Skip to Main Content

'Design Social Change' by Lesley Ann-Noel, Review by Michael Kibedi

'Design Social Change' by Lesley Ann-Noel, Review by Michael Kibedi

Michael Kibedi is a design researcher and writer. He holds a Master's in Human-Computer Interaction Design from City, University of London. Michael has interdisciplinary interests across academic and artistic research that address human-computer interaction, conceptual art, Black studies, and data justice.

Design Social Change started life as a cookbook. Before writing the book, the author, Lesley-Ann Noel often asked her class 'Can we cook up change?' to visualise how design contributes to making change happen. The metaphor of cookery speaks to our shared understanding of preparing a favourite meal. Design relies on many methods (or ingredients) that must be applied in a controlled manner so we end up with an outcome that matches our vision (or dish). In Design Social Change, we are invited to accompany the author on a journey to rethink not only how we design, but also why we design — and how we strive towards equitable social change.

Lesley Ann-Noel, an assistant professor in Design Studies at North Carolina State University, draws on her scholarly research, teaching and lived experience to question the status quo that stubbornly refuses to budge within design — how white supremacy fixes normative standards; how patriarchy upholds structural inequality; how ableism frames disability as a personal rather than social inequity; how heteronormativity produces data injustice and exclusion. We have undoubtedly witnessed discriminatory outcomes occurring from many “magical” solutions that promise impartiality, efficiency and fairness. Noel not only asks us to consider how design should evolve to counter these scenarios — but, more importantly, she challenges us as practitioners to define our positionalities, so we are more critically aware of the scenarios in which we labour, and the structural changes we plan to make. Achieving social change means dreaming differently about alternative futures. In Design Social Change, Noel gives us a guidebook in taking our first steps towards reaching this goal. 

Design Social Change is a compact volume split into three sections. In addition to the essays, each section contains practical steps for applying theory (Your Turn) and a space for deeper reflection (Take Note). Noel has also chosen the accompanying art with care, using the work of Trinidadian artist Che Lovelace. His paintings echo the teaching in each section, while also providing a visual reminder of the richness of Trinidad’s culture and history. The compact dimensions (and make no mistake, the compact size should not belie the richness of the lessons in this book!) and vibrant artwork used throughout communicate that this is not a text to be left on a shelf, or forgotten once read.

The first section “What’s Wrong?” is concerned with helping the reader establish critical awareness and identify their positionality. Feminist theory is utilised to show us how to critically look at ourselves and question our personal, cultural, social and political selves. We can then map out our combined advantages and disadvantages, and recognise how they might show up in our work or bias our thinking. This rich lineage of feminist scholarship — including Donna Haraway, bell hooks and Patricia Hill Collins — helps the reader perceive structures, power and how they interact with our person. Adapting the work of Paulo Freire, a Brazilian educator, we are guided towards achieving a newfound clarity so we can become more critically self-aware. We are not individual contributors working on that shiny new design in isolation — but rather, our labour occurs within a structural system which advantages and disadvantages us differently across many facets of our ever-changing identities.

The second section “What Does It Feel Like?” seeks to help us deepen our emotional intelligence. For an industry laser-focused on defining success by metrics and scores, we are invited to consider how the entangled, messy reality of social change needs us to pay more attention to our emotions. An immediate emotional response may be to feel anger when first confronted with the realisation that structural injustice and oppression persist. Possessing a deepened emotional intelligence means we become more confident within ourselves to adopt an oppositional viewpoint and challenge the status quo. One of the first skills we learn as researchers is to always ask “Why?” — whether of our participants or research subjects. However, it is much harder to take this approach when contending with decades of ingrained cultural norms that have shaped design practice or confronting exclusionary citational practices that have excluded Black or Indigenous knowledge.

Design Social Change culminates in the third and final section “What World Do You Want to Design?” Possessing a heightened self-awareness and deeper emotional intelligence, we are now ready to take tentative steps towards imagining social change. Starting from the historical example of the abolishment of chattel slavery, we are taught that an abolitionist mindset seeks emancipation, liberation and abolition together, to begin dismantling the interlocking structural oppression of white supremacy, patriarchy, ableism and heteronormativity — it is by breaking free from our existing and structurally oppressive landscape that lasting, meaningful change can begin to be realised. Creative world-building has a long history across many cultures. Examples across many Afrofuturisms have speculatively imagined and worked outside the bounds of oppressive environments that have historically curtailed minoritised communities — a small act of resistance that reaps creative rewards. Noel introduces an adapted framework, Critical Utopian Action Research (CUAR), to show how we can take our first steps in speculative design work to step closer to similar abolitionist futures.

Design Social Change is an accessible handbook that makes years of feminist and decolonial scholarship of immediate and practical use. Empirical research and the learnings from Noel’s taught experience are the basis for making an immediate and compelling call to action. Design Social Change rewards repeat readings, and provides valuable resources to assist in workshops or discussion groups.

Despite these favourable reflections, it should also be recognised that Design Social Change enters an increasingly hostile professional environment; one where some institutions — academic and corporate — are passively, or in some cases, actively undermining advocacy for structural reform and equitable change for minoritised scholars, practitioners and their allies. Designers and researchers who are motivated to challenge the status quo will find a worthy companion contained in the lessons from Design Social Change. However, the uncomfortable truth that some may be forced to confront is that by striving for the abolitionist futures imagined in this book, there may be personal, financial, or career sacrifices in making these dreams a reality.

Design Social Change: Take Action, Work toward Equity, and Challenge the Status Quo (Stanford Library)

146 pp., 6 x 7 in, colour illus.



Paperback: November 2023

Publisher: Ten Speed Press

 February 26, 2024