Nine global offices. More than 700 employees. More than $100 million in annual revenue. This is Ideo, the most renowned design studio in the world. It’s the firm that pioneered the very idea of “design thinking” and claims its boundless creativity comes from its “human-centered” culture. Clients include Coca-Cola, Ford, Ikea, and Conagra. Ideo has worked on everything from Apple’s first mouse to the Swiffer floor mop.
But the personal experiences described by designer George Aye could tarnish Ideo’s legacy. Aye worked at Ideo’s Chicago office from 2001 to 2008. In a letter he posted on Medium—for which he interviewed 23 people who have also worked at Ideo—he outlines a damaged culture of abuse, often grounded in systematic white supremacy.
“I believe that without significant reform, IDEO is an unsafe workplace for women, PoC (People of Color) and WoC (Women of Color),” he writes. Over the next roughly 5,000 words, Aye details personal trauma, a lawsuit, and Ideo’s own hypocritical actions to demonstrate a culture of abuse—and one that Aye says company executives have been well aware of since at least 2017. The essay is based on anonymous interviews, and Fast Company did not independently verify the accounts. Ideo also originally declined to respond to multiple requests for comment, then sent the following statement after our story published:
Like many organizations, IDEO is on a transformational journey which continues to evolve. As a leader of the design industry, we recognize the responsibility we have to drive change not only in our own organization but also across the industry as a whole.
We know we face challenges as we look to build greater diversity and inclusion at IDEO. However, we do not recognize the culture described and we cannot comment on individual cases.
We are proud of the work we have done so far to increase inclusion at IDEO. These changes are widespread and span nearly every corner of our business operations and management. They include changes to leadership structure, hiring practices, feedback processes, coaching for communities of color and pay equity analysis.
We are taking this opportunity to re-engage with our colleagues in an open forum to hear any concerns and to talk about this together. We will accelerate our efforts and continue to focus on our culture.
Aye’s account may be read in full here. Below, we’ve identified a few of his most powerful stories.
It was sink-or-swim from day one
Aye’s first observation is that Ideo, while a playground for many of the company’s successful white men in management positions, felt different for people of color. In his case, he was not a U.S. citizen, and he relied on Ideo’s visa sponsorship to live in the United States. He alludes to every day feeling like it’s a first day, or “an interview that never ends,” only compounded by the fact that in speaking up he feared he could lose his visa.
Aye says the experience wasn’t unique to him. He alleges that management consistently bullied women and people of color.
Diana Lyman, the former senior director of sales and marketing for Ideo Products, is currently suing Ideo for wrongful termination and discrimination, after she was terminated while on maternity leave. (You can read documents from the case here.) In the documents, Lyman claims her white male manager was a bully, and saddled employees with work until they opted to quit. She also says he complained about “having to pay for an entire year of maternity leave only to have [another employee] not return.” Once when Lyman complained to HR about this manager, she was told, “He’s never going to change so it becomes a question of whether or not this team is the right fit for you.” (Lyman did not respond to a request for comment by press time.)
Lyman might sound like an outlier. But the lawsuit claims it wasn’t the first time that particular manager had been hostile to employees. According to the lawsuit, two other female employees brought claims against the manager and signed severance agreements with Ideo.
Aye posits that many former Ideo employees don’t speak out because they sign nondisclosure agreements, a common tactic among companies to silence criticism. As he writes:
“According to one of the briefs, Diana was offered a ‘very generous severance offer’ by the company and declined. From my alumni interviews, I know of many former employees who are contractually silenced from speaking out. They’re bound by an NDA as a result of their taking a paid severance or settlement package over their workplace disputes. Any lessons on how to prevent further harm are now sealed behind the impenetrable event horizon of those signed documents.”
IDEO knew these issues existed for years
Of course, individual stories can fall through the cracks. Every company can have a bad manager or two. How could decision-makers inside Ideo know that their optimistic company culture was damaged? In fact, Aye’s sources claim that Ideo hired the third-party consultancy Paradigm in 2017 to investigate issues with corporate culture. What Paradigm found in its report, which Aye claims to have obtained, echoes many of the issues. A screenshot of the report in Aye’s essay reads:
“IDEO’s vision of creating a workplace where people do impactful work with their friends has led to a homogenous organization and an over-reliance on social currency, which benefits employees and majority groups. For example, men and White employees are most likely to feel that they belong, that they are involved with decision making, and that their voices are heard. Men and White employees are also significantly overrepresented in positions of leadership.”
IDEO’s leadership is connected to questionable sources
Aye also criticizes Ideo’s moral compass. Aye claims that he heard time and again that Ideo wouldn’t take on clients with ethically questionable products, like guns and tobacco. Employees were invited to speak up and weigh in on ethically questionable projects.
In 2013, when Ideo was considering Chick-fil-A as a client, some employees had issues given the company’s stance on LGBTQ rights. As Aye writes:
“However, after several members of the studio spoke up in the all-staff meeting, leadership actually reprimanded them, saying that they should know better than to speak up in front of the whole team, and highlighting how their dissenting voices carried a lot of weight in the office. Backlash like this can only have a chilling effect on any future opportunities for critical feedback.”
Aye goes on to point out that the Department of Defense and the National Security Agency—government agencies that are responsible for the U.S. military and have been accused of spying on citizens, respectively—are both on Ideo’s client list, and that Ideo’s own leaders are comfortable working in ethically gray areas. At the Stanford d.school, Ideo cofounder David Kelley was a thesis adviser to a founder of Juul, an e-cigarette that ran afoul of government regulators for targeting kids.
Aye also points to the Ideo project Design for Learning, an educational startup studio that Aye claims Ideo “launched for the kids of Mohammed bin Salman’s friends and family.” The studio was led by Sandy Speicher, who become Ideo’s CEO in 2019 after longtime CEO Tim Brown stepped down. We tried to get Ideo to address this allegation, but the company did not respond to our request for comment.
Mohammed bin Salman is the crown prince of Saudi Arabia and the country’s deputy prime minister. He is known for giving women more autonomy in the country, but also for silencing dissent with lethal means. Ideo employees saw working for his family as an ethical concern, which could even prove dangerous. According to U.S. intelligence, Salman ordered the capture and murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Aye writes:
“[B]ut even if the project had some risks involved, it offered very tangible value to the firm. According to several alumni, it brought years of financial stability for the new mini-studio and its leader who was trying to establish herself amongst the mostly male partners. . . . Perhaps this is one of the under-documented costs of leadership at IDEO—the cost to your own personal moral compass.”
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For most companies, these allegations would be terrible. But for Ideo, which positions itself as a beacon of not just creativity, but of ideological leadership, these allegations are devastating. Ideo is coming off of a particularly tough year, during which it cut 8% of its global workforce. Of course, Ideo isn’t the only seemingly progressive company facing a reckoning. Google has been dealing with similar scandals for years, also stemming in part from the social pressures of white male management.
The question now is, what will Ideo do to directly address the problems it identified years ago?