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Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel

Our paths have crossed several times over the past couple of years, but I finally managed to sit down and chat with the one and only Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel. Along with being an author, design educator, and community builder, she is one of the editors behind The Black Experience in Design: Identity, Expression & Reflection, a compilation of essays from over 70 Black designers, artists, curators, educators, students, and researchers.

Our conversation began with some good news about a recent grand that she won, and from there we talked about her areas research and what she teaches. Dr. Noel spoke about growing up in Trinidad and Tobago and studying design in Brazil, including becoming a Fulbright Scholar and arriving at North Carolina State University. She also talked about motivation, ambition, and about the importance of finding your own community.

Take Dr. Noel’s advice — the world of design is a lot bigger than you think!

Transcript

Full Transcript

Maurice Cherry:
All right. So tell us who you are and what you do.

Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel:
All right. So my name is Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel, and I’m an assistant professor of design at North Carolina State University. What I do is a hard question because I do a lot of things. I guess the main thing is that I teach design and I work as a design coach in a kind of consulting capacity. And then I do research because I’m at a research university. So I do research in education, public health, and community engagement. And then, I’m an author and an editor. And maybe I’m a convener. I like to bring people together to talk about design. Yes. So I’ll stop there.

Maurice Cherry:
Well, I was going to say I’m glad you mentioned author and convener, because you did bring so many people together, myself included for The Black Experience in Design book that published earlier this year.

Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel:
Yeah. So I’m one of six editors of that book. But I think you see my character and my outlook in the way that I brought people together, I suppose in the chapters that I worked on. Or when we were preparing the book, I brought people together to write together. Because I really believe in I guess the power of community. And I understand everybody’s journey with their own kind of imposter syndrome.

Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel:
So in that book, one of my key roles was just that. To bring people together and kind of tell people, “Oh my goodness, your writing is amazing. All you need to do is change this little thing.” If you have that kind of approach, people can become so much more productive. So I think that that’s an outlook that I take into a lot of the things that I do.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I remember those Saturday morning Zoom writing sessions. Those were really helpful.

Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel:
Yeah. I’ve been doing those maybe for about two and a half years. Actually when I went to Tulane, so I’ve worked at about four different universities. So when I was at Tulane University, I was introduced a little bit more to this culture of writing together with other people. I joined some of their writing workshops that my colleagues had organized. But then I started either joining other people’s writing workshops, or running my own. I have to say that is really what has made me really productive writing wise in the last two years or so, because I write so often. So now it’s like I write every day, I suppose.

Maurice Cherry:
And now you also recently won a grant too, right? The Outreach and Engagement Incentive Grants.

Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel:
Yeah. So I won a grant at NC State. It’s a small grant, but it was an exciting proposal to be funded. It’s called STEM Games Against Oppression. Right? And it was a kind of, I don’t want to say it was a crazy idea. Because the stakes are “low” because it’s a small grant and it’s an internal grant, I felt I could actually be very creative in the way that I put together the grant. So this grant combines a lot of things that I’m interested in. So Afrofuturism or speculative futures. Games. STEM, and teaching STEM in different ways. And of course design. So for this grant, we are going to work with a group. And then the other interest is teenage boys. That sounds weird to say it like that.

Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel:
My son is 14, and I kind of jokingly say to some of my friends a lot of my research has always been focused at whatever age he’s at. Right? So with this one, I’ve been thinking about how can science be more engaging or more interesting for 14 year old boys? So that’s what this grant is about, this project is about. Where these boys are going to discuss society, and oppression, and all of these things. But they’re going to make these games. And while they’re making the games, we’re going to introduce them to a lot of design-based STEM kind of concepts making. And I don’t know what the content is actually yet. But I’m excited about doing this work, which I’m going to start late fall.

Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel:
It was just exciting that I could win that kind of creative grant, to really bring together a lot of the things I was interested in and just create this experimental workshop where we’re just going to make these fun games. But while we’re making these fun games, we’re talking about society. We are going to do some 3D printing and AR/VR kind of stuff. So it’s creative, and it was exciting for that kind of creative activity to be seen as research. So hopefully, it’s another line of work that I’m going to be able to continue in the future.

Maurice Cherry:
I mean, it sounds like you’ve had a banner year so far. Not just this year, but last year also. I mean, before we started recording, I was just congratulating you on your honorary doctorate that you got from the Pacific Northwest College of Art. Have you kind of had a chance to celebrate all these wins? I mean the doctorate, the book, the grant. Have you had a chance to celebrate?

Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel:
No. No, I haven’t. And it’s strange to say it, but I know that the pandemic caused a lot of disruption for a lot of people. For me too. But the pandemic also created access in a way that I might not have had access before. I’m parenting. So before the pandemic, I was always weighing things and trying to figure out, “Okay, what can I say yes to? What can I say no to?” And most things I would have to say no to, because I couldn’t go and participate in things because of my son’s school year or something like that.

Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel:
So what happened with me with the pandemic is that because of these virtual meetings that we do, I could actually say yes to everything, right? Which is not a strategy that I recommend for a lot of people. But that is I suppose what has led to this bumpy year that because we weren’t physically going to places, I could now suddenly be involved in a lot of projects that I couldn’t have been involved in 2019. But also because of the pandemic, I haven’t had time to celebrate. Now I want to go somewhere and celebrate, but I haven’t actually been able to.

Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel:
Yeah, it’s been an exciting year. It’s an exciting year or a couple of years that have been the result of a lot of collaboration. So people might see me, but it’s hardly ever only about me. I love working with other people. So it’s a lot of these kinds of collaborations with other people that have created a lot of the results and the visibility that exists now.

Maurice Cherry:
I know what you mean about taking everything as it happens. I swear that summer, really I’d say from the summer of 2020 on to the end of that year, I just had this influx of opportunities that came in. And I didn’t say no to any of them because I could just do them all from home. So I know exactly what you mean by that, not having to kind of weigh the pros and cons. You can do it all because you happen to be in a place where you can do it all.

Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel:
Yeah. And actually, you reminded me of this other thing of course, which we have to talk about. As Black people, summer 2020 was I suppose a year of hyper visibility for Black designers. So there were a lot more opportunities that would’ve come … or certainly for me. Let me not speak for everybody. A lot more opportunities, many more opportunities came my way after summer 2020. And I didn’t have to worry about could I accept them or not. So that’s why I guess I’m visible now and I’m able to celebrate these things. The book, the honorary doctorate, all of these things. Because really the visibility for us professionally changed that summer.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. It really did. And it’s interesting because now just two years later now, really kind of looking back on it, I mean we’re recording this right around the time a lot of this stuff happened back in 2020. It’s almost two years to the day when a lot of this really happened. And it’s amazing to see how things have changed just in terms of not only visibility, but also that attention. I don’t know about you. But for me, I feel like the attention has pretty much just completely died down. Like companies that said they were going to do stuff haven’t done it yet. Or they made a pledge and they never actually went through with it. That sort of thing.

Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel:
I’m an academic. Right? And I guess I’ve maybe been able to use visibility in a slightly different way to other designers. Right? So it’s like if then that hyper visibility of that year and a half or those two years has given me … I don’t want to say it like this, but I will say it like this. It’s like that has given me permission or validation to do other things. Because then, my name became known as a designer who talks about equity or a designer who talks about social justice. I’m kind of channeling that into the research that I want to do or the community engagement that I want to do.

Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel:
So it’s not quite that I’m depending on the companies that said that they would be doing stuff to do this stuff because I’m in academia. But I am using the little bit of validation that I got during those 18 months then to underpin some of the work that I want to do. Right? Whether it’s this work about futures, and Afrofuturism, and how we combining that with design and world building, right? At least I could use the little bit of name recognition that I created in that time to now continue to do this other work.

Maurice Cherry:
Speaking of being an academic, you mentioned teaching at North Carolina State University. How has it been teaching and going through all this over the past few years?

Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel:
So an interesting thing that I found out during the pandemic is that I love teaching online, which is strange. I enjoy teaching face-to-face or online. But what I really enjoyed about working online … and there were ups and downs, right? But I first taught online in I think 2018 or 2019. So just before the pandemic. When we went into that crisis in March 13th, I already had two different experiences to build on. One, I worked at the d.school at Stanford in 2018 to 2019, and I did teach some Zoom-based classes then. And then 2019 to 2020, I was at Tulane. And at Tulane, we had to have a crisis management plan where we had to practice teaching online before the pandemic. We didn’t know the pandemic was coming. It was just part of hurricane crisis management.

Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel:
So from those experiences, I already had some experience in things like bringing music into the classroom while on the Zoom call or changing up my Zoom backgrounds. I’d already started using these kind of warmup activities to get people comfortable online. So certainly the early days of the pandemic, I actually really enjoyed teaching online. There’s some frustration. As a design teacher, one thing that is complicated or difficult to manage is that we don’t have the same relationship with materials when we’re working remotely. But then we can experiment with other things, like maybe drawing together on a virtual whiteboard. I did some activities where people had to take photographs and add them to the virtual whiteboard. So I really enjoyed that.

Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel:
I think that the last semester that was kind of hybrid was the worst point of the pandemic, because you can’t do both at the same time well. So I really wanted to be either online or in-person, but not both. Because there are these other issues that people hadn’t thought about. Like maybe we can’t hear properly when we’re in that kind of format with booths. Or our classroom suddenly became very accessible during the pandemic. And then when we went back to this kind of strange hybrid space, it became inaccessible again. I had one or two students who just couldn’t come to the classroom anymore because of accessibility issues like stairs and stuff like that. Right?

Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel:
But what else can I say about the experience? The accessibility issue, the pandemic broad accessibility. Or let me not say the pandemic, but teaching remotely made some classes and design classes accessible in ways that they might not have been before. Like throughout the pandemic, I taught hearing impaired people in many different settings, and I never had a lot of engagement with the deaf community before the pandemic. Right? So I that has always been something that has concerned me as we kind of go back to business as usual. What about all the accessibility that we created? Where is it going to go?

Maurice Cherry:
Now you mentioned North Carolina State University being a research university. Can you talk a bit about what research you’re working on?

Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel:
Yeah. Well maybe, first I’m going to talk about one thing that I teach that might be tied to research. So I teach a class called contemporary issues in art and design. And it is a class about … well contemporary issues yes. But it’s equity and social justice. And that’s kind of one of the areas that underpins some of the engagement, because we do research and engagement. And the public engagement that I’m interested in is very equity and social justice focused.

Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel:
So out of that class, I’ve been doing writing that’s related to the content of that class. So about race, gender, disability, all of these oppression issues. And I’m starting to bring that into the research that I have to say I want to do, because I’m a new assistant professor at NC State. So not all of it has started.

Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel:
But there are three areas of research that I plan to continue working in. Right? So the first one is tied to education. And it is about using design, and design principles, and design pedagogy, the way that we teach and learn design. And using that to make STEM education more accessible.

Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel:
I see this also as a justice issue. So that’s why I said it’s tied to that class that I teach. So when I was at Tulane, we started to do this tiny experiment where we turned a math class into a design class. And that’s a little bit of an example of where I see that research going. Where I worked with a professor, a math professor at Tulane called Marie Dahleh. And she taught me about something called ordinary differential equations, which I knew nothing about before. But when I did a little bit of research, I found it is about actually predicting the future. She might not describe it as that. And mathematicians might not describe it as that. But as someone who’s interested in futures, that’s the thing that I grabbed onto. This equation is to predict the future. And then we turned the math class into a design class about predicting the future and then using the equation to somehow support the prediction. Right?

Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel:
And I’m playing with making STEM curricular really exciting, engaging, future-focused, and critical at the same time. So maybe overlaying a lot of things, but it is a track that I’ve been following for a little while. In my PhD research, I worked with children who were in fourth grade. And at that time, they had to discuss society and the world around them and then take action through design. And I’m really just continuing that research and saying well okay, you’re going to discuss society. Yes. Take action through design, but we are going to make the STEM principles that are attached to the action that you’re taking a little bit more explicit. So that’s one area of research that I’m involved in.

Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel:
Another area of research. And again, this is tied to another collaborator again at Tulane. This is Alessandra Bazzano. And in this area of research, we are looking at how can we use the way that designers think, talk, express themselves, the way designers use materials. How can we use all of these things to support patients or members of the public to talk about their public health experience more, or more clearly? So we did some workshops where for example, we gave people prototyping materials. And then we asked them to make something related to their pandemic experience, and then use that thing that they had made as a prompt to open up and talk about issues related to public health, right? Or could we get people to use photographs that they had taken as a prompt to get people to talk more about their public health experience in the pandemic? So that’s another area of research, which is related to patient-centered outcomes research, which is a whole area of research in public health. But it is using design methods and these design ways of thinking to support that patient centered outcomes research.

Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel:
And then the third area of research that I’m into is civic and social innovation, where we are building capacity within cities to get more people within the city or from the public to go through the design process together to address social issues. Right? So it’s civic or social engagement through design. So I mean, maybe I explain all three badly. But these are the three areas that I’m interested in. STEM education, public health, or patient-centered outcomes, and civic and social engagement. And all through design.

Maurice Cherry:
I think it’s really interesting that you are doing this as you mentioned, all through design. Even the first part that you mentioned about math really kind of struck me, because my degree is in math. So you start talking about differential equations. That took me right back to my 2002 differential equations class at Morehouse with my professor, Dr. Bozeman and him talking about how a lot of engineers and stuff, they use differential equations for futures predictions. For example, if you want to predict the spread of an oil spill, you would use differential equations to try to figure that out. You’re predicting it. You don’t know for sure. But with calculus being the rate of change across a certain period of time or across a certain distance, differential equations helps you to try to chart those paths and stuff. So you’re right on with that. Certainly. It’s really just interesting that you’re able to do all this and tie design into all of it.

Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel:
Yeah. And it’s about access an agency, and creating access and agency through design. But I’ll just share like a little bit of feedback that the professor I was working with that she gave. After we did that math class, that was a design class. She said, “There were different students engaged in the class today. And that’s interesting.” Because there’s some students who just expect, they’re going to love everything about math. But she said, “When we turned the math class into the design class, there were different people who were involved,” because there were people who were involved because maybe they were acting as they presented the future scenario that they had predicted. So I think can we use design to get people engaged in different ways around STEM education, public health, and social innovation? These are the three little pockets I’m interested in.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. And I have to say, I think that’s important for designers now to really think about. So much I feel like design within the past maybe decade or so has really largely been product focused and UX focused. I think as certainly technology, and tech companies, and social media and stuff have started to really become these pervasive entities in our lives. There’s so many designers now that are just getting into product, or UX, or something, but not thinking about other areas of practice where they could use their design. Like the stuff that you’re talking about with social innovation, other non-product oriented design work, community engagement. Speculative futures, which is related to an article that you just published recently. I think it’s important to show that these options are options.

Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel:
These options are options. And then also, we create these options. There’s something that I say all the time. So someone’s going to listen to this interview and say, “Oh my God, she’s saying this again.” But when I was finishing up undergrad just before the end, our professor said something like, “You make yourselves relevant?” I did industrial design. And he says, “Nobody needs any industrial designers anywhere.” But you are the one who kind of make yourself relevant to the conversations that everyone is having. So it’s like we make these opportunities for ourselves. So we don’t only have to talk about product and tech. There is work for us as designers in education, in even project management. Because to be a good designer, you know how to manage things, and manage time, and manage people. So these skills kind of don’t have to stay within the design world. We can take these skills and move them to other sectors where the opportunity might be so obvious.

Maurice Cherry:
Absolutely. Absolutely. Well said. Also at North Carolina State University, you’re co-chair of the Pluriversal Design Special Interest Group, which is part of the Design Research Society. Talk to me about that.

Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel:
All right. So that’s an exciting little research group. So the Design Research Society is supposed to be the largest professional organization for design research in the world actually. And they do an annual conference. There’s one that’s going to happen in June or would’ve happened by the time this is. So they do a conference every two years. And I’ve been a member of this association for about five years. Right?

Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel:
So when I used to go to the annual conference, I used to be very struck that nobody was discussing stuff that I wanted to talk about. Right? And when I say I wanted to talk about, I mean as a Black woman from Trinidad and Tobago. It doesn’t have to be about race, I suppose. But as somebody from the global south, I found there was no one talking about design in ways that I really wanted to talk to. But if in the conference I met someone from Brazil, from Nigeria, from any other place other than Europe or North America, I found that we started to have more overlap of issues.

Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel:
So we created this research group, myself and colleague Renata Marques Leitao, we had created this little research group to focus on issues in design from a non-European and non-North American perspective. Right? Also issues related to challenging the dominant narrative in design. Challenging that kind of white Euro American perspective in design. So this group became a group to talk about these types of issues within this Design Research Society. So it was like where could you find stories about practice from designers in South Africa and in India, for example. This became the group where we could have these kind of multicultural or cross cultural conversations in a way where … in design or very often, these kinds of conversations come with a little bit of a hierarchy where it’s kind of assumed that the person who is from America or from Europe has more authority or more knowledge than the person from wherever else. And this group challenges a lot of that kind of conversation.

Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel:
So we’ve been around since 2018. It’s a vibrant group where the most vibrant thing that we do is actually a book club where we focus on design. We focus on who designers should be reading, authors that designers should be reading that are not from Europe or North America. People from within the group suggest people, so one week we had worked by a Puerto Rican feminist, Aurora Levins Morales. Another week we had someone talking about, N. K. Jemisin who is American, but is not part of that dominant white male perspective.

Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel:
So we bring all of these authors that we think people need to hear from and talk about that, and talk about how their work affects design. And then we share stories about practice. We share research. And it is a group then that is focused on decolonizing design, but not only talking about decolonizing design. Because a lot of people talk about decolonizing design, but it remains as just talk. And in group, we’re asking people to share practice, and share stories. And kind of like, what are you doing that is not focusing on maybe more traditional ways of doing design? How are you shaking things up in your own design practice? And can you share this with us?

Maurice Cherry:
I know you mentioned that about decolonizing design, and it reminded me about well one, I know Dr. Dori Tunstall is doing a lot of work in driving conversations around that. I remember, I think this might have been maybe a couple of years ago, there was some pushback from another Black designer about even using that term decolonizing design. I believe it was … oh my goodness. I think it was Saki Mafundikwa from Zimbabwe. He had written this piece for AIGA’s Eye on Design kind of pushing back on that term. I think thinking of colonialism in the more imperialistic sense, particularly with him being African. Pushing back on that term like can you really say you’re decolonizing design as an American?

Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel:
Right. So that’s a good point of view. Actually, we had a conversation … when I say our conversation, I mean our group, we led a discussion a few months ago where we actually said that you probably should be an existential crisis if you’re a designer to be. Because you might want to talk about something like decolonizing design, but actually design is modernist and colonial. So how do we decolonize this? And when we decolonize it, is it still going to be design? Even that’s going to be part of the future existential crisis. It might not be design when we reach whatever place we think decolonization is.

Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel:
And it’s not actually a place, it’s a journey. And the work that I’ve been doing, I guess my step towards this whole decolonizing work is every issue that I look at, I keep asking myself, “Well, what is my perspective as person X?” Which to be really reductionist, this Black woman is from the Caribbean or Black mother from the Caribbean. So that informs a lot of the issues that I am focusing on. And I think that that’s my small step towards decolonizing given the space where I’m practicing as a designer and as a design researcher in my very authentic way. I don’t want to say an authentic way. It’s my way. And I encourage other people to do that. Bring your way into the process. And I see that us moving towards decolonizing the work, right?

Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel:
Because a few years ago, maybe five, six years ago, I really thought about how I would see students kind of struggling to fit in or kind of struggling to replicate what they thought good design was.

Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel:
So I travel a lot or I used to travel a lot, but I went to a design school in India. And at that point, at first I was like, “This is kind of interesting.” To see the similarity in the design world between Brazil, and Trinidad, and India. But actually on the other hand, I found it really disturbing that all of these students would’ve come into design school with their vibrant, vibrant identities, and maybe leave with this more homogenized outlook. And I think that my step towards decolonizing design is making sure that that doesn’t happen. Right? Getting people to really bring themselves back into the design process.

Maurice Cherry:
Now we’ve talked a lot about your work. But I really want to kind of dive more into your origin story, because you’ve sort of dropped some little breadcrumbs here and there about going to India, and Brazil, and stuff like that. I know you’re originally from Trinidad and Tobago. So let’s start there. Tell me about growing up there. What was your childhood like?

Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel:
Yeah. I grew up, from Trinidad who might be listening to this, I’m from Diamond Vale Diego Martin. I had probably a really kind of ordinary, middle class kind of existence. And I was a middle child. So growing up in my sister’s shadow and then kind of the baby after me. But you probably want to know about okay, design in Trinidad. And people in Trinidad don’t see this, but Trinidad is a very designerly place. Right? Because we have carnival culture. So it means that you are talking and thinking about design every year. And it’s a very fashion-conscious place.

Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel:
So there’s a design language in Trinidad that I think people use from [inaudible 00:37:48], and at different festivals. Maybe they’re talking about design with regard to the way bamboo structures are made for some of the festivals and things like that. You know? So there’s that designerly sensibility I think all the time.

Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel:
The first design that I remember is in the equivalent of sixth grade, which is like form one. I remember designing maybe my first carnival costume and doing some work with lettering, which I still had. I still have somewhere. I saw the image the other day. But I can’t say that I know when I made the real conscious choice that design would’ve been it, right? But I guess maybe somewhere between 10th grade and 11th grade, this was the path that I joined. I became a ‘designer’ from that age, became really interested in things like typography. I did a lot of book covers in school. I remember one design exam where I did a popup book with Christopher Columbus. So maybe this was me already challenging the world. Right? So Christopher Columbus was sailing across the ocean. And then when you pulled the little tab, he fell off the flat earth or something like that. But I always thought that design was exciting.

Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel:
I went to high school where art and design were really considered respectable professions or respectable areas. My parents probably wondered if I would’ve been able to pay for myself, survive as a designer. But my parents were really very open-minded and maybe focused on making sure that their children felt empowered. So when I wanted to study in Brazil, nobody ever told me no.

Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel:
So actually, maybe I have to go backtrack a little bit and say how I ended up in Brazil. But I couldn’t study design in the way that I wanted to in Trinidad. And again, my parents, because they spoke a language that was very open. They kind of said, “Well, you could study anywhere in the world, as long as we don’t have to pay for it.”

Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel:
And that’s a good challenge to give 17 year old or 18 year old child. Right? Because I then started to just look for places around the world that I could study and my parents wouldn’t have to pay for it. Because what they were saying is that, “If we have to pay for it, we are going to tell you where you have to study. If you want to study anywhere, then you find the opportunity.”

Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel:
So eventually, I ended up starting school in Bahia in Brazil. So I started graphic design in Bahia in Federal University of Bahia, but then eventually I moved to a town called Curitiba in the south of Brazil. And I did industrial design. And I spent a really long time in Brazil. But it was an amazing … I actually spent six years in Brazil. An amazing six years where I was just able to grow without family influence. I just really became very independent and very worldly. I lived in a community, a university community that was very politically conscious and politically active.

Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel:
So my interest in equity and social justice really started then with my roommates who were in social sciences and psychology. Because we didn’t have those conversations in design. Those conversations were happening on other floors in the building that I studied in. But those fueled me and world view.

Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel:
From Brazil, I went back to Trinidad in the late ’90s. And then kind of almost immediately started working as a kind of design consultant with agencies that was somehow tied to export. So within Trinidad, I worked as a consultant with our trade and export agency for a few years. Then I worked with, there was a regional agency, Caribbean Export. I worked with them also as a consultant. Then I worked in East Africa in different places. Uganda, Tanzania, Kenya also as a consultant in trade and export. And, I was also adjunct faculty at the same time at the University of the West Indies in design.

Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel:
But I suppose it’s a little bit of that work with the export agencies, because this is kind of like development, international development kind of work. That work encouraged me to ask questions that eventually led me to do a PhD. And there was pressure from the university as well, because I eventually moved from being an adjunct to full-time. And you probably know how this academic thing is, but you probably need a PhD if you’re going to stay in academia.

Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel:
So it was both the internal pressure from the university as well as these questions I was asking about the work we were doing as designers working in the area of development that eventually led me to do a PhD. Because I just thought that we needed to be asking harder questions, different questions. Really about how do we engage communities? What’s our role as designers when we are doing this work with people and trying to tell them, “This is the kind of product you need to make to get more sales and export you.” I just thought that we needed to reflect more on the work that we were doing. And I took a step back, and I started to apply to PhD programs in the mid, I don’t even even know how to call that decade in 2015. With no name.

Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel:
So how did I end up here in the states? I actually got a Fulbright award. NC State, and the Fulbright Association have a good relationship. So it was a school that was recommended to me. I knew about the work that NC State was doing in education and design education. And that’s kind of how I ended up with the Fulbright Award. And because of NC State’s reputation, I ended up applying here, and coming here, and really enjoying the program. I spent three years here. I did not actually pursue the questions that I was thinking about pursuing, where I was thinking about design and development, because I was interested in education as well. My PhD is more tied to design education and developing critical design curriculum. So design curricula where people are asking hard questions about society. That was what my PhD research was about.

Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel:
But yeah, I spent three years here. Then I spent a year at Stanford and two years at Tulane. And now I’m back here at NC State. So I don’t know if that’s an origin story, but that’s a little bit of a story.

Maurice Cherry:
I mean, that’s quite a journey. I think what I kind of want to pull from that is what drove you to really make these big jumps not just geographically, but culturally? I mean, you’re going from Trinidad to Brazil, then from Brazil back to Trinidad, and then from Trinidad to the states. So there’s that. But then also it seems like you’re also leveling up educationally and vocationally I should say, in each situation. You’re going to undergraduate in Brazil. You’re pursuing your masters and working in Trinidad. Now you’re pursuing your PhD in the states. What was driving you during that time? What was really fueling that ambition?

Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel:
Oh my goodness. I don’t even know. So what got me to Brazil … or maybe I’ll give a kind of umbrella statement. I’ve had people around me who have made me feel that I could do anything. So it was like the openness of that conversation with my parents. So that challenge that they gave me, that got me to go to Brazil. That got me to find Brazil as a place to go to. Right? Or little things that I would’ve heard from that professor in undergrad that made me just feel fearless.

Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel:
For most of my adult or professional life, I have felt that I could do anything. I have to say I’m grateful to the people around me who have made me feel like I can do anything. I guess the leveling up is just kind of what had to be done. That was part of the opportunity. I wouldn’t really have come to the states maybe without doing the PhD. But again, the people around me just made me think, “Well okay, of course you can go and get a PhD. Why wouldn’t you be able to get a PhD?” You know? Or, “Of course go to Brazil. Why wouldn’t you be able to go to Brazil?”

Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel:
So I’ve had that kind of empowering language around me all the time. And that has opened up my world. I really would say though, that I credit my parents for giving me the openness to think of going to Brazil. And I will say to any parent who might be listening to this, that changed my whole outlook on life. Because learning a new language, learning a new culture, that kind of removed all of the barriers on the world. Because I was able to do that, encourage other parents, “Push your children to kind of open up their worlds a little bit more.” That open world will just continue to take you to other places.

Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel:
So of course Brazil, that experience of going back and forth between Trinidad and Brazil for six years made it seem like going between Trinidad and Tanzania for a few months, or Trinidad and Kenya, it was just another thing like that. All of this travel, and getting to know new cultures, and new people, and understanding that the world happens differently for other people. And that curiosity of wanting to know more about how other people experience the world. All that started because of that very open experience I had, I think in undergrad.

Maurice Cherry:
And what is it that sort of keeps you motivated and inspired these days?

Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel:
There are a few things. I’m still very excited about conversations with other people in other parts of the world, and how they live, and think, and do. So the Pluriversal Design group is a little bit of that. How do we create a space where we can really listen to how other people, whoever other is, how people do things differently. So that’s one thing that continues to inspire me, just my curiosity about other people in the world. So that also affects the way that I do research, because that’s why I’m interested I suppose in anthropology, or anthropological methods, or ethnographic methods. Because I have that curiosity about the world and people.

Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel:
What continues to inspire me as well is that … well, this is where we get wishy washy, I suppose. Because I think my son, and my niece, and my nephew. What is the world that they’re going into? I suppose that’s why I’ve always had this one area of research that has focused on child centered methods or questions that I think are from a child’s point of view, or questions about making things better for other children so that other children don’t have to deal with some of the legacy systems that we have that don’t work. I’ve been very interested in redesigning or challenging things that we think just have to be the way they are. Right? So one example I’ll give is we have an exam in Trinidad called the Common Entrance Exam. And that is actually one of the things that started my PhD research when I changed direction. I was like, “But why do we even have to have that exam?” And that’s why I started to do that research.

Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel:
So that’s something that continues to inspire me. How can we change the things that don’t work? And that’s also tied to my interest in futurism or Afrofuturism, because it’s how do we build new things, and new worlds, and new systems? How do we use design to do all of that? So I’m very interested in first having these critical conversations so that we could see clearly the things that don’t work, because sometimes we’ve been so brainwashed, that we don’t actually see the systems that don’t serve us. So everything that I do has to start off with that kind of conversation where we actually talk about what are the things that are wrong? But then we don’t just stay in that space of talking about the things that are wrong. We try to kind of move beyond that and take action through design. So I mean, that kind of social change also is something that motivates me as well. So I guess internally, it’s a curiosity. And then externally, it’s about changing systems, and fighting oppression, and social justice, and equity, and stuff like that.

Maurice Cherry:
What advice would you want to tell any designers out there listening who might be feeling a bit lost right now as to what to do with their future? And I’m asking this because I’ve had several people right into the show, particularly over the past two years, that maybe they just got out of design school through the pandemic. They got a job, but it’s not what they wanted, because they’re working from home, which is not really an ideal place for them to work, because this is their first job. And in some cases, it’s their first department.

Maurice Cherry:
And then there’s also people that have been working at places … I mean, we’re recording this right now in mid-June. But there’s been a huge slate of design and layoffs in the tech community over the past couple of weeks now. And some people have just ridden into the show just wanting some advice like, “I don’t know what to do now with my future.” What advice would you tell them?

Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel:
I’m not actually going to give people the job advice. I’m going to ask them about the non-job stuff. Right? Or my advice might be about the non-job. So one thing is about finding community or creating community. So because your job might be fantastic, but maybe you’re lonely in your job. But it’s like we need other people to go along this journey with us. Right? And they make the process more interesting, more exciting. They might validate us as we do the work. So like for me personally, when we created that Pluriversal Design group, that kind of changed again my outlook on the world. Because my group was also then feeding me and my work, you know? So for people who might be a little bit lost, I would definitely advise them to make sure that they’re not just doing this alone. Right? And find these groups, whether there’s a meetup group about the area of design that you’re interested in. Or groups probably exist or you can create the group, but you don’t find that community.

Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel:
And then the other bit of advice I would give people is figure out what your passion project is so that you aren’t only pouring your energy or your creative energy into the work that your employer is giving you. There must be a side creative project that is also feeding you. And maybe that’s the project that you’ll get known for later on. Right? Or maybe that’s going to be the thing that’s really going to eventually take over, and pay your bills, and whatnot. Right?

Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel:
But I think that for me professionally, those two things of making sure that they’ve always been communities of support, and then making sure that I’m doing work that is very, very fulfilling and satisfying. Even if that’s not the work that the employer’s giving me. I think that those two components of me, and my life, and my work have been really important. So that’s what I’d recommend to young designers. Find that stuff. And then the professional work hopefully will get better because of those two buckets.

Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel:
And then maybe a third bit of advice I would give to young designers is just about, well this is tied to the community thing. Networking sounds crass or crude, but make sure that you are yes, meeting people and telling them about their work so that you’re not invisible. I think that that’s also really important to be talking to new people often about the work that you do. And that’s going lead into other opportunities in the future.

Maurice Cherry:
What do you appreciate the most about your life right now?

Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel:
I like gardening. But actually, because I talk about design in a very abstract way now, because I teach about the design process and maybe helping people to see the design process. This means that I now see the design process as I’m gardening, or as I’m cooking, or as I’m dressing in the morning. And all of this, I do appreciate. I really do love choosing where I’m going to put that gladioli bulb in my garden, or choosing which salt I’m going to use as I cook dinner. I think there’s a real ordinariness in my life now that I’m happy for. I’m very appreciative for. Because I move a lot. I’ve had like a lot of chaos I suppose, or kind of been in constant flux. So what I really appreciate now is not being in flux like that, and just being able to relax and watch the plants grow.

Maurice Cherry:
Where do you see yourself in the next five years? What kind of work would you love to be doing?

Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel:
So I really want to continue doing the civic and social innovation work that I’m doing. I do some of this work with a foundation. And I’d love to do more of it with other cities. So what I do is I work with a city for about nine months, and we address some issue that the city has been interested in. Right? And I really enjoy that work. I love working with design students at the College of Design. But I also love working with people who are using design for the first time.

Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel:
So in five years’ time, I hope to be doing more either public engagement or research around Design for Social Innovation. And working with cities and close to, whether here in North Carolina or back in Trinidad or in the Caribbean. But I really like that kind of public design work that is done with community members and maybe local government representatives, and having people co-create solutions to the issues that they’re concerned about. So I hope to be doing that more of that in five years’ time.

Maurice Cherry:
Well just to kind of wrap things up here, where can our audience find out more information about you, about your work? Where can they find all of that online?

Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel:
So I’m on a lot of different platforms. But actually, LinkedIn is probably the best place for people to find me. They just have to look for my name, Lesley-Ann Noel. L-E-S-L-E-Y. That’s the thing. So if they want to know more about the general work that I’m doing, LinkedIn is the place. As an academic, I’ll repost some of the academic articles that I’ve written on ResearchGate. And then I’m also pretty active on Twitter actually. But if people Google me, they’ll find me on some platform that they can reach out to me. And I actually do respond to people generally. But LinkedIn is generally the easiest place to find me.

Maurice Cherry:
Sounds good. Well Lesley-Ann Noel, I want to thank you so much for coming on the show. This has been a long time coming I think. I feel like you and I have intersected quite a few times over the past few years, so I’m really glad to finally have you on the show. Not just to of course share your story and your research, but I think to inspire. I mean, so much of what you’re doing is about pursuing your own curiosities and interests. And I think that’s something sometimes as designers, we tend to lose sight of. Especially if you’re like working in product, I hate to say that. But if you’re working in UX or product, it’s hard to kind of see the forest for the trees sometimes because what you’re doing is so laden into a specific thing, whereas it sounds like at least you’ve been able to indulge a lot of your creativity across many different passions throughout your career, which is just super inspiring to hear about. I’m sure of course, we’ll hear about you now for years and years to come. So thank you so much for coming on the show. I appreciate it.

Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel:
Thank you so much for the invitation. And I hope that at least this conversation is able to help people see that they could kind of craft a bit of a path that works for them. Even when the path looks like it’s been clearly marked, they could kind of shake up the path a little bit and do a little bit of what they want hopefully. So thank you for the invitation.

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