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De Nichols, BFA in Communication Design ’10

Deandra J. Nichols, BFA ’10/MSW ’14, leads YouTube’s Culture Lab team, promoting user experience research with marginalized communities. She’s also contributed to nonprofits like Forward Through Ferguson and Design as Protest.

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These days I lead a research lab within YouTube called Culture Lab. My team and I, as UX researchers, engage with content creators all across the world in order to better understand their stories, their inspirations for creating, and the ways in which our platform can design even better products, features, tools, etc., to help them thrive.

A friend — another WashU and Sam Fox School alum — Molly Needelman, reached out to me and was like, “I love what you’re posting online about social change. I love how you’re integrating research into this.” With everything that was happening around racial justice following the murder of George Floyd in 2020, YouTube and Google at large wanted to take racial justice more seriously. They wanted to not just give lip service to inclusion and equity, but really ground expertise in order to build better experiences. And then they were like, “Well, what else can you do? Can you take this model and replicate it for LGBTQ+ creators?” And then it became women creators, and now it’s creators with disabilities. We realized that there’s something at this intersection of art, research, design, user experiences, and storytelling, and we created Culture Lab from that. The worlds seem disparate or disconnected. When we think about design, it’s in the language of silos. But for me, by exploring and navigating each one of these in very unique ways, I was able to create a space for myself and carve that niche for the practice that I lead today.

Mirror Casket
When we were organizing day in and day out in Ferguson, in order to raise advocacy and demands for justice for Michael Brown and his family and his community, I kept having these nightmares about men carrying this casket that was made out of mirrors. I called up some friends, and seven them met me at a coffee shop. We took the idea that I had and built this casket, and it was marched across Ferguson, and then across Jefferson City, and then it eventually landed in the Smithsonian, where it’s currently on view in the Afrofuturism exhibit. When I had that initial dream about men carrying a mirror casket in the middle of the night, I didn’t think that it would be something that would get legs and walk. It was just something that was in my system that I needed to get out, that I wanted to be expressed. For me, that shows the power of community, of community art, of community-based practice. Once I shared the idea with the seven other local artists, it was their skill sets, it was their contributions that took it to the next level from idea to art, to artifact, to protest tool, and gave it its power.

Openness and Connection
There are so many pressures that we each face that try to limit our ability to imagine better futures, to imagine better experiences for ourselves. And I want readers, viewers, listeners of my work, to understand that you can take your gifts and create something and share your voice in your experiences with others. We don’t have to suppress that within ourselves, no matter what the environments are or what the challenges around us are. One of the things that I want people to do is just open their worldview. Understand that there are experiences out there that will allow you to connect more deeply with the humans around you.

Interview edited for length and clarity.

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Mirror Casket

Deandrea Nichols, Marcis Curtis, Damon Davis, Sophie Lipman, Derek Laney, Mallory Nezam, and Elizabeth Vega. Mirror Casket, 2014. Reflective glass, wood, metal, caulking compound and adhesive. Photo courtesy Deandrea Nichols

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Art of Protest

Deandrea Nichols. Art of Protest: Creating, Discovering, and Activating Art for Your Revolution (Big Picture Press, 2021). Cover.

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Art of Protest

Deandrea Nichols. Art of Protest: Creating, Discovering, and Activating Art for Your Revolution (Big Picture Press, 2021).

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Show us Justice Billboard

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About De Nichols

De Nichols, BFA ’10/MSW ’14, is a senior user experience research manager at YouTube. She is the lead researcher and manager of the Culture Lab team, promoting user experience research with marginalized communities. She is also an author and lecturer, and participates in a variety of nonprofit organizations advancing racial equity, design, and social justice, including Forward through Ferguson, Design as Protest, Creative Reaction Lab, and The Griot Museum of Black History.