Liz Ogbu's Design Journey

Designer, urbanist, and social innovator, Liz Ogbu is interviewed by writer John Cary about her Design Journey.


John Cary: I want to start from the beginning and ask, what is your earliest memory of design?

Liz Ogbu: I often describe myself as the weird child in my family who drew. When I finally got my own room in middle school, it became a sort of gallery. It was a space that I was constantly changing and decorating and trying to transform. In terms of architecture, that's probably the first memory of design.

In terms of doing something, both of my parents are Nigerian, and most of my extended family still lives there. When I was in high school, my parents decided that they wanted to build a house in my father's village, so there could be a place that we could all go to. Since I was the kid who drew, they said, “Here’s roughly what we need, draw it out, we'll send it to Nigeria for them to build.” So that was the first time I'd actually ever drew like a building, per se. I was probably a sophomore or junior in high school when that happened.

JC: From there, when you were thinking about college and beyond, was design part of that?

LO: No, actually, and I don't know why it wasn't. It just hadn’t entered my mind as something to do professionally. I went into college thinking I wanted to be an engineer. I guess it was design, in some sense, but it was more built around the making aspect. By some happy accident, I wound up at Wellesley College, which is a liberal arts school, and one that doesn't have engineering.

Wellesley had a partnership with MIT, and we could pursue a degree program that allows you to get an engineering degree. This Wellesley opportunity seemed like the best of both worlds. When I got there and started taking physics and other classes related to engineering, I did not like it very much. That's when I sort of backed into that love of drawing, and remembering when I made those plans for that house in my father's village. I thought, well, let me just take an architecture class, which I could also do at MIT. I loved it and then started just taking more and it became my major. The architecture degree at Wellesley was very fluid; there were only three required classes and then everything else was you get to choose. I describe it as a ‘choose your own adventure’ approach.

JC: We first met in 2005; what is your memory of that time?

LO: I was at a firm called SMWM, which is, unfortunately, no longer around. It was this great, mid-sized architecture and urban design firm in San Francisco that had been founded by women. I had interned there in grad school, and then ended up working there when I finished school.

You were the executive director of a nonprofit called Public Architecture. You said to me over drinks one evening, “If you would ever consider leading SMWM, I’d hire you in a heartbeat.” One thing led to another, and the next thing I knew, we were working together. I knew that I was coming to Public Architecture to work on these really impactful projects that I felt delivered on a social mission, even more than I had been able to do within the corporate setting.

Liz Ogbu image 1
Concept by Liz Ogbu. Image courtesy Francesco Fanfani for Public Architecture.

JC: Back then and even today, how do you describe yourself or what do you introduce yourself as?

LO: That's such a complicated question in a way. Because I do what I do and I'm able to get into the circles that I get into, I’ve long realized that I exist as a role model for other architects—particularly architects of color or designers of color in general. They see that it's possible.

We were both speaking at the TEDWomen conference recently. Of all the accolades that I got after my talk, the one that meant the most to me was the 17-year old African American girl who sang in the choir that had opened up the session that I was in. She came up to me afterwards and said how much my words had moved her. I hadn't gotten weepy with anyone else, but with her I totally did because I could see myself in her. I could see as she was talking how important it was that she saw someone who looks like her.

I don't think I ever introduce myself by saying I’m an African American architect—not because that is not a thing; I just don't want the whole conversation to go on that. I can talk about being a social justice advocate and designer, but everything that I say to you here or say when I talk or through my work is such that it emanates from the fact that I am an African American architect.

“I can talk about being a social justice advocate and designer, but everything that I say to you here or say when I talk or through my work is such that it emanates from the fact that I am an African American architect.”

There are things that I will face as an African American female, both within the field of architecture but also just in general that color the way I look at the world. So everything I say or do comes out of that background and experience. But it does for all of us. I think mine has manifested particularly in the way that I relate to people and in the way that I'm committed to social justice and rectifying imbalances in power. I’ve seen what I've had to do to get where I am at and I don't think that that should be the case for everybody.

liz Ogbu Smart Life water
Image courtesy IDEO.

JC: I've known you now for 12 years and yet I've seen probably the most significant transformation in what you talk about publically, how you frame your work, only in the past few years. Is there anything or anyone that has prompted what seems like an important shift in your work and life?

LO: There's been a number of things, but I think the most significant has been my mentor, Akaya Windwood who is president of Rockwood Leadership Institute. Akaya and I met at the Aspen Ideas Festival, back in 2014. There weren’t many African-American people at the event, so we noticed each other and we would do ‘the nod,’ which for those who are African-American kind of know, it's just like this implicit acknowledgement that we do often when we see another African-American person, basically to say “I see you.”

We finally talked and realized we both lived in Oakland, and so we started meeting when we came back and we just fell into this relationship. I've had people throughout my life who I would say have mentored me, but I don't think I’ve had such a dedicated mentor. We consider each other family now, like we're sisters. And so it's not necessarily mentor/mentee, although I get a lot from her and I think she gets stuff from me. The thing that I can credit her with the most is helping me dive deeply into this exploration of self and this idea that in order to do great work out there and to make an impact, I had to be my most authentic self. Akaya has been a great guide for me in learning about how to talk about race and other issues within myself.

SmartLife cycle

JC: Your TED talk seemed to come from this place deep inside of you and in your heart. Give me a sense of what the process was to get to writing that talk.

LO: It was the product of a lot of things that I had been thinking about lately. The overarching theme was about pain, grief, and healing, and how we need to think about it in the context of developing space; particularly as we think about issues of gentrification and displacement that are rapidly transforming cities.

I've got several projects on my plate right now—whether it's the redevelopment of the low-income housing project in Charlottesville, Virginia, to figuring out the future of an old power plant site in San Francisco. They're kind of ground zero, if you will, for rapidly changing communities.

As we were trying to talk about the good things that could happen as a result of the projects, I realized it didn't negate the fact that there was still a lot of pain from the histories of those communities, knowing that consistently they've been disappointed by people in power to hold their interests at heart. As I started to process that, I started thinking about my own journey and asked, “How well do I process pain?”; “How do I grieve?” It really started to crystallize in me that there are things that we're not talking about. If we talk about people, then we have to talk about the full landscape of emotion. Life is not just about joy; there's this other stuff too, and not talking about the other stuff doesn't make it go away.

JC: One moment that surprised me in your TED talk was the audience response to the phrase “spatial justice.” Everyone applauded, right in the middle of your talk. What does spatial justice mean to you?

LO: Spatial justice is a term that's been around for a while, but I don't think has been widely circulated. It was coined by two geographers, Edward Soja and David Harvey, and it basically means that we understand that justice has a geography and that an equitable distribution of resources and access to services is a basic human right. Most of my projects take place in the context of low income or underserved communities, and these communities are ones that have often been isolated through patterns of urban development, such as renewal, in which you often see the least access to services like public transportation or food. Spatial justice means that we've got to look at these projects and think about how to bring equity back into these communities.

Oftentimes, when we think about cities, a lot of people don't feel that there is a mechanism to rectify wrongs. They know that the wrongs exist, they can see it, they drive past the homeless encampments, but they don't believe that there is any mechanism to actually rectify that. In hearing the term spatial justice, I wonder if it sat with people in the sense of ‘it doesn't have to be this way.’ We actually could talk about how to rectify the situation.

Ping Zhu sketch1
Illustrations by Ping Zhu.

JC: Thinking back to that 17-year old woman that you met after your TED talk, is design something that you would recommend to her or to other young people, specifically to young women or young people of color?

LO: I've got mixed emotions. I want to recommend it in the sense that I think we need so many more people who look like me and who look like that 17-year-old, who have our experiences, to be the future shapers of our spaces. That being said, I also recognize that while there have been some shifts in the profession it is also a really hard place to be a woman, to be a person of color, and to be a woman of color, and I think the resilience that is required to sustain that is really hard. While I recommend it, I also acknowledge that I'm asking people to make a sacrifice to put themselves in the line.

My hope is that if our numbers do increase that we could actually get into positions of power and reduce those burdens that get placed on us—whether it's always being the designated person to talk to the community, because you look like you do, or having your ideas not taken seriously or feeling like you have to work twice as hard to get them to be acknowledged because you look like you do. And I think it's not just about race but it's also about class.

I came from a middle class background. I don't know that I could have pursued this career if I had come from a poor background because there were a lot of sacrifices and debt that I put myself through–both in terms of schooling but also to pursue this social impact design career when I started my firm. I totally floated a lot of debt and thank God for my mom who helped some months until I got to the point where I was successful.

I want this profession to be so much more inclusive and I want more people who look like me to be part of it, but I also recognize that not all the work should be done by these people coming in. It has to also be done by the people holding positions of power who actually make sure that there is space and opportunity. I talk about spatial justice in the context of cities, but there's also a system of justice that needs to be applied within the design profession, to make it available to more people.

“I want this profession to be much more inclusive and I want more people who look like me to be part of it, but I also recognize that not all the work should be done by these people coming in. It has to also be done by the people holding positions of power.”

Ping Zhu sketch2
Illustration by Ping Zhu.

JC: What keeps you up at night, or concerns you most about design, the world, or your place in either?

LO: There are probably two things. One question is, what does healing look like and how do we weave acts of healing into the creative process? I really think that that's the next mountain we need to climb in terms of talking about design. And then I think the other thing is we are in a really turbulent time in terms of our society, our politics, both nationally and internationally—more turbulent than I've seen in my 41 years here on this earth. It feels like something has to change and out of that change we're going to have a new way in which we relate to each other and in which our society functions and, by extension, the ways in which the places that house our society function.

What does healing look like, and how do we weave acts of healing into the creative process? I really think that that's the next mountain we need to climb in terms of talking about design. John: What gets you out of bed in the morning? Or, in other words, what are you most hopeful about and why do you think this is all worth fighting for?

LO: I think it's about that 17-year old girl and others that I come into contact with through the work I do. Seeing the impact that even the little bits of change made makes me excited for what could happen if we could really marshal our forces to create bigger change. I'm excited to be a participant in that change and so I get out of bed because they know that I have a purpose, and making, acting on that purpose is why I'm here. Each day, I feel lucky that I have an opportunity to just do that.

Ping Zu 3
Illustration by Ping Zhu.


Liz Ogbu Liz Ogbu is an expert on sustainable design and spatial innovation in challenged urban environments, with a long history of engagement in the design for social impact movement. The founder and principal of Studio O, a multidisciplinary consulting practice that works with nonprofits, municipalities, and companies, she tackles wicked social problems through creative transformations of places, systems, and communities. Her clients include the Nike Foundation, Jacaranda Health, and Pacific Gas & Electric.

Liz has been actively involved in shaping two of the world’s leading public good design nonprofits. In 2011, she was part of the inaugural class of Innovators-in-Residence at IDEO.org, IDEO’s sister nonprofit dedicated to fostering global poverty reduction through design innovation. Prior to that, she was Design Director at Public Architecture, a national nonprofit mobilizing designers to create social change. Whether interviewing day laborers in Los Angeles, analyzing health clinics in Bolivia, or developing a water and health social enterprise in Kenya, she has worked to advance the cause of innovative design and strategic thinking as a tool to address the needs and desires of underserved communities.

In addition to her practice, Liz has had a long commitment to bringing social impact work into the classroom where her courses and research explore opportunities at intersection of design, innovation, and community engagement. She has taught at the California College of the Arts for several years, most recently holding an appointment as the inaugural Scholar in Residence at the school’s Center for Art and Public Life. She is also on faculty at UC Berkeley and Stanford’s d.school.

Liz lectures often on design for environmental and social impact. Liz has also written for and been profiled in publications such as Places Journal, Metropolis, Core 77, and the Journal of Urban Design. Her work has also been widely exhibited, including at the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, Rotterdam Biennale, and Yerba Buena Center for the Arts.

Liz earned her Bachelor of Arts in architecture from Wellesley College and Master of Architecture from the Graduate School of Design at Harvard University. A wanderlust maven, Liz is addicted to learning about cultures and has traveled extensively, including a ten-country sojourn through Sub-Saharan Africa on a Thomas J. Watson Fellowship.


John Cary portrait John Cary premised his career on the belief that everyone deserves good design. He is the author of two books, most recently Design for Good: A New Era of Architecture for Everyone, and his writing on design, philanthropy, and fatherhood appears in the New York Times and other publications. He frequently curates and hosts events as well as coaches speakers for TED and other entities.

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The 2018 Design Journeys series is supported in part by the National Endowment for the Arts.