Hopeful and Powerless? Design in a Crisis

A transcript of my Euro IA 2020 keynote.

I used this image from the game ‘Journey’ as my cover slide. It’s… very fitting!
  • In what ways do we ‘map out’ uncharted territory?
  • For us, what are the places yet to be explored?
  • What insights have we gleaned?
“Things to Think With”
  • How do I support BLM without also perpetuating the kind of colonialism that got us into this mess?
  • How do I focus on the positives, without crossing over into a ‘Pollyanna’ positivity that ignores reality?
  • How do I be the positive change that is needed, and also be authentic, when my authentic self is really struggling?
  • How do I inspire confidence as leader when I don’t feel confident myself?
  • Should I stick it out and fight for change, or is this a lost cause, where I should cut my losses and move on? How do I tell the difference?
  • How do I know which actions will make a difference, and which ones are waste of time?
  • How do I reconcile what is being asked of me against what is (or seems to be) actually needed?
  • How do I be a kind, supportive person (supporting individuals, regardless of where they’re at), but also speak up about the outrage I feel about injustices, intolerance, and idiocracy?
  • How do we go about business as usual, with so many bigger issues going unaddressed?

1. Crisis

  • A crisis can be personal, such the death of someone dear—or distant. We can talk about this loss on its own, but even harder to talk about is the grief that hangs around after…
  • At a smaller scale, we can even think of that conflict with a co-worker or boss as a crisis; maybe taking that job that didn’t turn out like you had hoped…
  1. Data Privacy (& Human Rights)
  2. Critical Thinking (and Education, more broadly)
  1. Data Privacy (& Human Rights)
  2. The Climate Crisis

Agency, or the Lack Thereof

It’s been said that Designers have a ‘bias for action’. We see something wrong, and want to fix it, now! Part of the struggle is when change doesn’t happen quickly enough. Or when we feel our efforts aren’t leading to change.

Hope calls for action; action is impossible without hope.

—Rebecca Solnit

Okay, let’s move out of crisis land… Let’s peer into the future. But, before we do so, I want to offer a critical reframing: A crisis is a chance to rethink everything anew. I didn’t know this until I looked it up, but “crisis” is defined as “the turning point” where “decisive change happens.” Wow. That sounds like a great transition to the next stop on our map: Hope!

2. Hope

[ Hope ≠ Optimism ]
[ Hope = Uncertainty = Possibility]
[ Hope Requires Action]
It’s all too easy to relate to Elliot’s frustration with Evil Corp
  • Clarify specific details
  • Focus on actions

Fighting For (vs Against)

With all this in mind, I want to emphasize an important reframing in all this: The difference between fighting against something versus fighting for something.

Fighting for something beats
fighting against something.

I believe we’re far more likely to be successful, whatever ‘success’ looks like, when we can describe and share a vision with others. And there’s a strength in knowing how we’d like to see things changed, not just for the destination it lays out before us, but for the challenges we get handed in the present.

3. Check In with Yourself

  1. The world of inward struggles. Things like psychological safety, vulnerability, self-awareness, team coordination, and the like.

How can we hope deal with outer complexity until we learn how to deal with inner complexity?

So to be effective change agents, or futurists, or provocateurs, or quiet whisperers—whatever role we play—we must start by checking in with our selves, at this moment. What are my motives? How am I feeling? Have I checked the facts? What narratives have shaped my thinking? How are my behaviors contributing to the situation? I could go on. This part of our journey is a wide open space that I’m fairly certain we’ve been filling with all kinds of self-care tips and advice from mental health experts (and non-experts).

Facts, Beliefs, Narratives, and Prior associations.

First, I’ve spent the last few years thinking a lot about the beliefs and narratives we construct, often beginning at a very young age. A lot of the work I’ve seen comes from Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, where we’re challenged to differentiate between facts and beliefs, and learn to recognize the power we have by recognizing and changing our beliefs. While this is one branch of psychology, the notion that we all have narratives that sit quietly behind our beliefs and actions, this does seem to be fairly universal. From a neuroscience perspective, I could talk about the same idea, but I’d talk about prior associations and perceived affordances we’ve accumulated through interactions with the world.

Systemic Problems

There’s another ‘check-in’ we need to do, and that’s an honest assessment of the situation. There are problems we can address at the level of a few individuals. The conflict with a co-worker. The strive for a personal achievement. But many more crises are more complex, and systemic. These kinds of problems require a different approach, and an assessment of our role in a broader system. I’ll say a bit more about this when we talk about taking action.

Check your Reserves

There’s at least one more “check-in” question I can’t skip over, and that’s this: “How are you doing, really?” Do you have the strength and energy at this time to work on the positive future you’ve imagined? It’s ok if you don’t. Throwing ourselves into something, when we’re exhausted, is likely to only result in burning ourselves out. Rest. Respite. Sabbath. Time for healing. Breaks. These are important ideas that span cultures and generations. (Note: You can also find energy when you feel depleted by taking action on something that you really care about; these ideas of rest and/or action as ways of recharging needn’t be at odds—the point is to become aware of which things drain you and which things energize you!)

Check In, with Others

In all this, there’s a glaring omission: Other people. Connections. Relationships. We are social creatures. Learning is itself a social activity And yet, everything I’ve shared so far is all so very individualistic. ‘What can I do in this situation?’ Let’s change that to ‘What can we do?’

Your turn:

I mentioned asking you to fill in this space with your own experiences. Tips, tricks. Check-yourself questions. Self-care. Anything that would fit under the header ‘Check-in…’ In the spirit of working and learning together, I’ve setup—in Miro—a version of the map I’ll be sharing at the end of this talk . I’d like to use this as a blank canvas to collect your best ideas. I invite you all, after this talk and throughout the remainder of this week, to share some of the helpful ways you’ve discovered to check-in on yourself and others. Questions for reflection. Articles. Tips. The field is wide open. And my instructions are vague! My hope is that following this conference, this can form the basis of a toolkit that can be iterated on and shared more broadly.

4. Know Yourself


The easiest place to start is with your strengths. These are the things you do really well. I’ll give a shout out to a tool I’ve actually found really helpful for identifying and discussing strengths: CliftonStrengths Assessment.


Similar to strengths, we can talk about values. A good friend of mine who does a lot of team coaching recently observed that most team conflicts stem from a deeper conflict in values. We see a hint of this in the stereotypes we feed about what it means to be a designer or a product manager or an engineer. ‘Designers get upset over little things and slow things down’. While there may be some correlations between values and job professions, it’s far healthier if we do the work to identify and become aware of our own value system; then, we can constantly be checking our life and actions (and the jobs we take) to see how they align with our values. I suspect we’re all most energized and effective when we’re working, playing, and acting, in a way that is aligned to our personal value system.

Mission & Purpose:

Simon Sinek talks about Starting with ‘Why?’ and has written a number of books on this topic, as have others. Finding purpose and meaning to our work is a well-tread theme, so I won’t say too much here, except this: try out a number of frameworks and models, until you see some recurring themes and patterns begin emerge (I haven’t had luck with any one framework). I have a mission statement that I plaster everywhere I can, but it took several years, and many attempts using different frameworks, before this mission statement felt right. Oh, and if done well, these are words that will ring off the page (and roll of your tongue), and energize and recenter you whenever things start to feel off. They’ll be specific, and tell you what without locking you into how.

To make learning the hard stuff fun, by making ‘things to think with’ and ‘spaces’ for generative play.

Oh, and recall how I stressed the importance of relationships and connection? It took a friend of mine, who happens to also be a life coach, to get me unblocked. I recall sharing drafts and iterations of this personal mission statement with her, until it got right.


One of the things I’ve learned is that we all have different roles to play.

  • There are others whose role it is to translate and explain, in a less divisive way. These are the teachers, who will explain why yes, this is a concern, they’ll unpack the inflammatory statements.
  • There are others who spread the message, passing on and sometimes amplifying
  • There are others who are are there to support or encourage, as needed.

5. Action

Just a few of MANY possible actions!

Coherent Actions

Which things are consistent with who you are and what energizes you? I felt like this talk was a broad, sweeping mess (and it still might be!) while I was treating it like any other keynote. The reframing I needed was to think about this like a game, or a toolkit. In fact, that’s what I did about 6 weeks ago:

Letting Go

On the topic of agency, there’s something specific I want to share. For most of my career I’ve either worked in companies small enough that my voice was heard, or I was hired into a position of influence. Even as a HS English teacher (ages ago!) , I had some control over how I ran the classroom. Agency, autonomy, purpose—while I spoke about these things, they had never been a personal struggle, until a few years ago. I ended up in a place where, despite being a senior leader, I felt a loss of agency for the first time ever in my career. There were many reasons for this, that I won’t go into. But I want to share a model that helped me through this.

“Let it go, let it go…”

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
courage to change the things I can,
and wisdom to know the difference


There’s another lesson I’ve learned over recent years, and it’s this: Change takes time, and patience (of which, I’ll add, I have very little of!).

Do nothing

There’s a special kind of action I want to call out, and that is to Do Nothing. You may, after doing the hard work of checking-in with yourself, find that you don’t have the resources or capacity to do anything at this time. Once you realize this, it’s ok to declare that you are going to do nothing. I think if we don’t do this, if we don’t declare the intention of doing nothing, then we’re holding onto to some shame and guilt about not helping out. But, it’s ok to conclude that this just isn’t the right time. Sometimes, taking care of ourselves, or our immediate family, might be all we’re capable of. This is ok, and if you find yourself in this position, then be intentional about doing nothing, and declare that as the action you are taking. Let it go! Take care of yourself.


Let’s bring some closure to all this.

Speaker, educator, and design leader. On a mission to make learning the hard stuff fun, by creating ‘things to think with’ and ‘spaces’ for generative play.

Speaker, educator, and design leader. On a mission to make learning the hard stuff fun, by creating ‘things to think with’ and ‘spaces’ for generative play.