Design + Education
The designer's critical alphabet
As designers, we are future makers. We have the ability to empower or oppress with every decision we make. With this power, comes great responsibility.

Dr. Lesley Ann Noel created the designer's critical alphabet to challenge us to think differently about who we design for and who we may be excluding. Each card introduces critical concepts and theory to help designers reflect on race, gender, and intersectionality in their work. In this interview, Dr. Noel offers some background on how the cards were created, and guidance on how to use the cards in different contexts.

Tell me about your background and current role.

I'm a Caribbean design educator located in New Orleans, LA at the moment. I'm the Associate Director of Design Thinking for Social Impact at the Phyllis M. Taylor Center for Social Innovation and Design Thinking at Tulane University. My work currently focuses on design for social innovation, but I've been interested in concepts like design for empowerment, respectful design and decolonizing design for a long time. I have a PhD in Design from North Carolina State University, an MBA from the University of the West Indies in Trinidad and Tobago and a Bachelors in Industrial Design from the Universidade Federal do Parana in Brazil. These days I've been known as the creator of the Designer's Critical Alphabet, a deck of cards that are meant to help designers bring more critical perspectives to their work.

What were the pivotal points in your career that led you to explore social justice?

I've been interested in social justice for a long time. In Brazil in the 90s, my best friends and roommates studied anthropology, social sciences and history, and had a significantly greater critical awareness than I had. In Trinidad, I was pretty sheltered and very middle class, but at various times in my life in other places, I've been made to be much more aware of social justice issues, than I could have seen in Trinidad.

"Middle-class-ness can prevent us from really seeing injustice..."

..or it can make us forget that our families might have only recently achieved a better quality of life.

My life in many other places in the Caribbean and Latin America, in Africa and even in the United States, has reminded me of the constant need to keep oppression and injustice top of mind, as well as the need to also ensure that multiple perspectives are represented in the work that we do. In Trinidad, during my PhD, I was very focused on creating a design curriculum that would promote critical thinking, reflection and an interest in making change even if the administrators seemed disinterested in your cause. I did fieldwork with 4th grade students in a rural village in Trinidad. To create that curriculum I read about emancipatory and liberatory pedagogy, and tried to bring that to a design curriculum.

I became more interested in race when I moved to California. I had never really felt the direct impact of exclusion, microaggressions and maybe even poverty and oppression in the way I felt it in California. California is interesting because on one level you're so close to the homeless, and probably only one paycheck away from being homeless yourself, but at the same time there's also so much wealth around you. So the Designer's Critical Alphabet was born in that context and to help answer the following questions: How do we remember to be inclusive in places that allow us to forget about diversity? How do we remember multiple perspectives when making decisions for so many people even when our teams may think in a homogenous way?

What led to the curation of 'A Designer's Critical Alphabet'?

The lack of diversity in the space that I was in became the initial prompt for creating the Designer's Critical Alphabet. In my design class, I asked students to choose the user they wanted to design for and was shocked by the lack of variety in their choices. This is when I realised I couldn't teach in the way that I used to. I suppose it was always an irresponsible way of teaching, but probably the way that many of us do. The experience of thinking they all chose the same persona made me wonder how could I get them to design for audiences who didn't make them feel so comfortable. I thought, how could I push these students to think differently?

So I created a range of tools that helped students confront diversity in different ways, such as reflecting on their own identities, or responding to direct prompts about 'difference'. The first was the Positionality Wheel which is available for download on my site and the second was the Designer's Critical Alphabet.

How should the cards be used in different contexts (academia, industry, etc.)?

I designed the cards to be used in three ways. First, for individual use and reflection, in this way they just serve as flashcards to help practitioners expand their vocabulary and worldview. The prompt question on the card helps them to put the definition into practice.

The second approach was tested in a face to face classroom where I had students play memory matching games with 2 decks. As they turned the card over, they would read the definition to their colleagues. This way, they were introduced to new concepts in a very short space of time. By 'gamifying' it a bit, the approach was less heavy than it could have been. I would also hear students using some of the terms throughout the semester.

The third way of using the cards, which is in fact how they really came about, is as a 'pivot prompt'. The idea is that as you are working on a design (individually or in a team), you pick a card, and that card might have a question that would force you to change the direction of your design. The goal of this approach is to help designers open the 'frame' for their problem and consider alternative approaches or solutions.

What tips do you have for practitioners seeking to design and build more equitable product experiences?

Well the first suggestion is about ensuring that your team has some diversity to help you understand diverse perspectives. However, regardless of how diverse your team is, it is also about examining the way your team is set up. Do people have space to share divergent perspectives, or is the team expected to just agree with the leader? Teams should have structures where voices and perspectives can be dissenting as well. Teams also have to see how they can engage more with diversity outside of their teams. How can you learn to understand the experiences of others? Can you bring others into the brainstorming experience to gain new perspectives and understanding?

Outside of the team, practitioners have to be more aware and attuned to racial inequity. You have to first be aware that inequity all around us, then you have to think through ways to design inequity out of the product experiences you create. You also have to acknowledge various forms of inequity and oppression. Do your products have the potential to be ableist? sexist? Do they make assumptions about class, language or nationality? What are the systems that support the 'ism'?

In summary, design and research practitioners need to learn to constantly ask why is this like this? and how can we change it for the better?.

What do you think are the greatest problems facing design justice efforts today in academia and industry?

One big challenge is how to actually put the principles into practice. We can say lovely things about design justice, equity, racial injustice, etc, but actually moving the mindset into practice is difficult, especially when perceived costs and deadlines may make us forget to keep equity top of mind.

My own strategy is to always ask tough questions like 'what's in it for x group'? How can 'y' group get a greater / more long-term benefit from this experience? How can more power be shifted to 'z' group for a more transformative experience? If x group directly held me accountable, would I be able to hold my head up high? I don't always get it right, but with practice my own 'design justice' efforts get better. This may not be the greatest problem but it's one that's top of mind for me as an academic.

Another challenge is measurement. Exploring problems such as racial inequity and oppression may seem 'fuzzy', so how will we know when we have created some impact?

Read more and purchase the cards: criticalalphabet.com/