Two different journeys into Design Thinking for Social Impact in New Orleans

This is the first in a series of conversations between the newest design thinking faculty at the Taylor Center for Social Innovation and Design Thinking at Tulane University. Enjoy their conversations as they get to know each other and create a working relationship. Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel is the Associate Director of Design Thinking for Social Impact and Rafe Steinhauer is a Visiting Assistant Professor in Design Thinking.

What was your journey into design and design thinking (or design for social innovation)

Rafe: Hi Lesley! Let’s get this started. We are both relatively new to Tulane’s Taylor Center for Social Innovation and Design Thinking. We’ve already discovered organically that we have some overlapping interests and experiences, as well as some divergent ones. But perhaps I’m getting ahead of myself. How would you introduce yourself to this audience (of one, me, and possibly more…?)?

Lesley: Well, Rafe … hmmmmmm it depends lol, So that’s a loaded question lol. So I’m a designer who teaches design thinking :D. Over the years I’ve spent a lot of time working with people who wouldn’t consider themselves designers, and leading them through a design process around different types of problems, often social problems but sometimes more typical product development and user experience type of work. So the simple introduction is that I’m a designer who is leading other people to think like designers, and I’m most interested in doing this in a way that ‘invisible’ people benefit either because they are the ones who I’m leading or because the design work will impact them directly. How do you introduce yourself?

Rafe: It is a loaded question — I see that now. To use your model, I’m an educator and entrepreneur who teaches design thinking. I first heard the term “design thinking” in graduate school. Prior to graduate school, I had co-founded two companies and taught in a variety of contexts. Design thinking initially resonated with me for two reasons: first, design thinking helped me understand why my approach to the first company was so misguided whereas our approach to the second company was accidentally better; second, learning design thinking forced me to grow in ways that felt core to what I believed education should achieve, including increases in self-worth, self-awareness, empathy, systems thinking, collaboration, meta-cognition, and creativity. Although my understanding of design thinking has shifted in small and large ways, I still find joy in sharing those two experiences with others: that design thinking is an effective way of organizing teams towards achieving goals in complex environments (including, but far beyond, entrepreneurship); that design thinking is an effective pedagogical vehicle for attitudes, mindsets and abilities that are under-addressed in many traditional educational settings. And while I’m still an educator, my entrepreneurship has shifted to intrapreneurship: helping universities launch initiatives in design thinking for societal impact.

It strikes me that we represent two different “personas” in design thinking: Designers (“with a capital D”) like you who are trained and practiced in design disciplines; and people like me, without that background who have come to understand how valuable approaching our work in a designerly fashion might be. As we all work together on this relatively new thing, design thinking … What advice would you give to me, as someone without training in a design discipline? And what advice would you give to those who do come to design thinking from a design discipline?

Lesley: I love that question. I also like bringing ‘D’s and ‘d’s together. I love working with the multidisciplinary teams in the design thinking workshops and classes and I love supporting design students to design great work. My advice to people who come into design thinking without training in a design discipline is to have fun and experiment and embrace some of the behaviors that help designers make good or better work, such as the levels of experimentation, iteration, quirkiness and generally an openness to taking creative risks. I find that these are sometimes the more difficult mindsets to teach. A lot of people get the empathy or human-centered part, even though they mightn’t always do it in a way that works well, but sometimes I think it’s harder to get people to understand things like ‘there isn’t just one way’, the answer really is ‘it depends’, that they have to be as intentional in the way they present their work as they were throughout the design process. The advice I have for designers coming into design thinking is: forget the territoriality, fully embrace the interdisciplinarity and learn from working with others; feel confident that they do know what design thinking is, despite whoever says that they don’t; and really pull out their design skills and abilities to contribute to an amazing solution to whatever problem they are working on. Of course I am biased ;), but designers add magic to the teams that they are in! Having both types in the design thinking teams is a win for everyone.

Rafe: Your advice resonates a lot with my experience — that the empathy/ethnography/synthesis behaviors came easier to me than the experimenting behaviors. This was especially true in social impact work in which well-meaning experimentation can cause unintended harms; so it was all the easier to retreat into the more comfortable aspects of design thinking (interviewing, observing, mapping, and understanding). This begs the question of how to do experimenting and creative risk-taking well when working across cultures and communities. But that sounds like a good place to start our next conversation!



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Lesley-Ann Noel

Lesley-Ann Noel


Asst. Prof @NorthCarolina State University. Creator of the Designer’s Critical Alphabet and the Positionality Wheel. Proud Trini! Contact me @mamaazure.