A Q&A with Co-Design Expert Leah Caplan

A Q&A with Co-Design Expert Leah Caplan

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 Leah Caplan. She is known for her innovative, human centered design work at Birsel + Seck, where she is the VP of Design and Project Management, as well as her work at her own design and branding company, LC&Co Creative. She is dedicated to helping companies create brands, products, and services with, as she would say, purpose and heart, including Target, Staples, Colgate-Palmolive, Johnson & Johnson, PepsiCo., and more.  We asked her about the power of co-design, how to develop trust with your collaborators, and where she sees great collaboration happening in the industry.

Spotlight: Leah Caplan
Photo courtesy of Leah Caplan.

Q: You are known for your wonderful co-design projects. Could you explain what co-design is, and what drew you to it as a collaborative design approach?

A: What I’d really like to do is talk about collaborative design first, before co-design, to lay the groundwork. It’s one of those phrases that I find to be an oxymoron, like the term design thinking. Can you really have design without thinking? Similarly, can you have design without collaboration? Or, at least, can you have successful design without collaboration?

I believe that design as a process is inherently collaborative. To be successful, design can’t exist without collaboration. It requires working with others. Even just the premise of it is collaborative. Design is about solving a problem for others, which in and of itself is a collaborative act. You can’t do it without knowing who that other is. So, with that in mind, let’s go back to co-design.

The co-design work that I do is in collaboration with Ayse Birsel and our team at Birsel + Seck. We’ll talk later about my own side gig but basically I wear a couple different hats, and one of them is the VP of Design and Project Planning at Birsel + Seck. If you don’t know us, we’re a design and innovation studio. We’ve done a lot of work for companies like Herman Miller. We’re known for Ayse’s design process, which is called Deconstruction:Reconstruction. She outlines it in a book that I helped her bring to life called Design the Life You Love. This process is critical to how we do our design work, including our co-design. Co-design is basically what it sounds like: designing side by side with others. In our case, it’s not always with our current clients—although they’re almost always invited to be a part of the session—but with whoever is our target user. What’s key about co-design is the idea that you’re designing WITH, in capital letters, versus designing FOR. It’s based on a belief that everybody has the ability to be creative and solve a problem if they have the guidance, process, and tools to do it. We may not all solve a problem in the same way (thank goodness!), but we can all get into it with the proper guidance, process, and tools. 

Q: Could you share an example of a co-design project that demonstrates the power of collaborative design?

A: Probably the best project that I could use to demonstrate this is one that we did for an organization out in California called the SCAN Foundation. They are an independent charitable organization. Their mission is to improve the lives of older adults and help them—and really help everyone—to age with dignity and purpose. Interestingly, that wasn’t how they described themselves before we started working with them, their point of view and tone of voice shifted based on our  work. 

We started the project in 2019, before the pandemic. We conducted co-design sessions with people who were anywhere between the ages of fifty-five and ninety-five across the country. The idea was to reimagine with them what the aging experience could be. We really wanted to understand: What did they want from their later years in life? What were their needs and challenges? We came into the project with some assumptions, which tended to be the usual assumptions: that, as we get older, everything is about decline. We lose connections, we lose our purpose in life, we leave our work, our family leaves, we lose friends. It was a very negative mindset.

In our ability to sit and do this design work with these individuals, we found that there was much more of a glass half-full versus glass half-empty mindset. A lot of the language that the SCAN Foundation uses also shifted. This idea of helping everyone age well and with purpose came out of that. The big thing was that this design process ended up modeling what these individuals wanted. Through this process, we allowed these individuals, who are often marginalized, to be heard, to be a part of a community of people, to build new relationships, to make friends, to have a purpose, and to feel—to use the word very generously—loved. We worked hard to make sure that the experience acknowledged them. This included the types of rooms we used, the temperature, the lighting, the space around the table, the type of food we offered; we really wanted to make sure that we recognized them. We gave them not just the process and the tools but the place, the comfort, the security. 

Our team was carefully curated and we trained each other how to talk to and approach people, and to be preemptive in everything that we did. It was like a service or hospitality model, and that was really important. We acknowledged these individuals and allowed them, through that, to be able to share and dream openly. That’s not easy. I think co-design is most effective when all of that is taken into consideration. It’s not just the process and the tools and the problem that you’re trying to solve but the whole experience. Otherwise, people don’t feel comfortable contributing. In the end, I believe this work helped to shift the perspective, the approaches, and the tone of voice that the SCAN Foundation uses. They’re now more human-centered. They’re also more optimistic in how they present themselves and what they do. It became a little bit less about them, the foundation, and more about who they’re looking to help and the community. 

This was an intimate experience. The process brought people together, and many of those people are still connected to each other. As we know, this age group is the loneliest age group. There’s a loneliness epidemic. Again, we didn’t know we were doing that until we did it. Once we started, we realized, in addition to everything, this was a place that they wanted to be. It got them out of the house, it brought them in contact with other people. So we started extending the time, so that there was at least half an hour to forty-five minutes after each session wherein people could just connect with one another, have a cup of coffee, etc.

The biggest thing that this work resulted in is a book, Design the Long Life You Love, also by Ayse. The power of this outcome is that we’re now able to share these ideas with a much larger group of people, with the hope of making a cultural shift over time. Older people are marginalized. The ability to share what these individuals said: it’s straight from the horse’s mouth, and it breaks what we traditionally think about older people. There’s a positive perspective. There’s a shift in mindset; new language and approaches. It has so many different prongs to it, and that’s the power of co-design. A product can have that kind of universe that  surrounds it as well, but in this case it was an experience and it was a life stage, which is a huge thing to try to tackle.

I think one of the most interesting things that we learned, which again wasn’t something we went in knowing, was that we’re actually not that different. It doesn’t matter if you’re fifteen or ninety five: basic human things that we want and need remain the same. It’s having a purpose, it’s being healthy of mind and body, it’s having vitality. And those things, they don’t change. Just how we access them changes. That was a beautiful aha moment for us. It shouldn’t have been. It feels so obvious but, because of our culture, it wasn’t obvious. Ayse is a master of making complex ideas simple, and the book has some unbelievable illustrations. They’re really funny. They have to do with sex, drugs, and rock and roll, and that continuum from when you’re young to when you’re older. There’s some fabulous stuff that we don’t think about, but it’s real.

Q: You have said that great collaborations are built on trust, understanding, and curiosity. Could you talk about how you go about developing trust with your collaborators?

A: I believe that, in any relationship, trust comes from actions and attitudes. It’s about being transparent; showing that you’re responsive, reliable, upfront, and honest. And just as important as that is showing that you care, that you are truly passionate about who your collaborators are, and that you value what they have to offer. It’s a bit like what I was saying before about the older adults, they need to know that you respect them. You hear what they have to say, and you make sure to acknowledge and thank them. With kids or in relationships, you want to model the behavior that you’d like to receive. Trust comes through that, and all of this is because you have to have the trust. Because collaboration is an inherently reciprocal process: it has give and take. And you really only want to give and take with people you trust. When you trust each other, you feel comfortable challenging each other. The best way to build trust, and therefore have a successful collaboration, is to pick your collaborators carefully. Great collaboration doesn’t happen with everyone, and it’s important to know and accept that. Also, these relationships often need to be built and nurtured over time. You learn from the positives and the challenges, and then you evolve to make your collaboration better. But there has to be a baseline of trust and respect. 

Q: After years of working as a branding and design consultant, you started your own design company, LC&CO Creative. What prompted you to do that, and what role does collaboration play in your work there?

A: In this side gig generation, what I wanted to do was to connect my work with the things that I love, and the things that I really love personally are food, hospitality, retail, travel. My husband works in the food industry, we live and breathe food. Aside from just eating incredible food, we travel for it. Everything in our lives is about food.I started my career in design doing branding—primarily in the retail industry—and I worked with big brands that had huge, daunting budgets because it was the 1990s. What I most loved about doing that work was feeling like I was helping to develop and tell a story, and that story made the company and its products more understandable,delightful, and engaging for its customers. What I realized, or I always knew but then decided I wanted to come back to, was this idea that smaller brands don’t necessarily have the awareness of or the access to those kinds of design and branding services, and I wanted to give it to them. It was this idea of great design that was affordable or sometimes even free. I have done branding workshops for women, immigrant workers in Philadelphia who are looking to become entrepreneurs. I hate this idea that money is a barrier to good design. I know it’s real. I know it’s a reality but it really bothers me. What I liked about my side gig was that, because it was a side gig, I could afford to do it that way. I could afford to try to do more with less, and help the people that I work with do more with less. 

In that business the collaboration is immediate because, again, these are small customers. We work hand in hand. In a lot of cases I live and breathe their businesses because we’re so interconnected and there’s so much trust between us. I love what they do. When I’m excited by something I want to deep dive into it, and I can do that with them. I’m not able to do that often on the bigger projects. I can love the project and I can deep dive into their business, but I can’t necessarily be as intimate as I am with my own work, which covers everything from one-off restaurants to arts and crafts malls, to a cookie company…they’re little businesses that are just trying to make it work, and there aren’t many people to help them. It’s educational, too, because they don’t know these things. So they’re learning about design while I’m learning about them, and it’s a real collaborative, reciprocal process.

Q: Are there industries that are doing a better job of incorporating collaborative design principles? What do you see as key drivers of collaborative design being adopted more widely in the industry?

A: It’s a great question and my answer for the first one is: I’m not sure. I think there are many industries and companies that have this intention. But I think it tends to be more individuals who are driving this than corporate mandates or a collaborative culture. There’s this idea of conscious collaboration and unconscious collaboration, particularly in design because, as I said, it’s inherently collaborative but people aren’t necessarily talking about it that way. There’s a lack of recognition or understanding that design is a process that is collaborative. When you go beyond designers or design firms and you look within organizations people still don’t even understand what design is.

Design relies on others to happen. That is a blessing and a curse, particularly in companies, where everyone wants to be the owner of the project or to be seen as the hero; I made this happen and now I get the credit. I believe that if designers could go beyond that—and I don’t want to offend anybody but ego does have to be put to the side—then collaboration would be easier.

I think some of the best collaborative design is happening in non-design creative fields. It happens in film, in theater, in music, in dance, in the culinary arts, and in a chef’s kitchen. I think this is because it’s openly understood that collaboration is foundational to the process and its success. In a kitchen, it’s even foundational to its safety, right? Somehow that seems to get lost in our industry, that it’s foundational. Maybe because design is usually paired with business, and the objectives of those things can often be at odds; solving a problem versus making money. I think it continues to be misunderstood.

The key drivers are people, education, and building awareness and understanding. Again, people need to understand that design is inherently collaborative. We wouldn’t need to define it as such if they understood that. We could then build the conditions for making it more successful. A key aspect of that is going to be communication. What I mean by that is not just speaking, but listening. Listening is key to collaboration, and we’re not all good at doing that. That’s again because our culture says, You want to be seen and heard, and that’s what makes you successful. That’s how you’re often measured. Quietness and being the listener in the room are not necessarily valued to the degree that they should be but it’s one of the most important skills in collaboration; hearing others, gauging what they have to say, assessing what’s valuable, what needs to be explored further, what needs to get done, and what needs to be gently pushed back on. These are all really important elements: who’s comfortable, who’s uncomfortable. These are important parts to collaboration and you won’t pick them up unless you’re listening. Collaboration is about learning, sharing, leading, and supporting each other, and you can’t do that without listening.

Q: You talk about working with Purpose and Heart. Could you talk about what that means and how you bring it into your day to day design practice?

A: For me, purpose and heart is about designing things that are meaningful and that will resonate emotionally. It’s creating things that exist for a reason, they answer a why for the creator and the customer or user. The emotional side of it is what makes them sing. The heartfelt part is visceral and hard to explain. It’s about something that you feel; it just feels right. It’s like Goldilocks sitting in the chairs. She gets to the final chair and it is just right. She tried all the others, they didn’t work. It’s a feeling, it’s a sense. I think many of us who work in design, whether it’s branding or product or another area, we know  when something is right. I always rub my fingers together to express it, because it’s a feeling.

The question of how I bring purpose and heart into my work brings us back to collaboration. When I’m working with my clients, I want them to trust me. I want to have a deep understanding of who they are, and I want them to feel my curiosity. And I do this by asking a lot of questions. Questions like, What makes you tick? And really intensely listening. That’s been a part of my DNA from early on. When I was in my 20s I worked with a client who said, The thing about you is that you really are a good listener

The other part of purpose and heart for me comes from working on projects that really get me excited. If I’m excited, I want to get to the heart of what the project is about. I will often say to clients that I feel like my work is almost like being a medium.My job is to help draw out of them what is already there. I just help them bring it to fruition. Ayse calls me her design doula. Same idea: what could be more about purpose and heart than the role of a doula? I allow myself to be taken over by their ideas and projects, and they become important to me. It’s my purpose and heart, but I’m also helping them to get to the purpose and the heart of what they do. The purpose being why they exist and the heart being what’s going to make them sing.

Check out the rest of our Insight series to learn more about the design industry. Sign up for our newsletter and follow us on Instagram and LinkedIn for design news, multi-media recommendations, and to learn more about product design and development!

Collaborative Design Tools

The Smart List is a monthly list of multi-media recommendations on everything design, curated by Interwoven Design. As a group of aesthetically obsessed designers, there are a lot of beautiful products, objects, and resources that we love and enjoy. These products improve the quality of our daily lives and we want to share them with you. This issue is a collection of collaborative design tools to help you find accessible ways to work and design with others virtually and in person.

Smart List: Collaborative Design Tools

Milanote / Miro

Milanote is a cloud-based collaboration software designed to help creative teams manage storyboarding, creative writing and briefs, mind-mapping, note-taking, and brainstorming. It can be used to create mood boards, mind maps, briefs and more, all in one place. It lets us create boards and share projects with team members to collect feedback and ensure privacy.

Via https://milanote.com/ 

Similarly, Miro is a digital collaboration platform designed to facilitate remote and distributed team communication and project management. As an online workspace for innovation, it allows you to add various content from texts to images, create maps and diagrams, and work with visual templates together with a team of any size to dream and design the future together.

via Miro

Convivial Toolbox: Generative Research for the Front End of Design

Generative design research is like throwing a design party where everyone, especially the people we’re designing for, gets an invite to the creative process. This book isn’t just a read for the academic design research folks; it’s also a hot topic for the business and design crowd. And here’s the kicker – it’s a total game-changer in the realm of collaborative design. It’s like the guidebook for bringing minds together to make sure we’re hitting the right notes in creating products, systems, services, and spaces that truly click with people. Plus, there’s no other book out there hitting this collaborative design groove right now.

via Amazon

Community-Led Co-design Kit

The Community-led Co-design Kit, an initiative by the Inclusive Design Research Centre in Toronto, Canada, represents a significant step in inclusive design methodologies. Supported by the Hewlett Foundation through the Flexible Learning Open Education project, this first iteration of the kit draws on insights from projects like Co-designing Inclusive Cities, Platform Co-op Development Kit, and Coding to Learn and Create. Rooted in the experiences of working directly with communities, the kit also takes inspiration from disability justice, anti-oppression movements, and decolonialist research and design approaches. Emphasizing community input, the creators acknowledge the valuable feedback received, with plans to incorporate it into future versions of the kit, reflecting a commitment to continuous improvement based on collaborative engagement.

via Co-design

Design-Kit by IDEO

In 2009, IDEO introduced the HCD Toolkit, a groundbreaking book shedding light on the transformative potential of human-centered design (HCD) in the social sector. This unique approach quickly gained traction, drawing in a diverse community of designers, entrepreneurs, and social innovators who eagerly snapped up over 150,000 copies. Fast forward to April 2015, and IDEO.org took things up a notch with the launch of the Field Guide to Human-Centered Design. This dynamic 192-page book not only packs in 57 design methods, key mindsets, worksheets, and real-world case studies but also reflects the collaborative ethos of design thinking. The collaborative spirit embedded in the toolkit’s development aligns seamlessly with the principles of collaborative design, emphasizing the collective effort to bring about positive change in the social sector.

via IDEO

Unlocking Innovation: Eight Keys of Cross-Disciplinary Design Collaboration

In the ever-evolving landscape of design, collaboration has become a cornerstone of innovation. Nowhere is this truer than in the realm of cross-disciplinary design, where experts from diverse fields converge to tackle complex challenges. Here at Interwoven we are continually learning about new industries and disciplines to serve our clients, and diverse, cross-disciplinary teams lead to the most exciting outcomes.

As businesses undergo transformations to align with emerging market demands and new technologies, it is evident that a narrow, one-discipline perspective is no longer viable. The challenges we encounter are inherently interdisciplinary, and their solutions need to be interdisciplinary as well. Disciplines learning from one another can achieve fresh insights, generating novel solutions to complex problems. In good cross-disciplinary design, the whole is always greater than the sum of its parts, the team creating outcomes that no one discipline could have accomplished alone. In this Insight article we outline the key elements of successful cross-disciplinary design, showing how this powerful set of “keys” or strategies can facilitate collaboration and unlock innovation for any team.

Photo: Jason Goodman

Key 1: Embrace New (to you) Frontiers

Cross-disciplinary collaboration opens doors to uncharted territories of research and discovery. While it can be intimidating to be in unfamiliar territory, embrace the opportunity to learn from experts. Don’t shy away from asking questions; curiosity fuels the collaborative spirit. Dive into relevant literature, understand the vocabulary, and immerse yourself in the nuances of the field. Being the novice in the room offers a unique advantage; your fresh perspective can spark innovative ideas and novel approaches. The possibility for cross-pollination is high when a new discipline joins the team.

Key 2: Learn the Language

Collaboration, in its true essence, is not about design by committee but about co-ownership, mutual respect, and shared objectives. In the world of cross-disciplinary collaboration, different fields speak different languages. Jargon and field-specific terminology can be a barrier to effective communication. Building a common language between disciplines is essential. Invest time in understanding the vocabulary of your collaborators. Create a shared glossary, standardize nomenclature, and ensure clear communication. A unified language fosters mutual understanding, paving the way for great collaboration.

Key 3: Practice Patience

Different disciplines operate at different speeds. Experiments may take years, computational models require meticulous validation, and publications follow distinct timelines. Patience is the virtue that sustains cross-disciplinary collaborations. Acknowledge the varied paces, communicate timelines effectively, and appreciate the intricate processes of each field. Patience is critical for fruitful collaboration.

Key 4: Embrace Small Teams

Small teams make coordination and communication easier, and bonds within the team form more quickly. They also promote individual ownership and empowerment, countering the Ringelmann Effect, in which individual productivity decreases as the size of the team increases. By the same token, individual effort increases as the size of the team decreases. A great corporate example of this is Amazon’s two-pizza teams. Amazon’s concept is simple: teams should be small enough that two pizzas would feed them. In practical terms, this means a team ideally consists of fewer than 10 people, minimizing communication lines and reducing bureaucratic overhead. These teams are empowered with a single focus, concentrating on specific products or services, and are known for their agility and innovation. 

Photo: UX Indonesia

Key 5: Create a Digital Home Base 

Utilize digital platforms like Miro, Confluence, or FigJam as collaborative spaces. These flexible, multimedia platforms serve as hubs where team members can interact with ongoing work, access shared documents, and make an active contribution to the project. While speaking the same language is critical, having access to the same information, and being able to develop insights in real time,  is equally important.

Key 6: Create a Routine

A strong collaborative structure keeps communication opportunities frequent and progress moving forward. Regular meetings, joint workshops, and shared courses create a framework for constructive exchange. Financial support and shared responsibilities strengthen these bonds. Collaboration requires investment, both in terms of time and resources. Establishing a robust structural framework ensures sustained collaboration, nurturing innovation over the long term. Here’s a great case study outlining the story of how NPR’s Planet Money created a special, innovative report on global supply chains with the help of a cross-disciplinary team.

Key 7: Adapt as Needed

Collaborations, like any dynamic relationship, face challenges. Recognize when things aren’t working optimally. Address problems proactively, communicate openly, and explore solutions collaboratively. Pragmatism guides the way; sometimes, pausing or seeking alternatives is the best course of action. End collaborations amicably if needed, maintaining professional respect. Adaptability ensures that collaborations evolve and thrive.

Key 8: Cultivate Synergy

Synergy is the heartbeat of successful collaborations. It arises when diverse skills harmonize, creating outcomes greater than the sum of individual contributions. Recognize the complementary strengths of each collaborator. Seek win-win situations where both parties benefit. Negotiate agreements that value mutual gains, acknowledge contributions, and uphold shared interests. Synergistic collaborations are transformative, ushering in innovations that shape the future.

A good example of synergistic collaboration is General Electric’s Work-Out system, which empowers the formation of teams outside the typical departmental boundaries to solve specific issues. The team is chosen by their proximity to various facets of the issue, bringing those closest to the problem together to solve it. They are challenged to innovate around the issue, and empowered to carry out the solutions they develop. Developed in the 1980’s, the Work-Out system has been incredibly successful, breaking down hierarchies, streamlining meetings, and improving payoffs. 

Get Innovating!

In the shifting landscape of cross-disciplinary design, collaboration is not a destination but a journey. It demands commitment, patience, and a willingness to adapt. By embracing a mindset of co-ownership, facilitating open discussions, and valuing diverse perspectives, teams can transform collaboration from a mere buzzword into a tangible force that propels projects to new, innovative heights. The key lies not in perfection but in progress—a continuous endeavor toward a more collaborative, connected, and creative future.

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A Q&A with Participatory Design Expert Ranee Lee

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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