June 9, 2022

Dana Arnett Debuts as Co-Host of The Design of Business | The Business of Design

Dana Arnett and Kevin Bethune co-host the Design Observer podcast as it enters its 10th season.

VSA CEO Dana Arnett joins Kevin Bethune as the new co-hosts of The Design of Business | The Business of Design (DBBD) podcast. The Design Observer show is in its tenth season exploring how design works within complex organizations to shape decisions and processes, drive innovation, evolve products and services, and so much more.

DBBD goes beyond the traditional tenets of design, interviewing experts in a broad array of industries and professions. This approach allows the show to immerse itself in the complex ecology of design, and examine how design connects to every aspect of our lives from technology to government, mobility to social justice, healthcare to infrastructure.

Click here to listen to the first introductory episode, and to learn more about Dana Arnett, Kevin Buthane, and how we might be able to design our way through the world's most pressing challenges.

Transcript of full episode below:

S10E0: Introducing Our New Co-Hosts

Kevin Bethune: Welcome to The Design of Business...

Dana Arnett: ...The Business of Design.

Kevin Bethune: Where we talk with leaders in their field,

Dana Arnett: About how innovation, access, and curiosity are redesigning their worlds and ours. I'm Dana Arnett.

Kevin Bethune: And I'm Kevin Bethune.

Dana Arnett: Here we go, our first foray into the podcast world. And we thought it was befitting that before we launched into a season that's full of interesting people and practitioners and thinkers and bold innovators that we get to know each other. But more importantly, we let our listeners get to know us.

Kevin Bethune: Sounds great.

Dana Arnett: We're new to this. This is our first episode in season ten, so this is a chance to talk a little bit about our backgrounds, what makes us tick, where we're from. And I'm actually excited to learn more about you. I've known you a long time, but let's start with who you are and a little bit about your background.

Kevin Bethune: Sure, Dana and I have the same curiosities for you. I know we've intersected a number of times on the conference circuit, so this is a rare opportunity just to dove into our backgrounds. But yeah, I was born in Newburgh, New York, but spent the majority of my childhood in the downriver Detroit area in the heart of automotive country, and was surrounded by neighbors who were business people or engineers working for the automotive American brands and had some early sort of curious notions around creativity, but chose engineering as the first start of my journey. How about you?

Dana Arnett: Midwestern born and bred. And made my way north to the Chicago area and been practicing there ever since.

Kevin Bethune: Were there particular anecdotes that you found when you were young that exposed you to design?

Dana Arnett: I got exposed to design probably the way many young creatives get their first taste. I-I was a fairly good artist. I could draw, I could paint. I had parents that were very supportive of those habits or those interests. And slowly after getting through art classes in grade school and then in in the high school. I started getting asked to do things like, Well, why don't you design a logo for the basketball team? Why don't you- we need a poster for the the class play and kind of got the the urge at that early moment to explore what besides fine art was of interest to me. And I went into the library and I remember, and I think I was my sophomore year in high school, and saw this book The Best Advertising of the 1970s. And so I flipped through that book and I was like, Wow. You know, this is so creative and interesting. It's something that's not taught in the classroom and there's actually a profession for it and I suppose at that time. It was advertising or as it was told to me by my high school counselor, commercial art. And there were schools that taught it. So that was kind of the early curiosity and introduction to what has become a real exciting and prosperous design career.

Kevin Bethune: Oh, love it. Love it.

Dana Arnett: How about you? I know, I know this has something to do with nuclear reactors, but I think you came in through a different doorway.

Kevin Bethune: No, I could say during my youth, I drew for hobby all the time. But as I mentioned, where I was growing up in the heart of automotive country design felt like a thousand miles away under the abstraction of art. But there were a couple references that I remember. The first was watching a television commercial of a Nike advertisement of a runner being on a treadmill in a laboratory environment, all kinds of instrumentation up to their body. And that was when I saw a confluence of sort of the art of the sneaker design. It was like the first air max with the visible air bag and then the science of it all, the mathematics of it all. That was sort of a first reference for me that felt like innovation, even though I didn't know to call it innovation. And another moment was the family road trip down to Florida to see grandparents. So we had stop by Walt Disney World and Epcot. At the time it was Epcot Center, had a GM World of Motion exhibit around the future of mobility and seeing concept cars, the the art and science of how those vehicle concepts came together. That was another reference that spoke to this notion of innovation. But yeah, I started down the engineering path because I didn't understand the creative aspects yet. And the first doorway that offered enormous opportunity was the nuclear power generation industry. They were in a situation where they hadn't hired young talent for the 10 to 15 years prior of me coming out of school. So it was a wide open door to learn fast and cut my teeth on product and work with high performing teams in that in that environment.

Dana Arnett: This was before The Simpsons, I'm guessing, right?

Kevin Bethune: I thought of The Simpsons all the time as I was working.

Dana Arnett: Yeah, I remember when we first met a number of years ago, I was amazed by how you got from there to the doorstep of Nike having a leadership role there. You know, talk about that. That is probably the most precarious and interesting journey into the field that I've ever, ever witnessed. But there's also some probably essential learning and stepping stones along that along the route.

Kevin Bethune: No, absolutely. As I was navigating the nuclear environment and cutting my teeth on the different campaigns to upgrade reactors, a natural curiosity for business sort of crept in, and I didn't have a lick of business education in my undergrad experience. It was all the math and science you can imagine. It's part of an engineering curriculum, but sometimes when you're an engineer functioning in industry, the companies you work for may want to just use your subject matter expertize over and over again. And I sort of wondered like, why is the company orchestrating scope the way it was? Why was it pricing work the way it was? Why was it working with certain nuclear utilities versus others? And, just wanting to know a little bit more about my position in the big puzzle of things and wanting to have a little bit more license in terms of where my career could go and just feeling like I lacked that that business acumen to understand the strategic influence around like what I was working on. That curiosity eventually bled into wanting to pursue an MBA, building that business education. And in business school, it's a great time to take a step back and look at your career with fresh perspective. And I said, You know what? I'm going to use this time to also scratch that creative itch from my youth. And I told myself, I'm going to work for an employer- my next employer is going to have not only the strategy and the technology, but also creative faculties as well, so that I could explore. And Nike was one of the top companies on the short list, and thankfully they afforded me a path into their fold, starting in business planning and eventually moving over to the product side of Nike.

Dana Arnett: And there was Carnegie Mellon somewhere along the way, too, right?

Kevin Bethune: So that was the MBA experience.

Dana Arnett: Right.

Kevin Bethune: So Carnegie Mellon was a great business school environment, the Tepper School of Business, to be exact. They were very empathic to engineers looking to add that business layer. So it was the perfect environment to just explore what business could mean for an engineer looking to add that to their toolkit. So how about you? How did formal education progress for you?

Dana Arnett: So, far more boring—

Kevin Bethune: No, no, no.

Dana Arnett: Pedestrian might be the word. I started looking at art schools that had design curriculums and truth be told, I really wanted to come here to ArtCenter. But as I started visiting campuses and understanding the opportunities, I got a a merit scholarship offer at Northern Illinois University, which is a nice, sleepy little state school in the northern portion of Illinois, about 60 miles west of Chicago. And back then, if if you got some college tuition dollars, your decision was made for you and that experience didn't go so well. I made it up to my sophomore year. And, you know, back then you had portfolio reviews— they decided whether you were going to, based on the work in your portfolio, whether you could go on in that particular curriculum to get your degree. I didn't pass that portfolio review. I was- my work was a little bit unconventional. It sort of challenged the what I would call the Swiss School of Design at the time. There were so many influences back then, especially New Wave and more of a colorful, kind of eclectic approach to design. And so when I got that news, I found another curriculum on the admission books called Comprehensive Design that required you take different multidisciplinary credit hours to get your degree. So interior design, product design, graphic design, computer aided design, as they called it back then, I think it was more what we call FORTRAN. And so I signed up for that and it was probably the best lesson of defeat and opportunity I could imagine. And in my sophomore year as well. Right about that time. A gentleman by the name of Robert Vogele came to lecture at NIU. And his lecture wasn't a bunch of slides of pretty campaigns or logos. It was really a conversation about what he called Big D, the impact of design in business and how, if you're entering the design world, you have an opportunity to both be a creative person who loves and has a passion for problem solving. But you had a chance to impact the world and the world of business through your design. So at a very early age, the sort of opportunity and illumination of that bigger idea of design was presented to me, and I went up to Bob sheepishly after the lecture and I said: Boy, I really enjoyed that talk. Most of the students had evacuated the auditorium. Bob said: Well, here's my card, come talk to me in Chicago when you get a chance. And soon thereafter, we became partners and the rest is history, almost 40 years later.

Kevin Bethune: I was probing a bit for some of the recent talks that you've made, and I found one talk you were on stage and you you were talking about design. You connected this notion of of the heart and the mind. And as you make work, as you produce, as you create, to be able to capture an audience and actually find resonance in the market with with real people through your work. That was sort of a beautiful connection for you. Is that design for you?

Dana Arnett: Well, I do think design has to- the best design comes from the heart. In the world of business, it's easy to solve problems in a very either a binary or sort of a calculated way. But the passion and curiosity and the creativity that designers bring to thinking and actually executing an idea. That's something they don't teach you in business school, per say. How a letter forms or a color palette or a composition or a beautifully executed idea that comes to life through a visual and verbal expression. You know, that to me stands right at the center, right at the heart of what is at least been a success formula for me. And I was lucky early on in my career to get exposed to some really incredible companies like IBM and Harley-Davidson, where they placed a high premium on that emotional quotient of design and all the way down to color palette and visual expression and how that becomes a very important aspect around how people see and feel brands. And I think designers are just driven by sort of that, that visceral or the, the the heart of of making things look cool and function well.

Kevin Bethune: Awesome. Just, just looking at your body of work over the years, Dana, I'm just humbled to be in your presence and and just the the legacy of amazing work. And then have-have that sort of stemmed from the courage that you took to walk up to Bob, who became your mentor and business partner. That's an amazing story.

Dana Arnett: Part of what you and I have talked about this podcast becoming is this channel for mentoring,

Kevin Bethune: Mhm.

Dana Arnett: And that's part of the partnership that we've come together with ArtCenter on. There's this journey that happens after college or after our childhood, where there's not a specific role for an educator in your life or your parents or living in another city. So how do you find those people or champions to influence your career? And you talk a lot about those shared influences and in lessons in your new book, Re-imagining Design, perfect segway, Unlocking Strategic Innovation. Now let's talk about why you did a book.

Kevin Bethune: Oh, goodness.

Dana Arnett: And I think how your identity as a team collaborator and your thoughts around diversity being a foundation for innovation. Let's talk a little bit about how you connect the vision of that book to the thinking around mentoring or the message that you want to get out.

Kevin Bethune: No, no, absolutely. You know, I appreciate the timing of this season and beginning this journey with you, then to co-host the season alongside sort of the genesis of this book. Because it's funny. It's like a convergence of all these paradigms coming together. I'll say that the thought of a book sort of arose as I was navigating the BCG environment in my and my last couple of jobs, having been a servant leader, standing up design and innovation capabilities, especially in arenas that didn't necessarily understand the power of design at parity with other disciplines around the table. And I guess I garnered the courage to begin that journey after some mentors gave me advice on how to put together a book proposal and how to shop it around. But at the start of the pandemic, it's when I started a relationship with the MIT Press, and this book could have easily been a compendium of more frameworks to add to existing canon for design thinking,

Dana Arnett: Right.

Kevin Bethune: But at the same time, that was 2020 when the world was sort of unraveling. We had the pandemic. We had the unfortunate summer of police brutality against black folks and George Floyd and, you know, hate crimes against other demographics. You also had the heightening concern for climate change at the same time. And you just can't not pay attention to the world as you're starting to write this book. And it made me— I think, a lot of the jarring stuff that we saw on the news made me look into my own path and say, like: What— here I am, this black man that has navigated corporate America. And when I reflected on the path, there were some very large multidisciplinary leaps, very unique leaps that I've taken. I've had the privilege of transitioning through that uncovered many learnings for me. And while we were rocked by a lot of the overt stuff that was happening, it also translated to a lot of the covert stuff that we feel every day, especially in places where we spend a lot of time, whether it be the workplace, and in a pandemic the virtual workplace, also in you know, academia and other institutions. And my my sort of imperative conviction that was rising was saying, like, how can I actually share these perspectives in a way where individuals who are thinking about their own journey, especially in an environment of uncertainty, as well as organizations that are looking to rewire themselves for resilience, for future foresight, for sort of what the world would behold for them. How could I make my perspectives easily customizable for individuals and organizations and not just add to design thinking fodder, but really focus on the strategic and hopeful importance of positioning design at parity with other disciplines and what you could get from that. It was sort of it became my statement of optimism for a world undergoing exponential change and critical uncertainty.

Dana Arnett: So what does that say about leadership in design or within corporate settings that either have design as a core offering, or have extended into the design consulting space? What what what is the current state of leadership from your perspective, and how can this book begin to open up some of the truths or signifiers that might, you know, establish a better, more contemporary view of design?

Kevin Bethune: No, it's a great question. Again, when I reflect on the journey, I found design mid-career versus most people that have found design at the beginning of their career. And I just remember some of the spaces I've navigated, some of the world class institutions and agencies that I might have rubbed up against in my travels. And I'll be bold enough to say that we do have an unfortunate ivory tower problem in the field of design and innovation, and that there tends to be leadership behavior that that leans toward the gatekeeping end of the spectrum where, you know, you sort of are held to a subjective measures at times, or you're not—at least you don't hear honest feedback about where you stand and how you fare against the success criteria they have in mind of what success looks like for good design.

Dana Arnett: Right.

Kevin Bethune: And that sort of control, that gatekeeping is held by, you know, a critical few actors that don't necessarily look like the diversity evident in the world. And meanwhile, I look outside my office window or my home, and there's all kinds of needs, all kinds of latent unmet needs in the marketplace not being solved and not being solved by the self-proclaimed world class leaders.

Dana Arnett: Right.

Kevin Bethune: And so that that calls into question, how is the existing pedagogies either working or not working, and how can the pedagogy evolve to include more approaches to how you creatively problem solve through design? And so that definitely informs like in any work that I do with client partners, whether it's startups or innovation groups inside of large corporates, beyond just the work itself, it's like: How are we rewiring ourselves for what the future requires moving forward?

Dana Arnett: You know, we at VSA, we we talk a lot about empathy and intention. You know, empathy, understanding. The audience, the state of the world, you know, the designers' ability to step out of their own shoes and see what is really at the heart of either the problem they're trying to solve or the opportunity they can capture and then you design then with intention.

Kevin Bethune: Mm hmm. Mm hmm.

Dana Arnett: How does that work in your practice now that you've taken the lessons from Nike and the lessons from your path in professional consulting.

Kevin Bethune: To your point around empathy and intention, I mean, I love those two words. And I think a third word that comes to mind that I would add to for my work is just outright humility before starting any innovation intervention. You know, empathy and compassion, these other words that are sort of part of the human centered zeitgeist. But well, number one, I'm not a sociologist. I'm not a psychologist. I'm not an anthropologist. And sometimes in certain arenas, whether it's healthcare or any other topic that requires intervention, I think that the humility tack that we take is to meet humans at a human level, like any work that we start, regardless of the brief, it's like: Who are they, who are the stakeholders here, the humans involved in this equation? And how can we talk to them as soon as possible and not study them like a research subject like that coming out as a design researcher, just coming at them as a human being like, Hey, with openness, this is what we're working on and I want your help. And then if you know, particular expertize is required that I don't have or my team doesn't have, will find the experts and make sure that we have the doctor in the conversation or the sociologist in the conversation just to have a smart, co-creative, participatory conversation where the people that we're engaging feel like respected collaborators and not just subjects to be studied behind the mirrored glass. So that's that's sort of the initial tact. But Dana, this-this opportunity we have to work on this season as a project together, I'm really excited with, you know, the type of guest that we're thinking about having. What are some of your ambitions for this season as we look to the future for The Design of Business The Business of Design?

Dana Arnett: Well, a lot of what we've talked about that feeds into this question is about how we came up into the field. And what's interesting in terms of our industry is, sort of the tools and teachings that we learned are being reinvented before our very eyes. So case in point, when I got out in the better part of my early career, it was all about the beauty of our work and, you know, connecting with trends or creating those trends around where design could go. But a lot of it was work based on the work product. And fast forward to now in this next generation of design and why there's so much promise there is we're talking about real issues were designed can come in. And through design innovation or design thinking or call it any construct you want. But we're really talking about bigger things like design of-of services, redesigning systems that have not been inclusive, going outside of our comfort zone and asking other collaborators, as you just talked about, and creating those platforms for collaboration. We're talking about diversity, not just diversity in our population, but diversity of thinking.

Kevin Bethune: Mm hmm.

Dana Arnett: And, you know, our guests this season really are you know, I'm looking forward to tapping into some of those areas and getting away from the Chutes and Ladders of of work. So for me, I'm really interested in sort of getting firsthand lessons or observations around, you know, what designers are unlocking now in terms of the truth or methods behind some of these bigger issues that face not only our industry, but face the world. Is that too heady?

Kevin Bethune: Not at all.

Dana Arnett: So, yeah, we're going to be talking to social entrepreneurs. We're going to be talking about health care delivery. We're going to be talking about mobility. And by virtue of the people that we talk to who bring design to that conversation or that problem solving forum, it can begin to signal or highlight, you know, what's really happening in terms of opportunity for design.

Kevin Bethune: I love it. I think we both agree that design has an important hand in shaping the future, but not by itself, and especially in a world that's ever so converging disciplines needing to come together more than ever. I'm excited that we're going to have this be a platform to showcase new voices that are leaning into the fringes, leaning into the boundaries, leaning into the overlaps, and showing how change can manifest in positive ways. And as you mentioned, across social sectors education, enterprise, start ups, government— bringing those new voices to light. And they may be a formal designer or they might not be, but they're they're running adjacent to design in some way. These-these future thinkers are showing us what can be by design in the future state and hopefully helping us all shape better futures for-for inclusive society.

Dana Arnett: Yeah. One of the things you and I have had a couple heart to heart conversations around is the fact that design or art programs need to be introduced far ahead of college. And access to our field has had such a narrow path.

Kevin Bethune: I agree the top of the funnel definitely needs a ton of help. I think the field hopefully is beginning to wake up to that opportunity and realizing that there is a pipeline out there. But you have to sort of look in different places and look for different archetypes of equally potential creative, you know, leaders and practitioners that can help the field and help make an impact.

Dana Arnett: There's a lot of love in this room, this little tiny studio. And if we can inject some of that into the conversations we have this season, I think we're going to fly to the moon together. So I'm looking forward to it and I'm so happy we're together again and can share some experiences with a lot of the listeners who have put a lot of their love and passion into the first ten seasons.

Kevin Bethune: So excited to be working together, Dana.

Kevin Bethune: The Design of Business, The Business of Design as a podcast from Design Observer. Our website is DBBD dot design observer dot com. There you can find the complete archive from past guests and hosts. To listen, go to DBBD dot Design Observer dot com.

Dana Arnett: And if you like what you heard today, please subscribe to this podcast. You can find The Design of Business, The Business of Design on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen to podcasts.

Kevin Bethune: If you are already a subscriber to the podcast, tell your friends about the show or go to Apple Podcasts and rate us, which is a great way to let other people know about the show.

Dana Arnett: Between episodes, you can keep up with Design Observer on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

Kevin Bethune: Thanks to the Bruce Heavin Media Production Studio at ArtCenter College of Design, where we recorded this episode and for the support of Michael Hanson, Kevin Lipnos, and Luis Silva.

Dana Arnett: Our producer is Adina Karp. Our theme music is by Mike Errico. And thanks as always to Design Observer founder Jessica Health and our hero,

Kevin Bethune: And the show's other previous hosts, Michael Bierut and Ellen McGirt. Andto Design Observer executive producer Betsy Vardell.

Dana Arnett: Until next time, stay tuned and we'll talk to you soon.

Kevin Bethune: Talk to you next time.

Dana Arnett

Dana Arnett

Chief Executive Officer

Dana is the guiding force behind VSA’s creation of brand programs, digital and interactive initiatives and marketing solutions for its diverse roster of world-class clients. In his current role, Dana leads enterprise activities at VSA including strategic planning, growth initiatives, people development and the integration of the firm’s diverse capabilities. Since founding VSA with Robert Vogele, his career has been steeped in design leadership, policymaking, business and brand consulting, and a long record of public service. He has been recognized internationally by multiple organizations for his contributions to design and design thinking, including the Smithsonian Institute. In 2016, Arnett worked with the State Department under the Obama Administration to brand and launch Spark, the first-ever government led global entrepreneurship initiative. Dana is a member of the Alliance Graphique Internationale, a recipient of the AIGA Medal, a former board member of the Architecture & Design Society at the Art Institute of Chicago, Project &, and has served as National President of the AIGA.