Making room at the designer’s table

Adriana Valdez Young
12 min readOct 15, 2023

I recently spoke at Bausch +Lomb in honor of Hispanic Heritage Month. It was wonderful to get the chance to reflect on my cultural identities and how they shape my practice of inclusive design research. I wanted to share some snapshots from my talk to encourage us all to connect our family histories with our professional practice, and to find ways for our work as researchers, designers, strategists, educators, and more increasingly meaningful, critical, and personal <3

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Hi, I’m Adriana. I’m a design researcher. This means that I’m a person who hangs out a lot with fellow humans in their natural environments, tries to have real conversations, observes what people do (not just what they say), and translates findings into making better products and experiences for everyone.

My talk is about making room at the table, in particular the designer’s table — where problems are identified, important conversations are had, and decisions get made. It’s also a table that we bring with us and extend wherever we go, especially when we do field work in people’s homes and places where people shop, work, and gather. To have a seat at the table is to feel like you belong and you matter. I think that’s our highest aspiration for our companies and brands — are for our customers to feel welcome, at home, and to see themselves in the products and experiences we’re creating with and for them. To always have a seat at our table —and that our table is their table.

Left to right: my mom, me at maybe 8–9 years old, doll Fernanda, and my dad.

I’m so happy to be here with you all today in honor of Hispanic Heritage Month. For me, being Latinx or Hispanic means having a multiplicity of identities and experiences. I know that I am part of a shared history of exchange, migration, and mixing. I am Chinese-American (via Hawaii) and Venezuelan. As someone from multiple cultures, for me being Hispanic is being about the many, not the singular. I feel this has shaped my interest in design research and my passion for wanting to make this field more inclusive and inviting from the few to the many.

Images from “Manahatta: A Natural History of New York City” by Eric W. Sanderson, 2009

Hispanic identity is entwined in histories of conquest and colonization. I would like to offer an acknowledgment of the land where I am at present. Manhattan is the original home of the Lenape people who called this land, Manahatta. They were the stewards of this land for more than 400 generations. They were nomadic people who moved with the seasons and lived harmoniously within the diverse ecologies of the island. Before Manhattan became one of the diverse cities in the world in terms of people, language, ideas, and culture, it was one of the most ecologically rich and diverse spots in North America. I thank the Lenape people for their love and care for this island, and I honor both their history and contemporary communities. In a journal from Henry Hudson’s first mate, writing about the crew’s first encounter with the island, he recalls how a group of Lenape women, men, and children rowed canoes to offer them fresh oysters and beans. I connect with that moment of invitation and welcome — sharing food as a way to connect and build trust — a quality that I treasure in Hispanic culture and that I’ll explore a little later.

In reflecting on what Hispanic Heritage means to me, I thought a lot about what everyday life was like growing up visiting my family in Caracas and how our lifestyle had valuable lessons for any of us wishing to design with care and with people at the center. I reflected on the quiet, everyday rituals and routines — like our breakfast of cafe con leche and arepas, to special celebrations, like weddings, and birthdays. All of them we designed with a love for simple pleasures, for gathering many people together, and making all feel welcome.

My grandmother cleaning up after themid-day meal.

This is my grandmother, Carmen Cecilia, in her kitchen, wearing one of about five, simple, hand-made shift dresses she wore — all black and white or grey. My grandmother’s role in the family was as a constant host. Many days there were visitors to the house for the merienda — afternoon coffee before dinner. My grandmother never went to the doctor and had no health problems. She also didn’t go to the gym because she got all her steps in walking back and forth from the kitchen to the living room, making food from scratch, and sweeping the stone floors with a straw broom. She didn’t have a vacuum. There was no air conditioning and she kept the balcony open, inviting in the city dust as her constant companion to clean.

In the late 1960s, my dad was a young, poor graduate student, who traveled from New York to visit her daughter. She insisted that he leave the pensión where he was staying and come stay at them at their home. I’ve always held this moment up as the highest standard of hospitality and kindness. Inviting someone into your home and to your table as an equal and trusted friend — even though my dad was of a different race, ethnicity, and culture, did not speak Spanish, and she had only met him that day. A friend of her daughter’s was a friend of hers — her community and traditions extended to him. The ability to make people feel seen and heard, welcome and included is one I value most as a researcher working in design.

Design research is all about people and placing them at the center of the design process. But inherent in design and research is power — it can be loaded with authority, expertise, or control over which problems matter most and get prioritized, and how or if they get solved. Being an inclusive design researcher means focusing explicitly on the people who have been left out. We gradually extend our reach and impact, but we start by working closely with specific groups of people who have been and continue to be overlooked or excluded from the design process.

I’m going to share examples of how this works — how we can shift power away from designers and towards the people who bring our products and experiences to life. I have three principles for being an inclusive design researcher inspired by the practices and values that reflect my Hispanic Heritage, in particular my Venezuelan culture and identity.

For those of us who share Hispanic Heritage or grew up in Latin America, you will not be shocked when I tell you that I started drinking coffee when I was about seven years old (much more leche & azucar than café). This is because when one person eats, everyone eats. And we tend to eat and drink the same thing at the same time. One person never eats while the other person watches. The first thing you did when you came to my grandmother’s house is to sit at the table. It didn’t matter what time of day it was, but you were going to have coffee, biscuits, or fruit. And if you arrived at a meal-time, there was no escaping our simple, three-course meal (caldo; rice, beans & plátanos; postre).

The Starbucks at a Target in Chicago.

This is something I take with me as I build an inclusive culture in my research practice: being a good host to the research participants and the process matters. Inclusive research is collaborative, mutual, and reciprocal — it’s not about extracting as much information as we can from people. We build trust, get to know each other, take time, eat and drink, and don’t rush.

Being a good design researcher means being a good host. When we nourish people, (sometimes, as simple as having snacks at your research sessions) we can make people feel more welcomed, seen, and heard. People can feel nervous or uncomfortable participating in research, so it’s our job as researchers to make people feel at home, like they can be their authentic selves without feeling judged, or like there’s no right or wrong answer to our questions.

I practice a research technique called ‘shop alongs’ — inviting people to meet me at stores (mostly at places like Target and Walmart) to observe in real-time how and what they see, and how they decide what to buy or not buy. Last spring, when I was researching oral care products for a large CPG company, I met with ‘Loida’ a single mom of a toddler working in building construction and who occasionally whitened her teeth. The research was to inspire the rebranding of a mouthwash line.

Loida’s choices for oral care products that she envisioned boosting confidence in her appearance and also sharing with her girlfriends on their upcoming vacation.

It was about 9am on a Sunday and instead of just jumping into the task at hand, we first had coffee and pastries at the Starbucks attached to the Target we would be shopping at. At one of the small cafe tables, we reviewed the goals of the research, how I would protect her personal information and privacy, and how she could take her time while shopping, speak her thoughts aloud, and not feel pressure to chose quickly. With this boost of clarity and caffeine, we had wonderful conversations in the aisle about how she shops her values by supporting Black and women-owned businesses, her aspirations for switching careers, and how she cares for her toddler’s teeth. The products she picked out (very sparkly mouth wash and whitening toothpastes) were ones she envisioned not only for herself, but something she would share with her friends on their upcoming girls weekend in Puerto Rico. Her desire to make a personal care routine something communal, and even celebratory, resonates with this principle of sharing nourishment and space at the table and expanded my conceptions of personal care as something that can be collective, not just individual.

In Caracas, my mom went to the hair salon every Saturday. Sometimes she would come home in the evening and her hair would look exactly the same. She spent all day at the salon, but didn’t actually get anything done. I realized later that “going to the salon” was about being together, connecting, and talking (as much as it was about personal care). When I was about 10 years old, my mom asked me to promise that when I grew up, I would never leave the house after simply washing my face. She instructed me to always wear lipstick, “even to the supermarket.” I have since broken that promise nearly every day. (I’m sorry mom.) But what I now understand is that her advice was not just about physical appearance — it was about respect (both for self and others), belonging, and access. It’s about feeling like you matter and how you should be seen, heard, and taken seriously.

I engaged in a co-design process with new moms during the pandemic, focused on moms identifying as BIPOC and non-binary and living in households earning $50K or less. Our goal was to understand their self care routines and what ways could the brand better support their new roles as moms. Our team encountered assumptions from our client that for this income bracket, mainly price mattered. The hypothesis was that moms in this category did not shop based on their personal values, but were reactive or impulsive based on prices, convenience, “deals.”

Our conversations revealed the exact opposite. We learned how these new moms spent extensive time researching non-toxic and organic personal care products that could also fit their budgets. They researched ingredients independently of product pages and influencers, and in some cases, found ways to make their own products. They cared deeply about eliminating plastic and wasteful packaging. Of course, they wanted to care for their skin and feel as beautiful as possible given the lack of sleep, but they related to quality self-care products for themselves and their families as an essential, not a luxury. Through the trust we built up over multiple co-design sessions, we were able to better understand how self-care rituals are tied to identity, culture, confidence, and aspirations about who they wanted to be as moms and beyond — providing much richer territory for product innovation than restricting our study to price and convenience.

Our people and community in and of itself are things to be celebrated. Here is an image of my aunt and friends taking a stroll and showing off their outfits. I have so many pictures like this — everyday celebrations of joy, style, and being together. I feel its also a good reminder that wanting to construct our self-image and capture our everyday style is something that existed in our cultures long before Instagram :)

My family in Caracas lived across the street from a big church. My aunt loved weddings. She loved brides, she loved the ceremony, she loved being in a giant swirl of celebration. I did too. She and I would venture out after dinner, crossing the street to attend weddings on Saturday nights. It didn’t seem to matter that we were not invited to these weddings. We sat in the last row of the dark, wooden pews, casually covering our faces or ducking when the videographer panned in our direction. We were never invited but I always felt like we belonged. Gathering itself was the celebration and we wanted to be part of it.

Portrait of a Rye Lane shopkeeper from the inside out. On one side of the business is a mobile phone kiosk and opposite, a separate business for special occassion dresses and suits for kids. Notice how there is no wall or door to the store. The whole front opens up to create the feel of an open-air market, and total porosity with the street. Leaves and tiny detritus from the street blow into shop’s floor, giving a feeling of continuity with the pavement (2012).

About a decade ago, I worked on a research project in South London, focusing specifically on one street: Rye Lane in Peckham. At the time, there was a global recession happening and there was concern from city government that high streets in lower-income areas were bound to suffer. I remember that one of the metrics of economic health that the local council used was how many chain stores (e.g. Pret a Manger, Tesco, Sainsbury) were present and it was seen as a problem that Rye Lane was host to zero chains at the time.

As part of a research team from the London School of Economics, we spent many weeks visiting each of the 200 businesses, visually documenting the street, and engaging in in-depth conversations with proprietors. We learned that the main economic survival strategy for shopkeepers was to pool together their resources by sharing space, sharing customers, and sharing knowledge.

The street had a wonderful feeling of one continuous marketplace. And every store opened up into a different world. At its most dense, one shop layout contained nine different businesses operating from one lease. This strategy not only staved off vacancies, but helped shopkeepers be flexible, responsive, entrepreneurial, and community-centered — something that is a lot harder for big chains.

Just like the weekly weddings and everyday celebrations of street style, culture itself creates unquantifiable value, invitations to participate, creativity and resilience.

In conclusion, these are my principles for practicing inclusive design research that take inspiration from my Hispanic Heritage. And here are a few key takeaways and reminders for how each of us can bring these principles to life in our own work.

It doesn’t matter if you’re hosting a weekly meeting or an annual fête — there are so many ways we can be good hosts. When people feel more comfortable, they can show up as their best selves, be bold and brave with their ideas, and be there for others.

Value is not about price. We need to look beyond the surface to understand how people are really considering, prioritizing, and making decisions. Being in a lower income bracket doesn’t mean you invest any less time, care, or money in identifying products that really suit your needs and values.

Please don’t jump into design and solutions mode. Challenge your assumptions, get to know people, spend time at eye level in stores, streets, and weddings. This is how to understand what truly matters to people, what makes them feel connected to our products, and how they can see themselves reflected in what we are creating for and with them.

Lastly, when we invite people to the designer’s table, we engage in meaningful, nourishing, communal, and sometimes celebratory conversations about both our everyday needs and lifelong aspirations. And we all have more fun.

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Adriana Valdez Young

Mother, inclusive design researcher, indefatigable New Yorker, making things happen at the School of Visual Arts —MFA Interaction Design.