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some children at the 'Knee High Design Challenge' Fieldwork Facility
Image courtesy of Knee High Design Challenge

Ella graduated with a BA (Hons) in Graphic Design in 2006 and an MDes in 2008. She currently lives in Mexico and teaches Social Design Practice at Tecnologico de Monterry. We found out from Ella what social design means to her, and how she came to work in the field.

"Edinburgh College of Art (ECA) was a great place for me to experiment," Ella said, "I didn’t fit the mould as a graphic designer, but my tutors gave me a lot of freedom and support to figure out what design meant to me. The class sizes were small, too. We were in the studio together every day, working closely, talking, debating, questioning. I look back now and I think this was essential for the development of my work."

People are at the centre of Ella’s work, not only in terms of collaborating with others, but also in terms of responding to their stories, listening to their needs and trying to make things better for them.

"I was always interested in the human side of design practice, and how design as a problem-solving tool could be used to make things better for people," she said, "Social design is a tricky term for me, as it suggests that some design is socially responsible, and some isn’t. Social design, to me, is good design: design that considers the needs and desires of people, that builds bridges between people and opens meaningful collaborations, or that challenges us to think and act differently."

Ella’s first job was in architecture, crafting strategies to help connect clients to the human experience of using their buildings. Then, after moving to London in 2009, she met thinkpublic, a design agency that specialises in co-design, who shared her idealism. While there she worked with the NHS, Alzheimer’s Society, and with local government, developing staff and patient-led design programmes to redesign services and make them fit what people really needed.

"I was a service designer, a product designer, a consultant and an ethnographic researcher," she said.

After thinkpublic she led "The Knee High Design Challenge" with the Design Council and Guys and St Thomas’ charity, calling on designers and entrepreneurs to help with the creation of new services which aim to increase young children’s health and wellbeing in South London. She also worked with the British Council on international strategies for social design and has worked with people across the world who are setting up creative collectives in countries where creativity and freedom of expression are not always permitted.

In Mexico, Ella has helped to establish Barrio Chulo, a collective of design and architecture students, with a team of professors from Design, Architecture, Anthropology and Social Business. The collective came together to develop projects that have a social impact and create social value within Mexican communities. Since August 2016 they have been working with the community of La Loma, which suffers from a number of common issues related to poor infrastructure, lack of financial investment and neglected land. After a couple of months of working with La Loma, they developed a system for the collaborative transformation of neglected public space, called Ciclotaller.

Based around an old tamale bicycle –an iconic image for people across Mexico - the Ciclotaller is a mobile design school that gives people the tools, experiences and support required to be the designers and architects of their own neighbourhoods. It is an innovative model for citizen participation in Mexico, and challenges the traditional culture of donation and dependency, and the top-down imposition of pre-designed architectural solutions. It now belongs to La Loma, with the student collective supporting its implementation across the community. The local government of Querataro are also interested in adopting the model for participation and engagement as they develop their strategy for urban investment.

"While ‘design’ as a word is a very broad and often contradictory subject, for me it’s a question of being intentional and taking responsibility. If fashion designers can think about the sourcing of their fabrics or dyes, if product designers can have the courage to tell a client that the world doesn’t need their product, if graphic designers can challenge and question the messages they are putting into the world, if service designers can put people’s true emotional experiences at the heart of their systems, maybe the world would be a little bit better."