Design is Everywhere: How Denise Shanté Brown is Radically Reshaping the Future of Wellbeing

Interview by: Candace Opper

Denise Shanté Brown came up with the idea for her new design for wellbeing collective, Black Womxn Flourish, long before she introduced it to the world this past July. “I didn’t tell anyone except for the people collaborating with me, who needed the reminder that our work was growing into something bigger,” she says. “I recognized that I needed to introduce it as a vision that was possible, that had some proof of concept and energy behind it.” 

Brown describes Black Womxn Flourish as the culmination of her life’s work. After training as a graphic designer, she enrolled in the Maryland Institute College of Art’s (MICA) Social Design program, where she worked closely with a cohort of Black women in Baltimore who shared their experiences living with mental health challenges and navigating a healthcare system that historically excludes their communities. She developed her thesis work into Design for the Wellbeing of Black Womxn (D4WBW), a hands-on healing experience using design to build self-recovery and transformation. This work in turn grew into Black Womxn Flourish, which now encompasses the D4WBW workshop model, a co-design studio practice, and Flourishing Futures, a visionary gathering space that fosters the creative dreaming, defining, and prototyping that’s necessary for Black women to live healthy lives.

With design justice at the core of her holistic practice, Brown’s work pushes the boundaries of how we collectively think about the relationship between design and wellbeing, with an unapologetic focus on Black women. From visionary gatherings to team-based workshops, Black Womxn Flourish empowers historically under-represented communities to embrace design as a path to self-healing. We had the pleasure of connecting with her about the evolution of her career, the value of collaborative design, and the importance of trusting marginalized communities to realize the future of their wellbeing.

Candace Opper: You started your career as a graphic designer before pursuing “social design.” Can you talk about that evolution?

Denise Shanté Brown: I studied graphic design at the Art Institute (Atlanta), where our primary focus was addressing creative problem-solving in different ways, so we were able to dive into the deeper meaning of why we create and who we create for. This was around the same time Design For Good came out, which was then the only framework we had as designers for participating in social justice and social change—but that mostly looked like being a graphic designer for a non-profit, which didn’t feel like the best use of the perspective and skills that we offer as designers. We weren’t really understanding our relationship with the people impacted by the problems. I knew social design was beyond me just working at a non-profit organization. 

How did your experience in MICA’s Social Design program help you further explore those ideas?

Being in MICA’s program was the first time I received a different perspective on our capacity as designers. It took me out of the visual realm and showed me that design is an opportunity to think in a broader way, that design is all around us. My thesis ultimately focused on the question: How do we cultivate a compassionate culture that supports the mental wellbeing of Black women? I had one-on-one conversations with Black women about how they navigate mental and emotional challenges and their experiences with therapy and traditional approaches to health care. I found the women I interviewed were already thinking about alternatives to the system that did not make space for them; they were exploring holistic healing, looking to their ancestors, tapping into spiritual traditions, and trying nature-centered approaches that weren’t being lifted up in the mental health industry.

This experience provided some insight to my own learning process, as well. I was still discovering what it meant for me to be well as I navigate this life and the complex, oppressive systems as a Black, disabled, and queer woman. I realized I wanted to take more time to think about what it would look like for Black women to have a space where we could talk about the challenges we face that impact our health—but also a space for us to respond to those challenges creatively and use design as a tool to facilitate our pathway to healing.

Design for the Wellbeing of Black Womxn workshop. Courtesy of Denise Shanté Brown

a table with a lavender patterned tablecloth - on top are a variety of craft supplies and a propped up card that says "what do you hope for Black women's health and wellbeing?"

Did you know going into the program that you wanted to focus on Black women and wellness, or did that come out of the conversations and interviews?

I definitely went in knowing I would focus on Black women and mental wellbeing. My research began with mental health bias and its relationship to Black culture, which showed up a lot in religious and spiritual spaces, but I personally couldn’t focus on that long term. I broadened the view to expand beyond mental health and looked at this problem more holistically—mind, body, soul, and space

Though I was the designer in this particular context, the design piece itself—inviting other Black women to be designers and facilitators of their own healing—didn’t come until after I finished the program. This came from me recognizing a couple of things: 1) being the only Black woman in MICA’s cohort and focusing on this issue spoke to how marginalized we are in design and health spaces, and 2) all of the design methodologies I learned as a grad student I actually needed to unlearn or remix in order to make them culturally relevant and specific to the needs of Black women.

This was where Design Justice came in. By the time I finished school, I was just being introduced to a definition of design that truly centers the voices of marginalized communities in a way that human-centered design does not. My practice as a holistic design strategist is about broadening the perspective of what design can be and how design can facilitate and create experiences for us within every aspect of our lives, especially the way we heal. Holistic isn’t just mind, body, and soul/spirit; we add space into that framework—it includes our natural environment as well as our interpersonal relationships and how we are healing with each other. When I heard that design justice, rooted in Design Justice Network Principles, uses design “to sustain, heal, and empower our communities, as well as to seek liberation from exploitative and oppressive systems,” I thought: This is what I am trying to do. This is how I want to practice design.

You eventually developed your thesis work into Design for the Wellbeing of Black Womxn. When you started working with this new cohort of women, how did you communicate the idea that design is everywhere to those who may never have encountered that?

That was the most powerful part of the hands-on experience piece. My collaborator N’Deye Diakhate and I invited Black women to talk about design as a way to facilitate a healing experience, but also to get their hands in the prototyping process and witness what can come from creative agency. For those initial sessions, we centered things that were already valuable in Black spaces and to Black women in particular—like storytelling and sister circles—which created space for us to be in truth telling conversations about our health. Then there was an educational piece where I invited them to think about all the ways design shows up in the world and in their daily lives.

One of the questions we asked in the workshops is: When you see design for wellbeing, what are you thinking about? What does that mean to you? People said things like: it means having agency over my life, deciding how I move through the world, being centered, seen, and heard. It was much more about their sense of power and self-determination—and how they could be the designers, facilitators, and leaders of what their wellbeing looks like in everyday life.

Design for the Wellbeing of Black Womxn workshop. Courtesy of Denise Shanté Brown

a group of black women gathering around a table completing a workshop exercise with markers, sticky notes, and posterboard

Did you look to any other design programs for inspiration or was this a frontier?

There was nothing like this! Of course, I pulled tools like prototyping from my experience in the social design program. I also took pieces of what I learned as a child in church or at gatherings with my family. One of the important pieces came from a book called Avie’s Dreams: An Afro-feminist Coloring Book by Makeda Lewis. When I picked it up at a local bookstore, I flipped to a page where she was talking about building inner peace, and using words related to her health and her emotional processing. When I read it, I was like, this is design! This process of building inner peace, noticing our relationships, and realizing what our power is as Black women—how to recognize the inherent resourcefulness, sacredness, and creativity. I wanted to share these relatable, everyday experiences with these women. They may not have seen themselves as designers but they were approaching health in a creative way.

How did Design for the Wellbeing of Black Womxn evolve into your new design for wellbeing collective, Black Womxn Flourish?

The idea for the Black Womxn Flourish actually came first, but the full concept had to wait. Design for the Wellbeing of Black Womxn was essentially a way to test some things and see what happened through the cohort experience, which was very successful, and I got a great response from the community, in Baltimore and beyond.

Then I let it rest for a year. I spent that time in feminist business school with Sister, collaborating with people who showed interest and thinking about how to nurture the collective vision. I recognized that I needed to introduce Black Womxn Flourish as a vision that had some proof of concept and energy behind it, as well as other Black women who felt connected to the idea in ways that they didn’t necessarily anticipate. 

How will this iteration of your practice be different?

Black Womxn Flourish has multiple components. One piece restructures Design for the Wellbeing of Black Womxn through more of a design justice lens and into a more team-based cohort. The second piece is the Co-Design studio practice, which comes from the consulting work I have been doing to sustain my living. The newest part is Flourishing Futures, which came out of our need for a space to dream, vision, and start to make connections to everything we are hearing, learning, and seeing through practice. We also wanted a space to engage in speculative thinking and bring in other Black women for collaborative imagination and dreaming. What does a flourishing future look like? What is required for us to be well? What do we need from ourselves and our communities? How can we create that new reality and name desires and demands for ourselves that can form a manifesto? If we can prototype and vision, then we can also begin to identify what it will take for us to get there.

Design for the Wellbeing of Black Womxn workshop. Courtesy of Denise Shanté Brown

a black woman with a beautiful fro holds up a pink mobile she made

Many people in America are just starting to wake up to the fact that design impacts marginalized communities. Do you feel hopeful about all these conversations that are happening?

Yes, I do feel hopeful. I like that the conversations bring attention to design as a practice, but I personally have been resistant to the sense of urgency behind it. We absolutely need to make space to talk about issues around police brutality and violence and figure out ways to reach justice. But from a health and healing perspective, I’m always considering what it means for the people who are doing the work. It’s really important that our work—even with its focus on justice—provides a healing and supportive process in return. There is no place for us to neglect our fluctuating capacities or the ways we need to be able to show up for ourselves. I want us to design new, more liberating, and pleasurable futures, and I want us to do it without sacrificing our wellbeing.

What is your future vision for Black Womxn Flourish?

I want Black Womxn Flourish to be a part of the broader conversation around what design is, how it impacts justice, and how we choose to practice. I want other women who may not call themselves designers—but are creative people—to see themselves reflected in our work, recognize other possibilities for their creativity, and reimagine their relationship to what design can be. I want people to know that Black Womxn Flourish is a living, breathing prototype. My own learning and healing and wellbeing is very much connected to my creativity—and this is true for a lot of Black women creators. So much of our existence is repressed and overwhelmed by other things that we have to tend to rather than being able to nurture our boundless brilliance and creativity. We have the creative capacity to know and experience what wellbeing is because it’s a sacred space within us. I want Black Womxn Flourish to nourish that space in the present so we can audaciously shape our future of health and healing.

Read more about Denise’s work at and, and find her on Instagram

Featured Image: Photo by Jahns Chavez. Creative Direction by Zahni Jackson-Garrett for The Work Mode. Courtesy of Denise Shanté Brown.

About the author:

Candace Opper is the author of Certain and Impossible Events, selected by Cheryl Strayed for the Kore Press Memoir Award. Her writing has appeared in Guernica, Longreads, Narratively, Literary Hub, Brevity, Creative Nonfiction, Bright Wall/Dark Room, and Vestoj, among others. She is Point Line Projects’ Editorial and Operations Manager.

Find Candace on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook.

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