Designer's Critical Alphabet
Photo credit: LinkedIn Lesley-Ann Noel
Pedagogy, paper, text
Ongoing research into the labor condition of creation and distribution of the design
Lesley-Ann Noel, PhD
Helps design students and professional designers create work that serves more people, especially people commonly pushed to the side by dominant power structures.
Available for purchase online at €44.84. Noel makes it easy for people who use the deck to contact her via several addresses to make improvement suggestions
Works to teach designers and design students how to consider people typically marginalized and different from normative constructions
Ongoing research into the circulation of paper and digital versions of the Designer's critical alphabet
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Helping Designers Create for Multiple Demographics
The Designer’s Critical Alphabet (DCA) helps design students and professional designers create work that serves more people, especially people commonly pushed to the side by dominant power structures. The humble DCA is a stack of 26 colorful cards. But each card introduces a critical theory that identifies power structures, how power circulates, and how those with power maintain it. The cards move alphabetically rather than numerically; it begins with “assimilation” and ends with “zero-sum thinking” and includes a card for each letter in between. It’s a simple tool intended to address monumental social problems.
Making Critical Theory Approachable and Applicable
Every aspect of the cards focuses on making critical theory approachable and applicable. These are important goals, as the term “critical theory” can dissuade practitioners from investigating such ideas. The phrase has become associated with people who philosophize rather than make, write rather than produce. But Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel, who conceptualized, manufactures, and sells the deck, knows that designers need the ideas within the “critical theory” category.
The appearance and style of writing make the cards easy to use. They’re bright, cheerful, and small. Each theory receives only a few sentences, which proves long enough to provide a thoughtful overview without overwhelming the user. The deck fits in a pocket, making it easy to transport and reference often.
But approachable isn’t enough—they’re also applicable. Several reflective questions follow each concise overview on each card, which creates a bridge between the big ideas and whatever project is at hand. One of the cards evinces this effort. The “Y” card doesn’t contain a critical theory as such, but the word “You.” It says,
“You play an active role in change and transformation. You have the agency to question what is happening around you and to take action as a response. Design may be one form of response. What are the attitudes needed to be a manager, change agent, facilitator or researcher?”
This focus on the user makes the DCA an effective pedagogical tool that informs and facilitates integration to enable users to identify who they currently design for and who they might (accidentally) be ignoring.
Turning the Design Cannon against its Power Structures
The DCA plays with conceptions of power in its aesthetics, turning a visual style embraced by wealthy individuals, institutions, and governments in Europe and North America on its head. The simple structure, pure colors, and sanserif fonts echo the visual indicators of wealth used by the powerful since the turn of the 1900s. But here, the styles undermine those powers by helping create social equality.
These were intentional decisions made by Noel, who notes design education has not kept up with social progress. She writes,
“Design education was not critical when I studied back in the nineties. Back then we were still only interested in form and function. I learned a different language through reading, my friendships and work with people in the social sciences, and my reflection on my own positionality.”
She continues in another text to explain her contemporary experience in dominant-White classrooms, especially those in centers of power, as still focusing on 20th-century definitions of “form and function,” as well as a fixation on the people in the room. People design for themselves and those they know, a practice that perpetuates existing power structures.
The DCA is One Tool in the Toolbox
The DCA isn’t going to change western societies overnight, nor is it intended to. Noel hopes that the DCA is a starting point to encourage diversity and equality within the design sector that is then experienced by those who ultimately use the objects, digital products, and systems created by designers. The DCA needs more critical theories, and users need other forms of support.
Since the first production of the DCA, Noel has expanded the project online, where the digital deck contains additional cards as suggested by users.
The DCA and M21D
The DCA embodies and enacts the goals of M21D. We also believe that small changes in the design process can significantly impact power structures and individuals' beliefs across societies. The museum eagerly follows the trajectory of the DCA to learn more about how designers and non-designers use the deck, what designs it has shaped, and how it will develop next.