Today’s guest is George Aye, the co-founder of Greater Good Studio and an Adjunct Full Professor at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago. We talk about creating a design studio driven by social impact, how to make facing the hard, ethical questions part of how a team functions, and what it means to design and lead with a deep awareness of power and its absence. Dawan Stanford, is your podcast host.

Show Summary

George’s path to design began in England, where he studied mechanical engineering at university before being fortunate enough to be given the opportunity to work with IDEO in their Chicago office. It meant packing up and moving overseas. For George, his time with IDEO was pivotal, both to his understanding of what design was, but also for what it felt like to work as part of a world-class team.

During his time at IDEO, George was already noticing questions about the work, why we do it, and why certain projects — those with a clear social mission — engendered very different feelings in him than those without that mission. He wondered how he might focus this work on the social mission projects. Seven years on, he would leave IDEO to work at the Chicago Transit Authority, where he designed a bus and researched bus ridership.

When the political environment shifted and he was let go from the CTA, George started teaching at the Art Institute of Chicago. It was here that his idea for a design studio focused solely on the social sector began to take shape.

Since co-founding Greater Good Studio, George has continued to ask the hard questions, and encourages his team and his students to do the same. George talks about why these questions are important, the dynamics of power and how it can offer insight into people’s motivations and behaviors, and how to incorporate these discussions into the daily functioning of your design team. 

Listen in to learn:

  • Some of the ethical questions George and his team tackle when approaching a potential project with a client
  • Why it’s a good thing to always be asking “What are we doing, and why?”
  • How questioning assumptions is essential for good decision-making
  • The importance of creating a “psychologically safe” workplace
  • George’s thoughts about power and understanding how it shapes behavior and outcomes
  • Ways to bring learned expertise and lived experience together in teaching design
  • Why the idea of “saving people” is problematic

Our Guest’s Bio

George co-founded Greater Good Studio with the belief that design can help advance equity. Previously, he spent seven years at global innovation firm IDEO before being hired as the first human-centered designer at the Chicago Transit Authority. Since founding Greater Good, he has worked across complex social issues such as criminal justice, civic engagement, public education, public health and youth development. He speaks frequently across the US and internationally. George holds the position of Adjunct Full Professor at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

Show Highlights

[02:16] George talks about how he got into design via engineering.

[02:54] His move from London to Chicago to work at IDEO.

[03:38] George discovers a preference for projects with a clear social mission and impact.

[04:50] Leaving IDEO to work for the Chicago Transit Authority.

[05:13] George realizes he wanted to work at a place with a clearly stated public mission, something larger than himself.

[05:52] How George got into teaching.

[06:13] The ideas that drove the founding of Greater Good Studio.

[07:37] Greater Good’s commitment to designing for the social sector.

[07:55] George talks about Greater Good’s project vetting process and determining whether they have the right to do a project or not.

[10:08] George recounts a time he and his team wrestled with whether they had a right to take on a project, and the process the team goes through during those discussions.

[11:35] The ways the team interrogates a project, and how they share power.

[13:14] The ethical questions George had around a project for automated vehicles.

[14:27] Rigorous questioning as a normal part of Greater Good’s process.

[16:37] How George handles onboarding someone new to the team and Greater Good.

[18:57] Breaking through ingrained assumptions and making constant efforts to create a workplace of psychological safety.

[20:20] The idea of “hosting” with regards to a team member’s career.

[21:40] The impact of endings, and how they can color your entire experience.

[24:44] George talks about power and powerlessness, and continuing to learn what they mean to him and how they affect the work.

[26:16] Using power as a lens through which to view the world, to better understand how people operate.

[27:46] The desire to understand behavior is a core component of the work Greater Good does.

[28:04] Power as a framework to understand motivations and diagnose behaviors.

[28:47] George gives an example from his time at CTA of viewing a situation through a power lens.

[32:25] The devaluation of lived experience when compared to learned expertise.

[35:30] How George is changing the way he teaches and works with students.

[38:04] Teaching students the problems associated with the idea surrounding “saving” people.

[38:46] Ways in which George guides students in choosing their design projects.

[40:00] Examples of the interesting projects George’s students have done.

[41:50] Some of the difficulties surrounding charity, altruism, and lasting social change.

[45:47] The dangers of neocolonialism in design.

[47:37] Books and resources George recommends.

[51:07] Where to find out more about George and Greater Good Studio.


George on Twitter

George on LinkedIn

George at SAIC

Greater Good Studio

Greater Good Studio on Medium

Articles by George:

Why designers write on the walls (and why you should, too)

Design Education’s Big Gap: Understanding the Role of Power

It’s Time to Define What “Good” Means in Our Industry

The Gut Check, by Sara Cantor Aye

The Reductive Seduction of Other People’s Problems by Courtney Martin

The Perils of Using Technology to Solve Other People’s Problems by Ethan Zuckerman

Book Recommendation: White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo

Book Recommendation: Dare to Lead by Brené Brown

Other Design Thinking 101 Episodes You Might Like

Leading a Design Thinking Consultancy, Betting Small to Win Big, and Driving Business Growth with Design Thinking with Natalie Foley — DT101 E5

Design for America: Students + Design Thinking + Community Impact, Part 1 — DT101 E36

Design for America: Founding + Present + Future, Part 2 — DT101 E37


Thank you for listening to the show and looking at the show notes. Send your questions, suggestions, and guest ideas to Dawan and the Fluid Hive team. Cheers ~ Dawan

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