Reimagining Design by Kevin Bethune Book Summary

Reimagining Design, Unlocking Strategic Innovation by Kevin Bethune and John Maeda


Designer and thinker Kevin Bethune mixes autobiography with career guidance and management wisdom in this unique take on the burgeoning design profession. Bethune’s advice on how firms should organize design teams and how designers should approach their work – based on decades of his own experience and success – applies to any firm and all rising designers. Brimming with insights and inspiration, the volume offers arguments for social justice, musings on the future of design and tips for aspiring designers – an abundance that may feel like too much for one volume.


  • As a Black man, author Kevin Bethune stands out in the world of design.
  • Curiosity, good listening skills and a steadfast focus on his unique calling have fueled Bethune’s success.
  • Increasingly, business leaders recognize the value of investing in a design team.
  • Design demands a disciplined, practical approach to innovation.
  • Firms and designers should emphasize human-centered design.
  • Good design depends on transcending conventional thinking to explore new ways of doing things.
  • Social transformation and design transformation go hand in hand.
  • Designers should decide early on whether to pursue a career as an expert contributor or dedicate themselves to management.
reimagining design book cover

Reimagining Design Book Summary

As a Black man, author Kevin Bethune stands out in the world of design.

Events during and following 2020 shook the United States, especially for Black Americans. Many experienced a deep sense of despair in response to the COVID-19 crisis – which disproportionately affected the Black community – and multiple egregious instances of racial violence that took place during the first year of the pandemic. Experiences of tremendous loss can make a population more resilient in the long run, but the impact of 2020 will linger for decades to come.

“Always look in the mirror, see your value, and find an intrinsic sense of belonging by understanding what makes you unique.”

Kevin Bethune, a Black man succeeding in the predominantly white world of design, sees hope amid the hurt and sadness. The curiosity and creativity that have driven his career also help him imagine and work toward a better future for all. Bethune grew up relatively privileged in a white suburb of Detroit but hails from a family which, for generations, suffered brutality at the hands of white supremacists. Bethune’s early career mirrors that of many other American Blacks in the degree to which he suffered regular microaggressions, discrimination and lack of respect.

Curiosity, good listening skills and a steadfast focus on his unique calling have fueled Bethune’s success.

Bethune’s interest in design started in his childhood, with a fascination for concept cars and Nike sneakers. He earned an undergraduate degree in mechanical engineering from Notre Dame University and joined Westinghouse’s nuclear reactor business. There, he learned to succeed on a high-performing team at an international level. This experience sparked an appetite for understanding business, so Bethune pivoted to earn his MBA at Carnegie Mellon University. Here, he recaptured his love of design and creativity, and landed a position with Nike on graduation.

While Bethune was finding his feet on the business side at Nike, he also sought opportunities to engage his passion and curiosity for its products. Soon, he got the chance to lead a design project: the hybrid Nike Air Jordan Fusion 8 sneaker. His success in this task might eventually have led Bethune to a career in design at Nike, but he didn’t want to wait. He quit Nike to return to school at the highly demanding ArtCenter College of Design in its Graduate Industrial Design program. Bethune’s design credentials, on top of an engineering degree and an MBA, gave him a unique combination of skills. With too little experience in pure design, the marquee design firms didn’t consider him candidate material – but his CV appealed to Boston Consulting Group (BCG), where he helped found its Digital Ventures division.

For the next seven years, Bethune helped recruit and grow a team of nearly 1,000 people. He traveled the world helping BCG clients – including Microsoft, IBM and Eli Lilly – in digital and design transformations. At the BCG Digital Ventures division, he rose to vice president of strategic design before leaving to start his own design firm/think tank, called dreams • design + life, in 2018. Here, Bethune focuses on applying strategic design and industrial design to innovation for organizations of all sizes.

“Curiosity has been the defining thread of every chapter of my experience.”

Most design teams suffer from lack of diversity and, as a result, restricted creativity and thought. Indeed, Bethune spent the early part of his career trying to fit in by overlooking subtle acts of racism. But by focusing on the good people who supported him, he found the courage to pursue his own unique path to senior leadership, and eventually to forming his own design firm. He credits his success to staying curious, listening to and learning from others, exploring and experimenting, not settling, and pursuing his own unique calling.

Increasingly, business leaders recognize the value of investing in a design team.

Before becoming one himself, Bethune imagined designers as a cool breed of hip artists who were always invited to the best parties. Others, Bethune noticed, saw designers as those people with a penchant for colored sticky notes, who took business types through design thinking workshops, collected their thoughts, winnowed them down and, voilà, produced a new design.

In reality, designers succeed thanks to behind-the-scenes rigor and professionalism that demand discipline as they pursue research and the iterative process of prototyping; they must create within multifunctional teams and apply their sensory skills to developing innovative experiences. Everyone can create, although most adults must first get back in touch with their creative selves and recapture their innate abilities. However, a roomful of business leaders will not replace designers simply by running design or creativity workshops – the most visible things they see designers do. Design, as a profession, must be honed like any other, over years of practice.

“Design thinking has been very helpful to get organizations to focus on the most important imperatives, solving customer-centric needs.”

Business leaders increasingly appreciate the value of design. They form professional design units within their enterprises and often, though not always, name a chief design officer – thereby placing design in its rightful place alongside other key business functions. When design can exercise influence equal to other disciplines within the organization, it has great potential to help the enterprise adapt to new realities.

Most firms fall under the heavy influences of management, finance and, of late, technology, often crowding out the voice of design. Big firms like Apple and IDEO, where design comes first, remain rare. Leaders of established enterprises face a conundrum: They want innovation but must keep the main business afloat. Large enterprises can’t turn on a dime, and this leaves them exposed to more nimble start-ups. For most established firms, building a diverse, multidisciplinary design team should be the first order of business.

To build a successful design team, organizations must provide the necessary resources, provide designers their own spaces and grant wide autonomy, allowing designers to lead projects where appropriate and advise in other cases. The design team should strive to hear as many viewpoints as possible about trends, industry, technology and the future: Every voice contributes to a better ultimate design.

Design demands a disciplined, practical approach to innovation.

Design requires a disciplined, structured and often lengthy and laborious process. Designers must evaluate ideas against the triple imperative of desirability, feasibility and viability. In other words, no design project should proceed unless it has a reason to exist: that it is meaningful and relevant to an audience. Second, the idea should have the potential to work in the field – technical feasibility. Third, it should have a business purpose as a source of revenue or an element in a business strategy. The commercialization of a new product raises additional questions. Here, branding comes into play, and the innovation team should invest in building capabilities that will enable it to bring products to market.

This disciplined and practical approach to design constitutes an innovation journey of humble discovery and ideation, which should prevail at virtually any firm, regardless of size. Designers must calibrate their expectations accordingly. Design should often progress slowly and carefully. Design teams need to take time to collect stakeholders’ views, desires and ideas, and to understand their perspectives. The design team needs to understand the environments in which users will apply the design.

“I strongly believe that multidisciplinary team collaboration is the currency that will create future innovation.”

This means team members will need to leave the office in order to collect qualitative data – make observations, conduct stakeholder interviews, hold focus groups and so forth – to enable deep dives into the context of the project. Through these efforts, the team will gain the understanding necessary to improve the audience’s experience and earn its loyalty. Designers must respect stakeholders both inside and outside the firm and work for their benefit.

Designers need quiet alone time and time for collaboration and ideation. They require time for research, brainstorming and thinking – both alone and in teams. The process of building, piloting, testing, releasing and commercializing a new design can take months or years: Designers need reserves of patience. 

Crucially, managers and senior leaders should see themselves as servants who support frontline workers, including designers. Managers should encourage future-thinking and designing to account for trends rather than merely to address current problems.

Firms and designers should emphasize human-centered design.

Designers must create with their audience in mind. Certainly, they should know who that audience is – a basic question many organizations either never consider or simply take for granted. Human-centered design emphasizes nurturing customers’ long-term loyalty rather than engaging in quick transactions. This means going past customers’ pain points to understand what they care about.

For example, Starbucks retained Bethune and his BCG team to help the firm personalize customer experiences through big data and machine learning. But Starbucks had to find a delicate balance: delighting customers with a personal touch and opportunities for rewards – without violating their privacy or eroding their trust. Moreover, baristas valued their own autonomy, but at the same time they hoped the algorithm would benefit them by reducing errors. By understanding what the stakeholders cared about, and through many design iterations, Bethune’s team was able to create a highly successful program and app.

Good design depends on transcending conventional thinking to explore new ways of doing things.

By breaking the business into its components and then challenging the way everything operates – using maps, infographics, wire frames and other visuals – designers and stakeholders might imagine new, potentially advantageous configurations, approaches and processes. Of course, before implementing changes, designers should analyze the potential ramifications for every part of the business – internal and external, including customers, competitors and the wider society – to avoid unintended consequences.

“We should leverage uncertainty for the powerful, creativity-inducing variable that it is.”

Designers need to consider trends more holistically – including social, technological, economic, environmental, and political, regulatory and legal trends. An array of factors, including aging populations, advances in biotech, climate change and deglobalization, to name just a few, will impact most firms and should inform design. For example, household 3D printers might radically alter logistics, warehousing and sales. Advanced research conducted at MIT, Stanford and other centers of thought shows how designers can assess the plausibility of scenarios and focus on likely trends. No one can predict the future, but considering likely scenarios can improve design – and uncertainty itself can spark creativity.

Social transformation and design transformation go hand in hand.

Black and Brown designers currently make up only about 10% of the design community. Most design studios still largely fail to tap and hire non-white talent; they should revamp their recruiting methods to diversify. Doing so will make their teams more creative and innovative – and less likely to build inherently biased products. 

“If we design without eradicating bias and the threads of white supremacy, then the systems we create will become exponentially harmful and further widen socioeconomic disparities.”

Social transformation with respect to diversity, equity and inclusion intertwines with design transformation. Firms should, as a first step, build awareness of systemic racism within their organizations. Teams must reflect the diversity of the world in order to serve that world.

Designers should decide early on whether to pursue a career as an expert contributor or dedicate themselves to management.  

Designers generally pursue one of three career paths, developing either functional, project management or business management expertise in some area. If you’re a new designer, in order to build credibility, you would be wise to choose one of these paths early on. As you progress in your career and take on leadership roles, remember the importance of coaching and mentoring, treating everyone with respect, and earning team buy-in versus attempting to force your will.

Designers require both depth of knowledge in design areas and breadth of soft skills and business acumen. Having obtained this T-shaped skill set, you should have enough knowledge of the business and industry they operate in to converse and collaborate with stakeholders, work with interdisciplinary teams and apply deep design knowledge within a context. You will need to develop the confidence to speak up, share your perspectives and exhibit the often hidden tradecraft that goes into excellent design.

In your work, aim to infuse design into all parts of the business by aligning it with the future of the firm, by including counterparts from other areas of the business, and by demystifying the process – so that everyone understands it, beyond the sticky notes and sketches.

About the Authors

Kevin Bethune

Kevin Bethune is the founder and chief creative officer of dreams • design + life, a think tank that takes a human-centered approach to design and innovation.

Video & Podcast