Spotlight - 12/11/23

A Q&A with Participatory Design Expert Ranee Lee

12 min

By Meghan Day

A Q&A with Participatory Design Expert Ranee Lee

Spotlight articles shine a light on designers and design materials we admire. Our founder and principal designer Rebeccah Pailes-Friedman has met many wonderful designers in her time in the industry, and in our Spotlight interviews we ask them about their work, their design journey, and what inspires them. In this interview we spoke with Ranee Lee, an industrial designer, design educator, and participatory design expert with a focus on community-centered and non-profit design. She is a professor at Ontario College of Art & Design University, where her innovative curricula help students stay engaged and connected to the real world. She is also the founder of DESIGNwith, a collective that transforms communities by democratizing design. We asked her about the draw of participatory design, her experiences in non-profit design, and how to design for disruption.

Ranee Lee, Industrial Designer
Photo courtesy of Ranee Lee.

Q: You have a Master’s in education on participatory design framework, a powerful form of collaborative design. Could you explain what participatory design is and why you were drawn to it? How is participatory design distinct from cross-disciplinary design and other forms of collaborative design?

A: As designers, we’ve got a design process, and you specifically invite those with specialized skills at a certain juncture of that process. That’s not how participatory design works. For me, working in communities where folks are marginalized and as a university professor, there’s a power imbalance that is already there, whether you like it or not. Moving my practice methodology into participatory design was really a way to flatten that teaching and learning. I think participatory design is slower and probably more uncomfortable, it takes the control out of our hands as designers. But I think the positives outweigh the negatives. It’s slower, but I think the upside of it is that I am able to invite participants from the community who are not familiar with the design process. They are not trained as designers but they have skill sets and lived experiences that allow us to create a more equitable future through design. 

Participatory design for me personally is what’s worked. I was trained as a traditional product designer. As I started taking a community-centered approach and tackling more wicked problems, this methodology of participatory design put me in a position to be okay not knowing everything, and to rely on people’s lived experiences and knowledge to also guide the learning process. Learning shifts that power. I love it even more because I end up learning far more in design projects than I would have if I’d had more control. All in all, it’s been a great collaborative methodology. I have to say that the timing piece is not as neat and tidy as we would like it to be as designers, but that’s okay.

Q: Could you share an example of a participatory design project that has meaning for you?

A: I think all participatory design projects have so much meaning because of the nature of the process. It allows people to bring their whole selves into projects and, by doing that, you learn about them. You learn about their lives, and allowing those stories to be told is what helps to bring the project meaning. I love it best when the narratives themselves start to inform the project, but that takes time and trust. I don’t think there’s a formula that I could share. People always say, It’s so beautiful what you’ve created but how do you do that? To me it’s a relationship, and it requires a much longer time frame. 

We actually had a workshop here at DESIGNwith recently. We invited a like-minded design company from Costa Rica to do work here, that was the premise of the workshop. I love my workshops to be made up of different types of people. You have these middle-aged immigrant women from Regent Park, which is this area in Toronto that is being revitalized, along with young students, sitting side by side. When the person running the workshop asks, Anyone have any questions? For one of the Regent Park women to just jump up and have a question, that is the result of a whole year of working at DESIGNwith, building the creative confidence to own this place and feel comfortable asking questions. We opened in June of 2022 and I had never seen that side of her before now. So, it takes a long time.

I’m actually wearing this necklace that Rafia made for me. Rafia is one of the women we work with here. This is a simple design that came out of the question, How do we use fabric scraps to make a necklace? I love it because she noticed that I wear a lot of black and white, and she gathered black and white fabrics secretly, which took her months. One day, she came up to me and said, I made you something. I cherish this because this is from my daughter’s dress and I saved it, and this is from my neighbor. It was like a story of her life and a necklace that she made me. And to me, this is an outcome of participatory design. It empowers these women to have the creative confidence to express and share their ideas. They come here, to a space like this, and feel like they have agency. As much as we do as designers.

Q: You have said that you see design as a tool for disruption and response, which we love. How does this attitude influence your design practice? How does it influence your teaching practice?

A: As designers, we’re trained problem solvers. I tell students, that’s just the inherent nature of a problem: where there are problems, there are opportunities. I would say that my design practice is deeply rooted in these opportunities.

My work with the women in Regent Park started in 2015. And this lab only opened last year, but that was rooted in an opportunity, because the city of Toronto came up with this document called the Poverty Reduction Strategy. As a designer I was reading this document, thinking, Prosperity for all, that sounds really nice and it’s in this really nice font, but how are we actually including everyone in this? I’m not in policy design but I’m an industrial designer. How do I impact poverty reduction through making? That’s how this whole idea started. To me, there are always opportunities in these problems, and the biggest opportunities come out of the biggest disruptions. We all know the biggest disruption recently has been the pandemic. This opportunity of having a design lab in the middle of Toronto is one of those stories. It was me teaching a design class in my basement and thinking, How do I get out of my basement? I saw the shift in the retail landscape and the storefronts in my own neighborhood started to close. And I thought, maybe there’s an opportunity for space. I approached Canada’s largest property owner and gave them a proposal for a design lab that aligned with the “transforming communities” mandate, and to me that opportunity came out of a disruption. When there are disruptions in our world, people are more open to changes and new ideas. They’re like, We have nothing to lose.

I also embed this into my teaching, which means that it makes a lot more work for me as an educator. I don’t recycle anything. All my projects are new every year because the way I look at it the world changes. What was relevant last year, it’s not relevant this year. There are new opportunities this year. I think that when students see me bring what they see in the world into the classroom, it challenges them to tackle it in their own projects. I don’t believe in educators who have the whole year planned and just publish all their lectures from week one to week 13. I am changing my lecture slides the day before and bringing in what I read in the news because I think design is a response. We need to respond as designers to the world around us, and I bring that challenge into my own teaching practice. I think that challenges students to also respond to the world around them.

Q: In 2010 you co-founded Thinking Forward, a charity focusing on anti-bullying and character education programs for youth. Could you talk about your transition into non-profit design work? What was the catalyst for that transition?

A: I have to say, I’m in so many interviews and not many people actually ask this question. I see life as a scaffold, you know what I mean? So in 2010, I had a four year old and a one year old. I started brainstorming with my partner. His work is in leadership development and I’m an industrial designer. We had young kids. One was about to go into school. I believe in the public school system. I do not believe in private schools but we started to see gaps in the school system, and that the idea of character development was something that the Toronto District School Board could embrace. Just to give you an idea, this is the largest school board in Canada, and it’s the fourth largest in North America. So it’s massive. And Toronto is also very diverse. I think it’s one of the most diverse cities in the world in terms of how many nationalities are represented. So, it was a values-based question, How do we get people from opposite sides of the world to come together in a school? There was an opportunity. Seeing opportunities in these in-between spaces is what I feel like, as designers, we’re quite good at. So, we felt called to do this thing. We were in our 30s and realized, If we’re not gonna do this now, when are we gonna do this? We’re not gonna do this in our 60s, right? So, obviously it meant a lifestyle change. 

Looking back, it was thrilling on our end. It was an opportunity; we saw that we could make an impact that way. It was not an employment thing. We designed the curriculum and we had staff to run it while we had our own regular jobs. So for us, it was a passion. It was a huge side hustle. As of last year it was acquired by a local charity that has been running for a hundred years. To me, that was the biggest compliment ever, that they wanted to take over the work that we were doing. We just got too busy, too. Our kids are now 17 and 14, life is so different now.  It was a way to design a unique curriculum that we called Leadership. We asked, How do we use art-space leadership to combat bullying? As an industrial designer, I loved engaging students who are otherwise not engaged in school. After hands-on, play-type learning, you’re able to then teach other things.

Q: More recently, you founded DESIGNwith, a design incubator that supports local communities. Could you talk about how that project came about and the work you are doing there?

A: DESIGNwith opened in June of 2022 but, like I said, my relationship goes back to 2015. I approached Cadillac Fairview, who owns CF Toronto Eaton Center, Toronto’s busiest Mall. I think 50 million people walk through a year; almost as many as Times Square, which is crazy. They donated the space. When I first approached them I said, On your website, you speak of “transforming communities for a vibrant tomorrow.” I have a really tangible project that just requires space. That’s how this partnership came about; working with a group of thoughtful corporate folks who could imagine what this lab could be for the community. They renovated the space for me and we’ve designed it to have huge windows, which were salvaged from an Ann Taylor storefront. That’s key to democratizing design: it needs to be accessible. People need to see it. Did I always think I wanted to be in a mall? No, it just so happened that they owned a mall. I took whatever space they gave me. But, after being here a year, I think it is the perfect place. Where do you go when it’s so hot in the summer and you have no air conditioning at home? You go to the mall. When we talk about access, giving design to everyday people, where are these people? They’re at the mall, is what I’ve learned. So, it was a happy accident. I’d love to say that I had this in my mind and planned it, but no.

DESIGNwith is…Let’s just say a chair. There are so many times we look at chairs. People have no idea how it’s made. Is it injection  molded? We know, because we’re industrial designers. Everything here, even down to our furniture, is what we have designed it to be: a manifestation of our concept. So the chair itself is made out of lumber from your local Home Depot. Dimensional number, is what it’s called. So the idea was that and using only straight cuts. We gave ourselves really strict parameters to be able to showcase what DESIGNwith is visually. When people see through the window, they already go, There’s something different about this place. There’s our stool, and then on our wall is an exploded version of the stool, so it’s open source. You can go get your wood cut at Home Depot and learn to make it. I believe that it’s in that learning and making that you gain creative confidence. 

Going back to how long it takes to do community development; it took a whole year for someone to feel comfortable enough to ask questions. But it’s also in the making and doing that the everyday person participates in this design process, and they gradually gain confidence. They learn to dismantle, they learn to recycle, they learn to reuse. I would say the biggest mandate at DESIGNwith is that it’s designed for social innovation while also being within the circular economy. That means that all of the materials we use here have been discarded. All of these materials are destined for the landfill. 

We also design things into templates, so everyday people can then do the project. It’s like baby steps. Everything is down to template, and all of the materials are upcycled. Not only are people learning to make something, they’re learning that, My goodness, this material was from that banner on the street outside! And while they learn to make, they are also learning to fix, another design principle for circular design. They are learning to disassemble. They are learning to care, right? And remanufacture an old material into new material. It’s a bit magical because I think the designers who get drawn into this space, where you want to share, are a pretty special group of people.

Q: Do you see your design concept as possible to expand? Could it be grown in other places by other people?

A: It’s a question I’ve been thinking about myself. We were invited as far as Oslo, Norway to talk about this idea, because people are fascinated with it. There’s this Venn diagram that outlines sources of creativity in our world, and the areas are academia, corporations, and community coming together. The middle is the sweet spot of DESIGNwith. I think we’ve developed the framework. I want to spend this next year to flesh out that framework so that it can be implemented in other localities. A recipe for success, if you’re working with marginalized groups of people, is that it needs to be accessible for them. I’m a kilometer away from Regent Park, and I’m another kilometer away from the university. That location is very strategic.

I think it could be replicated. People from Philly contacted me after the conference, saying, My gosh, this needs to happen in our city! And I’m thinking, Of course it needs to! There are all of these resources but we are all in silos. If there’s something that climate change and wildfires are teaching us, it’s that we can no longer be in silos. We need to work together. I think DESIGNwith is a real example of what it’s like to work together: we accomplished so much in a year because we collaborated.

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