Early Lab is an early-stage design practice supporting social innovation through the capacities that get activated when people make things together.

Using making to make things possible

Early Lab employs a co-design process fuelled by conversation tools made jointly by project stakeholders and Early Lab’s team of design students. These are empathy tools: vibrant physical objects rendering ideas and scenarios much more tangibly than words alone. Local capacities get activated when people make things together.

We like to address social challenges with the people facing them, in the places they are happening.

Being in the place

Our approach is informed by the particular conditions of local settings. Through Early Lab, design students get to experience being and working in the place: in the place where the social challenge is active, in the place where people endure the challenge every day, and they get to work with those people (not for them), where they are.

We assemble multi-disciplinary teams of design students and prepare them for transdisciplinary collaboration.

Managing complexity

All socio-ecological challenges are complex. Complexity is defined by conditions in which no single person, group, discipline or authority holds all the knowledge necessary to address the challenge successfully. Therefore collaboration across sectors, systems, authorities, disciplines, groups and people is essential. Complex challenges cannot be addressed without a multidisciplinary team collaborating transdisciplinarily. 

We are not problem-solvers or problem-finders. The methods we employ unlock hidden capacities and build on local assets.

Co-actors in development

Early Lab experiments with ways of using participatory forms of creative practice that are transferable to engage people and communities-in-place as co-actors in an equitable development process. We do this to help communities and partner organisations devise, through their own liberated capacities, interventions that respond to local conditions and are commensurate with their own priorities.

We give designers an opportunity to experience being involved in something at the start, or at least very early.

Before the issue has been framed

Designers need to be involved in things much earlier. Traditionally they are brought in at the end of a process after issues have already been framed. Designing in ways that have the potential to interrogate the space behind surface symptoms and deliver sustainable change that is resilient is virtually impossible if you are stuck at the end of the process. So we decided to create Early Lab.

We connect design students to communities of critical interest irrespective of discipline.

Communities of critical interest

Design for social innovation is very different from design for product innovation – so much so that, where it happens, design education has to be re-invented for it. We question the logic of design courses, particularly at postgraduate level, that huddle students into cliques of discipline irrespective of critical interest, mistaking a discipline for a subject.


The Early Lab was co-founded by the designers Nick Bell and Fabiane Lee-Perrella in 2014 at University of the Arts London (UAL). Early Lab project teams are multi-disciplinary and consist of design students. For its first project, team members came from five of the six UAL colleges. Different teams of design students are selected to guarantee a skill mix appropriate for each project.

Nick Bell is a designer absorbed by the new social potentials of design. He uses design to frame socio-ecological challenges that aim to be public forming. With a background in communication design, he is also an editorial designer running a design studio that has a curatorial concern for the voice of interpretation and interactivity that is applied in the area of interior/spatial and exhibition design. Recent projects include: the Imperial War Museum London’s First World War Galleries; the Sanger Institute diner at the Wellcome Trust Genome Campus near Cambridge; and the Benjamin Franklin Museum in Philadelphia. Nick Bell is a Visiting Critic at the Royal College of Art, London and member of AGI (Alliance Graphique Internationale). From 2013 to 2016 he was UAL Chair Professor of Communication Design.

Fabiane Lee-Perrella is an artist and designer running a small participatory public art practice called Flour. The studio creates work in which stakeholders are engaged directly in the creative process as co-authors. Fabiane has 12 years experience of working collaboratively with communities, schools and the public for museums and cultural centres, public art commissioners, local councils, place-making agencies and charities. Her clients and project partners have included: Refugee Council, Southbank Centre, Barbican, Lambeth Council, Future City, Allen & Overy, Crossway Foundation and schools throughout the country. Fabiane is a lecturer at UAL’s Camberwell College of Arts on the BA 3D Design Course. She is also a researcher interested in on-the-ground research and has for the last 3 years explored the role of design for innovating public services.