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Design + Afrofuturism + Doomsday Optimism with Raja Schaar — DT101 E91

Raja Schaar is an industrial designer, afrofuturist and doomsday optimist. She is the Director at Drexel University’s product design program and co-chair of the Industrial Designers Society of America, Diversity Equity and Inclusion Council.

Portrait of Raja Schaar

Listen to Learn About

  • Raja’s career in design
  • Climate change and design
  • How Raja uses science fiction and futurism in her teaching and work
  • Black Girls STEAMing Through Dance
  • Social Impact Design
  • The power of design
  • Media resources for designers wanting to explore future-thinking

Our Guest

Raja Schaar, IDSA (she/her) is Director and Associate Professor of the Product Design Program at Drexel University’s Westphal Collage of Media Arts and Design. She co-chairs IDSA’s Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Council is the past Education Director for the organization. Raja studies the ethical implications of design and technology through the lenses of speculative design and climate change. Her current projects address biases maternal health through wearable technology and participatory design; community-based co-design for engaging black girls and underrepresented minorities in STEM/STEAM; and generating frameworks and tools to embed Afrofuturism, biomimicry, sustainability, and climate justice into Design praxis.

Show Highlights

[02:09] Raja takes us on a fun trip through her childhood “what do you want to be when you grow up?” dreams.
[05:47] STEM and creativity.
[06:24] How Raja ended up going into industrial design in college.
[09:03] The interdisciplinary design class that changed everything.
[11:37] Diving into materials life cycles and sustainability in her junior year.
[13:31] Why Raja got angry at her major and wanting to change the way we do design.
[16:37] Volunteering at a science museum and discovering a love of exhibition design.
[17:22] Replacing the museum’s carpet tile introduced Raja to Interface, Inc. and their sustainable modular carpet system.
[19:28] Product design can be ethical and sustainable and conscientious of its environmental impact.
[20:38] Creating a conceptual project for the Children’s Museum of Atlanta.
[21:13] Graduate school and studying critical pedagogies and looking at new ways of teaching rooted in social change.
[21:59] How Raja got into teaching.
[23:52] Raja talks about some of the design challenges she’s passionate about right now.
[24:03] Climate change.
[24:34] Economic accessibility and inclusion.
[24:50] Usability.
[25:27] Social impact design.
[26:00] Who has access to the power of design?
[28:00] Raja’s mission to open the doors of design to young Black girls.
[28:40] What Raja loves about design.
[30:06] The true power of design.
[31:14] Founding Black Girls STEAMing Through Dance at Drexel.
[32:37] Looking at the effects of climate change on communities of color worldwide.
[35:01] Science fiction and speculative design in Raja’s work.
[35:18] Everybody’s a futurist.
[36:14] Raja’s love of science fiction came from her parents.
[37:08] Reading Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein in an engineering ethics class.
[40:25] There’s a lot to learn from science fiction’s futurist thinking.
[41:41] Using ideas from science fiction in her work on climate change.
[44:54] Raja calls herself a “doomsday optimist.”
[49:35] Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower.
[53:25] Looking at the world through the eyes of black women.
[58:14] The connection between science fiction and speculative design.
[58:41] Designing the future.
[1:01:10] Speculative design allows us to ask deep questions.
[1:01:46] The Keurig K-Cup example.
[1:04:35] Speculating and futuring has to be part of how we teach and learn.
[1:05:07] The importance of reflecting on our own design decisions and their potential future consequences.
[1:06:36] Books and resources Raja recommends for those wanting to explore…
[1:07:07] Climate change.
[1:15:25] The role of technology in society.
[1:16:19] Netflix’s documentary, Coded Bias.
[1:30:29] Doomsday and the idea of the point of no return.
[1:33:23] The Avengers’ Thanos as a hyper-violet environmentalist.
[1:38:40] Thinking about where we’re at now, and what future we want?


Raja on LinkedIn
Raja on Instagram
Raja on Drexel University
Raja on IDSA
Drink in Design: Raja Schaar & Ann Gerondelis on Bio-Inspired Design
Tulane Taylor Center: March Design Thinking Breakfast with Raja Schaar, IDSA
Coded Bias on Netflix

Book Recommendations

The Green Imperative: Ecology and Ethics in Design and Architecture, by Victor Papanek
Design for the Real World: Human Ecology and Social Change, by Victor Papanek
Algorithms of Oppression: How Search Engines Reinforce Racism, by Safiya Umoja Noble
Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy, by Cathy O’Neil
Design Justice: Community-Led Practices to Build the Worlds We Need, by Sasha Costanza-Chock
How Long ’til Black Future Month?: Stories, by N. K. Jemison
The Giver, by Lois Lowry
Philip K. Dick’s Electric Dreams
The Lorax (Classic Seuss), by Dr. Seuss

Movie/TV Recommendations

For designers wanting to think about climate change: Avatar, Fern Gully, Waterworld, Elysium, Snowpiercer, The Expanse

For designers wanting to think about the role of technology in society: Minority Report, Omniscient, Interstellar

Futurist: Matrix, Terminator, Wall-E

Design Thinking 101 Episodes You Might Like

Speculative Design + Designing for Justice + Design Research with Alix Gerber — DT101 E27
A Designer’s Journey into Designing for Health and Healthcare with Lorna Ross — DT101 E45
Working and Leading at the Intersection of Engineering, Business and Design with Kevin Bethune — DT101 E76

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