This article is part of the New New Rules of Business.
The Fast Company Impact Council, an invitation-only group of corporate leaders, entrepreneurs, and other leaders from across industries, gathered on June 30 to share their insights. Members split into small groups, moderated by Fast Company editors, and shared their perspectives on how they’re managing and innovating amid a trio of crises: the global pandemic, the economic slowdown, and calls for social justice in the wake of the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery.
In this roundtable discussion, led by senior writer Mark Wilson, top executives discussed design for social good through the lens of two of 2020’s biggest news items: COVID-19 and the Black Lives Matter movement. Participants in this session, in alphabetical order, were co-moderators Dave Gilboa, cofounder and co-CEO of Warby Parker and Natasha Jen, partner at Pentagram Design; along with Jonathan Mildenhall, cofounder and CEO of TwentyFirstCenturyBrand; Tyree Montague, CEO of Co:collective; Linda Ong, founder and CEO of Cultique; and James Vincent, CEO of FNDR. Excerpts of the roundtable have been edited for length and clarity.
Natasha Jen: Design is social to begin with because design is experienced by the millions. Design shapes behavior and changes people’s attitudes. Now we’re going through a serious rethinking of what are we designing and who are we designing for? This question used to be straightforward and superficial. There were straightforward clients we wouldn’t design for—tobacco. We’re now confronting a really complex situation. Our work has so many layers of impact, from ecological to racial justice to economic inequality. It’s not an easy dichotomy of ‘these are good and these are bad.’ It’s really intertwined.
We’re going through a really serious conversation [at Pentagram] about racial justice. In the world right now, we call it diversity. But diversity is not touching the heart of the problem. In our history, the majority of partners have been white. I was the only Asian partner when I joined in 2012. We only have one Black partner. We never really looked at it as a problem because we took a colorblind approach to talent—as long as you’re talented, that’s good.
We cannot be colorblind anymore because we have been unconsciously excluding a very critical demographic in the very fabric of our practice: Black designers. Right? And we go, well, let’s hire Black designers, but only 3% of the working designers are Black. So the question is, where are they?
Education itself excludes students from even entering this very elite practice that is called design. We teach at private schools, we teach at Ivy Leagues. We teach at higher education that is not affordable. So that is an issue that we’re going to work on. We need to bring ourselves to the world, to underprivileged communities, to high schools, to city universities. That is the only way that we can bring more students into design education and train them to become incredible designers.
Dave Gilboa: We’re firm believers that the best businesses solve real problems and that design thinking is required to create elegant solutions to those problems. But we were equally excited to create a for-profit business that does good in the world. We have always taken a stakeholder-centric approach by doing good by our customers, employees, environment, and the communities that we’re a part of.
The last few months have presented more complex problems for us to deal with. Everything from redesigning the experience for our team and our customers [with things like] daily health screening, temperature checks, and mandating masks to rebuilding all the technology in our stores to ensure that it’s a contactless experience. There are opportunities for us as a business to lead and show that you can create great inclusive and diverse organizations that give opportunities to underrepresented groups and that creates a better business.
Jonathan Mildenhall: The challenge that businesses have now is that businesses today have to be able to evidence why they’re good for society and what they’re doing to help the society. You don’t have business being in business unless you can really clearly point to why this business is good for society at large in ways that transcend the very nature of the business plan. We have to hold shareholders accountable for holding the board accountable for continuing to lean into these really uncomfortable and difficult social issues.
Tyree Montague: The design problem that we face as a society is a redesign of capitalism. The system practiced heretofore was a shareholder-based system, and we need to move to a stakeholder-based system. We’re beginning to see very positive signs. It’s interesting to watch what I would consider to be traditional capitalism begin to wake up. Two years ago, Larry Fink, the CEO of BlackRock, wrote in his letter that the largest private equity company in the world will no longer invest in you unless you can articulate your social or environmental purpose. This is a sea change. This is hard-core capitalism waking up to a new way of operating.
The thing that we now have to guard against in this era is a lack of authenticity. We’re working on an authenticity index because the real danger now is purpose-washing—where you claim to have some social or environmental purpose, because everybody has to have one. . . . The key is holding leaders accountable for doing what they say they’re going to do. That’s a massive shift that will create a very different type of conversation.
Linda Ong: One of the things I’m really hopeful about is aesthetics. If you think about the great catastrophe that we’re living through right now, and you look at the history of catastrophes in the world, they’ve become amazing catalysts for an explosion of creativity. Go back to the Renaissance, which followed the Black Death and the plague. And then you go to the 1918 pandemic, the Spanish flu, and the close of World War I. And you have the rise of surrealism and the Roaring ’20s and the Jazz Age and flappers and Fitzgerald and Hemingway. Go to the end of the Depression and the end of World War II, and you’ve got postmodernism and the new look and rock and roll.
We’re at one of those really amazing inflection points in the history of the world. So we’re looking at who are and what are the new aesthetics for this era to come. What’s very exciting about the confluence of both the pandemic and the racial justice movement is we’re already seeing, aesthetically, a great desire to embrace Black artists, Black voices. Then you’ve got Indigenous people and other people of color and this openness to rewrite the rules of design. All these things are where design can really lead and signal to people because when civilizations go through a massive change like this, they want a very bright line demarcating what happened before and what’s happening next. Design can really set that standard.
James Vincent: I was thinking about design not as how things look, but how things work and an intentionality around the design of companies. It’s not lost on me that Facebook is finally being called out right now. I’ve always thought they were a totally unintentional company that capitalized [on] everybody. But the work we’re doing with founders now has really changed. What’s been interesting is that shift where founders are really seeing the implication of everything they do and are trying to create a more intentional business. The 10 years that was supposed to be the 2020s all happened in three months [due to COVID-19]. So look at us. We’re all having a meeting here. We never actually met, maybe we’ll meet, but they all just suddenly happened. So we’re trying to figure out where we are now that it’s 2030.
Tyree Montague: An area that really interests me is biological design—so designing our current business systems with living in mind. Part of that is how we think about and conceptualize the products and services that we create in the world. So if you look at a tree, a tree is clearly a very complex organism that has been essentially self-assembled. It was sunlight, it was soil, it was water. And it’s designed to become soil and other material for making new things at some future point. That was designed into the tree from the beginning, right?
Whereas this object is designed to be and do one thing, for a short period of time. And then nobody knows what to do with it. In other words, it isn’t designed to become anything else in the future. If you thought about design of products and services like everything was designed to become the next thing, we would build a much more thoughtful, sustainable, and resilient form of capitalism in the future.
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