Inside Design: In 2020, so much happened. We had a leadership gap that largely left people to their own devices— in the US government, but in other places, too. Individual small actions changed the global situation—wearing masks, for example. A new form of grassroots organizing took hold in the workplace, too: No longer were issues related to mental health, racial equity, parental support something we sought HR to handle. We discussed these complex issues with our teams at work every day. How have you seen individuals at organizations step up and try to help fill in this leadership gap?

Jacob Hernandez: This year, there’s been so much personal, interpersonal, institutional, and systemic transformation — locally, nationally, and globally. Over the summer, we called out our country’s systemic racism and people stepped up and decided to act. We’ve realized our default systems no longer work and want to create space for something new. We want to reimagine the world. Because we know everything has been designed, we have a responsibility as designers to use our unique skill sets to help redesign the systems that don’t work for us.

This reactivated my conviction to do the same in my work. Systemic change begins at the local-level, so for me, it meant asking my organization to take this journey, too. If I work at an organization like LinkedIn, I have a responsibility to understand how the products we create impact the world — their intended or unintended effects. In order to have any impact, you need your leaders’ buy in. I started to question how, as an IC, could I hold a company accountable? How could we ask our leaders to emphasize equity in all that we do?

My process usually begins with identifying those doing grassroots work. This is how I found the design consultancy Project Inkblot. The co-founders, Jahan Mantin and Boyuan Gao are just amazing – I am a long-time advocate of their work! They held a conference with the Bureau of Digital called “Beyond Diversity and Inclusion: Becoming an Equitable Leader.” Excited for the opportunity to learn more about their work, I was prepared to pay for a ticket myself, but LinkedIn sponsored me —and we ended up getting our research director interested. About eight people from our research, design, and product teams ended up attending. It galvanized our team: We were like, “This is the work. We need to do this work.”

We ended up partnering with Project Inkblot and learned about their amazing framework that encompasses the personal, interpersonal, institutional, and systemic. They helped us gain the tools for this work: That intent does not equal impact, that our diversity and inclusion work had to help move the needle from intent to impact. I learned a new operating system: I understood that anti-racism work includes identifying my own white supremacy—how it affected how I see the world by default because of the systems I’ve been brought up in. I also began to relate this to my journey as a queer person and a Latinx person. It put my identities on the table and said, “What can I relate to through my lived experience, and what do I want to learn and grow from?”

LinkedIn Design centers trust in all that we build — consumers trust us as a social media platform, and that’s wonderful because it gives us an incentive to maintain that trust. In design, we talk a lot about building trust through our designs, but I’ve learned that for that to happen, we must create trusted relationships within our organization first. This is my first large company, and though I’m supported in bringing my full self to my work, I’ve had to build up the courage to speak up about what things we aren’t getting right just yet. I’m testing what it means to talk to leaders and feel my voice is heard. LinkedIn was already prioritizing building more diverse teams in our products and formalized equity arms. Managers and leaders around me saw my passion and put me on those projects. A few leaders have been encouraging and thanked us for our courage. They’ve said to keep telling them what we need. We’re still on that journey, though.

Millennials hold a special seat: You couldn’t make a living from purely creative means in the early days of the Internet. It is all centralized, now, in a few companies. So Millennials have always had to corporatize themselves, whereas it was more of a decision for Gen X. There’s a whole creative class working in traditionally non-creative corporations. We already see the inherent business value in creativity, but it feels like people in powerful positions at large corporations and organizations haven’t necessarily had to think that way. 

I think we’re also hitting a point where those with diverse backgrounds have more jobs available. With coding schools, you don’t need a college degree to work in tech. A more diverse group of people work in these companies than ever before. There’s a generation gap between some Gen X leaders and their millennial ICs. How have you been navigating that?

The tech world’s “cultural default” is its most visible trope: The nerdy, sweatshirt Silicon Valley t-shirt wearing man showing up and making money. To build innovative products that provide meaningful value to all, despite one’s demographic group, you need diverse perspectives embedded in the design process. If you’re designing for what we think is the “cultural default” in the tech world, you’re building exclusionary products. Amazing untapped talent is out there. We don’t see it because tech’s cultural default is the white patriarchy.

I’ve noticed this intergenerational divide as a millennial queer person, too. My older peers have gone through so much hardship from Stonewall to the AIDS epidemic. Conversation is so important—especially with young people. It’s about listening and identifying our cultural contexts, and learning from each other. I want to listen and learn from older queer people. But I also feel I bring a new perspective and context. It serves everybody to talk about the different contexts we’re operating in.

I’ve noticed that there’s a wave of long-term tech workers leaving the industry after realizing their impact was not as wholesome as their intent. In our report, we predicted that it may be setting up a glass cliff for people of color, women, and other members of groups with newly gained access to the industry. To create a tech world that includes and helps all people, we need those with institutional knowledge to collaborate with those with firsthand knowledge of what’s wrong. How are you working on this at LinkedIn?

A default culture of whiteness is often a culture of dominance that values monetary value over people value. We measure success as the loudest in the room or the products that get critical mass. To not replicate structural inequity and racism, companies need to deeply reflect on how to create equitable outcomes and to concede power to those most negatively impacted by oppressive structures, like racism. We can bring and invite in, but if the institution won’t share power with those embedded in the products, then it will never serve the users and their communities.

But step one is recognizing that we do need to cultivate a space where a diversity of voices can be truly heard and have decision-making power. It will take a pipeline approach. We must think about access—the perception that young people get from the media about who gets certain possibilities— to making sure those folks end up in leadership roles and get a say in funding and strategy.

People intend to do the “moral” thing. But morals can mean different things to different people. We’re not there in creating a universal goal that everyone aligns and agrees to expand upon so that everyone is better off. I think the design question is “How do we create targeted, universal goals to help uplift those people? And what prevents us from achieving these goals?”

Resmaa Menakem’s My Grandmother’s Hands talks about racism as an embodied experience rather than a mental one. Our institutions need to focus on healing. Many companies have stated how they’ve created harm and what healing equity work is needed. That’s not easy to talk about because it’s so different from how the professional world historically operated, but it’s where we need to start. For example, consumers have long perceived LinkedIn’s brand as a white, white-collar man. Over the past couple years, though we’ve placed intent on appearing more like the communities our products impact. This is an admirable start, and there’s always more transformative work to be done.

My first job was with Thicket Labs, a design consultancy and creative agency. For one of our projects, we worked with technology students from The Knowledge House, a workforce development organization. The South Bronx has untapped talent. It’s been New York City’s most impoverished community and structural inequities prevent the residents from accessing opportunities. Because of structural barriers, young people often can’t pursue higher education because they have to stay home and provide for their family. But despite these inequities, there’s talent and desire to thrive in computer science.

We worked with students interested in entrepreneurism. We taught them about this design thinking framework and applied it to designing and building solutions to help connect their community. We found they valued making authentic relationships and connections with industry people. We ended up building a mentorship program with the tech industry. It showed me the business value for bringing in diverse perspectives. Tech needs not only to be equitable, but we also need to bring in these perspectives, and follow through in seeing how our work impacts the communities.

This year we’ve seen our coworkers’ dogs and children and partners and roommates. For many, the personal merged with the professional. We bring our “whole selves” to work. Leisa Reichardt from Atlassian wrote about how remote work allows you to see your coworker’s family and multi-generational homes. The workforce is no longer a monolithic. Additionally, we found that this year brought about new conversation topics to the workplace. We’re not “crying in the bathroom,” instead, we cry on Zoom to our coworkers. I love what you said regarding Project Inkblot’s framework, how this change still only transforms the interpersonal level rather than the institutional. How have you noticed bringing your personal self into your professional life? How does that change the way you think about your organization?

There is a scenario I’ve been running through my head: Let’s say there wasn’t a pandemic that forced us to work at home, but racial inequity still resurged into the collective conscience. If I went into the office and did this work and tried to advocate for equity and couldn’t easily return home and be grounded, how would that experience feel? I would be just 10 times more exhausted. I recognize this has always been the conditions under which the most harmed operate, too.

I remember I struggled balancing my energy the first weeks working from home. I commuted for hours each week pre-pandemic, but suddenly I had time and didn’t know how to use it.

LinkedIn noticed this shift happening and supported their employees with mindfulness and meditation resources. LinkedIn does frequent employee surveys. We have a strong manager culture, where managers invest in us and our wellbeing. I believe that because the company has cultivated a culture of interpersonal support, it’s laid the soil for unique equity-driven work to happen. For equity seeds to be planted.

It’s allowed us to talk about how we mindfully care for ourselves in this energetic plane. I’m so thankful I have a therapist I’ve been able to talk to about this transition. When we do go back to the office, I hope to continue the body practices I’ve started. I’ve so appreciated starting to see mindfulness happening at work.

Virtual working is a disembodied experience. We’re not feeling the immediate energy of being in the same room as our colleagues. It’s also allowed us to connect in new ways though. Living in the city before the shutdown, I spent so much time getting from point A to point B. Now I spend this novel time I have connecting with others because it’s vitalizing and energizing. One way I’ve practiced this is mentoring early-stage designers through the Amazing Design People List. This shift is not just happening at LinkedIn, either: I think there’s been a more conscious collective practice and acceptance that the world is always changing, and always in flux. I think companies are catching onto that and supporting their employees with mindfulness resources.

Also: I’m transforming every day, too. I don’t think I see myself as an expert. I am just passionately curious about this work. It’s what I find meaningful, and it’s how I define what work means to me. So it means a lot that I can share that voice. I hope that it resonates with others and that it contributes to building a collective, equitable transformation.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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