Hard conversations need great design

November 24, 2020, 12:58 PM UTC

Over the course of his remarkable career as an activist, architect, senior partner at IDEO, the global design consultancy, and now design advisor for the Rockefeller Foundation, Fred Dust has engaged in thousands upon thousands of difficult conversations.

As the scope of his responsibilities at IDEO expanded to include not just architectural projects but large, systemic problems, he and colleagues found themselves drawn into complex discussions with multiple stakeholders from schools, non-profits, philanthropies, and governments as well as private business. They realized that, to tackle design’s truly biggest problems, they would need to redesign a core working tool: conversation itself.

“Without intending to,” Dust observes, ” I’ve become a kind of expert in the design of conversations.”

Dust has distilled some of that expertise in a timely and thought-provoking new book, Making Conversation: Seven Essential Elements of Meaningful Conversation, that’s being released next month by HarperCollins. In it, he argues that conversations—at least the really hard ones—are too important to entrust solely to traditional “professionals” like facilitators, mediators, psychologists, or hostage negotiators. He insists that designers bring a unique and essential perspective to the conversation table.

“Approaching a dialogue as a designer means that you treat dialogue as something that you create, something that you design, not something you facilitate. It’s tremendously liberating. There are new possibilities, if you can begin to think about how to influence the structure and feel of a conversation by design rather than by pure force of will. It relies not on your interpersonal skills but a different skill set: the ability to spot opportunity and design for it in order to shape outcome and impact.”

That’s a powerful insight that goes to the heart of the things design is supposed to be all about: vision, empathy, and the ability to implement new ideas that make a difference.

You can read an exclusive excerpt from Making Conversations — and catch my video conversation with Fred about how to design great conversations—on Fortune here.

Speaking of well-designed conversations, on Tuesday, December 8, 11:00 AM – 12:30 PM Eastern Time, I’ll join with Fortune deputy editor Brian O’Keefe and senior editor Ellen McGirt for the first in a series of three virtual Brainstorm Design discussions presented in partnership with Salesforce and IBM. In our first session, entitled “Resilience by Design: Driving Business Transformation,” we’ll hear from PepsiCo’s chief design officer Mauro Porcini and global chief commercial officer Ram Krishnan about how design and design thinking can help create business value. We’ll also talk with Deanna Van Buren, co-founder and executive director of Designing Justice + Designing Spaces, about design’s role in building communities. The conversation will break into working groups to give everyone a chance to connect and share ideas. The session is by invitation but there are still a few places left. If you’re interested, register here.

Alas, this our last issue of Business x Design. Eamon and I will continue to write about design and design thinking on Fortune.com, and we look forward to delving deeper into the design conversation at Brainstorm Design in Singapore next year.

More design news below!

Clay Chandler
— clay.chandler@fortune.com



Dutch design firm Clever Franke has created an interactive globe to help investors visualize the impact their investments are having on the world. The map sources ESG data to present how different portfolios—such as the S&P 500—align with Paris Agreement targets by mapping their impact on global warming, their "footprint" on various social issues, and their return on investment.


Twitter added a new stories feature called Fleets last week that allows users to share videos, photos or tweets that will auto-delete after 24 hours. It’s similar to other stories features rolled out by Snapchat, Instagram, Facebook, etc. Twitter pitches Fleets as a tool for users who are put off Tweeting because of its perceived permanence. Fleets’ launched was marred however, by a bug that meant Fleets could be archived and viewed well after the 24-hour window expired.


Japanese designer Takeuchi Masaki has developed a new electronic vocal box for patients that have lost the ability to speak. Unlike the common stick-shaped electrolarynx, that needs to be held with one hand, Masaki’s design straps around the neck—leaving hands free—and can be programmed with recordings of the user speaking to produce a more natural voice.


New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art has appointed Lavita McMath Turner as the museum’s first chief diversity officer, roughly five months after a Met staff letter asked museum leaders to address systemic racism at the institution. In 2017, Mayor DeBlasio also tied the city’s arts funding to diversity, threatening to remove funds form institutions that don’t improve.

Roll on

Chinese smartphone maker Oppo unveiled a new concept phone with an extendable screen that can be deployed to convert the smartphone into a phablet. Unlike other smartphones incorporating bendable screen tech, the Oppo doesn’t fold – rather it can be pulled to unfurl an extra inch or so of screen width.



Hong Kong’s Business of Design Week (BODW), billed as “Asia’s premier annual” event on design, will be in person and online from November 30 until December 5. Like many others, the event looks to provide guidance in a pandemic era.


Seoul Design Festival, a celebration of South Korea’s young designers and upstart design brands, is running December 9-13.

The National Gallery of Victoria’s art, design, and architecture exhibition, the NGV Triennial, will run from December 19 to April 18, 2021 in Melbourne, Australia.


“Accessibility now is like sustainability was 20 years ago when they just stuck solar panels on the roof and called it an eco-building. We need to go on that journey. Inclusive design is improved by talking directly to users and planning it in from the beginning.” 

U.K.-based Architects’ Journal talked to several architects with disabilities for their thoughts on how the industry can better design accessibility into building projects. The above comes from Amy Francis-Smith, vice president of the Birmingham Architecture Association, England. It’s a good reminder to circle back to this overview of how, and whether, the Americans With Disabilities Act has impacted U.S. design in the 30 years since its implementation.

This week’s edition of BxD was curated by Eamon Barrett. Email him tips and ideas at eamon.barrett@fortune.com

Subscribe to Well Adjusted, our newsletter full of simple strategies to work smarter and live better, from the Fortune Well team. Sign up today.

Read More

CEO DailyCFO DailyBroadsheetData SheetTerm Sheet