Diverse Design – Enabling Innovation and Profitability While Creating an Inclusive World

This post was co-authored by Heidi Lunasin and Yalda Hajavi, and it is the first installment of a multipart series.

Around the world, companies are leaving money on the table.  Lack of diversity and inclusion in “The Room Where It Happens,” whether the “IT” is a board-room, an innovation team, or a design team, repeatedly has been shown to affect the bottom line.  In the realm of innovation alone, experts have estimated that “the size of the economy could be roughly 3 to 4 percent higher if women and underrepresented minorities were included in the innovative process from beginning to end.”[1]  This goes beyond merely showing diversity and rather requires inclusion and input at all levels and areas of the innovation process.  A further benefit may be that diverse teams encourage design and innovation that is likely more inclusive of a greater portion of the population.

The Ghanaian-born editor-in-chief of British Vogue, Edward Enninful said, “(d)iversity for me is not just about skin color but of perspectives.”[2]  According to one researcher, cognitive diversity due to differences in education, life experience, race, gender, age, physical capabilities, and/or sexual orientation, allows groups of “intelligent problem solvers” to outperform the “best problem solvers” when faced with complex (i.e., non-linear) problems.[3],[4]  In other words, randomly selected diverse teams outperform teams of the best problem solvers in part because of the diversity of perspectives brought to the table.

Having diverse employees and/or executive teams may also protect companies from gaffes that may otherwise be missed, including lack of diversity in perspectives and design, and cultural appropriation/insensitivities to race, gender, religious belief, and/or culture.  For example, years ago a young female engineer relayed the story of an all-male design team and their new design for a no-waste bathroom (i.e., no trash cans) for a commercial property.  Most women would not be so excited by such a design in a public setting and the all-male design team was shocked when the young female engineer commented on the many problems that the no-waste bathroom may cause for approximately 50% of its users.  Perspective, or a lack thereof, led to a design that likely would not have satisfied at least half of the population.

In the fashion world, designers have faced significant backlash for their insensitivities towards religious and cultural communities.  Companies have faced backlash from consumers and significant financial losses due to loss of reputation and having to redesign, recall, or destroy previously produced items when they molded culturally and religiously enriched designs of underrepresented and marginalized communities into fashion statements, and misused and misappropriated religious/cultural garments and designs.

To avoid repeating similar mistakes in the future, companies, from the fashion industry to technology should promote diversity and inclusion in their management, teams, and workforce. Companies, as well as their employees, need to investigate the biases that may play a role in decisions and work to understand their full impact.  As the former Director of the USPTO, Michelle K. Lee stated, “our society and world cannot afford to leave behind any future Einsteins,”[5] and that means we need to hear them and utilize their unique perspectives to make products, services, and/or designs for a broad swath of humanity not just those with whom we most closely identify.

[1] Lost Einsteins: Lack of Diversity in Patent Inventorship and the Impact on America’s Innovation Economy, Hearing before the Subcommittee on Courts, Intellectual Property, and the Internet of the Committee on the Judiciary House of Representatives One Hundred Sixteenth Congress First Session, Mar. 27, 2019, available  at https://www.congress.gov/116/meeting/house/109143/documents/HHRG-116-JU03-Transcript-20190327.pdf.

[2] Mower, Sarah, Edward Enninful Talks Diversity, Kate and Naomi and His Early Modeling Days Ahead of His CFDA Media Award Win, May 31, 2018, available at https://www.vogue.com/article/edward-enninful-cfda-media-award-interview.

[3] Page, Scott E., The Diversity Bonus: How Great Teams Pay Off in the Knowledge Economy, Princeton University Press, 2019 at 2, 104.

[4] Hong, Lu, Page, Scott, Groups of Diverse Problem Solvers Can Outperform Groups of High-Ability Problem Solvers, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Nov. 2004, 101 (46) 16385-16389 at 16389, available at https://www.pnas.org/content/pnas/101/46/16385.full.pdf.

[5] Lost Einsteins: Lack of Diversity in Patent Inventorship and the Impact on America’s Innovation Economy, Hearing before the Subcommittee on Courts, Intellectual Property, and the Internet of the Committee on the Judiciary House of Representatives One Hundred Sixteenth Congress First Session, Mar. 27, 2019, available at https://www.congress.gov/116/meeting/house/109143/documents/HHRG-116-JU03-Transcript-20190327.pdf.