A conversation with the founders of Deem Journal on exploring design as social practice
Launched in 2019 by design practitioners Alice Grandoit, Nu Goteh, and Marquise Stillwell, Deem Journal is the most inspiring new publication we’ve seen in years. Focusing on design as a social practice, Deem draws on a diversity of perspectives across disciplines, backgrounds, and generations—often from individuals who don’t identify as designers—to expand the way we think about design and its impact on the world around us.
Through expert interviews, in-depth essays, and beautiful artwork—not to mention a fresh energy that harkens back to the beloved zines of our youth—Deem’s rigorous, human-centric content explores the process of design as opposed to the final, physical outcome. Its first two issues, Designing for Dignity and Pedagogy for a New World, feature insights from artists, organizers, educators, activists, farmers, anthropologists, architects, and beyond, covering topics that range from the experiences of systematically marginalized people to new visions for our approach to education. “Our goal,” the founders say, “is to bring those practices closer to find opportunities to learn and develop a more equitable world through design.”
On the occasion of Deem’s two year anniversary, we sat down with Grandoit, Goteh, and Stillwell to learn more about Deem’s roots, its intentions, and what to expect next.
Congratulations on your two-year anniversary! How are you honoring this moment?
Thank you! Our anniversary is less about us and more about the community that we have been able to cultivate. There are so many great designers, activists, educators, students, and radical imagineers we have met along the way and who we want to share this moment with. We’re revisiting some of our earlier pieces and planning to release something special!
For those less familiar, what was the original catalyst for launching Deem?
Deem is an exploration of design as social practice. Between the three of us, we all come from different areas of design, but have found that the perspective of design is often limited to objects and output. We tend to champion the highest-fidelity artifacts with not much attention to the process. It is in the process of design that we found an opportunity to broaden the lens of design.
Because the design process is not limited to practitioners, many different types of practices and “end users” participate and facilitate design processes under other names. Our goal is to bring those practices closer to find opportunities to learn and develop a more equitable world through design.
So much of Deem’s approach is about connecting across disciplines as well as to the communities and environment around us to gain wisdom and insight. Can you speak about why this is so important, and how has this been fleshed out in your work so far?
The design process adds value, uncovering common pain points and issues and finding the most viable solution for the context. To think that only design is equipped to solve problems limits our ability to change the world around us. By reaching out beyond design, we can reflect and adopt different practices that strengthen our approach to design. We need to highlight people and thinking beyond designers to empower those who may not see themselves reflected in design.
One example is adrienne maree brown, a multifaceted writer, thinker, facilitator, and doula. Through her years as an organizer, she has infinite experience designing human-centered conditions and processes.
Another example is artist Lauren Halsey, who transformed her South Central LA studio into a food distribution center at the start of Covid. The core of her artistic work is informed by her direct relationship with and proximity to her community, which provides her all the insight she needs to address design needs.
You launched Deem prior to Covid and prior to the uprisings following the murder of George Floyd and others. But this backdrop is inextricably intertwined with Deem’s story to date; at a minimum this context has further reinforced the importance of making space to bring more people into the conversation. How has that backdrop affected your philosophical and practical approach to Deem?
It honestly hasn't changed our approach or philosophy. Deem as a concept was developed in 2018 and shared in 2019. The systemic issues we are exploring have become more evident and have affected more people, but they are not new. The increased attention due to the ongoing events reinforced that our mission is valuable and can act as a catalyst for change.
I understand you chose to launch Deem as a print publication in part as an effort to build a physical archive, a resource library of sorts. Tell us a bit about the rationale behind this.
Print draws a particular level of investment and attention—one that digital does not seem to retain. We wanted to make sure that Deem can live beyond our intentions as resource and reference material. Print has been the best medium for that. It has also been essential for us to document the times tangibly. From Issue One, Designing for Dignity, to Issue Two, Pedagogy for a New World, differences are based on the global context. Issue One was pre-Covid-19 and featured documentary-style photography as the primary visual driver, while Issue Two was produced during Covid-19, post the murder of George Floyd, and we tooke a more archival and culturally aware approach with how we conducted interviews and developed visuals.
As you come up on Deem’s two year anniversary, what are the greatest takeaways for you so far?
Empathy can only get you so far. Empathy is just the threshold in design; once established, how can we empower those at the margins to participate in and potentially lead the dismantling of oppressive systems?
What’s been the biggest challenge? The biggest surprise?
With the increased attention last year, there was a sense for us to meet the (perceived) demand. From Issue One selling out to fielding exciting submissions, we continue to manage and navigate growth while remaining true to our mission.
Can you tell us a bit about a few of your favorite Deem collaborations or moments so far?
Our favorite moments have been the Deem Forums, our virtual panel series, for which we have moderated discussions with collaborators featured in the journal and beyond. The first Forum's chat room was alive and buzzing. So many great questions, comments, and references. Everyone was very giving, and we’re looking forward to moving beyond digital and meeting people IRL.
What can you tell us about your upcoming issue?
For the next issue, we are exploring a term and concept that has risen to the forefront of pop cultural conversations recently and tends to be used erroneously, and/or completely out of context. We are seeking to better understand this theme through intersecting interdisciplinary practices and look forward to sharing more in the fall.
What’s up next for the Deem team?
Besides our next issue, we are developing more experiences. We always wanted to extend beyond print and make our perspective on design accessible through practice. As we start to reconvene, we have several different experiences in the works that we hope will be very exciting for our community. ◆
Learn more about Deem all this week as they take over our Instagram—and stay tuned for a special Deem editorial miniseries over the coming months on The Forum! And be sure to pick up your own copies of Deem here.