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Jenny Baker
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Making I-O Visible: Applying Design Thinking to Grassroots Visibility Efforts

Sevelyn J. VanRonk, Gordon B. Schmidt, Amelia C. Do, Shavonne U. Holman, Macy E. Cheeks, Sayeed Islam, Lisa M. Kath, & William P. Jimenez

Although the industrial and organizational (I-O) psychology community is becoming more visible each year, our capabilities are still misunderstood and underrated. If people do not know what we do or how we can help, they will not utilize our skill sets. As written by Ryan (2003, p. 28) “We need to make some inroads toward educating the general public about who we are because anyone who works can and will be affected by what we do.”

There are many traditional pathways by which people might be informed about I-O psychology, such as textbooks, classroom instruction, SIOP white papers, journal articles, SIOP videos, and SIOP newsletters. These pathways are important but are far from complete in their reach. People would either need to be enrolled in a class (AP Psych, introductory psychology) or already know about SIOP to get access to much of this information. Further, these traditional pathways are often text heavy, may assume a base level of knowledge, and can be intimidating to nonacademic audiences.

Evidence shows that we can improve how we represent ourselves to those outside of our community. In their study, Nolan et al. (2014) found that people (N = 215) were less familiar with I-O psychology compared to business administration and HR management. Gasser et al. (2004) urge I-Os to move beyond word of mouth and brochures as the typical way to advertise I-O psychology. One might have expected social media efforts to have made greater visibility strides. However, in their Google search, Twitter, and Instagram analysis of I-O’s digital presence, Armstrong et al. (2020) discovered that I-O does not have a consolidated digital name/abbreviation. It is evident that we need to continue utilizing creative methods to connect with the general public.

This article will consider three very different I-O-related outreach efforts (My Mommy is an Organizational Psychologist, Blacks in I/O, and I-O psych memes) from the design-thinking approach. The approach can help us consider how to implement and improve future I-O outreach efforts.

Design Thinking

Over the past few decades, design thinking has garnered much attention as a solution-driven process, renowned for its ability to promote innovation across industries. Design thinking has been defined as a multistep process that focuses on strategies that address the issues of a targeted population (Dam & Siang, 2020). Its goal is to understand the target population so that the product and services being developed best suit their needs. The design-thinking framework was first popularized in industrial settings but has more recently been applied to education, medical settings, and organizational development (Foster, 2019). Although there are varying models of design thinking, the most popular is the five-stage model proposed by the Hasso-Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford University (Dam & Siang, 2020). This model has five stages:

  1. Empathize. Developers should approach the issue with an empathetic understanding. By empathizing with the target population, a developer will gain a deeper perspective of their issue and their needs.
  2. Define. Developers begin collecting information that was identified during the empathizing stage. Information that has been collected will allow the team to define the specific problems of the target population.
  3. Ideate. Based on the understanding of the target population from the empathizing stage and through identification of specific problems, developers can now begin coming up with solutions.
  4. Prototype. Developers can now work to pilot their solutions. This can include creating models or implementing strategic plans. During this stage, feedback on models and plans may be solicited from experts then revised and improved for efficiency.
  5. Test. Developers begin testing their product or service on the intended population. At this stage, developers may return to any of the previous stages to improve the product or service.

Although design thinking is presented in a sequential format, it should not be thought of as a sequential process. The ability to start at any stage of design thinking to improve a product or service provides many advantages. Its utility allows it to be applied to any situation and allows for a population-focused problem-solving approach (Razzouk & Shute, 2012). We believe the approach it provides is beneficial in understanding existing I-O outreach, with an eye toward improving future outreach.

We now present three current outreach initiatives as case studies. The people in those initiatives discuss their outreach efforts using the design-thinking approach and lessons they have learned. Although the founders of these outreach efforts did not directly use design thinking during the creation of their work, they intuitively leveraged design thinking to some extent. Further, they believe this framework can be useful for other I-Os looking to create their own visibility work.

Case Study #1: My Mommy is an Organizational Psychologist

My Mommy is an Organizational Psychologist was written by Sevelyn VanRonk, PhD candidate, and illustrated by Blake Beckmann, MA. Her illustrative book takes concepts in our field such as training, teamwork, leadership, mentorship, selection, and creativity, and depicts them in a digestible and fun way. Although the represented topics may not be a comprehensive list of what an I-O practitioner can do, it is a good snapshot of ways I-Os can help people at work. Since publishing in January of 2020, she has sold over 200 copies of the book, has over 700 followers on Instagram, and is referenced in a Psychology Today article by Ron Riggio.

Step #1: Empathize

Sevelyn was inspired to write this book after attending an after-school program for first graders on career day. The students were eager to learn about I-O, yet she found it difficult to use age-appropriate examples. She realized that many I-Os likely have a difficult time communicating their work to adults, let alone children. This is step one of design thinking—research your users’ needs. Currently, the field lacks simple tools to explain the work of a practitioner. Many I-Os look for non-jargon ways to describe their work to family, friends, and strangers.

Step #2: Define

Step 2 of design thinking is to clearly state the problem. One way to do this is to create a problem statement. For this team, the problem statement was quite simple: “I am an I-O practitioner, and I have a hard time describing what I do.”

Step #3: Ideate

Once you have clearly identified the need, you can brainstorm solutions. Sevelyn used to study child development, so the idea of a children’s book immediately came to her mind as a solution. What examples would be relatable for children? What topics in I-O could easily (although not extensively) be represented? These were the conversations she had with her illustrator, I-O colleagues, and her friends.

Step #4: Prototype

Where they spent the majority of their time was in Step 4, the prototyping phase. Her illustrator would create simple sketches for her to review (Image 1). At this point Sevelyn started a PowerPoint with the noncolored images and associated text (Image 2).










Image 1. Initial sketch











Image 2. PowerPoint draft

Step #5: Test

After having a prototype, it was time for Step 5: the feedback. Sevelyn brought her prototype to her graduate school lab for feedback on the images, topics, and wording. The hardest page in the entire book was figuring out how to have the organizational psychologist explain her work in one sentence. The main point of design thinking is to create rapid prototypes, get feedback, and make improvement—it is an iterative process (Image 3).












Image 3. Final illustration in book


There are two lessons Sevelyn and her team learned that they would like to share with you: (a) have a realistic timeline, and (b) build a supportive and experienced team. When Sevelyn had initially thought of this idea, she expected it to “be a fun summer project.” In reality, it took over 18 months from start to finish. Realizing that your first draft/prototype is unlikely to be your final version is a key insight into design thinking. In fact, the iterative process is what helps you arrive at a better final product. So be patient, map out a reasonable timeline, and be prepared to create and re-create until it is just right. Finding the right team members is everything! Sevelyn and Blake hired a consultant and a graphic designer to help them through the process. They had no idea what it would take to get their script and illustrations put together in a way that is publishable. From buying ISBNs to securing copyrights to flipping images to make the storyline work better, having people with experience is a worthwhile investment.

Case Study #2: Blacks in I/O Psychology (BIOP)

Shavonne Holman, MPS, and Macy Cheeks, MS, are the cofounders of Blacks in I/O Psychology (BIOP). In 2019, they created a professional-networking and learning association that aims to build minority pipelines and increase awareness of I-O psychology at minority-serving educational institutions nationwide. With over 1,000 followers on their Instagram account and 1,500 I-Os on their email listserv, BIOP has catapulted into the position of leading I-O affinity group.

Step #1: Empathize

As the framework suggests, empathizing with the audience was very important to the success of BIOP. In fact, Macy and Shavonne were able to empathize best with their target population, because they were their target population. Their first-hand experiences served as the inspiration for BIOP because they understood what their target audience needed. For example, Macy and Shavonne recalled what it was like to come from a noteworthy undergraduate university but still feel less knowledgeable or less prepared for their I-O graduate studies compared to their White counterparts who came in with more I-O experience/exposure. From shared experiences like these, the BIOP founders were easily able to identify the need for exposure to I-O psychology in minority-serving institutions, which became one of their overarching goals of the organization.

Step #2: Define

After launching a LinkedIn local group, they were able to clearly define the problem of their target audience. There was an appetite for a professional networking space for Black I-O psychologists, practitioners, and students. They found that there was a community experiencing the same hardships that they faced. What started as a local networking group for the DC, Maryland, and Virginia area, where Macy and Shavonne reside, blossomed into a worldwide network of minority I-O psychologists and allies who wanted more tangible experiences from the BIOP community.

Step #3: Ideate

Interest in BIOP grew quickly. Macy and Shavonne needed to strategize how to accommodate innovative ideas that were proposed while also staying true to their vision for the organization. They administered a survey to further understand the needs of their target population and devised solutions based on survey responses to not only serve local Black I-Os but a now growing, worldwide group of Black I-Os and allies.

Step #4: Prototype

Macy and Shavonne started to explore different aspects of the problems identified to uncover meaningful solutions. They had the unique ability to prototype different methods of engagement and offer these experiential events to the community in real time. Solutions started as in-person networking events (Image 4) but quickly grew to educational seminars and virtual events that yielded over 800+ registrants (Image 5). Like many others, Shavonne and Macy were impacted by the pandemic and quickly had to pivot their efforts, brainstorminging solutions to offset the lack of face-to-face engagement. They added content to their website such as a student resources page, a job board, and member spotlights.










Image 4. In-person networking event










Image 5. Virtual events

During the pandemic, Macy and Shavonne started to receive an influx of requests on ways to get involved with BIOP and partnership requests. To properly handle these requests, they created five committees addressing their most pressing needs and opportunities. As these committees grew to a cohort of 50+ volunteers, there was a need to formally identify the specific community in which they served. Who were BIOP’s members? After brainstorming ideas and prototyping solutions, BIOP released their formal membership structure on October 16, 2020. This solution offered BIOP the ability to identify the needs of members and allies. The support and feedback received has been overwhelming.

Step #5: Test

BIOP is inspired to do this work to promote a nationwide understanding of the unique experiences that African Americans face in the workplace and serve as a vehicle to enable conversations and evidence-based solutions. Design thinking is a cyclical process; Shavonne and Macy are still working with their organization to prototype and test. This process of feedback and improvement has helped them grow their company and serve many I-Os. The BIOP movement stands as a representation of a changing attitude in the I-O psychology field and has inspired other community groups to mobilize (e.g., Latinos in I/O).

There are two tips Macy and Shavonne would like to share with you. (a) Ask for the help you require and take the help that is offered early on. For example, BIOP created committees (i.e., social media outreach, business development) to delegate tasks critical to their success. Having help was crucial for Macy and Shavonne when gathering ideas and exploring solutions to problems. (b) Do not lose sight of your original vision. Early on, many BIOP advisors shared their opinions on where the group should focus their efforts. Oftentimes, their ideas were not in line with the authenticity, vision, mission, and goals set out for BIOP.  It is important to be open to innovative ideas in the prototyping process, but stay committed and focused on the direction of your organization.

Case Study #3: I-O Psych Memes

Lisa Kath, PhD, started making memes about I-O psychology for outreach purposes and posting them to accounts (@iopsychmemes) on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook. Since November 2019, these accounts have gathered over 5,000 followers across platforms, reaching high school students, business professionals, and existing I-O psychologists.

Step #1: Empathize

I-O psychology’s branding has been under scrutiny for many decades (Gasser et al., 2004; Lefkowitz, 2010). How many times have we been met with blank stares when we say we are I-O psychologists? How often are practitioners frustrated about organizations’ resistance to implementing science-based initiatives (Islam et al., 2018)? This lack of implementation of I-O-psychological science into practice characterizes the scientist–practice gap, with lack of knowledge of the field keeping people from the valuable insights we offer (Kurtessis et al., 2017). By considering our users’ needs, I-O psychologists can increase awareness of the field and help bridge the science–practice gap. 

Step #2: Define

Using the second step of design thinking, there are two major problems to be addressed: (a) increasing awareness about what we do, and (b) communicating I-O psychology ideas in a clear, concise, and engaging manner. Whether it is a graduate student explaining the field to their family or an I-O practitioner explaining a concept to a client, this communication piece is a real challenge requiring an innovative response.

Step #3: Ideate

One innovative way to present I-O psychology material may be Internet memes.

An Internet meme is a “unit of information . . . , which replicates by passing on via Internet (e-mail, chat forum, social networks, etc.) in the shape of a hyper-link, video, image, or phrase” (Castaño Díaz, 2013, p. 9). Memes have become a common part of Internet communication and express ideas in a fun, accessible way.

Lisa saw her oldest kid making memes about technical theater, and she found them to be interesting, informative, and memorable. This gave her the idea that memes may provide a unique opportunity to present serious I-O ideas through amusing images, often from well-known popular culture productions or personalities. Political campaigns, social movements, and educators have successfully used memes to communicate ideas to their audiences. Although some criticize the use of memes as unprofessional, if we are truly looking to innovate, we may need to meet our users halfway and try to create evidence-based content that is more engaging. Given the popularity of memes, the meme could be a format that makes I-O more comprehensible and accessible.

Step #4: Prototype

In the prototyping phrase, Lisa learned to make memes from her kid, and then shared the memes with her graduate students. They encouraged her to start an Instagram account for sharing the memes with the public. A couple of days later, she started accounts on Twitter and Facebook, developing a process for making and posting memes daily (for examples, see Image 6 and 7).  










Image 6. Meme example 1                                                          








Image 7. Meme example 2




Step #5: Test

So far, there have only been anecdotal accounts of the memes’ success in accomplishing the problems identified in Step 2. Based on user reports, the memes on these accounts have been seen (and shared) by I-O and non-I-O practitioners, educators, college students, and even those in high school taking AP Psychology. Jimenez et al. (2020) analyzed some of the patterns of what memes were well shared, but more analysis is needed to ascertain what resonates best. Anecdotes indicate that memes are memorable and accessible to those interested in sharing our science. 

Their lessons learned that can be applied to other outreach efforts can be found in the meme below (Image 8).












Image 8. Recommendations for outreach efforts


As you can see from the case studies above, each offers a creative way to deal with a unique problem related to outreach and I-O psychology. By thinking of each of these initiatives from the design-thinking approach, we can see potential considerations for future outreach on how to be successful. We hope these examples spark ideas for your own future I-O outreach efforts. I-O psychology has a lot to offer, but we cannot fulfill our potential to those who do not know our field. We need to go out there and present ourselves in ways that are creative and help understanding of what I-O psychology is all about!



Armstrong, B., Schmidt, G. B., Islam, S., Jimenez, W. P., & Knudsen, E. (2020). Searching for I-O psychology: How practitioners, academics, and laypeople engage with the I-O brand online. The Industrial-Organizational Psychologist, 57. https://www.siop.org/Research-Publications/Items-of-Interest/ArtMID/19366/ArticleID/3300

Castaño Díaz, C. M. (2013). Defining and characterizing the concept of internet meme. CES Psicología, 6, 82–104. http://www.scielo.org.co/scielo.php?script=sci_arttext&pid=S2011-30802013000200007

Dam, R., & Siang, T. (2020). What is design thinking and why is it so popular? Interaction Design Foundation. Retrieved October 05, 2020, from https://www.interaction-design.org/literature/article/what-is-design-thinking-and-why-is-it-so-popular

Foster, M. K. (2019). Design thinking: A creative approach to problem solving. Management Teaching Review. https://doi.org/10.1177/2379298119871468

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Islam, S., Lahti, K., & Chetta M. H. (2018). Research partnerships between academics and consulting firms: A stakeholder analysis. Industrial and Organizational Psychology 11(4), 596-605.

Jimenez, W. P., Kath, L. M., Islam, S., & Schmidt, G. B. (2020). I-O can has meme? Using memes to engage others with I-O psychology content. The Industrial-Organizational Psychologist, 58. https://www.siop.org/Research-Publications/Items-of-Interest/ArtMID/19366/ArticleID/4594

Kurtessis, J., Waters, S., Alonso, A., Jones, J., & Oppler, S. (2017). Traditional science–practice research in I-O: Are we missing the trees for the forest? Industrial and Organizational Psychology, 10(4), 570-576. doi:10.1017/iop.2017.57Lefkowitz, Joel. (2010). Industrial‐organizational psychology's recurring identity crises: It's a values issue! Industrial and Organizational Psychology 3, 293-299. 10.1111/j.1754-9434.2010.01243.x.

Nolan, K. P., Islam A., & Quartarone, M. (2014). The influence of vocational training on the brand images of organizational consultants. Psychologist-Manager Journal, 17, 245–278.

Razzouk, R., & Shute, V. (2012). What is design thinking and why is it important? Review of Educational Research, 82(3), 330–348. https://doi.org/10.3102/0034654312457429

Ryan, A. M. (2003). Defining ourselves: I–O psychology’s identity quest. The Industrial–Organizational Psychologist, 41, 21–33.

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