Rooted in Place, Building Relationships: Being in St. Louis

Illustration by Ash Tsai. Learn more about our illustrators.

Rooted in Place, Building Relationships: Being in St. Louis

Something that was fundamental for us in beginning Public Design Bureau is being grounded in the St. Louis region as our home base. While our collaborations might take place around the country, building practice that is rooted in our community here is crucial. Here are a few reasons it matters to us: 

Building Relationships

Human-centered design is about starting with people, and we believe that starting with people means both building meaningful relationships and working to deeply understand the specific conditions and context of people in a place. By rooting ourselves in St. Louis, we’re able to be part of a specific community, and get to know the depth and complexity here. 

St. Louis is small enough that if you want to catch your local elected official at the coffee shop, or run into a protest leader at a history panel, or meet that famous artist who just opened a new show, it’s both possible and likely. St. Louis also gives us a chance to build friendships and deep relationships with a wide range of kinds of people, exposing us to new ideas and experiences. 

Learning from Creative Peers

We’ve both spent years in Chicago, learning from our colleagues and collaborators at Greater Good Studio, IA Collaborative, Archeworks, and the Segal Design Institute. We were lucky to be in a city with such a robust design scene, including design strategy, design thinking, innovation, product development, engineering, and more. When we each relocated to St. Louis, there was occasional disbelief from our Chicago network that we’d leave the fertile, happening, big city to come to a small city without any big names around. 

We know better, though! St. Louis is crawling with creative people, working in a wide range of practices, media, and topics. Many of our peers, collaborators, and friends, are dedicated to social change and justice, and we are inspired by seeing their work up close. For just a few examples, the Community Arts Training Institute at the Regional Arts Commission brings together practitioners of many ages and disciplines to learn how community arts can be part of lasting community change (Liz is an alum!). The team at Creative Reaction Lab works to train Black and Latinx youth as leaders in designing healthy and racially equitable communities, and they’ve led the way nationally on rethinking Design Thinking (we highly recommend their workshops). Even the built environment reflects this level of creativity. If you’re coming through town, we recommend you spend at least half a day at the City Museum, which will certainly spark your imagination.

Holding Ourselves Accountable to Injustice and Inequity 

The inequities in St. Louis, particularly along lines of race and class, are present throughout the United States, and in some form around the world. From a long history of deep divides and oppression, the St. Louis region has a huge need for reparative work that substantially changes the quality of life for people across the region. To learn more about the history of St. Louis, we highly recommend the Broken Heart of America: St. Louis and the Violent History of the United States by Walter Johnson.

In St. Louis, racial inequity is the primary lens to see the challenges of this region. As White women, we know we’ll never truly understand the lived experience of Black people and people of color in our region. Yet, our work as human-centered designers requires us to be accountable to those who are directly impacted by the services and experiences we design. Being in St. Louis puts us in direct contact and in community with others who are making structural and systemic change, and who will challenge us directly for our approach and position. 

These are just a few things that have drawn us both back to St. Louis in particular, where we’ve now lived for a combined 40 years. We love to meet other people who love St. Louis, and we love to show off our city. If you’re ever coming through, let us know and we’ll point you to our favorite spots! Just give us a shout at hello@publicdesignbureau.com or leave a note below.

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