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How Deem Journal is setting a new paradigm for discussing design and who gets to be called a designer

May 10, 2022, 8:19 PM UTC
Deem Journal co-founders (left to right) Marquise Stillwell, Alice Grandoit, and Nu Goteh.
Photo by Guarionex Rodriguez, Jr. Courtesy of Deem Journal.

When Marquise Stillwell, Nu Goteh, and Alice Grandoit, set out in 2016 to create biannual design journal Deem, the three founders weren’t entirely clear on what it would look like. Co-founder and contributor Stillwell knew, first and foremost, it needed to be long form writing, and that print was the only thing that made sense. He says the journal is about addressing “this whole side of erasing, and canceling, and reimagining history that never happened.” Deem is an effort to establish and formalize perspectives and work that haven’t been legitimized or given a platform. “It needed to allow us to present evidence,” says Stillwell, noting that Deem is about leveraging design as a social practice. “It’s important for Brown and Black voices to create something they can have and hold; not clicking and swiping. It’s important to build evidence on the tangibility of our stories; And, of course, the ability to share with the world on what it means to be a designer.”

Based in both New York City and Los Angeles, Deem has captivated the design world, earning in April the American Institute of Architects (AIA) New York Chapter New Perspectives Award. The interesting thing about how Deem is made comes back to the founders’ collective lived experience as designers and members of the communities they contribute to and participate in. The journal is, they say, a compilation of and introduction to individuals they’ve come across and identified as having design practices in their own rights; a sort of cross section of the people and communities on their radars.

“We feel like the unifying umbrella is adding value,” says Goteh, creative director and co-founder. “It isn’t exclusive to designers; there are people that participate in that every day. The power of using socially engaged art, of using activism and community building, is design. What would happen if we started to look at it through that lens? [There are] new ways of approaching things that looking at design through a manufacturer output standpoint allow us to do.”

Themes covered in Deem include neurodiversity, designing for dignity, motherhood, journalism, design education, technology, human interaction, food supply, and more. Stillwell says the journal sets out to identify voices who have never truly seen themselves as designers, but are in fact doing the work. “By unlocking these voices, we unlock new value added to our community,” he says. The voices you’ll find in Deem include: Lauren Halsey, an artist who explores the ways architecture and community inform one another; Adrienne Maree Brown, a writer and creator who leverages activism to help others navigate trauma; and technologist and artist Taeyoon Choi who explores equity and human relations on the decentralized web. The journal aims to go beyond the “excess of snackable, bite-size content pieces that don’t really allow for much reflection or even knowledge exchange” available in today’s world, says Grandoit, who serves as co-founder and editorial director.

We caught up with Deem’s founders, who have a combined background in research, design, writing, and community building, to learn more about their mission and how they see their definition of design unfolding as Deem grows. 

Deem Journal co-founders (left to right) Marquise Stillwell, Nu Goteh, and Alice Grandoit.
Photo by Guarionex Rodriguez, Jr. Courtesy of Deem Journal.

How do you all know each other?

Goteh: Marquise and I have known each other for six or seven years now. I met him when I was a graduate student at Parsons studying a degree called strategic design and management. I saw he was speaking and reached out and asked him to meet for coffee. Alice and I have been best friends for about 15 or so years. We worked in marketing and started collaborating on our own research and design studio to have more control on how we add value through design, research, and curation through communities.

How does Deem define design?

Stillwell: Design often is looked at through the lens of output. If I tell someone I’m a designer, [the conversation] goes to, “What is the tangible output you manufacture?” That output is usually gauged based on fidelity: how beautiful, polished, bold or minimal is said output? We found our footing by looking at design in terms of fidelity. What are the resources needed to achieve that fidelity? Those resources aren’t available to everyone, so the only people who can be designers, in that sense, are the ones with those resources. We call bullshit on that. What we started gravitating toward, is to look at design as a social practice, through the lens of socially engaged art. We focus on the design as a process. 

What are the stories that need to be told right now?

Grandoit: The stories that need to be told are [of] practices and people who have been underrepresented, and thus undocumented, as a reparative gesture towards how we literally open up Western frames of reference in design. Historically, design has been good at gatekeeping based on disciplinary credentials warranting expertise. We are moving towards expertise as lived experience, across a range of disciplines, socio-cultural identities, and generations.

Writer and creator Adrienne Maree Brown, featured in Deem Journal’s Issue One: Designing For Dignity
Courtesy of Deem Journal

How can Fortune 500 leaders put that idea to work in their organizations?

Goteh: It’s important to highlight the people doing the work. Deem is an academic journal. The way we do that is [through] design doers embedded in the community. Adrienne Maree Brown, a writer, a doula and an activist. When we reached out to her, she was hesitant and said, ‘I’m not a designer.’ It took some talking. It wasn’t until we flew to Detroit and did the interview with her that she said, ‘Oh, the work I do is design.’ Just because it isn’t in Harvard Business Review or in a TED talk doesn’t mean it isn’t design. It just means you don’t have the resources to get to those platforms. When you think of the managerial C-suite people who are harnessing the power of design, it is important to say, ‘Wait a minute, there’s another approach that should be considered here.’ …Receiving the New Perspectives Award means that the many voices in design which Deem is trying to uplift are beginning to be heard. The honor is shared between our team, our contributors, and the multitude of people actively shaping a more inclusive design future.

How can both pragmatism and creativity inform that end?

Stillwell: What’s really inspiring me right now is this idea of contemplation. It’s a privilege. When you travel and see all of these magnificent buildings and art–you can see there was something that was allowed for and protected for to think [about] and to contemplate. The journal is a way to slow down, sit, and read a long article. It’s helping to build the muscles for the process. The muscle you need to practice every day. Where you get an opportunity to contemplate. As corporations, we have to stop forcing outcomes and thinking that the bottom line is driven by that. It’s really driven by that process. It requires early design research thinking and not always jumping to conclusions. How can we get executives to bring in designers at day zero and before day zero, not just to fix things? We are here to be a catalyst and spark in the journey.

Nicole Gull McElroy

nicolegull@gmail.com

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