Human-centered design work in the civic space isn't just bound to online experiences. Designers are teaming up with community organizers, urban planners, and other kinds of disciplines to prototype and design cities themselves as well as the services they provide, whether online or not. One designer working in this space is Sabrina Dorsainvil.
Dorsainvil is a multidisciplinary designer, who, until 2023, used her creativity, user centered design skills as well as her experience as a community activist in her role as the Director of Civic Design for the Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics in Boston. She received her BFA in Industrial Design from Massachusetts College of Art and Design in 2012 and her MS in Design and Urban Ecologies from Parsons The New School of Design. From Boston, of Haitian descent, she has worked with a variety of community-based organizations and city governments on projects that dig into social, spatial, and environmental justice.
The Office of New Urban Mechanics is an R&D (research and development/design) lab within the mayor’s office. “Our main goal is to prototype ways of making life in Boston better. That means we partner with different departments internally, but also externally with residents, entrepreneurs, community groups, technologists, etc. –we have an open door for people who are trying to make the city more delightful and think differently about city government.”
She was using user-centered design practices within the urban environment to create spaces for all people and to address systemic issues that face the urban dweller including housing and public health issues. “I was the only one in the institution that calls themselves a civic designer. During my time in the position, I was defining the practice while doing the work. Managing projects but also working across our team in a visual design and strategic planning capacity.” She began her work with the city in 2015 and says her “focus is on finding novel ways of designing citizen services around citizens. It’s thinking about both visual design and graphic communication as well as the built environment.” In her role she prototyped physical spaces, conducted research, and worked with citizens who are impacted by the work she and the team were doing.
Dorsainvil came to community activism early. In high school she participated in community initiatives through an environmental justice organization called Groundwork Lawrence—based in the Lawrence MA, community where she and her family lived. Her first role out of school was at the design and innovation consultancy Continuum where she worked on health and financial services, but she quickly began working with the New York based social impact studio, Designing the We, working with former classmates.
With the group Designing the WE, she co-created the interactive exhibition “Undesign the Redline”. This work interrogates policies and practices that perpetuate inequality in American cities, the worst of which is redlining, a practice which perpetuates systemic racism in housing policies using geography to divide cities. The exhibition integrated workshops, presentations, videos, maps, and installations. The project has traveled to other cities across the country and includes a toolkit to educate other community activists in their cities about redlining. She continues to be an advisor for visual design and strategy for the organization.
“Allston, I Really Love You”, mural reflects the large deaf community situated in the neighborhood of Allston in Boston. Mural by Sabrina Dorsainvil.
Dorsainvil is also a public artist and illustrator, as well as a practicing muralist, in addition to her day job, and she has been an artist in residence for the Creative Spaces Collective. She was a 2017-2018 Neighborhood Salon Luminary and a 2019 Polly Thayer Starr Visiting Artist at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. She has been a featured designer and exhibition advisor for the Design Museum Everywhere’s “We Design: People. Practice. Progress.” exhibition. In 2021, she completed the public art mural called “I Embrace the Love I Encounter” and had previously completed the mural “Allston, I Really Love You”, which reflects the large deaf community situated in the neighborhood of Allston in Boston.
“My artwork and personal practice interrogates similar contexts I am trying to grapple with. In order to be my whole self I let my honest feelings show up in my work and try to see vulnerability as an asset. In regards to my strengths, I for sure have an unwavering desire to follow what I’m passionate in and connect the dots between them. I try my best to admit ignorance and, though difficult, operate in the ambiguity and complexity of our realities. I ask questions of the world around me and reframe things. I strive to be good storyteller, a listener and collaborator.”
In 2023, she left Boston's city office and joined the equity focused non-profit design group Agncy as the Director of Design Strategy and Creative Practice.
 Sarah Wray, “City Lights: Sabrina Dorsainvil, Director of Civic Design, Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics, Boston,” Smart Cities World, May 10, 2019, https://www.smartcitiesworld.net/city-lights/city-lights/city-lights-sabrina-dorsainvil-director-of-civic-design-mayors-office-of-new-urban-mechanics-boston-4157.
 Design Museum Everywhere, “Sabrina Dorsainvil | We Design Online Exhibition,” Design Museum Everywhere, 2020, https://designmuseumfoundation.org/we-design-online-exhibition/sabrina-dorsainvil/.
 Wray, “City Lights".
 Joshua Duttweiler, “Sabrina Dorsainvil,” margins, October 2017, https://www.adjustyourmargins.com/sabrina-dorsainvil.
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