Becoming human through human-centered design: reflections from the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center
This guest post is from Rachel Griner, an independent strategy and innovation expert who served as an Executive On Loan to the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Cincinnati while working for Procter & Gamble as a member of the P&G Design Thinking Leadership Team.
Early in my design thinking journey, I realized human-centered design could apply not only to users but also to us as the designers. Empathy can lead to better products and better work environments.
I carefully crafted innovation processes to gain inspiration from those we served and account for how the team experienced the work.
After years of practice, however, a pivotal moment came when I realized human-centered design could actually be an expression of our humanity. Beyond understanding each other’s perspectives, we could reflect on our collective journey as humans. To drive true innovation, I could blur the line between designer and user and create the space for us all to advance our human potential.
During my tenure as a Proctor & Gamble Executive on Loan to the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, renowned design firm IDEO had agreed to work with the museum on a concept for a self-guided tour that would leverage the latest sensory technology. A team from Boston was formed to lead a “design sprint.” They would fly into Ohio for a day, tour the museum, interview a few staff, and fly back. After roughly a week of prototyping ideas in a lab, they would emerge with final concepts.
I kept saying to the museum’s president, Dr. C. G. Newsome, we need more than a tour. We need them to see this place. We need to invite them into fellowship. That word kept coming to me, and I wasn’t even sure what it meant.
The Freedom Center is a human rights museum that explores the history of the Underground Railroad and the ongoing fight for freedom. Its mission is to reveal stories about freedom’s heroes, challenging and inspiring everyone to take courageous steps for freedom today.
As I planned IDEO’s visit, I sensed it needed to start there. And, I knew it had to start with a story that transcended time and demonstrated the complexity of human nature. It had to start with Eddie.
One of the hallmark exhibits is a historic slave pen—extremely rare, since we have mostly torn them down in the U.S. This pen belonged to a slave trader in Kentucky, and countless men and women passed through its doors.
The day IDEO arrived, we went to the Slave Pen and Eddie was waiting for us. Eddie has been on staff at the Freedom Center since it opened, and knows the place better than anyone. He began in character, re-enacting the story of a Black man being kept in the pen on his way to a plantation in the South. He was getting ready to run, to escape on the Underground Railroad.
In modern times, we often romanticize the Underground Railroad as being the sole endeavor of Quakers and pious white women in the North. While those abolitionist groups played a role, a lot of the Underground Railroad was made up of Black people. Slaves aided each other to escape—sometimes they bought their individual freedom and came back for their families—and oftentimes Black men simply picked up and ran.
As Eddie ended his story, he took off his costume. Standing there, still a Black man, he pointed to an engraving over the door. “You see what that says?” The team looked up and read out loud, “J.W. Anderson.”
“Do you know who that is?,” Eddie’s eyes glimmered. One of the IDEO team members guessed correctly: “the slave trader.” “Yes,” the air stilled in Eddie’s long pause, “and my great-grandfather.”
We stood there, silent and together. Suddenly, it wasn’t about other people’s stories or telling stories to other people. It was about our own stories. The experience of the Freedom Center is about honing your own moral perspective against the perseverance of the human spirit amid the intricacy of circumstance.
The product IDEO would create was not a self-guided tour. The product was the opportunity to reflect, to understand how our society came to be, to prompt thoughts about our own identity. That was what we needed to experience ourselves so we could create that experience for others.
The word fellowship came back to me, and I understood it. My work is to understand the connectedness of the human experience, to illuminate what we have in common. Empathy is not just walking in someone else’s shoes, it’s as my mentor John Pepper says, “seeing myself in that person and that person in myself.”
The IDEO team went back to Boston and delivered some of the most amazing design work ever done for the Freedom Center. The final concept was an interactive storytelling tour that began in the slave pen. Design is not about coming up with solutions or processes for others but for ourselves. There is no other. We are all part of the systems we are trying to change. We are all part of the end product we create.
Visitors could navigate the Freedom Center with different character guides, including a young boy living on a plantation, an enslaved woman, a Black man about to escape, and even a White slave trader.
The team spent days researching historic texts to create compoprsite characters. One designer was so compelled that she insisted on voicing the female character even though professional actors were at the ready. As we shared the concept with staff, they were moved to tears, often just uttering a soft “they get it.”
I will always remember when the Design Director at IDEO said, “This is the most engaging project since I’ve been at IDEO,” and another designer added, “This is the most meaningful project I’ve worked on.” We weren’t just creating a tour; we were taking our place in the movement as freedom’s heroes.
That was the moment I saw myself as human in human-centered design. We do our best work when we give ourselves over to it entirely, when we seek to create change not only in our users but also in ourselves.
Rachel Griner is an independent strategy and innovation expert living in Dubai. In the last arc of her career, she was a member of the Design Thinking Leadership Team at Procter & Gamble, one of the first Fortune 500 companies to adopt Design Thinking.
As a P&G Executive on Loan to the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, she pioneered design thinking at the human rights museum. She used design thinking as one of the core principles for a social innovation framework that generated a $750,000 institutional development portfolio in just 18 months, and managed renowned design firm IDEO on an engagement to reimagine the museum experience.
She now advises businesses and entrepreneurs on growth strategy solutions that generate profit and advance social outcomes. Rachel is a guest lecturer at the University of Cincinnati College of Business and a volunteer for Consult and Coach for a Cause.
Top image: Exterior of the Slave Pen, the largest object at the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Cincinnati, Ohio. The building was originally located on a farm in Mason County, Kentucky. In this photo, visitors listen to Carl B. Westmoreland, Curator of the Slave Pen & Senior Advisor for Historical Preservation, tell the story of this significant artifact. Photo by Mark Bealer Photography, image from freedomcenter.org.
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