Make Some Room—Unconscious Bias Workshop

Read Time: 4.5 minutes

This 2020 SEGD Global Design Awards Honor Award-winning project began as a simple desire to shine a light on biases in the workplace in a more memorable and impactful way. Second Story created the immersive experience for offices of their parent company, Publicis, and it was installed in offices around the world. 

Despite a growing movement for corporate diversity and bias trainings, many employees still experience the dehumanizing and daily impacts of bias and discrimination. We’ve become more informed, but not necessarily transformed.

As experience designers, the team believed that addressing bias in our own workplaces and culture required a new approach—to shift these trainings from intellectual understanding to emotional awakening. Make Some Room is an immersive workshop that marries storytelling and space to change hearts, not just minds.

They began with a simple, low-fi idea to instantly shift people’s perception; an immersive environmental takeover of their office that makes the invisible impacts of bias visible. Thick lines of red tape cross office floors and walls, leading employees on a journey.

As participants navigate their everyday environment, they uncover hidden first-person stories all around them. Each story testifies to the bias and micro-aggressions hidden in plain sight. These audio stories are an opportunity to step into a coworkers’ shoes and feel the impacts of implicit bias firsthand, in the place it actually happened. The impact of hearing these personal stories while standing in the places they occurred is remarkable, and makes the issue of unconscious bias feel real, personal, and embodied. Not only does it happen, it happens right here, where I come get coffee.

The workshop is a carefully crafted three-hour experience, broken into multiple activities. The team architected the emotional journey of participants to awaken a deep sense of empathy and help channel the feelings that arise into individual and collective action.

At the outset, participants are given tailored wearable devices. Inside, a custom app responds to beacons strategically placed across the workplace. The app delivers first-person stories in-situ, transforming the physical landscape into an emotional one.

The workshop begins with a visceral icebreaker where participants line up for a variation on a privilege walk. As they answer a series of yes/no questions, participants move forwards or backwards. As groups quickly separate along racial and gender lines, the literal space between participants acts as a catalyst to discuss how systemic bias and inequality manifest among us.

Next, participants individually explore their workplace. Lines of thick red tape along the floor and walls act as visual wayfinding, guiding them to listening stations. Here, participants trigger candid, first-person accounts of everyday bias, voiced by real employees. The team collected dozens of stories in intimate interview sessions, then edited and pitch-altered them to protect the storyteller’s anonymity, but retain the emotional impact and truth of what they shared.

Facilitated group discussions help unpack participants’ emotions and reactions. Finally, facilitators offer their peers practical techniques for mitigating bias in our daily routines. The workshop concludes with everyone committing to one tangible thing they will do to counter the effects of bias in their workplace.

To date, the workshop has been held in 19 Publicis offices, spanning five countries. Thousands of the team's coworkers—from C-Level executives to new hires—have gone through the experience. Participants were surveyed immediately following the workshop and then surveyed again six months later to measure lasting impact. The survey revealed that 98.7 percent of participants would recommend the experience to colleagues. The average survey rating of the workshop was 8.9 out of 10 immediately following the experience. When poled again six months later, participants rated the lasting value of the workshop at 8.6 out of 10.

An anonymous workshop participant had this to say about the experience: “I am honored to work for a company with the courage to take these risks, to admit that we have not achieved a multicultural egalitarian paradise; that people suffer, get demoralized, and are held back in their careers by thoughtless remarks, cruel behaviors, and ingrained biases. The workshop struck all the right notes—it did not preach, it did not cram a simplistic checklist of do’s and don’ts down our throat. It stayed close to the heart and did not feel ‘corporate’ or impersonal in any way. It asked us to listen to real people’s stories in their own voices; it asked us to witness what is too often hidden.”

Juror Comments:

“Very timely and much needed in today’s workplace. Exciting to hear that a larger company took this challenge on. Unique way to learn and educate employees and actually make a change. Makes me want to know more and find out how can we all bring this workshop into use.”

“This project provoked thought and dialogue through its methodology, demanding interpersonal interaction and participation to understand, empathize, and confront challenges—specifically biases—that exist in the workplace. Recognizing that awareness is the first step to understanding, this work provides a strategic example of using creativity to confront challenges.”

“A project that really pushes the envelope, capturing the times we live in and really making a strong effort to change culture. Look forward to hearing more about this.”

Project Name: Make Some Room—Unconscious Bias Workshop
Design Firm: Second Story, part of Publicis
Client: Publicis
Open Date: April 2017
Photo Credits: Second Story, part of Publicis
Design Team: Farnaz Haghseta (chief diversity officer); Pavani Yalla (creative director and facilitator); David Waingarten (story director and facilitator); Chris DeWan (design director); Kate Farina, Sydney Blount (experience designers and facilitators); Kathryn Beane (story designer and facilitator); Martha Almy (producer); Andy Pruett (technologist)
Consultants: Jason Wells (audio engineer)
Fabricators: Second Story, part of Publicis

New Member Offer

Click to access the 2020 "Never been an SEGD member before" $185 sign up offer

Upcoming SEGD Events

2023 SEGD Academic Summit
2023 Experience Washington D.C.
2023 Branded Environments