Upper body headshot of Evolve host Brandon Stover



Featuring FOUNDER -

Rob Girling

Headshot of podcast host.
hosted by: Brandon Stover
April 2, 2021

Artefact is an award-winning responsible strategy and design firm. They help your organization face the future with confidence and craft the products and experiences that bring your vision to life. Their touchstone is responsible design – creating lasting value for people, business, and society.


  • Projects like the Most Likely Machine (Helping children develop algorithmic literacy), USAfacts (a trustworthy source for civic engagement), and many more
  • Systematic design thinking beyond the end users
  • 30 years inside the tech industry participating in evolution of design thinking towards responsible design
  • Significant movement of tech companies and businesses moving towards human centered design & stakeholder capitalism
  • Named one of Fast Company's Most Innovative Companies, they partner with organizations like Dell, Hyundai, Eli Lilly, Seattle Children's Hospital, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and more.

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The Why

How can we do this better? How could we do responsible innovation, more responsibly?

Artefact believes that design is powerful. It determines how we experience life, and the ways we connect, communicate, and learn. That’s why great design is about more than just beauty or delight. It’s defining the collective future of businesses, customers, and society – and doing it with intention.


Technology has an unintended dark side that harms its users

  • Problems such as polarization, addiction, and disinformation have arisen
  • Technology can exploit its users


Designing human-centered products, services, and systems through a responsible lens

How You Can Help

Take responsibility for the technology, product, and services you create


Rob Girling Interview

Brandon Stover: [00:00:00] Welcome to founder Fridays on evolve a podcast about social entrepreneurs, changing the world. I'm your host, Brandon Stover. And today I'm here with founder, Rob girling. If you're new to the show, occasionally on Fridays, We featured them aspiring founders from our very own evolve community. The rest of the week, we have long form interviews with a variety of social impact founders, visionary leaders, and social enterprise experts, as they share how they built startups that are solving the world's greatest challenges.

Now today's featured. Founder is Rob girling, co-founder and CEO of artifact, which is an award winning responsible strategy and design firm, which helps leaders harness the power of design to make change and do good. Rob, go ahead and introduce yourself and your expertise in human centered design.

Rob Girling: [00:00:48] Yeah. Hi, I'm Rob girling. I'm co-founder and currently CEO artifact. We're a strategy and design consultancy in Seattle. And we help our clients basically think about responsible innovation through the lens of design in designing new products, mostly services. And we're talking about digital products and services primarily that's what we do.

We've been around 14 years. And we're we're hiring.

Brandon Stover: [00:01:17] Nice. Nice. Well, what makes you so passionate about the work that you do? Why do you get up everyday and go to work and do it

Rob Girling: [00:01:24] well? So we've, we've been working for the last four years on something. Which is really a kind of evolution of this human centered design.

I don't know how familiar you are with that, but at the, the idea that design thinking started was that, you know, if we get to know our end users or our customers really understand their motivations, we can do a better job of designing various products and services for them. And that this idea has been out there in the.

Design industry world for a good 15, 20 years now and has become very important. What we're looking at is an evolution of that really which is to say that just focusing on end users. Isn't sufficient in our modern complex society. And as we go forward, you think about the kind of future we want.

We have to think more systemically about the impact we're having with particularly digital products and services. We've seen the impact of social media and it's disruptive kind of echoes in the world. And that's just one example of many of the downsides of our kind of technological innovation. And.

I think the time is right now and what gets me excited every day is getting up and thinking about how can we do this better? How could we do responsible innovation, more responsibly? How can we kind of mitigate some of the downside impacts, foresee them before implementation include a more diverse group of stakeholders in the design of.

And research going into new products and services such that we don't create the kinds of nightmares that we've seen play out over the last five years with, you know, social media and many other examples of kind of how tech has kind of often got this kind of guard dark kind of side effect which whilst it may.

Anyway, that that's what gets me excited every day. Responsible design is still emerging as a concept and pushing a Boulder up a mountain trying to get our head around how to do it better. How do we work with other disciplines include different kinds of voices in the process of designing.

Brandon Stover: [00:03:37] Can you elaborate just a, a little bit on the dark side of the technology and how big of a problem it is just for our listeners to kind of get a clear picture of it?

Rob Girling: [00:03:47] if we look at social media is everybody's favorite example here We look at some of the downside consequences of a house of truth and polarization and addiction.

All of the kind of consequences of these various new platforms that have emerged over the last 10 years. we're really solving, starting to understand and get our head around. These tools are, and their business models are extractive in and not particularly helpful to society in, in yes, at a superficial level, they help us connect to people with like minds, but the consequences of that are that we get extreme polarization and just inflammation and amplification that people who,  have bad intentions.

And we are now living in a very polarized, upsetting kind of environment where the truth is no longer discernible you know, large swaths of our population. And this is a global problem. So, and, and technology design technology technologists are implicated heavily in this.

And the media has. Played a good role in, you know, over the last five years and really trying to hold these, tech companies to account. And we've really seen this come to a head in the last year, obviously, but it's been really an issue for many years. And we've been very concerned trying to, trying to do our part, to work with our clients, to just try and get ahead of these things and, you know, use a combination of different techniques and.

And a wide range of disciplines to try and kind of tackle these complicated issues. I mean, it's definitely reached a fever pitch and if you're unaware, I mean, I'm absolutely happy to share lots of resources about the kind of extent of the damage that some of our tech is doing. I will say that.

I mean, you know, when you invent, as they, as the old saying goes, when you invent the airplane, you invent the plane crash, like all tech, all tech innovation has this kind of consequential impact that sometimes you can foresee you, you can foresee things like plane crashes, if you're reminding an aircraft.

And sometimes they're much harder to see in some of the. Side effects or consequences or impact that social media has had was quite difficult to have predicted. So it's not always as deterministic, as we'd like to believe that the world is a complex place. And exactly how things will play out or is, is very hard to project.

But we can do a better job and there's good reasons to believe design can play an important role in kind of. Bringing the right issues and problem solving. And bringing the right stakeholders together to really make a difference.

Brandon Stover: [00:06:38] Hmm. Yeah, I think the internet and technology, especially the technology we have nowadays is such a recent experiment that we can't even yet foresee all of the implications that it will have.

We're just starting to see some of it that's coming bounds. But I think we still have so much more to learn about it as we keep developing it rapidly, even faster and faster every day.

Rob Girling: [00:07:01] it's kind of a crazy experiment considering the breadth of the impact it's having on the world. It's what, it's a little bit crazy like that we own a little bit more in control of, of what's happening here.

And government plays should play a role here in terms of properly you know, providing the guard rails for these organizations to. Not do the kind of damage they're doing, but you know, they've been kind of wall as a legislative function for a while. And although California and various States are, are, and Europe are doing a great job to try and establish some ground rules, some new ground rules, flu, certainly social media.

Brandon Stover: [00:07:45] Yeah. Well, let's talk about some of your design solutions. I was first turned on to your company. By the most likely machine. But when I went there, I seen you had lots of different things around human centered design and trying to create better technology. So share some of those solutions that you guy has, have created.

Rob Girling: [00:08:03] Yeah. Well, the most likely machine it was an internal project. So that's work. We do sometimes to put our point of view out into the world, or just sort of like to exercise our creative muscle and what that project was about was helping teenagers understand. Huh. Algorithms have become kind of so determined deterministic of our future in terms of how and, and the, and the unseen problem there is how biased algorithms are.

They're really, algorithms are often just a reflection of the creator's kind of biases in some ways. even in machine learning, as we all know that the data set that trains the algorithms that informs machine learning decision-making either prediction or classification is often flawed by virtue of the training datasets.

So that, so for example, you know if you're a person of color and the training set was predominantly photographs of white people then it does a bad job of understanding people of color. It won't, it won't classify them correctly and so forth. So yeah. Just try to capture the complexity of how algorithms are reinforcing bias in our society was what we tried to do with that project.

So what it does is basically allows kids to become a kind of algorithm and, and train and see their own biases play out as they as they classify a few things. And so it's a fun little tool. It was designed sort of as a discreet little app and you can. You can go play with that on our, off our website.

And I encourage people to say we've actually had some really great response from teachers. We developed it with teachers in mind, a specific users to help, you know, as a, as a sort of classroom tool to help them you know have have some resources to sort of teach algorithm advice.

Brandon Stover: [00:09:58] Yeah, I think that's amazing at being able to bring awareness to those kids about their own biases, because that's exactly how, you know, we're programming do this technology to magnify whatever we have as a belief or a value and whatnot, and putting it into this and spreading it across the world. So we have to catch it ourselves first, before we start putting it in the technology.

Rob Girling: [00:10:20] Yeah, that's right. And our work is typically. We worked with two, two different kinds of clients. There was kind of the tech companies. We actually do engage with quite a lot of large tech companies to develop next generation products, including startups. We've been working with a startup, which I can't name, unfortunately, but their their specific mandate is to try and help.

Business entrepreneurs BiPAP, you know black indigenous people of color entrepreneurs get funding. So there's a kind of community business orientation to this startup and they're trying to help those entrepreneurs create a network of shared resources. It can help them be successful.

So, I mean, that's kind of another example of us trying to just do things responsibly there's. So there's those kinds of companies that are, I guess, oriented to try and do good at by mission or purpose. And then there is philanthropy. We do quite a lot of work with large philanthropic organizations including the world bank, for example, or working with them.

The Gates foundation and other foundations. And and then there's the sort of tech core, which is, they're less inclined to think of themselves as doing good or having good in good out, you know, that the mission isn't necessarily aligned to doing good in the world, but we're trying to bring that kind of mission into how they design at least so that they can have positive.

Brandon Stover: [00:11:52] How much have you seen companies moving towards this human centered design approach and adopting this as it becomes more and more prevalent?

Rob Girling: [00:12:00] Well, it's, kind of an exciting time in that respect. I think 2019 pre COVID The business round table in the U S got, you know, 180 odd CEOs to sign a declaration about the how corporate purpose is changing and how they should be responsible.

They called it stakeholder capitalism. And there isn't a really good shared definition of what that means, but basically as opposed to shareholder capitalism, which was really. The previous world we've been in for most of our lives which was predominantly oriented to short term benefits for equity holders.

Stakeholder capitalism really looks at a broader set of impact about how employees and vendors and community are impacted by the, activities of a corporation. And what all of these CEOs declared was that they're going to now start prioritizing doctors there. And now this is, this seems it could be that this is all, you know, some kind of washing blue washing, greenwashing, whatever you want to call it to make, The reputations of these organizations more squeaky clean.

If, if we're cynical, I think we, we can see that, but the, historically this is actually a big, significant change. And the discourse that like the world economic forum and various centers of power and in the capitalist system, I guess, are really changing the tune about the impact of. Corporations in the future and what they want to do now.

So it's a significant change. And I do see what designers are doing as being complimentary to this. Like we're trying to do things more responsibility, trying to bring different stakeholders together, to do what we do differently at an innovation level.

Brandon Stover: [00:13:56] Yeah, I think it's an important time, because even like, when we started thinking about sustainability companies would often be doing campaigns where they're just greenwashing saying that they're doing something, but not actually doing it.

Although that, that at that time that, you know, wasn't that great. It has pushed them to start doing better practices because. We're being incentivized by the public and by customers that they want these sorts of things. So I feel like it's the same type of movement now where yes. Maybe they are not fully embracing it, but they're going to have to start to do that because they're being demanded of it by the customers and users of these products.

Rob Girling: [00:14:35] Yeah. And I think we're seeing generational dynamics play out too. Certainly black lives matter. And, and this what's going on currently with Amazon and the creation of unions. These are, these are attempts to, I think, shift the, put pressure on the C-suite in large tech and large corporate.

To see that employees rights the impact that organizations are having on the environment the impact they're having on communities in terms of inequities that they're creating in terms of you know, home prices and. Just sort of wealth creation dispropor, you know, inequitable wealth creation.

All of these things are, are like sort of negatively reflecting on these organizations and they really do have to start taking this stuff seriously. And another great example is  black rock, the investment group, which. You know, was responsible for six or $7 trillion of investments in, the stock market.

I mean, their leader has been repeatedly saying for years that organizations need to start thinking more broadly about their impact and be held accountable and they will stop investing in organizations that don't adhere to some Set a set of beliefs and they're fairly progressive from a form.

I kind of, you know, looking from the perspective of traditional corporate America, sibling,

Brandon Stover: [00:16:05] where do you see the growth opportunity for this in the next 10, 20 years

Rob Girling: [00:16:11] for responsible innovation? Yes. Yeah. Well, I, I hope, I mean, this is, this is all bound up in a. Set of beliefs I have about the world that over time society tends to try to correct its its kind of excessively bad outcomes.

We are part of some slow, but corrective. Fixing that is gone on.  I've been around 30 years and in this sort of around the tech industry, up until about 2015, it was kind of the gold rush days. It was like, let's just invent the F a tech will save everything, you know, and it was just like a kind of giddy time to be a designer.

We were designing some crazy things that were kind of. In hindsight kind of irresponsible and not terribly well thought through, we just sort of imagined the world would continue to just, you know, down that sort of path. And I think since about 2015, when we sort of started to sort of see the impact of these things negatively in the world, we, we changed our tune to be like, Wow.

This could really end up badly and weak. We're on a path here. That's really not that good. And wow. Do we really want that kind of outcome in the future? Do we really want that kind of future? And you just sort of do a little bit of extra, you know, extrapolation out into the future and you kind of, this could really go badly.

And I'm I'm for example, really worried about automation and joblessness and wealth, inequity, and sustainability of. Of our current kind of systems and, and, we really have to try to do what we can now to, to sort of fix that. I do believe that people are waking up to this, but like are increasingly engaged in trying to be part of the solution.

And I mean, we just saw her like suddenly around black lives matter for example, is that Is it just as sort of a tipping point moment for, the kind of site guys to change around like inclusion, like, yeah, we just got to do this differently. Goddammit. I'm sick and tired of like, we're not, you know, we're not able to fix these things without deliberate effort.

So I think we're on the cusp of some real significant change. I think COVID is, an accelerant for that change. Meaning I think we're just gonna. Come out the other end of this kind of like questioning a lot of things that previously just seemed intractable or just like take, we took the grounded and I think growing awareness of climate change and the urgency we have around that, it's just another kind of level.

So I'm, I'm very optimistic that we will fix a lot of the kind of excessive negativity. That's. Been created through the tech certainly and through bad design in the last decade or so.  but it'll take, it'll take a while to fix. I mean, it's not, these are not simple things to just correct.

Brandon Stover: [00:19:11] Right. Yeah. What's been the biggest struggle for you as a founder or as a designer right now in your company.

Rob Girling: [00:19:18] Biggest struggle. So we've been, as I said, kind of on a mission to become responsible designers and really examine what does that mean and deconstruct that, and then try to basically build, okay, here in set of tools and methods and beliefs about what that means.

And. You've seen in my conversation today where it's kind of sprawl all over the place from talking about climate change, black lives matter and social media and set of problems we're facing are so kind of complex. In many ways. It can feel a little bit hard to be making any progress. You're just sort of like flailing around a little bit.

Now I have to say, when we get engaged in the design of a thing, it all the rubber meets the road. And we, we really are able to ask ourselves precise, ethical questions.  but I have to say it's been a difficult path to be on. We felt like pioneers here, which is a little bit like looking for others in the community who are doing great work and there.

huge numbers of people that merging with little bits of kind of help that are pieced together into a kind of network of tools. But it's been, I have to say it is sort of foggy, right? You feel like pioneer, it's kind of like, it's not super clear where you're going and Sometimes hard to see the progress, you know in terms of measurable gains.

So it's, it's sometimes a little bit it's heartening.    we still run across the old school tech community from time to time or business community where. They're just not aware of any of this discourse. And you're just kind of like, wow, where, where, what world are you in? Are you under a rock right now?

Or different place. Yeah. And, and you find yourself kind of having to explain sort of like, well understood to be significant challenges or problems. And, and you're just sort of like speaking to avoid a little bit.  You have to Keep your focus on long-term change. Nothing, nothing changes quickly and you know, impact. I mean, well, there are these moments in society where there are kind of tipping points where you get these sudden changes. I think that that are quite encouraging. But from the span of one's career, I mean, we're talking about, as you said, decades long change here and not sort of like overnight fixing of, you know, Clear problems.

Brandon Stover: [00:21:41] For those that want to be on the leading edge of this and could possibly work with you, where's the best place to get in contact to find everything that you guys are about.

Rob Girling: [00:21:50] Yeah, well, www artifact group.com is our website. We're part of something called all tech is human which is a effort out of New York, which is all about bringing together a community of responsible innovators.

All tech is human.org is a great resource for the community at large but you can find me personally, I write for Forbes on responsible design. So you can look me up on the Forbes website is Robert girling and see a bunch of articles I've written on responsible design over the last year or so.

reach out and, and let's connect because we are trying to build a network and of, of people of like-minded people who are trying to make responsible innovation a reality for corporate America.

Brandon Stover: [00:22:36] Love that. Well, thank you so much, Rob, for coming on the show today and sharing everything that you have.

Rob Girling: [00:22:40] Thank you, Brandon. It was, it was great talking to you.

Brandon Stover: [00:22:43] That was Rob girling co-founder and CEO of artifact. As a reminder, if you want to hear some more inspiring and purpose-driven founders just like Rob then subscribed to the evolve podcast right now, it takes only 15 seconds. And in return you will hear variety of social impact founders, visionary leaders, and social enterprise experts, as they share how they built startups that are solving the world's greatest challenges.

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