Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel: Black designers could be on the brink of a major renaissance

Dr. Lesley Ann Noel conducting one of her clases at Tulane University.
Sally Asher

The recognition of work by previously uncelebrated and unheralded black designers could be the spark of a major design renaissance, says Trinidadian born Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel, director of Undergraduate Programmes in Design Studies at North Carolina State University (NCSU).

Dr. Noel is one of the editors of the eagerly anticipated book “The Black Experience in Design,” which will be available in bookstores and on Amazon on Feb. 1, 2022. Through a “Black/African diasporic lens,” the book explores the past work of designers of color as well as the new methodologies employed in the sharing of knowledge about all aspects of design for and by Black designers. The book is being described as a much needed text for both design students and the general public — especially in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder and the worldwide movement towards inclusion, racial justice and cultural equality that has followed since — as it will clearly demonstrate the impact that Black designers have had on the field.

The co-editors on “The Black Experience in Design” are Anne H. Barry, Kareem Collie, Penino Acaya Laker, Jennifer Rittner, and Kelly Walters. Several contributors to the book also have Caribbean roots, including Jamaican born June Grant, Kelly Walters and Darhil Crooks of Jamaican heritage, Cheryl Holmes-Miller who grew up in St. Thomas, US Virgin Islands, Kareem Collie who has Bahamian ancestry, Rick Griffith who is of Trinidadian heritage and Dr. Audrey Bennett who was born in Nassau, Bahamas to Jamaican parents.

According to Dr. Noel, “I’m very excited to be part of the team of editors and authors who have contributed to “The Black Experience in Design.” The book gives us an opportunity to honor and reclaim the work of formerly unrecognized black designers who have been consistently overlooked for years in favor of their European counterparts, while providing us with a template going forward to assess and analyze the manner in which we make changes to design education, research, and practice. It is my belief that the book can be a catalyst for a black renaissance in design, offering a new generation of designers an entirely different view on perspective and practice for the future.”

A former Fulbright Scholar, Dr. Noel is the holder of a Ph.D. in Design from North Carolina State University, as well as a Master’s Degree in Business Administration from the University of the West Indies and a Bacharelado (Bachelor’s Degree) in Industrial Design from Universidade Federal, do Paraná in Brazil.

She is quick to point out that contextually, design in her world does not refer merely to the traditionally well-known design fields such as architecture, fashion, and graphic design, but to design in a much broader sense, and newer applications of design such as design thinking, user experience, social design and service design.

“In our field of design, we use the design process to rapidly develop innovative solutions in many areas, going beyond the traditional aesthetic applications, very often to social problems and technological applications. We can apply design methodology to any system, from large corporate entities to government agencies, from police, health, and education practices to small private enterprises.  For any of them to run smoothly and efficiently, there is always an element of design involved.  And it is constantly evolving, which is why we believe that “The Black Experience in Design” with its celebration of the past and embracing of the future, is a timely anthology to spark a new way of thinking and executing design from a new generation of black designers.”

According to promotional notes for the book, “Dr. Noel specializes in equity, social justice, and the experiences of people who are often excluded from design education, research and practice. She has developed a modified critical approach to design, where she introduces critical theory concepts and vocabulary into the design studio setting.” This approach helps people recognize diversity, and to see it as a strength in the design process, while co-creating solutions that are relevant to diverse users.

The current slate of classes she teaches at NCSU is reflective of her philosophy and includes Contemporary Issues in Art and Design, Co-creating Equitable Futures, Design Process and Research, Design and Development.

Before joining North Carolina State University, Dr.Noel was the associate director of Design Thinking for Social Impact at Tulane University in New Orleans, Louisiana. She is also a former lecturer at Stanford University and the University of the West Indies.

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