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Designing with Curiosity, Bravery, and Optimism

EDI advisory board member Kevin Bethune’s new book, Reimagining Design, reflects the optimism he brings to design during times of exponential change.

There is an aspirational nature that exists among most designers, a common feeling of optimism that design can make things better, that design can make life better. 

Kevin BethuneKevin Bethune embodies those traits. They can be seen through his work as founder and chief creative officer of dreams • design + life, a think-tank that seeks to unlock human potential through the creation of empathic and holistic experiences. They also form the connective tissue of his new book, Reimagining Design: Unlocking Strategic Innovation, which details his ascension as a Black man in corporate America and highlights the power of innovative design and diversity. 

"2020 forced me, and all of us, to question everything: COVID-19, police brutality against Black folks, hate crimes against Asian-American Pacific Islanders, and climate change," Bethune said in a promotional video for the book. "The jarring, overt nature of these challenges often connect to the covert, systemic challenges we feel every day.” 

"Reimagining Design is my statement of optimism for a world undergoing exponential change and critical uncertainty."

Bethune brings that same optimism to Northwestern's Engineering Design Innovation (EDI) program, where he serves on the advisory board. The purpose of the board is to ensure what students learn in the program aligns with real-world business needs. Board members play a part in influencing curriculum and the careers of future designers and innovators, and it's a role Bethune does not take lightly.

“Kevin is exceptional in the way he models and mentors developing multidisciplinary talents.”   EDI co-director Amy O’Keefe said. “He’s very authentic and very welcoming with students. His bravery, curiosity, and humility resonate, and he really makes an impression on them, affirming their choices and building their confidence."

Bethune’s guidance often serves as encouragement for students to remain committed to what O'Keefe admitted can be a challenging path. 

“In many disciplines, you don’t need to explain what you’ll be studying in graduate school or what sort of role you intend to pursue after,” O’Keefe said. “Design Innovation is different. You'll likely need to bring people in on your vision. Pursuing this degree takes a little bit of bravery, lots of optimism, and a willingness to believe your unique combination of skills will be relevant, even if the type of job you imagine for yourself doesn't quite exist yet."

That marriage of bravery and optimism has been Bethune’s speciality for more than 20 years. The stories in his book tell of his journey from working at Nike, where he designed the Air Jordan Fusion 8 basketball lifestyle-performance shoe, to BCG Digital Ventures, where he was vice president of strategic design, and ultimately to his creation of dreams • design + life. His stories help illustrate how important diversity and inclusion are to creating useful products that change consumers’ lives for the better. 

"I know what exclusion and racism feel like at the overt and covert levels, and my convictions have sharpened to want to help anyone who feels marginalized," Bethune said in the video. "Writing and reflection led me to unpack the unique multidisciplinary leaps I've taken, where curiosity was a defining thread in every chapter of experience.

"I write about how design changed my life. Through the work I've been a part of, I've watched design transform organizations as well."

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