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PIVOT 2020/21: A Conversation with Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel & Dr. Renata Leitão

PIVOT 2020/21: A Conversation with Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel & Dr. Renata Leitão

We recently uploaded the full proceedings from the PIVOT 2020 and PIVOT 2021 conferences to the DRS Digital Library. To learn more about these events, the role of the DRS' Pluriversal Special Interest Group and what you can find in the Digital Library, please find below a conversation between Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel (NCSU) and Dr. Renata Leitão (Cornell University/OCAD University), co-convenors of the Pluriversal Design SIG and founders of the PIVOT virtual conferences. Lesley-Ann chaired the 2020 edition, and Renata chaired PIVOT 2021.


How is the Pluriversal SIG involved in the conference? 

Renata: As convenors of the Pluriversal Design SIG, we wanted to create and facilitate pluralistic conversations about design and bring together people from all over the world who share similar values.

Lesley: We (PluriSIG) created the Pivot conferences to make sure we had a space to focus on conversations around shifting centers, methods, epistemologies, and ontologies. We wanted to focus on a different point of view and examine these through a lens of decoloniality, but moving beyond just an academic critical perspective to a creative and generative one. 


What is the Pivot conference? 

Renata: Pivot emerged as our small contribution to change the culture of the international research community. It was born from our observation that many designers of color and from peripheral countries were not part of the main narrative of design. We would like to know what these designers are doing and creating outside the center. We thought that we had to bring to the center stage more diverse voices, from different places, with different accents, perspectives, and ways of understanding the world and practicing design. So together we could talk about changing the world.

Lesley-Ann: We also were very aware from our own conference experiences that designers from outside the center, such as designers from the Global South and designers of color, often ask very different research questions due to their different worldviews. Therefore Pivot would be a space where these conversations and discussions would happen and where what is perceived as the dominant epistemologies in design would not be privileged. It would be a space for many epistemologies and ontologies, as well as many forms of participation. 


How did it begin and who was involved? What is your role? 

Lesley-Ann: Pivot 2020 interestingly started with an obscure budget line that I could have access to that was available for ‘conversations about design’ by prominent speakers! That budget line sparked discussions between myself (Lesley-Ann Noel, Tulane University at the time), Laura Murphy (Tulane University), and Renata Leitao (OCAD at that time) about redefining who could be considered ‘prominent speakers’ in design. Renata and I had already formed the SIG when I joined Tulane University. Laura had a history of supporting writing through weekly and monthly writing retreats and was interested in my conversations about decolonizing design, power, and hegemony. 

We named the conference Pivot in late 2019 and were thinking of the pivot in point of view away from hegemony. We started to design Pivot 2020 as an in-person unconference and writing retreat. People would come with work-in-progress and then finish the work after their presentation in collaboration with people they had met at the conference and with writing support from the Pivot conference chairs and the writing facilities available at Tulane University. 

New Orleans was supposed to be the venue for this in-person event. New Orleans itself is on the fringe, straddling both Global North and the Global South. So even the location informed the way we started to plan the event. We thought New Orleans was the ideal place to discuss decolonization, multiple epistemologies, diversity, and issues that might seem peripheral to the main narrative of design. 

We were planning this event to create an environment for collaboration and to be sure that people we wanted to hear from weren’t intimidated by the academic process. We had to pivot (like the whole world) in March 2020 when the pandemic became ‘official.’ So the name became even more relevant. We took the same level of care in creating a virtual experience where people could really connect with others. We (me, Renata, and Laura, the conference chairs) worked with the rest of the Pivot 2020 core team —Maria de Mater O’Neill, Michele Washington, Maille Faughnan, and Samantha Fleurinor— to make sure people could feel welcome and could feel heard in the one-day virtual event in June 2020. Interestingly, we never used any money from the budget line that sparked the conversations. Pivot 2020 was a very horizontal event with no ‘prominent’ speakers, but with a great diversity of presenters and stories from Indonesia, India, Kenya, Brazil, the Caribbean, Australia, Uruguay, Japan, Canada, several European countries, the Middle East, and the United States, and more.  


Renata: Pivot 2021 emerged from the wish to write another call for papers. Since June 2020, conversations around decolonizing design, diversity, decoloniality, and pluriversality have started to get more traction. Often, when ideas become popular, there is the danger of becoming bland and shallow. People were questioning how to put those ideas of decoloniality and pluriversality into practice. Pivot 2021 was born from the desire to frame the conversations in a more tangible manner. Organizing a new conference was the chance to write a call for papers to invite people to consider the tools we designers create to reshape our world. And also to consider that dismantling and reassembling are complementary movements of change. So I wrote a first version of the CFP and shared it with Lesley-Ann and a few friends who brought many suggestions. They joined the adventure as members of the organizing committee (Laura Murphy, Michele Washington, Maria de Mater O’Neill, Pawel Pokutycki, Maria Rogal, Sucharita Beniwal, Manuela Taboada, and Nicholas Torretta). At the same time, I was talking with my colleague from OCAD University, prof. Immony Men, about designing new ways to share information and new formats for virtual conferences. He joined us as a co-chair and, as an expert in interaction design, helped develop the format and create a smooth experience.

I was the chair and main organizer. I had the chance to work with a brilliant team of graphic designers and digital artists from OCAD. I had the invaluable assistance of Jananda Lima in managing the conference. She also created the conference’s visual identity.

Jananda, Immony, and I chose the people who inspired us the most in recent years to give keynote talks (and inspire our participants). We had the criteria to choose people who represented different parts of the world and identities. We were blessed to receive Dori Tunstall, Bayo Akomolafe, Dany Pen, Casei Mecija, Jason E. Lewis, Cash Ahenakew, Sharon Stein, and Arturo Escobar. Please go to our website and watch the recordings of the keynote sessions. Each one of them brought something special.


What are the conference’s main aims and structure? 

Lesley: In Pivot 2020, the main aim was to get people writing, talking, and sharing their creative and regenerative ways of decolonizing design. Since Pivot 2020 started with the unconference and writing retreat format, it involved a lot of coaxing and coaching to get to the thirty-six presentations and papers. In addition to the usual peer review, Pivot 2020 included one-on-one support for authors. In some cases, student assistants downloaded the transcripts from presentations and helped the authors organize them into written text. The review committee provided lots of feedback on the drafts. We gave guidelines on producing the presentations and gave people tips on presenting on the day. You could say that “Access and participation” were keywords for 2020, in addition to the conference theme of “designing a world of many centers” since these concepts are also key to decolonizing design.   

Renata: We all have spent our lives on Zoom since 2020. In organizing a virtual conference, we wanted to create an experience more similar to a real-life conference. The social aspect is very important: having informal conversations with people and having fun. The organizing committee brainstormed different formats. In the end, we decided to use two platforms: Zoom, for the keynote presentations and parallel panels, and SpatialChat, for the informal conversations. Between the presentations, we go to the SpatialChat to socialize. One of our graphic designers, Dorsa Kartalaei, created beautiful virtual environments on SpatialChat. Everybody was captivated by the Green Room. At lunchtime (Toronto time), we had musical presentations. Nicholas Torreta played on the first day and Juliane Gamboa & Léo Brum on the second. We had so much fun on the second day, “dancing” on SpatialChat. We even had conga lines! Nothing bonds people as much as having fun together.    


Can you provide a brief summary of the themes in the 2020 and 2021 conferences? Did you see a change? What remained the same? 

Lesley: In 2020, the big themes were sharing practices, decolonizing design education, unlearning hegemony. The host institution had a social innovation focus. Several of the contributions reflected that due to how the call was shared. Most of the contributions were case studies as people were eager to share that the Pluriverse already existed and that we were already living in a world of many centers.    

Renata: In 2021, the big themes were “Repairing and Repurposing as Design,”  “Other Ways to Relate,” “Narratives Between Multiple Worlds,” and “Learning with the South.” We had much more papers about AI and exploring the more-than-human. We also had a strong focus on political design. I think the papers in 2021 were much more focused on questioning tools and practices than in 2020. What remained the same was the participation of people worldwide, bringing many different perspectives. 


Do you have any highlights from the proceedings (individual papers, etc.) uploaded to the Digital Library that are “must reads” for researchers and/or doctoral students?

Lesley: From Pivot 2020, it is worth reading or watching Maria Rogal’s reflective short paper on the Wixárika Calendar where she shares lessons learned as western design and Indigenous epistemologies collide. Because it’s a method paper, Susan Wyche’s short paper, which was created from the transcript of her presentation, on cultural probes is another must-read. When I think of PIVOT 2020 highlights, many are videos, which are still available on Tulane’s website. Some of the video presentations were very powerful. I recall how everyone was speechless after Omari Souza’s presentation about racism in design. Lucia Trias and Arvind Lodaya, who are both independent researchers, also gave presentations that were very well-received. Lucia is critical of the evolution of design in Uruguay, while Arvind examines the tension between design and craft in India. Both are addressing the ‘acculturation/deculturation’ that happens as design education moves to different countries. Arvind is more direct when he talks about binaries between modern and primitive that happen in design discourse.  

Renata: From Pivot 2021, my favorite papers are the “Calendar Collective” by Kalyani Tupkary, “Being Co-conspirators” by Mudita Pasari and Prachi Joshi, “Story-making” by Jane Turner and Manuela Taboada, and “Approaching Ubuntu in Education Through Bottom-Up Decolonisation” by Seehawer, Ngcoza, Nhaze, and Nuntsu. I want to highlight the tremendous participation of the Design & Oppression network from Brazil. They submitted four papers (from Bibiana Serpa, Sâmia Batista, Fred van Amstel, Rodrigo Gonzatto, and others). 


Where else might people turn if they want to learn more about some of the themes and issues that have been discussed at the conferences? 

Renata: Visit our website ( and watch the recording of our sessions. You could also join the PluriSIG and participate in our book club.

Lesley: The Pivot 2020 papers are in the DRS archive of course, and the videos are available as a playlist on youtube. We continue the discussions in our monthly Pluriversal Design Book Club, where we discuss the work of authors from outside of what might be considered the mainstream of design, so authors from Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the Caribbean; and BIPOC authors.   


Do you have plans for a Pivot 2022? 

Renata: No, no plans. Maybe 2023. 

Lesley: No. There won’t be a Pivot 2022. We had started conversations with a few people about moving Pivot outside of North America, but perhaps everybody needs some time to recover from the craziness of the last two years. If people or organizations would like to be involved in a future Pivot, they should reach out to us. 


What role has the DRS played in the conference series? 

Renata: DRS gave us a lot of guidance and institutional support, particularly for the first one, Pivot 2020. This year we were more experienced, but we know that we can count on DRS’s staff.

Lesley: Yes, The DRS was very helpful by sharing the typical conference timeline and the proposal structures, including budget templates, that would normally be used for the DRS and LearnXDesign conferences. We also got a lot of support in archiving the papers. 


What do you see as the benefits of having the proceedings uploaded to the Digital Library? 

Renata: It is important to make this content accessible and retrievable by anyone. 

Lesley: What she said :). I’m really happy that we were able to make even oral presentations retrievable by giving the transcripts doi numbers. In this way, hopefully, we’ve been able to play a role in expanding how academic work is documented. 

 February 17, 2022