Carving a Brighter Path Forward With DC Design

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Durell Coleman and his design firm, DC Design, use human-centered design to account for the needs of all stakeholders affected by a problem and find systemic solutions that help everyone involved become the best version of themselves.

Founder and CEO of DC Design, Durell Coleman, is looking to tackle some of the most challenging and broken systems in society. Rather than a top-down approach, his firm is turning things upside down and using a human-centered approach to design that incorporates the end user into the design process. Taking input from the end users and all stakeholders, together they brainstorm, experiment, and take the problematic system through a number of iterations, refining throughout the process to produce a new model, product or service that truly meets the objectives of all involved.

From the age of eight, Coleman wanted to be an inventor. He had lofty dreams of creating flying cars, being interviewed on Oprah’s stage, and accepting awards. But just a year later, his older brother was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer, and the tragedy that struck his family would give him a new perspective on life. After his brother’s death, his grieving process made him reevaluate the idea of creating. If inventiveness didn’t ultimately help people, where was the value in that?

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“Seeing my brother go through cancer, from his diagnosis until he passed away, that whole set of experiences really transformed me. Creating just to create felt meaningless. But creating things that ultimately help other people and improve their quality of life, there’s meaning in that,” says Coleman.

He began spending his time and energy looking at the world differently and asking bigger questions. Who is it that society isn’t serving? How can people be influenced to begin examining current systems, understanding the flaws and opportunities, and ultimately taking action to change the way we do things to make sure that everyone is being served in the best possible way?

In 2013, Coleman hired his first employee at DC Design and together, they started the process of honing their approach to design. Using a strategic method of repeating what worked and learning from any failures, now with an expanded team and years of experience under their belt, all their projects incorporate human-centered design.

Working to bring about lasting positive change, DC Design has taken on some really big fundamental problems in society, including the foster care system, education, and prison reform initiatives. The process with human-centered design begins with critical thinking. Who are the end users of the system? Who are the stakeholders and what are their goals? What is the current system? What needs to change so that all people in the system, top or bottom, are treated with dignity and are served in the best possible way?

Through his experience, Coleman knows that resistance to change is rooted in fear. When attempting system-wide changes, it’s inevitable that the outcome of any potential change is unknown. People have a tendency to cling to existing systems, even those severely flawed, rather than trying to find better solutions that will actually benefit everyone involved.

The design process utilized at DC Design is essentially a framework for looking at the world. Through this human-centered and community-centered strategic process, they approach each problem by understanding the people who live with it. To make positive change, compassion, empathy, and understanding of another person’s situation is crucial.

Using the tenet of a multi-stakeholder perspective, once each person in the system is given a voice, it provides true freedom of thought that allows the boldest ideas and best solutions to emerge. The new framework says, “You are a person no matter what role you have played. You have needs that should be heard. You have value.” Only from there, can someone truly consider what a new and better system could look like.

Coleman elaborates, “In some ways, it’s radically different than how we choose to deal with social issues right now. If someone has committed a wrong, we simply don’t want to listen to them. And while reasons don’t excuse people from their actions, understanding those reasons is where the answers for how we can change the system come from. Those reasons offer vital clues as to how we can change these systems.”

The goal is always to create positive and long-lasting change. One of the main reasons why a human-centered approach to system design is so powerful is that it considers all the people that may be actively trying to tear down the new system as well. So, if people come out in opposition to changes, to what is trying to be created, the framework dictates that their underlying needs be considered. Their backlash elicits an invitation to the process, rather than a fight. Given a seat at the table, now these voices are also valued, and everyone can continue working towards the end goals of helping people and changing oppressive systems.

From this vantage point, who has and hasn’t been served effectively becomes clear. This illumination highlights attitudes and behaviors that must change to effect a positive outcome for all involved.

This helps to shift the focus allowing goal-oriented decision-based thinking to be able to shine. Questions emerge. How do we make it better going forward? What changes need to be implemented? How do we do it in a way that is sustainable and long-lasting? How do we prevent the conditions of the past system from re-emerging?

“To answer these questions,” Coleman continues, “it’s essential to maintain the dignity of everyone, while still holding people accountable for what they have done. There’s a really strong social consciousness around identifying what’s not working. But, it’s our job to not only identify what’s not working, but equally important, to carve a new path forward.”

For Coleman and those at DC Design, human-centered design is at the core of everything, right down to our most intimate relationships and the systems in our own families. It helps everyone realize that every person has inherent value, regardless of what they do, and that they should always be afforded the opportunity to become their best self.

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When anyone looks at problematic systems, it’s apparent that the prevailing systems aren’t attempting to treat everyone like they matter. The path forward to a better future where big problems are being solved is possible, but fear holds society back and entrenches us in violence, oppression and bigotry.

He explains, “It takes a willingness of thought and creativity to craft a world where people are able to unlock and achieve their fullest potential, regardless of who they are, where they come from or the circumstances they were born into. My family has a mantra of ‘never give up.’ I watched my brother stay optimistic and fight cancer till his last day, and my faith is a gift that tells me all people matter. So, even if I don’t get everything I want today, it doesn’t mean the effort was useless. You just can’t give up.”

Now offering Design Thinking Retreats, DC Design is trying to teach others the value of thinking from this perspective. In past retreats, teams have worked with individuals living with disabilities to solve problems that they routinely face. They get the opportunity to hear about daily struggles from the source. When everyone is given clear value, they see that ingenuity emerges. Pain and hardship is identified, and motivation exists to create true change.

“DC Design exists for this reason. I believe every person matters. I believe that a person living on the streets is no better or worse than I am. The best thing I can do with my life is to treat them like they matter and to help them become the best version of themselves. Everyone holds a vision of who they could be that is exciting. For some of us, the obstacles to get there are bigger, and I think it’s important to address those and really do something to change them.”


Start Somewhere:

Join the front lines of a thought revolution and learn how to confront the challenges of society and how to incorporate human-centered design into your life and work by joining a Design Thinking Retreat. Sign up for the newsletter to stay informed on the latest challenges DC Design is taking on. Students also have the opportunity to participate in a rewarding summer program, Design the Future, learning the concepts of design thinking and putting real ideas into practice.