Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel on Designing Social Change

Key Points

  • Social change is when the entire society changes the way they think about an issue.

  • Design thinking skills need to start showing up as early as Elementary school. Fourth/Fifth grade is a great starting place.

  • Think about: What are the mechanism that exist or can be created to help young people think about issues?

On this episode of the Getting Smart Podcast Tom Vander Ark is joined by, Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel, a professor at North Carolina State University. Lesley-Ann is also author of Design Social Change, a new book from Stanford’s d.School run featuring past guests Sam Seidel and Olatunde Sobomehin on Creative Hustle and Sarah Stein Greenberg on Creative Acts for Curious People. Just the other day we ran an episode we recorded live at SXSW EDU 2024 with some of her colleagues. 

In a great moment on the podcast, Lesley-Ann highlights the three key steps to making a utopia:

  • Critique the World
  • Create Your Utopia
  • Identify Actions

Dr. Lesley Ann Noel

Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel focuses on equity, social justice, and the experiences of people who are often excluded from design education, research, and practice. She teaches at North Carolina State University. Formerly, Lesley-Ann was the associate director of Design Thinking for Social Impact at Tulane University, as well as a lecturer at Stanford University and the University of the West Indies.

Lesley-Ann has a BA in Industrial Design from the Universidade Federal do Paraná, in Curitiba, Brazil. She has a Master’s in Business Administration from the University of the West Indies in Trinidad and Tobago. She earned her PhD in Design from North Carolina State University in 2018.

Lesley-Ann practices design through emancipatory, critical and anti-hegemonic lenses,  focusing on equity, social justice and the experiences of people who are often excluded from design research. Her research also highlights the work of designers outside of Europe and North America as an act of decolonizing design. She also attempts to promote greater critical awareness among designers and design students by introducing critical theory concepts and vocabulary into the design studio e.g. through The Designer’s Critical Alphabet.

Lesley-Ann’s research interests are emancipatory research centered around the perspectives of those who would traditionally be excluded from research, community-led research, design-based learning and design thinking. She practices primarily in the area of social innovation, education and public health. She is co-chair of the Pluriversal Design Special Interest Group of the Design Research Society. She is a co-editor of “The Black Experience in Design.”


Importance of Designing Social Change

Tom Vander Ark: We’re talking about change making today. We call it difference making. Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel calls it designing social change. We’re going to be talking about her book today on the Getting Smart podcast. I’m Tom Vander Ark, and let me start with two points on why I think designing social change might be the most important topic in the world. The first is that after the turn of the century, I get the sense that the challenges that we’re facing are so large and so complicated that they’ve outstripped our collective change making capacity. So we need desperately more positive social change making capacity in the world. Number two, that’s the macro point. The micro point is that the act of change making or difference making in the development of a young person might be the most valuable human growth experience that could be provided or supported.  

We think change making is the fastest way to build the most important skills and to develop what Charles Fadal has been calling the drivers of motivation, identity, purpose, and agency. That making a difference, learning how to frame a problem, design a solution, and deliver value to a community that you care about, is just an incredible growth experience. And so from both a micro and macro standpoint, we think designing social change might be the most important capacity in the world. That might be the most important pedagogy in the world. Doctor Lesley-Ann, do you buy any of that? Do you think this is maybe the most important topic in the world?  

Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel: So, I do believe it is the most important topic in the world. And, you know, when sometimes people ask me about it, I know it can sound so vague, you know, where they say, but what is it that you want us to design? And, you know, what is the change we’re looking for? And I guess maybe before we even start, I will say that social change is when an entire society changes the way they think about an issue. So, you know, in one of the classes that I teach, I like to talk about our parents’ lifetimes or our grandparents’ lifetimes, you know, and what are the big shifts in societal thinking that happened across that period? And then how did that thinking, how did that change in thinking happen?  

And I used those examples so that students could start to see, oh, we could make a small change or big change, but we’re moving towards that goal of changing the way that society responds to an issue.  

Understanding Design Thinking

Tom Vander Ark: Leslie-Ann, how do you define design thinking? You’ve taught design thinking at Tulane, at NC State. You taught at the D school at Stanford. But what is it? Is it a mindset, a methodology, or both?  

Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel: Yeah, I’ll say both. And I’ll say, frankly, I use the terms design and design thinking almost interchangeably, and I change the term according to the audience that I’m speaking with. So when I’m speaking with designers, I’ll normally just say I’m talking about design. And then when I’m speaking with people who think that they are not designers, I might use the term design thinking, which becomes a term that somehow becomes palatable to the people who think that they’re not creative. They’re like, okay, I can try out these design thinking methods. So when I talk about design thinking, I am talking about the way that designers think. And sometimes then I’m talking about using the ways that designers think outside of traditional designerly and creative spaces. And so, like, you ask if is it a mindset or is it about a methodology?  

I think of it as both. So, you know, if I think about mindsets, it might be related to, oh, one that we talk about at the D school is navigating ambiguity, you know, just dealing with the fuzzy stuff in the world. Designers are good at that, right? Because we take chaos and somehow start to make sense of that chaos and turn it into a need and then maybe turn it into a product. Another mindset, I think, is, or maybe this is a methodology, is related to iteration, and designers do things over and over and reflect and get feedback, and not everybody in the world solves their problems like that. So it’s both mindset and methodology where you are borrowing the ways that designers think to solve problems.  

And it’s also methodology where you’re using the steps generally the design would use to solve a problem. So that is around framing a problem, creative ideation, delivering some kind of prototype and getting some feedback on it, and then going back into the process again.  

Tom Vander Ark: Doctor Noel, you have such an interesting design ethic, and you have such an interesting life. I’m interested in what are the top three or four influences in the way you think about design.   

Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel: I think I’m from Trinidad and Tobago in the Caribbean, and I lived there till I was about 19 or 20. And then I went to Brazil, which was a huge eye-opening experience for me. I spent about six years in Brazil, where I did industrial design, then returned to Trinidad, came to North America to do a PhD, eventually went to Stanford for a year, then went to Tulane for a year. So there are a lot of mixers and influences. So I think the socio-political context of Brazil in the nineties affects the way that I think, and then some of the people that I read, some of the people that my colleagues were talking about when I lived in Brazil also affect the way that I think. So in my book, I refer to Paulo Freire many, many times, you know, because that’s.  

That’s the way that I think about the world. You know, the time that I spent at Stanford also changed the way that I think about the world. It, I think, made me ask more critical questions, you know, because even though I was in design, at Stanford, I was always in design. At Stanford, I became more of an outsider, and I could kind of look at design from a distance and start to be pretty critical of the design process and then really reflect on how maybe we could make it better. Then the time that I spent at Tulane, we focused on social innovation. And so that changed my design practice again, where I completely moved away from products that were just pretty. And all of my work became about really trying to create services that could respond to social issues.  

And now that I’m at NC State, I am reflecting on maybe philosophical questions about design. Who gets to design? Why do we design? How do we design? There’s a mishmash of a lot of different things. I’m happy that I was able to both work in the design world and the design thinking world, which sometimes seem like two completely different spaces. And I’ve learned to talk different languages about design with people.  

Tom Vander Ark: We’re talking to Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel. She teaches design thinking at North Carolina State. She has this great new book called Design Social Change. It’s part of this d.school series of really amazing books, all roughly on the subject of design thinking. What are you teaching at NC State these days?  

Reflection and Critical Awareness

Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel: So I teach a class called Contemporary Issues in Art and Design, which my students can recognize the book in the class because we talk about building a critical awareness of the world, understanding oppression and the oppressions that people face, and then trying to figure out how, as designers, can we impact these big societal problems. So that’s one of the classes that I teach. I teach another class called Design Process, where we reflect on the many different processes that people say they use in design. Then I challenge students to come up with their design process. And then I teach Design for Social Innovation class, where we work with a community in Trinidad and Tobago where I’m from. And again, students have to reflect on different ways of doing design and, you know, design across different cultures.  

So I really enjoy what I teach. We question design practice all the time to try to see how can we be more reflective designers and how can we actually make some kind of social impact in the work that we might do.  

Tom Vander Ark: Let’s talk about the book a little bit. It’s a beautiful, short, concise, wonderful, poignant, challenging book. It was challenging for me in all the best ways. The artwork is really extraordinary. I want to give a shoutout to your illustrator. Who did you work with on that?  

Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel: So I worked with a friend of mine called Che Lovelace. Che is a well-known Trinidadian painter. Actually, I remember Che when I was in school. He’s a few years older than me, but I remember him as one of the cool kids in school. So, you know, when I was able to select an artist, I was really happy to be able to call on somebody who I knew, and he is known for representing life in Trinidad. And I really wanted to give a different spin on the books in this design series.  

So my book, as you said, is very colorful, and there are banana leaves and banana trees and paintings of Port of Spain, where I’m from because I was thinking, if I think about where I want to see social change in the world, there are places in Port of Spain where I really want to see that happen, or places in Trinidad where I want to see that happen.  

Tom Vander Ark: Definitely the first third of the book is just titled simply “What’s Wrong?” It’s about developing a critical awareness, and it’s both an inward look, right? It starts with knowing yourself and then looking, and thinking critically about your context. I know that’s the first step in design thinking, but your book does it in a different way than any other design thinking experience I’ve had. It really stopped me in my tracks and invited deeper introspection, a critical introspection. So I appreciate that. It’s important to your practice.  

Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel: Yeah, I actually start every single design project, every design class, with a reflection on positionality. So I invite students to think about all of the complex identities that they have and to reflect on how those identities could impact the work that we’re doing. When I was doing my doctoral research, I learned how to reflect on positionality in a way that I had never learned in my design practice, really. In design, we say we do these things, maybe we think about who we are, but I learned how to do that in a different way when I was doing my PhD. And I was able to see more clearly during my PhD research how my positionality or my identity could affect the questions that I wanted to ask.  

And you know, when I ask students to do this, I’m not asking them to change their identity, but I’m really asking them just to see their identities and understand that they are part of the design process. So we bring our identities with us all the time, but we are not always aware of that if we don’t create that space to reflect on us.  

Tom Vander Ark: I really appreciate that it was a personal section of the book, but for me, it also opened up a sense of critical awareness at the macro level. It’s easy to forget that we’re living through this unique period where we’re experiencing things at a planetary scale. Disease, communication, inflation, and now with AI accelerating economic inequity, those things happen, and the rate of change in those things speeding up inequity, speeding, happens without us noticing. And so it takes this critical awareness of stopping and saying, what’s happening? Is it the way things should be? Right? So I appreciate this. It’s the difficult sort of beginning of the design process. And then the second section of your book is also really interesting. And I’ve never read anything in design thinking like it because you talk about how that feels.  

And you talk both about anger and joy. Why is that important?  

Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel: So I’m from Trinidad, and when people are angry, maybe they burn tires in the road. And so people looking on will say, “Oh, goodness, those people are so angry. Why are they doing this?” And people often get misguided where they’re focusing more on suppressing the anger than getting to the root of the anger. So, you know, in that section, I really wanted people to learn to pay attention to the emotions of the people around us because that tells us where change is needed or maybe where things are good enough and there’s no change needed, or maybe there are good feelings that need to be sustained. As I mentioned, you know, anger is one that people suppress. And we can find ways of listening to that anger and using it as a cue to understand people better.  

Emotions and Action for Change

And then the other thing about anger is that anger is also a fuel. And, you know, when we are so angry about something, it really is important for us to take that energy and do something. And I mention in the book, but this is a real story, there was a point where I was really very angry. And this professor, the older professor, took me aside and said, “Well, do something about it.” And if we’re talking about making change in the world, we have to find then that anger and that passion about issues inside of ourselves and then figure out, okay, what are we going to do next? You know, how are we going to take that anger into something?  

Tom Vander Ark: I was listening to a podcast with Doctor Becky Kennedy this morning talking about parenting, and she said, “We’re born with lots of emotions, just not the skills to manage those emotions.” So in some respects, design thinking is a way to notice our anger, the source of it, and then in a positive way put it to use.  

Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel: Yeah. Move into the next action so we’re not just sitting around doing nothing, but.  

Tom Vander Ark: I’m not sure that we always notice our anger. I think that’s why your opening section is so important – that sometimes anger is. We teach, particularly in schools where we teach compliance, we teach kids to repress these important emotions. And I think you’re saying, no, we actually have to be critically aware of what’s going on. And that may produce a sense of anger, and that’s okay. That’s actually positive and important, but then it’s what we do with that. How do we channel that?  

Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel: Yeah, what do we do next? And actually, I’ll tell you a funny anecdote or aside. When I wanted to do the workshop with the children in Trinidad, the school administrator was very worried, and she said, “You’re gonna make these children angry.” And actually, I didn’t have the courage to tell her that was okay. But I do believe that is okay. How do we get people to make change? We actually sometimes have to stir things up so that people see, you know, what, this phenomenon is not okay, you know, or this whatever’s happening is not okay. And then we actually get them a little bit excited and angry and ask them, well, what do we do next? And get people to take that anger into a brainstorming activity or, you know, take that anger into action mode.  

I think that’s really important. So, yes, anger is scary, but we can use it to figure out what’s next. Like, I deal with angry students all the time. And, you know, just about two weeks ago, two students confronted me after a class and I was terrified. I knew that they were angry and I thought, okay, where are we going with this? And their anger was interesting because this is my contemporary issues class. They were actually angry that we weren’t getting deep enough in some of our discussions. And so that’s actually, that’s like, again, good anger for us to figure out what we do next. We sat down, the three of us, sat down in my office and we started to brainstorm what could I do to respond to their frustration. And then how could I also continue to engage the students who just were not interested in the issue that they were that passionate about?

Yeah. Well, let’s acknowledge the discomfort here in that second section. You also talk about oppositionality, and to an old white guy like me, to experience agency within young people expressed in the form of oppositionality, feels really uncomfortable. Right. And, like, making room for that and responding to that effectively, those are new skills for somebody like me. I appreciated your discussion of oppositionality, but I had actions of fear and my own sense of opposition to that. And so it was important. I guess you’re probably experiencing that on a wide scale. We’re seeing this sort of pushback on the DEI movement now, right? Where it’s impacting people and they’re scared and they’re responding in a reactive, not very positive way. Right? 

Yeah, definitely. I’ve had to develop different strategies to allow space for people’s opposition to different ideas. So I guess those different strategies are what allow me to be able to sit down with those two angry students and work something out. Things are definitely changing, and we need different skills to be able to navigate the world that we’re moving into right now. Yeah. 

Prototyping and Designing New Worlds

Tom Vander Ark: Let’s say the third section of the book is on designing new worlds. I love this. I claim to live in the future where everything’s better for kids and families. You had beautiful sections on prototyping and reflecting. Maybe a few words on how you think about prototyping and reflecting.

Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel: So the important message about prototyping that I think everyone can get from designers is to not wait until something is perfect. So, you know, if we take all of the ideas of the book where we’re understanding ourselves and our world, we’re understanding how people feel, then we can get into a design phase where we’re thinking about, okay, what could be something that addresses this issue? And then we put an idea out. So we try something out, and that’s not something that every discipline does, but that is the way that designers think, that we have to put an idea out. And then we reflect on that idea. Well, we ask. Before we reflect, we even ask for feedback. 

And one of the things that I have to do in the way that I teach is to get students comfortable in collecting feedback, knowing that this feedback doesn’t have to validate them. It doesn’t have to say that their idea is fantastic. They just need to learn to ask people, well, how did this work? Do you think this was a great solution? Was this a terrible solution? And so in that reflection, we learn about the ideas that we’re putting out there, and then we can go back into the process again and try things out. In the book, I use this cooking metaphor. Sometimes I use a gardening metaphor where people, I think, can take risks a little bit more easily.

If they think about the analogy of cooking, where we try a recipe, the first time we try it, maybe the recipe is terrible, then we might try it again and it will get better and better. And so I think I wanted to create that ease of trying something out with social change. So if there’s something that bothers you, the example I’ve been using these days is about left-handed exclusion, for example. So if it bothers you that the left-handers in your life can’t use the can openers, do something about it, create a poster about it, write a letter to the newspapers, communicate with teachers, but create some action around the issue, then you can stop and reflect and say, well, how did that go? Did we make a change? Can we do something bigger next time?

And then you can try something again and always go back and keep in that iterative loop until eventually you change the way that people think about an issue.

Tom Vander Ark:  This topic of prototyping reminds me of Design Tech High. It’s close to Stanford D school, and they have a whole 9th-grade class on prototyping where they teach young people to express themselves in many different mediums, to build things, to draw things, to sew things. So I appreciate their commitment to prototyping by teaching the hard and soft skills of prototyping as part of a design ethic. And then they finish with an engineering design project where teams of students are delivering value to their community. So it’s a great design thinking school. But speaking of schools, where and how would you like to see these skills of designing social change? Where would you like to see them show up? Do you want them to show up in a 9th-grade class on design thinking?

Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel:  Yeah, I do want to go earlier than that. I worked with the fourth grade. You know, in the workshop that I did in my PhD, I worked with fourth graders and asked them to identify issues that they saw in the ways that they were allowed to play the rules of the school, their community, their country, and even such young children can identify issues with the world. And that thing of being able to design a solution to those issues, I think that builds agency. So really that’s why I chose that age group. I actually did like psychology classes and identified which age group made the most sense. And I found that age group just around fourth grade, fifth grade, they can think critically already and they’re already in that solution-finding kind of age group. So we don’t have to wait until 9th grade. We can come much younger and get people into that mindset.”

Tom Vander Ark:  I agree. We love the idea of difference-making and creating opportunities to invite learners to make a difference in their community. And we love to see periodic opportunities for that to show up. And again, that could happen K-12. Do you have any examples of that where schools have invited individual students, and groups of students, and supported the opportunity for them to make a difference in their community?

Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel: At this moment, I can only think of the little workshops that I’ve done with children. So, I did workshops with the fourth graders in Trinidad, and then I did a similar workshop with maybe middle schoolers in Oakland, where they had to again imagine some of the social problems they wanted to address, and then figure out which technologies they would want to adapt to change those. And then also with a colleague of mine in Puerto Rico, we worked with university students to get them to imagine the future after Hurricane Maria, and what was Puerto Rico they wanted. So, you know, those are the examples that I’ve been doing with people where I’m asking people to imagine a utopia.  

That’s the methodology that I like to use, critical utopian action research, where first they critique the world, they then dream of the utopia, and then they try to figure out what are the actions that are needed to get to utopia. And I think that’s a really nice design formula.  

Tom Vander Ark: We have been talking to Doctor Leslie Ann Noel. She’s a professor at North Carolina State and, the author of a great new book. Designing social change is part of a great series from the D School. Leslie Ann, we really enjoyed your book. It was challenging interesting and beautiful, practical, and really useful. We do hope that teachers read this. I think this would be a terrific textbook in high school or college. Any parting words of advice for the education leaders that are listening in?  

Education and Designing for Social Change

Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel: So, I would like other educators and education leaders to think about what are the mechanisms that exist or can be created for young people to influence issues. I’d encourage everybody, all the educators and leaders to remember that young people have great ideas and are passionate about issues, and we have to support that passion so that they will continue to want to make change in the future.  

Tom Vander Ark: Thanks to our producer Mason Pashia and the Getting Smart team and sponsors for making this possible. Until next week, keep learning, keep leading, and keep designing for social change.

Getting Smart Staff

The Getting Smart Staff believes in learning out loud and always being an advocate for things that we are excited about. As a result, we write a lot. Do you have a story we should cover? Email [email protected]

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