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Q&A with Kevin Bethune: HOW Design TODAY February 2023

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Nuclear engineer. Air Jordan designer. Startup co-founder. Bestselling author. BS, Mechanical Engineering, Notre Dame; MBA, Carnegie Mellon; MS, Industrial Design, ArtCenter College of Design (where he is now a board trustee) …

Kevin Bethune’s resume and accomplishments are, frankly, overwhelming. When scrolling through his resume and taking in his remarkable career evolutions, one is thunderstruck by a single word: HOW?! How did he do it all, and how did he do it so seamlessly—and most of all, so brilliantly and effectively?

So, we asked him.

Here, the dreams • design + life founder and CCO riffs on exactly that—and how the rest of us can continue to grow, evolve and thrive in our own careers.

How did your creativity manifest at an early age?

Drawing was my primary hobby growing up. I definitely had a knack for it, and it was encouraged by my family. My parents and siblings were generally very creative and curious, so everyone leaned into their hobbies pretty vigorously. My parents were always taking us to art galleries and museums to broaden our exposure to a wide range of different cultures and inspirations.

Even though I loved to draw, connecting that to a promise of a formal creative career path was very far from my worldview at the time. As much as my family was sacrificing to send me to college, I felt that I should pick a pragmatic major (i.e., business or engineering) that would assure me a decent-paying job come graduation. That was the belief at the time—right, wrong or indifferent. Engineering had some intersections with drafting, 3D CAD/CAM, science, coding and technology, so that was the best logical choice.

After graduating from Notre Dame, you worked in the Nuclear Services unit of Westinghouse. That seems … daunting.

I’m really thankful that my career started in such a demanding, mission-critical industry that was nuclear power. Every project stretched my abilities as a technology professional and emerging product leader. I grew a sincere appreciation for what it took to create products that needed to meet the needs of multiple stakeholders in a complex environment. Through that you learn the importance of tracking the critical path sequence of operations, and learning how to work within high-performing teams against clear objectives. Every project seemed impossible at the beginning, but somehow we got them done through the trials, tribulations and tons of learning. Those intense product creation lessons definitely still influence the work I do and the teams I influence today.

After switching things up and earning your MBA, you started at Nike as a financial manager in 2005. How did that role eventually give way to design?

My creative curiosities had been brewing since my childhood hobby of drawing, and I think landing at Nike was the first time I actually saw the professional convergence between design, business and engineering taking place. I earned the MBA to add the language of business to my toolkit. Typical of a lot of MBAs, I landed a business planning job within the global finance organization. The role helped me solidify the classroom business acumen with the real experience of analyzing and understanding the financial and operational performance of a publicly traded company at the scale of Nike. While that was an invaluable experience, I networked like crazy to find the product folks across the Nike campus. Those conversations eventually led to making friends with designers, which eventually led to sharing my hobby with my newfound creative friends, and a few creative leaders gave me a shot to flex my raw skill on actual Nike footwear design.

What was it like to design and produce the Air Jordan Fusion 8?

This footwear story was made possible through D’Wayne Edwards (now president of Pensole Lewis College), formerly the footwear design director of the Jordan Brand. He saw my raw drawing skills, and gave me a shot to design my first sneaker project, a lifestyle-performance shoe that combined the heritage of the coinciding anniversaries between the Nike Air Force 1 and the Air Jordan 8. I showed up to meet D’Wayne in the early mornings to commiserate on his briefs, and then we would both do our day jobs, and I would then work on D’Wayne’s assignments at night, and rinse and repeat the next day. Over a year of working together and being allowed to attend product review meetings with the Jordan Brand, I designed two different models under the Fusion 8 story, a mainstay mid-top that celebrated legacy elements, and a luxury high-top version with more premium elements. It was wild to see everyday people wearing my shoes on the street. The Jordan team was so impressive to learn from, and I’ll be forever grateful to D’Wayne for that first opportunity. That runway opened up more doors to lend early design contributions to the Nike system.

Afterward, you followed a path to ArtCenter, where you earned a degree in Industrial Design. What about the field resonated with you?

The early Nike design work sparked my creative curiosity in a big way. While being mindful to learn all I could about footwear design, I was also noticing the confluence of design, business and technology happening outside of Nike. This was the time of Apple’s transcendent rise with the iPod, followed by iTunes and even Nike+. The value of design in the business world was becoming clear, at least in early notions, and I began to see a little bit of myself in that convergence. At the same time, I had to be humble to recognize that a few shoe projects didn’t necessarily complete the creative leg of my three-legged stool compared to my business and engineering experiences. While at Nike, I met several ArtCenter alums that helped me see the value of what it would mean to invest in my education to formalize my creative foundation. Doing another stint in grad school became a viable choice, versus spending 10–15 years continuing to claw and scratch on more side-hustle footwear assignments before I could be pedigreed as an official footwear designer in Nike’s eyes.

You’ve since worked in a host of brilliant design leadership positions. Today, dreams • design + life, which you launched in 2018, seems to represent the sum toll of everything you absorbed leading up to the present. Your approach is innovative. What are the key ways that dreams • design + life was designed to be different from other studios and organizations?

After studying different agency and collaboration models, I knew I wanted dreams • design + life to represent something different … to serve as a living experimental platform to spark collaborations that would navigate very differently than the transactional tendencies I observed between big clients and design agencies. I call it a “think tank” for this reason, versus an agency. In my book [Reimagining Design], I speak about this notion of breadth and depth for any collaboration. Instead of throwing a big team at a client partner and feeling pressure to be performative to justify the large billing, instead I propose a smaller team structure that brings me very close to the executive sponsors, and I leverage my breadth of skills to help disparate disciplines collaborate to see the future through a wider aperture. At the same time, I roll up my sleeves and showcase my depth of expertise by actually designing (e.g., realizing industrial designs, influencing digital platforms, etc.) against the opportunities we uncover from that future-visioning work. … We sell relationship cultivations over the design sprint, and win a lot of trust through the work day to day. In doing so, my clients are truly client partners and we figure out creative ways to share skin in the game against longer goals, beyond just collecting against the next invoice.

You’ve reinvented at multiple points in your career. Reinvested in yourself. And revolutionized. I’m curious: Was it a series of carefully structured moves, or were you just flowing with your interests and passions?

I definitely would be lying if I said my trajectory was part of some master plan. It surely wasn’t. If I reflect on the different multidisciplinary chapters of my career, I can say I tried my best to be mindful and present in each moment to learn all I could before moving on to do something else. At the same time, I couldn’t help but feel curious, as I had an inclination to want to connect the dots to see the bigger picture or the broader systemic concerns that were orbiting my immediate situation. Stroking that itch of curiosity became par for the course, whether it was through reaching out to different departments to have end-to-end conversations or taking on a side hustle experiment to learn more by doing. It’s amalgamated to a career that has positioned me at the intersections of converging disciplines, and to now be known for championing innovation for any collaboration I begin.

Tell me a bit more about the role of curiosity.

Curiosity has surely been the defining thread through every chapter of my experience, and it will continue to be moving forward. I’ve faced resistance, trials, tribulations and failures, but betting on my curiosity has never failed me in the end. Curiosity begets experimentation, and experimentation breeds evidence that can inform the viability of your path or any next steps that may await you over the horizon.

It’s been almost a year since the publication of your book Reimagining Design: Unlocking Strategic Innovation. In many ways it reads like a love letter to design and its power, and a brilliant encapsulation of your story. A year in, if there’s one core lesson, wisdom or critical takeaway you could point out for creatives, what would it be?

Thank you. Reimagining Design is for anyone that is creatively curious, regardless of disciplines. I wrote this for students, technologists, designers and business folks. I want them all to recognize design’s equal importance in the larger puzzle of a converging, hyperconnected world. Everything is the way it is by some level of design. If we have any hope of shaping a better future, I want my first book to serve as a mirror … a mirror for anyone to see themselves differently and see their ability to influence their reality and realize better futures for us all. But to do so, we have to open our aperture and see the larger system in all things, and connect the dots accordingly … and believe that each of us can make an impact.

You’ve detailed how the field of design has left so many without a seat at the table—which is a damning thing for creativity in the industry at large.

As I mention in the book, design has an “ivory tower” problem. The self-professed world-class leaders in the space must recognize their power and privilege, and make space for new voices. This is not to take away anyone’s talent, but power, privilege and market forces tend to put the megaphone in a select few’s hands, and have studios believing they live in a meritocracy. Meanwhile, these same studios continue to breed a level of sameness that makes them vulnerable to bias, ignorance and even the potential to breed harm against demographics they claim to be serving. Instead of embracing a select few pedagogies, we have to open our aperture to embrace the diversity of pedagogies, creative approaches and different lived experiences that reflect the multifaceted, diverse and connected world that we must navigate. Not only is it morally the right thing to be inclusive in how we shape our teams, it’s also ensuring we’re future-fit to embrace the newly emerging realities affecting our world when our teams are more diverse. We can be more creative, we can widen our aperture, and we can strike more authentic connections with different groups if those groups actually “see themselves” in the teams that are approaching them. Otherwise, we continue to breed more of the same behaviors and tendencies, and based on how things are breaking all over the world it seems … we just follow the status quo anymore.

Finally, tell us about Lonnie Bethune—and one key lesson he has taught you.

He’s my dad and present COO of dreams • design + life. I am blessed to benefit from his wise counsel as we propel the business forward. He’s seen a lot in his life and his wisdom and pattern recognition definitely helps me see around corners differently. The biggest lesson that has informed my personal walk is his tenet that “you cannot lead anyone without establishing trust first.” To foster that trust, you need to convince teammates that you have their best interests at heart and that you are prepared to serve them in giving them what they need to be successful versus stroking your ego as their leader. Through acts of service and being subversive in a good way to help the team achieve its larger goals, the trust will be earned and you’ll be entrusted with the privilege of leading more scope and earning the right to set bigger visions for the team.

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