My husband and I had just relocated from Ohio to Vermont for my job, and we had been here only about two months before my mother-in-law from Thailand came to visit. She had come at the perfect time of year. The leaves were turning the most amazing colors on the trees. We took ma to a popular outdoor destination but in order for us to tour the property, we needed to purchase passes at the gift shop. I walk into the shop, and it doesn’t escape my notice that I’m the only person of color there. But that’s not so unusual. After all, Vermont’s racial makeup is about 95% white. So, the clerk served all the customers in line ahead of me, but when I stepped up to the counter, she closed the till, walked to the opposite end of the shop, and started folding a pile of t-shirts as if I didn’t even exist. Now hold that thought, and let’s fast forward to earlier this year. My husband and I went to our favorite movie theater in New Hampshire and a very similar incident occurred. The white man at the counter served all the white customers but when my husband and I walked up to buy our tickets, he stepped back and simply ignored us. His co-worker at the snack station, asked him – “Don’t you see you have customers in front of you?” He shrugged it off and just stood there, as if eventually we’d just disappear. So, she stepped over and sold us the tickets.
And I know what some of you may be thinking, because a few brave souls have actually said it aloud: You’re not even that black. And I have a couple of responses to that. The first one is this: Black comes in many shades, and I’ve worked hard to succeed in systems that were originally designed to hold back my family, my friends, and me. The second response, and the most important one is this. Everyone deserves to be treated with dignity. Period.
As I started to talking to other people of color in rural, New England towns, I was hearing a lot of the same hidden stories of indignity that I had heard or experienced locally and when I’d lived in urban settings throughout the United States. [Light up US Map]. So, it’s easy for me to empathize with Black people across the spectrum who are making their voices heard. The Movement for Black Lives Platform really is a Vision for Our Lives.
This semester, when I was asked to develop a design thinking project, this was weighing heavily on my heart, and I wanted to do something grounded in scholarship, with a real-world application that was connected to the Movement for Black Lives. I selected the five-stage design process used by the Stanford d.school and the Interaction Design Foundation because its such a well-studied and widely-accepted model.
It should come no surprise the model starts with empathy. It has been shown time and time again, and in multiple contexts, that innovation is inextricably linked to empathy (Brown, 2009; Kelley, 2012; Liedtka, King & Bennett, 2013). Tim Brown, the CEO of the innovation and design firm IDEO, once wrote that “the three mutually reinforcing elements of any successful design program” are “insight, observation, and empathy” (p. 40).
So, before I explain what I did for my design thinking project, it’s important to know a least a little of my background. Racial healing is an integral part of both my research and practice. I’m a doctoral student at the Union Institute & University majoring in ethical and creative leadership and working toward a specialization in Martin Luther King Studies and Social Change. I’m also a non-traditional student, which means I work…a lot (ha ha)…while I’m in school. Presently, I serve as the communications minister for the Episcopal Diocese of Vermont, and I co-facilitate their Racial Reconciliation Team. Additionally, I own a small creative agency that serves a handful of non-profits and women and minority-owned businesses. And behind the scenes, I’m also a musician. My career actually started in the recording industry, and as part of my full-time job I used to produce remixes for major labels and write music for film and television. And I still do quite a bit of recording and producing today.
From an academic perspective, I’m interested in exploring how pop music can be a leadership tool, specifically for leading social change.
When we talk about the act of leadership, “Empathy,” again is a recurring theme. It’s one of the five components of Emotional Intelligence, which research has shown weighs even more heavily than IQ and technical skills on a leader’s effectiveness (Goleman, 1998; Ovans 2015) And in the context of social movements, solidarity – defined as love and empathy – is what moves people to act (Ganz, 2010).
So, empathy, more than anything, was the impetus behind this design thinking project.
Now let’s talk about the project.
The next challenge a design thinker faces is defining a problem. “The goal of the Define mode is to craft a meaningful and actionable problem statement” (Hasso Plattner, 2010). I was sifting through several key insights at this point.
For a start, I had observed at rallies and marches in support of Black Lives that the majority of the songs and chants were being adopted from earlier movements, in particular the Labor Movement and the Civil Rights Movement. These songs work well because they’re traditional songs. Most people are already familiar with them. And they can easily be learned during a march or at a rally. So, traditional songs, made popular in the 50s and 60s, had essentially become the status quo of protest music.
On a wider scale, I was also gathering insights from various other sources. For example, in January MIT published a video entitled “Building a Toolbox for Nonviolent Resistance”, in which Jamila Raqib explains how technology enables activists to recruit thousands of individuals to public protests relatively quickly but, as Raqib says, “Just because you’ve managed to get people in the streets to demand change doesn’t mean necessarily they understand the objectives of the movement…” (Thomas, 2017, 17:45).
And I was finding this to be very true. As I casually asked participants and spectators alike what the Movement for Black Lives was all about, I was hearing a variety of answers, usually related to a specific injustice that precipitated the march or rally on that day. I was finding that the only people who ever mentioned the Movement for Black Lives Platform by name were people who worked in social justice fields.
This has tremendous leadership implications. When Simon Sinek talks about his model for inspirational leadership, the Golden Circle, he gives historic examples of organizations and people that have led revolutionary changes – from Apple Computers, to the Wright Brothers, to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. – and what has separated these iconic leaders from their counterparts throughout history is how well they communicated their purpose, their cause, or their beliefs (Sinek, 2009). Sinek says that “people don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it.” So when we talk in terms of nonviolent resistance, people don’t buy the protest or the rally, which is our response to a precipitating event, they buy why we do it – a shared vision for dignity and humanity. And the Movement for Black Lives Platform does a really great job of communicating this shared vision for more than 50 national organizations and the many individuals that support the platform.
So it occurred to me that maybe what we have here is an unarticulated need that music is uniquely equipped to fill. Why not compose a song that communicates the Movement for Black Lives Platform? Simple right?
Now here’s one area where traditional design differs from design thinking. In traditional design, I would go off and write a song at this point. It may even be a good song. By contrast, design thinking assumes that problem may be more complex, more nuanced than it appears on the surface. Additionally, design thinking suggests that we can expand our insights beyond a single story by involving an interdisciplinary team.
In this case, I was curious what I might learn, and what of my own assumptions I would change, if I spent some time talking with racial justice activists across a broad range of professional, social, and academic backgrounds. These activists would, in essence, be like that interdisciplinary design team. What we would share in common, the Movement for Black Lives, would be our point of empathy. But beyond that would be limitless space for divergent insights. This is how I would avoid the myopia of writing the song from a single point of view.
It just so happens that Brattleboro, Vermont, is home to the Root Social Justice Center. And that’s where I met Shela Linton and the Root Collective, a team that focuses on POC-led racial justice organizing. And when I pitched my idea about writing a song to communication the Movement for Black Lives Platform, the Root Collective was remarkable. They assembled this highly diverse focus group of activists all connected to the Movement for Black Lives and gave me one evening to just sit and talk with them.
Design thinking is portrayed as a five neatly packaged stage, but it’s really a non-linear process. Those loops and leaps are show in Interaction Design illustration. To that end, by the time I sat down with the focus group, I was already knee-deep in the ideation process. I had two sets of lyrics, five possible melodies, none of which I liked, and I was torn between two or three different genres of music. Now I was adding another layer of complexity by involving a team. Design researcher Nigel Cross (2011) studied similar phenomena in product designers where three aspects of the design process tend to overlap: (1) Clarifying the task, (2) Searching for concepts, and (3) Fixing the concept.
When I considered Cross’s findings and my own experience and compare this to the 5-stage design thinking process, what I realized was an interplay between the define and ideate stages that was really understated in the academic literature about design thinking. It could be argued that Define and Ideate go hand-in-hand.
In any case, I knew I would only have one evening with this team, so as I was drafting my discussion points I structured the conversation to achieve three things. First of all, I needed to take a step back to the define stage and sort out whether the participants even agreed that there was a communication gap with Movement for Black Lives Platform that music could help to fill, or was this assumption was based entirely on my own bias? Second of all, if they agreed with the definition of the problem, I wanted any ideas they could offer me in terms of genre and stylistic devices that might resonate with an audience of current and potential supporters. And third, although I didn’t a full-fledged composition, I did have an early draft of lyrics, just a concept really. If the first two thirds of our meeting were successful, I was hoping the team might play around with the lyrics and share their impressions. This would tell me whether my nascent idea was worth developing, with additional insights of course, or whether I should scrap it and start over.
The focus group was really supportive of the early draft…mostly. Two points were raised that I didn’t expect. One was the constant reference to standing: Reparation’s what we stand for. Investment’s what we stand for. One member of the focus group was sensitive to inclusive language. The concern was that the lyrics might alienate those who were physically unable to stand. What that told me was at some point, I would want to test the song with people with disabilities, which I later did. This note about inclusivity also influenced my decision to make the subtitles an interactive part of the music video, not just a closed caption that could be toggled on and off. Another comment, and this was a big one, was about the hook of the song. You see, “A Vision for Our Lives” the line that became the title of the song, was never even in the original draft. It was an “a-ha” moments inspired a comment made in that focus group discussion. By the time I left, I not only had a very clearly stated problem, I also had a sense of the genre, style, and tone I was aiming for.
At this point, I had to go back the studio and create something, and there was a lot of back and forth between Ideate and Prototype. In the recording world, your prototype is a demo, a rough recording, of the song. With every demo of the song that I produced, I had new ideas about the song that I wanted to demo. The good news is thanks to my work with the focus group, I had a clear creative brief from which to work, which gave me some parameters in terms of genre, style, tempo. As the lead designer, for lack of a better term, I got to decide how far to stretch the parameters of that creative brief. Here’s the thing, though, in order to truly benefit from the five-stage design thinking process, in a perfect world, I would be presenting those prototypes back to my design team – in this case, the original focus group.
But this was a problem. We don’t live in a perfect world. I knew going into the project that the same individuals who participated in that original focus group wouldn’t be available again prior to my November 20th deadline.
But that turned out to be more of an opportunity than a problem. Let me explain:
Dr. Shekhar Mitra (2017), design thinker and president of the innovation firm InnoPreneur, talks about the difference between clients and end users. Both need to be engaged in the design thinking process. For example, when a pharmaceutical company is developing a new drug, not only does that drug have to meet the needs and expectations of the patient, who is the end user of the product, but it also has to meet the requirements of the Food and Drug Administration, which serves as client in the process.
Similarly, my focus group, made up of activists, was essentially my client. They had given me their requirements for the song. So, the prototyping phase was where I decided to demonstrate my work for potential end users. Starting with my most trusted critic, my husband…
Dramatization: Hey, so what did you think of the track?
Husband: No. There’s something missing.
Dramatization [On the phone]: Hey so what did you think of the track?…Yeah, so what I thinking was that I’d have a gospel choir sing the chorus in unison, pretty much like it is in the demo. Four part harmony. Honestly, I hadn’t even considered it. But, yeah, I could give it atry.
Dramatization: Hey, so what did you think of the track?
Husband: [Dismayed look] [Groan]
Dramatization: Hey Jennifer, so what did you think of the track? Great. Cause I was hoping you might be interested in maybe singing the lead vocal. That’s awesome. You have notes, ok. You want to sing the whole verses a full octave below the demo. Jennifer, that’s almost too low for me. Look I trust you. But if we’re gonna do this, I’d have to drive to New York this Friday. You think you could learn it by then. Alright, I’ll book the studio.
Dramatization: I’m outta time. What do you think.
Husband: [Smile] It’s better.
Great. Finally, with a decent demo I headed off to New York City to lay down the lead vocals. And everything from here on was just a blur. But during and after this time, the demo process never actually stopped. I kept dripping out versions of the track, intentionally, and just listening, listening to the comments and adding them to the insights that I’d been collecting and documenting throughout the process.
In fact — and this is a fundamental difference between design and design thinking – in traditional design, the designer stops when the product is built. But the design thinker is holistic, they tend to press ahead (Brown, 2009).
At some point during the prototyping of the song, I realized that all of the insights I had gathered along the way had told me not only how the song should sound, but perhaps even how it should look. Believe me, I could do a separate documentary just on the making of the video, but the point here is that the cycle of ideation and prototyping had a snowball effect.
Now it’s two to days to deadline. It’s time to officially close out the prototype and move on to the final test. But since the beginning of this project a couple of issues have been just gnawing at my brain, and I think they’re worth addressing. Here’s the first issue: Conventional wisdom has it that design thinking must be a formalized team-based activity. The problem with this thinking is that in real-life practice formalized teams are sometimes not feasible. However, there are plenty of case studies, beyond my own, that support the idea of stakeholder engagement – involving both the customer and the client substantively in the design process, and creating interdisciplinarity by seeking insights from disciplines other than your own.
My second issue is the notion that design thinking is reserved for solving radical problems in science and technology — like fixing climate change, redesigning government, or perfecting artificial intelligence. But, again both my experience and other case studies have shown that problems of all magnitudes can be worthy prospects for design thinking. Speaking both as an artist and as a leadership scholar, I find that design thinking makes me effective at defining real, unarticulated problems, holistic in my approach to solutions, and intentional about the result, all without sacrificing creativity.
This was a lot of work for one little song.
How did I do? I’ll let you be the judge of that.
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Cross, N. (2011). Design thinking: Understanding how designers think and work [Kindle edition]. New York: Berg.
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Hasso Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford. (2010). An introduction to design thinking process guide. Retrieved from https://dschool-old.stanford.edu/sandbox/groups/designresources/wiki/36873/attachments/74b3d/ModeGuideBOOTCAMP2010L.pdf
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