Nicole Cousins


I am a first generation American graphic designer. I was born and raised in Brooklyn NY to Jamaican parents.

Painting and drawing has always been in my life. And I was encouraged and supported by my family to explore all of it. Although I attended an art-specific high school, I still went looking for ways to do fine art even outside of school. So I participated in a muralist program, took film and painting classes at Pratt Institute, and was a part of the Parsons’ Scholars Program, earning early college credit. I was lucky to have my paintings featured in art galleries, including the Brooklyn Borough Arts Festival and Arts Connections. In the last year of the Parsons program, I began thinking about design as a career. I became a part of the Graphic Design team for our senior project and made posters to promote our student-curated art gallery. After that, I was accepted into the COLLINS Internship Program. That experience solidified my interest in design. I continued my design career at RISD, where I started thinking more like a designer and less as, say, an artist alone.

How did you become involved in socially responsible communications and why do you believe design can be an effective tool for this goal?

During my last year at RISD, I reflected about my journey in design and how I can push the boundaries of who I can design with — and design for. Identity has been the major essence of my work — in both art and design. My own cultural identity shapes the way I look at the world. And as my own identity is still expanding, it makes me happy. I’ve been creating art for as long as I can remember. But I started designing as soon as I learned how important it is for communication to be clear and meaningful. Design is an effective tool because it can help create accessibility and understanding. Design helps get a message across, change a perception and make an idea real and memorable. Design is the blueprint to create big change from small starts. It’s pure ideation. It’s magic.

Combining my own identity with a professional career allows me to find motivation for continuing to design; expanding happiness. Yet, can happiness co-exist when you design for other people? My senior thesis project was “enJOY the resistance: A BLKJOY Subscription Box.” It focused on the movement of Black Joy as an evolving concept in mass media. This came about after the constant influx of traumatic images of the Black community in the media. I had to take a break from social media because of the relentless toll it took on my mental health.

While it is important to put out information about Black issues in order to bring awareness, it is not solely the Black community’s job to educate everybody. My senior thesis highlighted an alternative narrative involving radical imagination and cultural Black autonomy. After interviewing different Black designers, artists and writers, I created a series of vivid silk scarves packaged in a box with custom wrapping paper made in collaboration with designer Amanda Barrow. We combined our family images with dynamic typography. We named it ‘Black Joy is Resistance.’ The box is a prototype for a subscription service for Black designers of the future.

Given the confluence of events and challenges our society now faces, does 2021 present any special opportunities, urgencies, obstacles to designing for good?

The pandemic left many of us reeling — reflecting within ourselves and thinking about how we connect with others. It put more emphasis on, and forced us to look more closely at, challenging issues such as global inequality and political conflict. As we are (hopefully) moving into a post-pandemic era, it is a perfect time to use design to help communities face these unprecedented challenges. One idea we discuss at COLLINS is this: “Design is hope made visible.” So we need to think about the accessibility of creative and design resources within these challenged communities and find ways to support them. In the end, I strive towards a society in which we can thrive freely and unapologetically be ourselves. That’s the real design work ahead.