49 minutes | Oct 27th 2020

Critical and Emancipatory Design Thinking with Lesley-Ann Noel — DT101 E57

Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel is the Associate Director for Design Thinking for Social Impact and a professor of practice at Tulane University, and an Afro-Caribbean designer who focuses on critical emancipatory design thinking. We talk about power issues and design, participatory design, working with community partners, teaching design, thinking in ways that help students reflect on difference, and the Designer's Critical Alphabet.



Show Summary


Lesley’s passion for design started in middle school, and by the time she graduated from high school, she was looking for a place to continue her design studies. She ended up in Brazil, where she spent a year studying graphic design and five years in industrial design before returning to Trinidad, where she worked as a design consultant and taught at the University of the West Indies.


After coming to the U.S. to get her Ph.D. at North Carolina State University, she spent a year teaching at Stanford’s d.School before moving on to her current position at Tulane University.


Lesley talks about the importance of positionality and identity in her work, and how her classes and coursework have changed in response to the events of 2020, including the current COVID-19 health crisis. We learn how and why Lesley created the Designer’s Critical Alphabet, and what she hopes the cards will do for people who use them.


Listen in to learn more about:

  • How power and identity influence design
  • Making design more inclusive with communities and stakeholders — designing with, not designing for
  • How design thinking can be used to give marginalized populations a voice and a seat at the table
  • The changes and adaptations Lesley is making to her classes in response to COVID-19
  • The Designer’s Critical Alphabet


Our Guest’s Bio


Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel Is Afro-Trinidadian design educator, based in New Orleans. She 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. 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. Her research also highlights the work of designers outside of Europe and North America as an act of decolonizing design. Her identity is shaped by her ethnic background as an Afro-Trinidadian; her experience as a daughter, sister and mother; and her lived experiences in Trinidad and Tobago, Brazil, Tanzania, Uganda and the USA.

Show Highlights


[01:28] Lesley shares her path into design.

[02:05] Her time in Brazil.

[02:35] Returning to Trinidad and working as a design consultant and university professor.

[03:27] Coming to the U.S. for her Ph.D.

[04:40] How her life experiences have strongly influenced her work.

[05:11] Her interest in indigenous cultures and looking at different points of view.

[05:57] Her Design Research Society group’s focus on gathering design stories from Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the Caribbean.

[06:55] Lesley talks about how she teaches design thinking by starting with “who we are” and talking about positionality and identity.

[08:01] How the focus on identity and positionality changes the way Lesley and her students approach design.

[09:33] The importance of getting the stakeholders involved in the process.

[10:43] The way Lesley is using design thinking to amplify and reflect the voices of those often left unheard.

[11:33] Shifting the power from the university to the community, and letting community partners take the lead.

[12:40] Lesley talks more about the experiences and challenges of exploring identity and power in the classroom.

[15:21] Ways Lesley is working to ensure her students are aware of the agency and power of the communities they are working with.

[16:08] Ensuring the learning and information is flowing in both directions.

[17:05] How 2020’s current events are affecting her teaching and classes.

[19:08] The rewards of watching students grow their confidence and skills as designers.

[20:25] Lesley describes her classes and the academic culture shock some students have when they first get started.

[22:57] How Lesley uses unique creative challenges to help students tap into their ability to reflect, think, and design.

[23:31] The “design a game” challenge.

[24:27] The “create a recipe” challenge.

[25:11] Lesley has students redesign a design thinking format and design their own framework.

[27:02] What Lesley is doing to adapt her classes and coursework to the new realities of the COVID-19 crisis.

[29:43] Remote work pushes the need to create activities for relationship building and allocate enough time for them.

[32:16] Being intentional about relationship building.

[33:47] Designer’s Critical Alphabet card deck overview.

[34:23] The Designer’s Critical Alphabet’s purpose is to help designers look at a project with different lenses and perspectives.

[34:43] Lesley discusses a couple of the cards in depth.

[36:33] The Designer’s Critical Alphabet is a way for designers to learn and develop critical theory and vocabulary.

[37:19] Lesley’s students use the cards to learn new vocabulary, theories, and ideas.

[39:00] The Designer’s Critical Alphabets humble beginnings as a small side project.

[40:10] How Lesley’s viral LinkedIn post in June 2020 brought the Designer’s Critical Alphabet deck to a larger audience.

[42:23] Lesley’s one fear about the cards.

[44:26] The two things Lesley hopes the cards will encourage people to do.

[46:04] How to learn more about Lesley and her work.



Dr. Noel on TwitterDr. Noel on LinkedInDr. Noel’s websiteDr. Noel on Tulane University’s websiteA Designer’s Critical Alphabet Cards“Teaching and Learning Design Thinking through a Critical Lens at a Primary School in Rural Trinidad and Tobago”Dr. Noel’s work with emancipatory research and design thinkingCAE research conference call with Dr. Noel as she presents her research/processes in the field of critical design thinking with an emphasis on emancipatory process.


Other Design Thinking 101 Episodes You Might Like


How to Learn Design Thinking + Design Thinking Pedagogy with Julie Schell — DT101 E15


Design Thinking + Learning Science with Adam Royalty — DT101 E18


Rethinking Service Design + Student Projects + Community Systems with Amy O’Keefe — DT101 E56




Thank you for listening to the show and looking at the show notes. Send your questions, suggestions, and guest ideas to Dawan and the Fluid Hive team. Cheers ~ Dawan


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