Portrait of Sloan leo

There Is No Design Without Community

Sloan Leo, artist and community design theorist, believes in the power of design to create a better future.

Five leaders in design, health, data, climate, and community showed the way forward during Design Optimism, you can watch the full sessions on DesignTV.

“What is community?” In the last workshop of the day, Sloan Leo, artist and founder of FLOX Studio, posed this question to the audience. Sometimes, they said, community is described as a “what”—community is people who like each other, people who live next door to each other, people who work together. But rather, community should be described as a “how”—community is healing, caring, repairing, altering, dreaming, gathering. For Leo, we need community now more than ever. The ongoing pandemic, white supremacy, social injustice, and ecological collapse “are only solvable together,” they noted. Framing community design as a liberatory practice, Leo strongly believes in the power of design to create a “better future.”

As a community design theorist, educator, and practitioner, Leo recently launched Community Design for Leaders, a learning lab for design practitioners looking to orient their practices toward mutuality and justice. Leo is also the inaugural designer-in-residence at the School of Visual Arts and the founder of FLOX Studio, a community design studio that works with nonprofit builders, design institutions, and social impact leaders. Ultimately, they argued, “community design is about acts of service.” More so, it’s “about the relocation of power and decision-making.” Originating with Black designers in Harlem in the 1960s, “[community design] is by the people, for the people. Communities know what they need—they’re not confused.” 

So how does one put these ideas into practice? Leo outlined the values that guide their work: Communicate bravely, rest, reach for nuance, show care, sit with silence, orient toward joy, embrace slowness, resist binaries, and discover the story. After a thoughtful discussion of these terms with the attendees at Design Optimism, Leo closed out the day’s events with a powerful truth: “There is no design without community. Period.”

Stream Sloan Leo’s Design Optimism presentation and others on DesignTV.

Design Optimism was presented by Tarkett, Teknion, and Ultrafabrics, in partnership with Universal Fibers.

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