Dr. Lesley Ann Noel has explored design opportunities all around the world, taking risks to find spaces and opportunities that she is passionate about, and making opportunities work for her. While she was born and raised in Trinidad and Tobago, Dr. Noel has had opportunities to explore design around the world. She received training in industrial design in Brazil, was an adjunct and eventually full-time faculty member at the University of the West Indies in Trinidad. She has also taught at Stanford University and North Carolina State University. She has a Master of Business Administration from the University of the West Indies, and she has a PhD in Design from North Carolina State University. At the time of this interview, in Fall 2019, Dr. Noel was a Professor of Practice and the Associate Director of Design Thinking for Social Impact at the Phyllis M. Taylor Center for Social Innovation and Design Thinking.
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Dr. Lesley Ann Noel has explored design opportunities all around the world, taking risks to find spaces and opportunities that she is passionate about, and making opportunities work for her. Dr. Noel was born and raised in Trinidad and Tobago, but because there was no undergraduate degree-level program in the design field at the university in Trinidad at that time, she was able to expand her design education in Brazil, starting first with graphic design, ending though with a degree in industrial design. After graduation, Dr. Noel had to find opportunities for herself, leading her to consultant work, often doing design consulting. After spending ten years primarily doing consultant work which allowed her opportunities to do design work all over the world, she became an adjunct faculty member for several years, after which she then became a full-time faculty member at the University of the West Indies in Trinidad and Tobago. Before her PhD, Dr. Noel received a master’s in business administration, and then a PhD in Industrial and Product Design from North Carolina State University. At the time of her interview, Dr. Noel is Professor of Practice and the Associate Director of Design Thinking for Social Impact at the Phyllis M. Taylor Center at Tulane University.
Dr. Noel’s identity plays an important part in her design work. She was born and subsequently grew up in the midst of the Black Power Movement in Trinidad. Her family was a middle-class Trinidadian family with a strong racial identity. Because of her family’s identity and the Black Power Movement, Dr. Noel was consistently exposed to clear images of herself and her power, never being shown that she was a minority. She “grew up thinking everything was possible, no injustice, never thinking there was anything that would keep me back, certainly not the color of my skin or the texture of my skin”. This mindset that she was raised with curated self-confidence that she took with her everywhere, never feeling like that there would be barriers that would prevent her from being a successful Black woman wherever she went. Dr. Noel’s own identity and experiences with privilege (like being able to travel for school, speaking English, being middle-class in Trinidad) have deeply influenced her work, especially her work in teaching design thinking, research and methods. She works to create spaces, in and out of the classroom, where her students and other collaborators can bring their whole identity in to the work they are doing.
As a professor of practice, Dr. Noel often is in spaces where she coaches or teaches people who are non-designers, taking them through the design process to identify problems and propose potential solutions. To Dr. Noel, design thinking is collaborative and multi-disciplinary and borrows the way designers think to address social problems, with broad outcomes and impacts, while design itself is typically focused on objects or materials, and specific outcomes. While some designers may focus directly on using design thinking jargon Dr. Noel doesn’t. She doesn’t like people to think design thinking is a specific recipe that you have to follow. Design itself can be done by anyone, even if you aren’t formally trained. Designers, and non-designers using design skills together, add value to collaborative problem solving because design thinking itself works to create a broad space for people of other disciplines to feel comfortable to participate in the process rather than feel alienated. Dr. Noel though makes sure to say that design thinking is never the end of the work being done, it ultimately leads to concepts created, but what matters for the outcome, is who is finishing that concept.
Dr. Noel’s advice for non-designers using design methods is reflective of her own experience in design. She encourages people, and her students themselves, to take risks, especially creative risks. These risks could be in careers or just in the work you are creating. Calling the design process itself “murky”, Dr. Noel sees that that there isn’t always an explicit way of doing something, so you need to be able to take a risk and be experimental. This means that the thing you are working on will take time and may have to be created over and over again. Non-designers need to be flexible and open when using design methods or design thinking, understanding that what you are doing is “navigating ambiguity” when you are doing this work. And, even though this can be a frustrating experience or process, the outcomes and the impact in the end are almost always worth learning how to get through that ambiguity.
The Hello from the Pluriverse Podcast aims to open up and create a space to have conservations about the pluriversality in design.
This podcast is a project of the Design Thinking for Social Innovation Program at the Phyllis M. Taylor Center for Social Innovation and Design Thinking at Tulane University.
Executive Producer: Lesley-Ann Noel, Ph.D
Hello from the Pluriverse 2020-2021 Student Team
- Natalie Hudanick (LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/nataliehudanick/) and Michaeline Anglemire (LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/michaeline-anglemire/) – Podcast Leads
- Tiwani Oseni (LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/tiwani-oseni-651516a2/)
Hello from the Pluriverse 2019-2020 Student Team