Elaine Lopez was born in Miami, Florida, to recently-arrived Cuban immigrants. Shortly after earning a BFA from the University of Florida in 2007, Elaine followed friends to Chicago. There she began her career as an art director at full-service agency Leo Burnett. After three years, Elaine shifted towards the human-centered design field, accepting a position as a communications designer at Gravitytank, where she helped design new products for global clients. Later, as Design Lead at Greater Good Studio, she helped mission-based organizations address challenging social issues like childhood literacy and education. Elaine collaborated with Thirst Design to revive designer Paul Rand's brand for Columbus, Indiana, in 2017. Outside of work, she served as the Diversity and Inclusion Lead for AIGA Chicago to combat inequality in the design field. At RISD, Elaine explored the intersection of research, design, and diversity.


What impact your experience studying design had on the way you perceive the discipline and the practice of it?

I have always found the differences between studying design and practicing it a bit disturbing. In school, you are asked to come up with highly creative and conceptual projects which are exciting to work on. You work hard to learn as many skills as possible only to discover that the real world is much more siloed and simplistic. Speed and efficiency are valued over innovation and creativity. I am obviously only speaking from my own experience. Still, I have had the opportunity to work as a designer across many fields: marketing, advertising, human-centered design for innovation, non-profit, and branding. I personally would prefer to study design than to practice it professionally—unfortunately, this would not be practical in a capitalist society. We need to create more professional opportunities that leverage the full spectrum of capabilities that designers have.


Being a Cuban-American female designer, have you felt a lack of representation in the literature and references you were offered throughout your studies?

Absolutely. One always has to perform the extra labor of finding relevant references, influences, or inspiration if you deviate from the standard Bauhaus narrative that is so prevalent in design schools. This also makes it more difficult to make work around these topics because your instructors are usually unable to provide you with relevant conceptual feedback. The only way we remedy this, however, is by putting in the work to add these different perspectives into the conversation. We have to add the references and be the inspiration.


There are many cultural and political aspects in most of your work. How those projects were received by your university? Did you get any kind of encouragement or, on the contrary, any type of resistance?

The work was well-received even as I was critical of the institution, but sometimes this was frustrating. What does well-received mean if no change happens? Art and Design schools in the US are still prohibitively expensive for most underrepresented people, and the change happening is slow. It is still difficult to do work about your culture if none of your professors know what you are talking about. So I had to rely on the support of peers and instructors outside of my university. There needs to be a critical mass of students demanding change in the industry to have a significant impact. Until the cost of education is lowered, schools will applaud the efforts of the few that critique and continue on the same path.


How do you think a more critically engaged approach to design education benefit designers later on in their practice?

The design industry needs to change, and we need to empower students to be critical and creative so that they may design their practices to be more inclusive, sustainable, and relevant to our changing society. Students need to learn how to learn, how to create their own methodologies, and how to use the tools of design to better serve humanity. A critically engaged approach is essential to the success of students in the future.


What references, literature or resources have inspired you or were fundamental in your learning experience?

Ana Mendieta, bell hooks, Sohail Inayatullah, James Baldwin, Malcolm Rio, Platform Chicago, Paul Soulellis, Keetra Dean Dixon.


And finally, could you share some learnings from Making Common/ from your learning and practicing experience?

It's all very fresh as I just recently graduated. I have learned a lot this year by applying my thesis work into my pedagogy...trying to share what I have learned with others. It has been so interesting/rewarding to see my work resonates with other people, but it has also been interesting to see what others perceive as success. Personally, I feel very exposed and vulnerable after making and presenting this work...not to mention the effects of graduate school on my physical, mental, and financial health. It doesn't feel great now, but it has gotten better with time.