Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel | Terms of Service

Terms of Service: October Edition

It is Memorial Day, 2020. I am in California, barbecuing on the tiny patio of the apartment where I am staying to ‘hide’ from COVID-19. New Orleans, where I am based, has turned into a COVID hotspot, and my son and I have left the city for a bit to take refuge elsewhere.

Someone sends me the clip of the interaction between Amy Cooper and Christian Cooper in Central Park. My blood is boiling. I am so angry. I have been here before—maybe not in this exact situation—but I know what it is: that moment when a white person weaponizes their whiteness and your blackness.

Later that same day, George Floyd is murdered.

Two weeks later, I am back in New Orleans, with more headspace to soak in my anger about the injustices against black people in America. I share my fury in an online post in which I also share a deck of cards I have designed, pointedly observing the lack of criticality in design education.

But I am angry, too, from so many months building up to the creation of these cards, because I have felt so invisible, and that I am not being given the space to contribute fully to the work I was doing.

Everything changed for me when a retired professor took me to lunch and gave me some grandfatherly advice. It’s okay to be angry, but don’t just be angry, he said. Take that anger and challenge it into something productive. When you feel you’re being ignored, focus on clearly identifying what is being lost because you didn’t have your say, and then write about it.

This was game changing advice for me.

Over the next several months, I got a bit quieter and listened a bit more, noting blindspots about critical theory, pedagogy, identity, and inclusivity. As I listened, I researched critical theory, anthropology, and social justice concepts I thought could improve the kinds of conversations I was hearing. I thought about what had been missing in my own design education in the nineties, and wanted to introduce language and questions that, through reflection, might improve the way we approach problem solving, research, and collaborative practices as designers. Eventually the alphabet began building itself.

The cards are grounded in equity, inclusion, and plurality. By constructing this deck, my hope was that designers and design students would learn to make space for multiple points of view, and to reflect on their design processes. I also hope that designers eager to address issues like equity and inclusion can now be guided by language to support these discussions. Each card introduces an aspect of theory under a particular letter of the alphabet, then introduces a question for reflection, in an effort to put the theory into practice.

The deck includes research paradigms such as emancipatory or transformative research; theories like critical race theory and feminist theory and concepts about exclusion including ‘assumptions’, linguistic hegemony and xenophobia. Included as well are some reflective, self-focused prompts like unlearning oppression, values, and self-awareness. 

It’s been a scrappy project. I produced a prototype (available on Etsy) so that a few of my colleagues could acquire their own decks, and more than a year and many sales later, interest remains high. The project continues to evolve: a beta version of an app is available on both the App Store and the Google Play store, and there is a corresponding website for the App.

People keep asking me how to use the deck, and the truth is I’m continuing to discover how other people use it. As for myself, I’ve used it in two ways: first, just to ask questions, and second, to familiarize myself with a vocabulary that I did not personally encounter during my own my design education. I’ve also played memory-matching games with my students, to introduce them to a lot of theory in a short amount of time. Some of my academic colleagues report that they’ve asked their own students to employ the card decks to for writing prompts or design pivots. The app and the website allow users to contribute suggestions for their own words. In this way, I am expanding my own vocabulary, too.

The deck, it bears saying, was not meant to be a complete critical alphabet so much as a prompt for critical reflection: an invitation and a challenge to create and share your own words and tools to deepen design practice. It begins from the stance of accessibility for all—including, for example, my friends who teach in India or in the Caribbean—and having an app widens the possibilities by inviting other perspectives: each letter can then have any number of concepts, and no longer be limited to one or two, thus amplifying the potential for accessibility, inclusivity, and greater collaboration.

To any designers who feel invisible in their work, this is a reminder that your perspective matters: I encourage you to create light around you so that you can be seen, especially when other people won’t let you have your rightful share of the spotlight.

Additional Reading
Brown, A. C. (2018). I'm Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness. New York, NY: Convergent Books.
Eberhardt, J. L. (2020). Biased: Uncovering the hidden prejudice that shapes what we see, think, and do. London, United Kingdom: Penguin Books.
Mertens, D. M. (2009). Transformative research and evaluation. New York, NY: Guilford Press.
Oluo, I. (2020). So you want to talk about race. New York: Seal Press.
Saad, L. F. (2020). Me and white supremacy: Combat racism, change the world, and become a good ancestor. Naperville, IL: Sourcebooks.
Sensoy, O., & DiAngelo, R. J. (2017). Is everyone really equal?: An introduction to key concepts in social justice education. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.
Solomon, A., & Rankin, K. (2019). How we fight white supremacy: A field guide to Black resistance. New York, NY: Nation Books, Bold Type Books.

Posted in: Graphic Design, Inclusion, Product Design, Social Good

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