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Welcoming Shawn Harris: Our Fall ’21 Designer in Residence

Our Designer in Residence Shawn posing with his arms crossed wearing a black shirt.
  1. Can you talk a bit about your professional experience? How did you get to where you are?

While I’ve been guilty of romanticizing my journey as a progressive act of “swimming upstream” – from a rigid focus on technical implementation towards an open-ended sense of creative ideation – that now feels closer to hyperbole than reality. In hindsight, I’ve always been fascinated with the idea of “social-impact design” and have been grateful to find work that continues to challenge how I practice introducing that term to others.

In theory, my introduction to my current design work was actually through engineering, specifically within the aerospace field; while the larger purpose of our design-engineering work was centered around satisfying requirements for large-scale manufacturing, that work gave me an early opportunity to see how “impact” exists and persists throughout systems. From interfacing with upper management who saw our work as meaningful data points to improve to shop-floor technicians that held the final responsibility of making that data useful for the people whose lives we hoped to ultimately improve, supporting the intentional flow of an idea into the built environment was / still is captivating. However, that feeling repeatedly lost its allure in the presence of more immediate, social conditions that aviation-design wasn’t equipped to navigate. The search for something that could help provide a figurative sense of upward mobility for people on the literal ground was how I arrived at the term “social-impact” with “design” representing the toolset I use to realize that goal.

Arguably, one of the most important experiences you can have as a designer is meeting the reality of your theoretical work. It is equal parts empowering and sobering to have concrete evidence for how your presence can ultimately engage the world around you – for better or worse. My transition into the Masters of Industrial Design program at Georgia Tech was informed by a desire to consciously engage the world around me and how that can in-turn help support others to do the same. My time as a graduate-student allowed me to inquire about the ways we design artifacts with implicit socio-political qualities and the human-centered methodologies that we as designers collectively use to shape experiences through those artifacts. Since graduation, I’ve had the opportunity to directly respond to those inquiries via service-projects which engage social conditions and underinvested communities in Atlanta, Georgia. As the Community Design Lead for Georgia Tech’s Innovation and Design Collaborative (Design Bloc) and Lecturer of the “Community Co-Design Studio”, I’ve had the privilege to facilitate work that allows students and local residents to apply design-thinking in our immediate work while also exploring the reality of that potential impact beyond one semester. In recently accepting the role of Lead Strategy and Design Consultant at DC Design –  a social-impact design firm –  I consider my return to industry to be a full-circle moment: serving as a steward of ideas flowing into the built environment and surveyor for how the influence of that design-work can provide “social-impact”.

  1. What do you have planned for the coming semester with students?

Through this residency I want to challenge our collective idea of “human-centered design” and to what degree that process may inherently reduce and exploit others instead of facilitating self-efficacy and exploration. As recent years have forced the greater society to reflect, I believe design practitioners have a specific responsibility to now be even more critical and reflexive in our approach to supporting other’s needs. I think it’s important for us to explore what it means to truly “center” within our work and what practices we can adopt to ensure our innovation isn’t simply human-sourced or human-powered. 

As I explore this premise I’m looking forward to inviting the students, as well as the larger DSI community, to explore this with me. I’ve become fascinated with how the ideas of proximity, positionality, and pluriversality can provide a new pathway for how we perceive the act of designing. Coincidentally, each of those ideas are much easier to understand in an interpersonal context; my desire is that we can collectively inquire in a way that inspires personal motivations (for how and why we “center” humans) and new definitions (for what “design” looks like). 

  1. What do you hope to personally get out of being the Designer in Residence?

I don’t consider myself to be a thought-leader nor at the forefront of what I’m looking to explore through this residency. In fact there are already so many alternative and emergent strategies (created by experts I admire) to address the areas I’d like to explore during my tenure. However, I think this residency will allow me to identify and integrate the methodologies and tools that will be helpful to the work I will create in the immediate and distant future. I value design that is accessible, contextual, and produces tangible benefit to people’s lives; being able to use this time to intentionally audit design methods, frameworks, and attitudes to examine “..so what would this look like in a social-impact context?” is an exciting opportunity.

I consider it an honor to conduct this study amongst a community of diverse, talented individuals who I consider exemplary designers and design-thinkers. My introduction to SVA+DSI was by way of Sloan Leo’s “Community Design for Leaders” Master-class and I have been continually impressed by the alumni, students, and faculty that are associated with this department since that experience. To have a chance to interact with an academic body that is so mindful about iterating on the pedagogy and practice of socially-centered design as a worthwhile benefit by itself. 

  1. What would you say is your personal approach to design thinking in your daily life?

There are (3) mantras that encapsulate some of the themes I focus on in my daily life and, thereby, my design work:

  1. “Your Life Designs You” – An acknowledgment that our daily life is constantly shaped by our thoughts and vice-versa. This is a very powerful, yet underestimated relationship that directly informs our process as designers. A product serves a tangible result of an iterative, compounded thought process. While we aren’t always conscious of this cycle, becoming mindful of this dynamic allows us to not only audit our assumptions but also find awe and innovation in the ordinary.
  2. “Charity Starts At Home” – This phrase reflects a personal belief that some of our best, most impactful design work is likely to be found in the environments that are most immediate and easily accessible to us. In addition, it serves as a healthy reminder for me to seek out and empower the current assets in any environment instead of imagining new, potentially-disruptive alternatives.
  3. “Design to Amplify” – This phrase focuses on what I consider to be a key feature of design. Our work, if done well, can create a platform to elevate the identity and experience of the person(s) we’re centering. While design does not inherently empower us to be change-makers, it does put us in service to those who should feel empowered to create change at whatever scale they desire. Seeing my work as an act of translation and/or advocacy keeps me mindful of my work’s relationship and responsibility to others. 
  1. Any projects coming up you’re particularly excited for?

While I’m always excited by projects that aim to address inequities in urban, public spaces and/or reduce harm in how we engage populations, I think design has a really interesting opportunity to amplify the nuances found in neurodiversity. I think it’s easier to identify inequity when it can be observed in a way that is concrete and external; exploring how design can support experiences that are not as easy to observe provides a really important insight to how we can push our practice of design forward using care ethics.

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