“I wanted to be the next James Dyson, come up with a brilliant product and get rich,” Lauren Currie laughs, when asked about her early design ambitions.
A trained product designer, she left university believing her path was set, before getting waylaid with what was, at the time, a fledgling concept: service design.
Since then, the Scottish designer has worked across fields as varied as healthcare to education to teams and culture, picking up an OBE for services to design and diversity along the way, but she says the red thread running throughout them all is clear: “I’ve learned in the last few years that my superpower is a bias towards action – I learn by doing. That’s why I put scrappy prototypes into the world – to constantly test what they might achieve.”
Scrapping for success
What Currie describes as scrappy is increasingly becoming anything but. A trustee for Pregnant Then Screwed and the Design Council, she is also the CEO of Stride, a company she describes as being “on a mission to democratise leadership development.”
The digital platform will aim to make leadership development accessible to all, “because right now, that’s locked in the hands of old boys’ clubs who can afford fancy consultants. So, we’re building a self-guided, self-serve product that allows you to access and consume leadership content personalised to you, that we want to see become the world’s most asked-for benefit at work.”
As exciting a concept as it is, though, it is Currie’s work in founding UPFRONT that I am most keen to talk to her about, given its relevance in our current, fevered times.
Much has been made in recent weeks about the need for white people to become allies in the fight for racial equality – and rightly so. But many in the movement have also been justifiably wary of allyship becoming performative, something that lasts as long as the black square remains in the top nine pictures on an individual or company’s Instagram grid. A brief interlude before normal business resumes.
Currie, however, has been working to pass the mic since 2016, when she set up UPFRONT, described as the ‘couch to 5k’ of confidence. “Essentially, it was in response to often being the only woman on the conference stage and, most of the time, being on a speaker bill where we were all white,” she explains.
“Naively, I couldn’t understand why this was happening. I know loads of really talented women and amazing people of colour and I couldn’t figure out why they weren’t up there with me.”
Currie began to invite a diverse range of guests to join her on stage at the events she was presenting at, while also working behind the scenes to coach and guide those who had previously shied away from public speaking.
“You can’t be what you can’t see,” she explains. “The reason women think they’re happy in the background is because, since they were babies, everyone they’ve seen front of stage didn’t look or sound like them. And the more layers of intersectionality you put on that, the harder it is. A gay African American woman is even less likely to see her own reflection looking back at her when she looks at a stage, when she watches TV, when she goes to a movie, when she goes for a job interview…
““All of those things make it hard for people to realise that they belong in those places, because all the signals they’re getting are saying they don’t belong. If you don’t fit the mould of power or success – which we are taught is a white, middle-aged, privately educated man – then you don’t look like a CEO, an entrepreneur or a politician. It can be uncomfortable or hard to challenge that.”
Currie says much of the work she does with reluctant speakers is to make them see the ways in which their referent groups have been holding them back. “Your referent group might be your family, it might be your friends you’ve grown up with, it might be related to your culture or the city that you’ve grown up in, but that group has very clear expectations of how they think you should behave.
“And if they think that you should self-deprecate, that you should apologise, that you should not try and raise venture capital because that’s not something people who look like you do, it’s very hard to go against that.
“But that’s what’s required now. That boldness, that willingness to do things differently, to refuse to maintain the status quo. It’s a very hard thing to do on your own, and that’s why we need allies.”
The risk of allyship
For many, I suggest, the difficulty in that is knowing at which point inserting yourself into the conversation becomes problematic. How can men stand up for women, and how can white people stand up for people of colour, without dominating the conversation or centring themselves?
“It’s a very hard question and I absolutely do not have all the answers. I’m sure I’m getting it all wrong in all sorts of ways,” she ponders. “But I think the first step is realising that the work begins with you and it begins in your house. Being vocal about racism on Instagram means shit if you’re not willing to have a conversation with your dad who makes racist comments when he watches the football. I think for a lot of white people, myself included, it’s taken us years to get this message, and that is absolutely not ok.”
Fully committing to being an ally, she admits, can be uncomfortable. “The pattern is white people not taking risk. And that risk comes when you’ve got a brilliant contract for a great gig and it has a great salary and you say no, you won’t do it if the whole team is white. To say you’re not ok with that to the degree that it affects your bottom line, that’s where you’re taking risk. It’s when you have a conversation with a friend about their views in the full knowledge the conversation could end your friendship. That’s taking risk.
“But let’s be real,” she adds. “Black people are risking their lives by just going for a walk. Hold your risk in perspective.”
Designing for better
Currie’s work with UPFRONT is a prime example of how one person can use their own privilege and spotlight to help others. How though, I wonder, has it come from a career trajectory focussed on design?
“Design, in all its disciplines, is the link between a thought and an action,” she reasons. “It’s the bridge between an idea in the mind and an idea as a reality in the world. UPFRONT is a good example of how, in one small area, by looking at the make-up of our conference stages, we can consider what that change might look like out in the world. That’s what design is about for me – the idea of passing the mic, the notion of sharing your power, of lifting as you climb, of building ladders around you in a very intentional way.
“We’re still stuck to a kind of outdated idea of design where we think it’s about shoes and websites, that there has to be a shiny product. But design at its best is creating the minimum viable version of something to solve a problem. That’s why, for me, I don’t want designers to work at Facebook or the latest fancy design agency. I want them to work to solve the problems that keep them awake at night.”
And with that, she’s off, armed for another day of fighting the good fight, armed with little more than a mic, her scrappy superpower, and a whole heap of energy.