Packing the backpack: taking lessons learned on to a new adventure

Illustration by Camryn Cogshell. Learn more about our illustrators.

Packing the backpack: taking lessons learned on to a new adventure

Liz here! I’m excited to share about a big transition in my life (and the life of Public Design Bureau): early next month, I will leave my role as the Associate Director (and founder) of the Office for Socially Engaged Practice at the Sam Fox School of Design & Visual Arts at Washington University in St. Louis (phew, imagine saying that title out loud!). The Office is a hub and a resource to support collaborative, socially engaged practices of art, architecture, and design, where socially engaged work addresses the systemic, social, economic, and environmental issues facing our home in St. Louis. In my nearly 8 years with the Sam Fox School, I’ve learned so much that I will bring with me as I support other organizations and leaders, and I wanted to share some of my reflections with you. 

Try a human-centered design process at every scale – from overarching strategy to executional details
Setting up the Office for Socially Engaged Practice, and the programs, services, and resources it provides, was a series of human-centered design processes. During my first 8 months at the Sam Fox School in 2014, I dug into the research phase – interviewing dozens of faculty, students, community stakeholders, and University partners; visiting sites of projects; reviewing budgets and documentation; leading workshops with interested instructors. Working with a team of advisors, we synthesized all of this information into a series of frameworks that helped us make decisions about our priorities — based on the experiences, needs, and motivations of the actual community we were serving.

From those priorities, I was able to identify dozens of smaller areas of opportunity that we could further explore with a design thinking approach. As one example, there were a lot of practices and policies that were critical for community-engaged work that were not written down anywhere. After hearing about confusion and barriers from many people, I focused on this as an opportunity to create some tangible tools that could help establish expectations and best practices for all sorts of topics related to engaged work, from entering communities to presenting to partners. Working with an intern in an iterative process of testing and designing, we created a system called Blue Pages: a simple, conversational template that could be used to capture processes, procedures, and best practices for all the crucial parts of engaged work. 

Cultivate relationships (and patience) to navigate institutional complexity 
While the Sam Fox School is a school where you can learn everyone’s name, it’s part of a much larger, and complex organization: Washington University in St. Louis. Being part of the larger institution meant spending time understanding and navigating the complexity that comes from many different people and different systems. For me, I found that successfully navigating the complex system required me to build relationships with people across the organization, plan ahead, and have patience when instigating change. Being able to call others across campus and ask them what they do to address an issue, what they have observed about a challenge, or test an idea with them was critical to success. I also learned to give myself plenty of time to navigate complex processes, sometimes planning to spend a year or more addressing a challenge to ensure that I had all the information and feedback I needed. This took enormous patience, as most designers want to see change happen quickly! But a slow and steady approach meant that efforts were more likely to be adopted and implemented. 

Welcome people into the unsure parts of creation
One of the great joys of working with the faculty, staff, and students of the Sam Fox School is the range of types of work that address critical, systemic issues in the St. Louis community. Some folks are writing books; others are creating work to go in galleries; many are building relationships and making friends. Still others are creating community plans or visions, or installing art pieces or pavilions that change the experience of public space. The creativity and variety of these projects inspired me, along with the diversity of approaches to welcoming engagement with community members and stakeholders all along the way – when the work is emerging, when the ideas are fresh, and when final tweaks are winding down. Yet, each creative initiative has a level of uncertainty — we can’t plan for every possibility, nor should we.

Many people have asked me about how I feel about going from a stable, salaried job where I’m working with dozens of colleagues every day to the uncertainty and relative solitude of a start-up — and I say I am nervous! I’ve had a lot of time to reflect and learn about how my experience as a middle class White woman has shaped my expectations for what’s a good job, and I’m grateful to say that I’ve had many good jobs in my life. But part of what is so exciting is taking all I’ve learned about creating something new in the Sam Fox School into building another new thing, one that will hopefully also have a positive impact though in a different way. I’m looking forward to being able to work with folks as they enter the uncertain waters of creativity and learning more along the way. 

I’m particularly grateful to Carmon Colangelo, the Ralph J. Nagel Dean of the Sam Fox School and E. Desmond Lee Professor for Collaboration in the Arts, and Hank Webber for their support of my work, as well as to the many faculty, staff, students, and community partners I’ve been able to collaborate with. I’m looking forward to meeting the next leader of the Office for Socially Engaged Practice, seeing the Office grow in its next phase, and utilizing the resources and skills it has to offer in my own teaching. And I will be expanding my own collaborators, partners, and stakeholders as Public Design Bureau continues to unfold.


Got thoughts or questions about my transition or these lessons? Let us know in the comments, or get in touch! I’d love to hear from you.

4 thoughts on “Packing the backpack: taking lessons learned on to a new adventure

  1. Congratulations, Liz! I am so excited for your career transition and am forever grateful for the opportunity to learn with you as an OSEP practicum student. Best of luck and thank you for sharing your reflections 🙂

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