the Neighborhood Design Center


October 15, 2019

Interview: Full Circle with Malik Johnson-Williams

Malik Johnson-Williams

Role at NDC: Planning & Design Technician 

Age: 25


What’s your earliest memory of being influenced by or aware of design?

I never really thought of design until I decided I wanted to become an architect. And even after I had decided to pursue a career in design, my views on design gradually shifted overtime as I learned more about history, and began to notice how often “real” architecture was absent from communities that could not afford to pay for “real” architecture.

How did you decide that you wanted to be an architect?

My mom suggested it first. When I was younger, I wanted to be an entrepreneur / businessman. My original life plan was to invent a product that would make me millions of dollars. And with that money, I planned to buy a private island for all of my family to live on. Well, somewhere along the line I saw a program about a man who built his home in a jungle somewhere in Asia, and he told the reporters how building your own custom home by hand was so much more rewarding than living in a pre-built one. So seeing this, I immediately decided that I too had to design my own castle on my would-be private island. This led to me to drawing architectural “plans” every morning for months, while standing at my local bus stop.

Not too long after I started this habit, my fifth-grade class was tasked to research a future profession for career day. When I spoke to my mother that night about the assignment, she suggested that I think about becoming an architect. I had no idea at the time what an architect did, but once she explained that it was all the things I did already, I swiftly made up my mind. And since that conversation, I have never wanted to be anything else.

 What led you to NDC?

I first learned about NDC while researching internships as an undergrad in 2013. I’ve lived in Prince George’s County since I was seven, so when I learned about an organization that focused on design work in Prince George’s I was immediately interested. Unfortunately, at the time, there was not an internship opportunity for an inexperienced architecture student. After that, I every now-and-again checked NDC’s website to see what the office was up to.

However, it wasn’t until my final semester in Graduate School for Architecture & Community Planning that an opportunity presented itself. I was searching for internships for the upcoming Spring when the Director of my Planning program forwarded along an email informing the students that NDC was looking to take on a summer intern. Within hours of receiving the email, I replied to the offer with a cover letter, resume, portfolio, and references.

 Tell me about your time with NDC — what were you particularly excited to work on, what were the biggest challenges, and what surprised you?

Honestly, after following NDC from a distance for so many years I was just excited to be able to work with an organization that directly benefited the community in which I was raised. I worked on a number of projects from neighborhood signs, to dog park feasibility studies, to large scale community gardens. Each project had its own challenges, but I really just enjoyed the process of working with the local community partners and learning more about these unique project types that I never encountered in traditional architecture school.

 Has your work with NDC affected your practice? How so?

I think NDC has further strengthened my own practice of design. I have always believed that the outcome of architecture should be driven by the impact it has on the end users (and not only the owners of said architecture). Working at NDC has encouraged me to further investigate the history of decision making in America that has resulted in the current inequities in the built environment, as well as other alternative methods of design that attempt to bring more equity to historically disadvantages groups. Moreover, since I have worked at NDC, I have tried to make a concerted effort to increase my own network of design professionals who share my own sensibilities about design.

 What are your values as a designer? Have they evolved in your time with NDC?

My values in architecture are simple: Quality design is accessible to all people; Quality design should function to not only benefit the owner, but all who experience it; It should not only minimize harm to the environment in which it exists, but should do more to improve it; Quality design makes people smile. 

What do you think are the biggest challenges facing the field of design, specifically, urban design?

I think the increasing migration to cities (or suburbs in the US) is fascinating and will be the defining challenge of the next generation of urban designers. As the world becomes increasingly more urbanized due to social, political, and environmental factors, how cities are designed will have to drastically shift. Issues such as transportation, pollution, global climate change, gentrification, racial segregation, and social disconnection are just a few issues that come to mind. However, as someone who loves cities, I am excited to see how the role of cities in the human experience shifts over the next few decades.

What big idea (in design, in community engagement, in cities) are you most excited about right now? 

As mentioned, I’m most interested in seeing how designers address the increasing trend in global urbanism. Moreover, I am interested in how design can take advantage of the increased density of cities in order to improve other social or environmental outcomes.

If you had an unexpected day off in the city (Hyattsville, DC, wherever makes sense for your life right now…), how would you spend it?

I love cities so much that often one of my favorite things to do is simply to ride my skateboard through the city while listening to lofi hip-hop in the sun. The destination doesn’t really matter, it’s genuinely just the vibe and atmosphere that I enjoy. DC is a wonderful city, in that there are endless places to explore and just admire the buildings. I also am an unapologetic nerd and every so often I like to pull up Pokémon Go on my phone and just ride from one obscure landmark to another. 

Why does design matter?

Literally everything in our world is a product of design, or in other words, is a result of the decisions of those in power. This means that everything we experience in our day-to-day lives, good, bad, or indifferent, is by design. Sadly, this means that the people who are most disconnected (intentional or not) from the “design”, or decision making process are most often the people most negatively affected by the results of said decisions. I recognized this at a young age, and I have always wanted to pursue a practice of architecture that brought more equity to communities that have been historically overlooked.

What’s next for you?

Currently, I work at Page Southerland Page full-service architecture firm in Washington, D.C. The projects that I work on now range from large International Government facilities (often embassies or consulate compounds) to more regional commercial or corporate buildings. At the moment, my plan is to continue working in the traditional architectural sphere until I received my full architectural license after which I want to explore alternative ways architecture can impact local communities. Ultimately, I think I would also like to open my own firm that specializes in community-engaged design / development.