How design thinking may help identify and disrupt bias

How sharp is the lens through which you view the world, and whom do you see more or less clearly? That is one of the new questions we're testing as we continue to develop a new workshop at the Stanford (Photo via Flickr user  mayeesherr .)

How sharp is the lens through which you view the world, and whom do you see more or less clearly? That is one of the new questions we're testing as we continue to develop a new workshop at the Stanford (Photo via Flickr user mayeesherr.)

I am in the sticky middle of a project. The project goal is to marry design thinking and unconscious bias research in a workshop that helps to reduce bias. Something struck me about the way people would react to the workshop when it was introduced to them. They would wince ever so slightly. I've come to call that reaction "The Cringe".

The Cringe is almost imperceptible, but people really do shut down when they encounter the words “bias”, “unbiasing” and, to a lesser degree, “inclusiveness” — especially here in Silicon Valley. There is a high volume of blame and shame being thrown around, and frustrations are rising around how to grow diversity and inclusiveness in some of the nation's most successful companies and organizations.

The key to moving through this rough territory is, I believe, translation. Part of the magic of combining the two areas -- unbiasing and design thinking -- is crafting a new language for talking about the very concept of bias itself. I think we’re on to that translation with our transition to addressing worldview.

Rather than ask "of whom are you more or less inclusive", we now ask, "whom do you see more or less clearly?”. Then, after we’ve guided participants through an exploration of that question, we show them that an ability to see people clearly or not is what contributes to bias. Then, they apply the design thinking process and collaborate with their partner to find a creative solution.

The workshop we have now is meant to help people sharpen the focus of the lens through which they see the world. We define that lens as their worldview, which is shaped by their life experience. It leads them to intervene to combat their biases and, ultimately, see others who are not like them more clearly.

People are weary and wary of un-biasing experiences, and they are excited and eager for design thinking. It appears that many who are in a position to make significant, positive changes upon becoming aware of how unconscious bias works, are shutting down and going into a mode of helplessness and shame avoidance once they catch a whiff of “bias” as a topic of discussion. They are, on the other hand, some of the very same people lighting up at the prospect of learning and applying “design thinking”.

Using the energy of one to power the other in a way that leaves everyone feeling as if they can actually do something is they key to this marriage. The path we are carving exists in three parts:

  1. Bring people together on a level playing field and show them a shared problem. (i.e. "We all have life experiences and a worldview shaped by those experiences. This can cause us to see some people more clearly than others. How might we sharpen the lens?")
  2. Give people the tools to creatively problem solve within this established context.
  3. Help them apply those tools to see the world differently and affect positive behavior change.

People need to be introduced to the experience as a workshop about bringing clarity to your life experience -- a universally shared trait. Then, in doing that, participants are able to open themselves up to learning that this is about identifying and counteracting your biases, which, like a life experience, all of us have.

We're still testing this workshop, and it is far from perfect. But the way forward is becoming more clear as we continue iterating and testing.

Thanks to my project partner, Amy Lazarus of Inclusion Ventures, for joining me on this journey and providing the essential research on unconscious bias. 


Emi Kolawole

Emi Kolawole earned her B.A. in international relations and theater studies from Wellesley College and studied abroad at both the Panthéon-Sorbonne and the National Theater Institute.  She joined the Annenberg Public Policy Center's in November, 2005 after working as a news researcher for Congressional Quarterly on issues of defense, foreign policy, intelligence and homeland security. Previously, she was a production assistant at PBS's "NOW With Bill Moyers," and worked in the Washington area office of a defense contractor.

In addition to her work as a staff writer and researcher for FactCheck, Emi was the host, writer and video editor for's weekly video feature "Just the Facts!"  She is a level 1 certified Final Cut Pro editor and earned her master's degree in producing for film and video at American University. She also led the fact-checking review effort for "UnSpun: Finding Facts in a World of Disinformation."

Emi served as the associate producer for "Washington Week with Gwen Ifill & National Journal." In June 2010 she joined the Washington Post as a producer for PostPolitics. She served as the founding editor for Ideas@Innovations (now "Innovations") and co-host for the Post's daily news program "59 Seconds." In 2011, Emi was named a Young Global Shaper by The World Economic Forum. In 2013 she was listed among The Grio 100, was named a French-American Foundation Young Leader and accepted an invitation to become the Editor-in-residence at the at Stanford University. She has served for the past three years at the, most recently as a senior media designer working on the media experiments collaboration between Knight Foundation and the She is currently the founder of the media and design consultancy Dexign LLC.