October 17, 2018

Positively Engaging Communities and Putting People at the Center of the Design Process: Director Libby Cole of The Work Department


The pioneering urban thinker and author, Jane Jacobs, expressed, “Design is people.” This embodies the people-centered design approach practiced by The Work Department, directed and owned by Libby Cole. Here, she shares her opinions on the benefits and ultimate value of participatory design, harnessing grounded collaboration, especially the experience of doing good work with good people for good people.

How do you and your team make
your design process “people-centered”?

The Work Department started using the term “people-centered” as a way to differentiate our process from “human-centered” design. The “human-centered” design approach seems more about observing your audience and putting yourself in their shoes and then making guesses or assumptions about their needs. Our approach is very different than that. We use a participatory or co-creation process—meaning our audience participates in the actual design process. We invite the audience and stakeholders to be hands-on, quite literally, through brainstorming sessions, workshops, feedback, ideation and sketching. We know people are experts in their own lives, so we simply listen to them and the end-result is better aligned with their needs.


Project: Detroit UNESCO City of Design initiative

I remain curious about the term “design methods.” Admiring 
your collective practice of them. Though practiced a lot, 
it’s not popular to say, even claim, such as the term 
of “design thinking.” How do you select which design method 
to use per project?

We have a “toolbox,” so to speak, of methods we can use and choose them based on the project needs—that being said, the broad strokes of our process stays the same. We start with research and discovery every time, we then begin an iterative design and feedback process, and then finalize or implement the design. Audience and project goals, as well as time and budget, determine the specific methods we use. A public engagement where we gather feedback from hundreds of people may be appropriate at times, or a small gathering of neighbors workshopping language and sketching might be more helpful to the process.

Your company works on “wicked problems”: education, the 
environment, more. How do you cope with the constant 
of complexity? What’s your mindset in facing complexity? 
How do design methods play a role in engaging complexity?

Complexity is definitely a constant, our strength and differentiator is breaking down complex problems with others. We do this through allowing ourselves time and space to learn from reading research and from subject matter experts in an ample discovery phase. Iteration is also key when facing complexity because rarely is your first draft going to be the last. Feedback loops, testing and small incremental changes allow you and your audience to make the best design decisions.

Working with others is also a way to guarantee complexity! It would be much easier to design in a bubble by myself, and pat myself on the back at the end of the day, but that doesn’t make sense! We have had to gain experience in facilitating conversations among groups, practice empathy, learn to let go of preconceived notions, put our egos aside—most of all, do more listening than talking.




Project: Foodlab. Photography: Bree Gant.

When you and your team create a workshop to gather and 
galvanize human thoughts toward informing/inspiring ideation, 
what are some of the steps taken in making this experience
productive? For example, what was the step-by-step journey
to realize the series of workshops in working with the FoodLab?

Simply put, we work backwards and collaboratively! As an organization, FoodLab wanted to create a set of guiding principles, member expectations and a self assessment for member food businesses. So we knew the goal, and together with FoodLab decided the best way to create this content was to tap into the knowledge of their member businesses who have been a part of the organization for a long time and who have found success. They were like the elders teaching the younger, newer businesses, stemming from their own successes and hardships. From there, we invited a small but diverse set of people and businesses in order to get a variety of perspectives but still have enough time and space for everyone to meaningfully participate.

So we had less than 15 people in the room. We paid them a stipend for their time (something we always push for in a budget, by the way), we ensured there was food, coffee and water, and we reserved a beautiful, comfortable space for the conversations. Basically, by creating space that is comfortable physically and emotionally, people are more likely to share openly. We met for a few hours on a few different days, a few weeks apart, all purposefully so not to overwhelm anyone and take up too much of their time on any one day. We then used a strategy that we frequently use, that is, we start very broad in our conversation and write down all the thoughts everyone has and together discuss each idea—together narrow down, combine and eliminate similarities, until we have a list of ideas that everyone can feel good about and also feel ownership over.

Prompts for conversation were carefully considered and written. For example, when wanting business owners to talk about “good food and good jobs” we asked them to share with the group a story about the best meal they ever ate. The conversation was much more personal, descriptive and warm than if we were to just ask them about a job in their business.

What is design? What’s at the core of “design thinking”—How 
has this term and concept become popular?

Design is a word that can be very intimidating. When working with Design Core Detroit on the UNESCO City of Design designation this was a problem we worked on overcoming. It can imply expensive, high brow, exclusivity. I do not believe that you need a degree to design, it simply means strategically thinking and planning to solve a problem. Design thinking is just another way to describe this. Graphic Design, for example, is strategically using visuals and language to communicate an idea. Everyone, everyday, designs their daily schedule or their outfit based on their unique needs or desires. When working with Detroiters to determine what we would prioritize as a City with our designation, we asked folks to describe the “good life” or what a good quality-of-life looked like to them, because a well-designed city is what facilitates most people’s description. People ended up talking about public transportation, eating healthily, diverse groups of people or experiencing a beautiful landscape.

How did you arrive at doing the kind of design work you do?

I have always been passionate about social justice and have felt an obligation to use my skills to support worthy, value-driven causes. I started out working for traditional design firms straight out of college but found myself unhappy being pushed to use my skills to create ads and other materials for companies selling things like subprime mortgages, for example! I soon quit and started working freelance because around the time the city went bankrupt and just before there was a huge need for communication tools for nonprofits and other groups serving the community in ways I could feel good about. A few friends had started to work together doing the same thing, one of which was a developer, and shortly after, we all started working together instead of separately. And the rest is history, as they say. It has never been easy, but feel it has totally been worth it.





How would describe The Work Department’s work culture? In 
doing the purposeful and collaborative work you do, how do you 
maintain your creativity, critical thinking—your sanity?

I have always felt strongly about The Work Department being different than the stereotypical studio environment—long hours, working nights/weekends, feeling underappreciated and unable to think creatively. Also, I want to point out that we didn’t start out as all women and we didn’t purposefully become an all-women team, but when we found ourselves there, something clicked and we realized it was really special. When we took stock of what was different, we started being more conscious and purposeful about our culture and values.

These things contribute to us maintaining creativity and sanity. We pay ourselves well. We each have other interests and allow ourselves the time and space to pursue these things including but not limited to: taking on freelance work, pursuing residencies, serving on boards and commissions, or running a separate business or artist practice. We are constantly checking in with each other and communicate candidly about what is going right and wrong in each project and as individuals. We sometimes cry at the office because of work and sometimes for other reasons. We make a point of constantly learning from others—people whose lives don’t look like ours through conferences, books, conversations and other experiences. We don’t take on projects that aren’t set up for success, i.e. projects that have unrealistic budgets, timelines or goals. This allows us not to work weekends or long nights (most of the time.) Vacations are required—we close the office several weeks every year to ensure this.

What’s your media diet like? Who and what do you recommend 
to help be aware of current affairs/culture/your community 
and the world?

I recommend being aware of current events in any way that works for you, because knowing what others are experiencing locally and globally helps make better decisions at work and in general. Personally, I consume media of all kinds (radio, TV, podcasts, Instagram, newsletters) for a global and/or special interest perspective, but I highly recommend talking to neighbors and getting involved with a community for your local perspective.

Who and what are your influences related to 
creativity/design/facilitating? That help hone your toggling
between being a team director/leader and a designer?

My team! We constantly take stock of what is working and what isn’t and are in constant communication about it. We are always learning from each other and each client, and we help each other become better.

In these politically-charged times, how are you coping 
and channeling what’s happening into your design work?

The personal is political and everyday choices are meaningful. At The Work Department, we work on projects that prioritize accessibility, equity and shared respect. Turning down work can also be a political decision. Before we take on a new client we discuss as a team how it aligns with our values and how it might affect us personally and professionally. There is a lot of money being spent in Detroit right now and so opportunities come up all of the time that don’t align with our values, and though it can be tough to turn down income, it is necessary.

Who and what are your influences related to design,
especially people-centered design?

Long-time client and partner, Allied Media Projects’ work at the intersection of media, technology and social justice is a huge influence. The Center for Urban Pedagogy is very inspirational for literally everything they do. Jae Shin and Damon Rich and their work at [“urban design, planning and civic arts practice”] Hector is also on this list, we have looked to them for inspiration many times.

In your creative work-kit, what are your go-to tools, the ones
you love using because they prove reliably effective?

My analog tools are always changing because there are so many cute notebooks and special pens out there to try. Digitally speaking: Slack, Google Apps and Teamwork keep us going! Sounds boring, but organization and communication allow us the space to be creative.







How does Detroit contribute to your work? And what makes it special for startups/business/creativity-at-large?

I was born and lived most of my life in metro-Detroit and Detroit proper, so it is hard for me to speculate what makes it special for newcomers. But personally, growing up here and being educated here, I felt a responsibility to stay and work in the community I came up in. Detroit is not always an easy place to live, but working in a place where I can see the direct effects of my work and help to build community through various aspects of work is very rewarding.

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All images courtesy of Libby Cole, except for my photos—albums one and two—of Detroit, Michigan.

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Read more from Design Feast Series of 102 (so far) Interviews
with people who love making things.


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