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Community Spotlight: A Sour approach to changing policies and inevitable discomfort


Headshot of Pinar

Meet Pinar

It’s a joy to hear Pinar talk about design in her own calm, refreshing style. Pinar is a Partner at SOUR Studio’s, an innovative hybrid design studio I was excited to learn more about. But Pinar also wears many other hats. She’s a lecturer in strategic design and management, an instructor in strategic collaborations and Board Member and Chief Strategy Officer at non-profit, Open Style Lab. And on top of all this, she’s mum to a four-year-old too!


Pinar’s background is in industrial engineering and finance, but she found herself firmly in the world of design after co-founding a number of startups in a range of design-related areas, from furniture e-commerce, to environmental cleanliness. Pinar’s experience is hugely diverse, which compliments the many different typologies SOUR works in today. 


Animation shows text flickering (white on black background). It alternates with a flicker, reading 'Sour' and 'Social + Urban' - nodding to the portmanteau of the name.

Source: SOUR


In 2016, Pinar and SOUR co-founder, architect, Inanc Eray started their own creative design studio. They didn’t have a definite idea of where they were heading, but one thing they knew for certain, was they wanted to do things differently. They went into the enterprise, questioning how they had seen things done in the past. They had seen talented architects and designers with a less than human-centric approach. They had seen design companies grow from a team of 20 to 300, and saw the things they had to give. Their design studio was created because they saw a need to question the way things were being done in the design world.


Pinar and Inanc’s mission was to explore answers to issues that were troubling the world. Over time, they realized their skillset and passions were aligned with addressing social and urban problems, which is when they re-branded, and SOUR was born.


Pinar explained the significance of the name they chose. “SOUR is a play on the words ‘social’ and ‘urban’, but we also believe it represents our attitude. We appreciate discomfort, being in the grey. We’re comfortable introducing ourselves to things we haven’t explored before. When we were launching, we said that we believe there is enough sugar-coating in the world, it’s time to be sour.”


From the beginning, they knew SOUR was about exploring issues that others might not be comfortable with. They wanted to make a real impact and accepted the inevitable discomfort that involves. SOUR was about the need for the design industry to get real and use their expertise to solve real problems for real people, without letting ‘sugar coating’ get in the way of progress. 


The Sour process diagram, based on the popular 'double diamond' design process model. From left to right, the words Design, Define, Develop, Deliver, Evolve. The word 'with' has been added next to each step - highlighting Sour's co-creation approach to problem solving..

Source: SOUR


The SOUR way


SOUR includes consumers and users of products or services in the design process, as partners. They work with individuals with relevant lived experiences for each project. For example, when designing a product that will be available globally and accessible for individuals who are blind or visually impaired, they co-create with individuals who are blind or visually impaired from many different locations and cultures. Pinar talked about the power of bringing in the right people for a project, compensating them appropriately as project consultants and viewing them as partners and co-creators.


“I feel like we’re 50% ahead of the game because our insights for design are so much better informed that it actually makes the designers job easier. Of course, we have our own ideas of what might be amazing, but always in co-creation, something will come up and we’ll say ‘Oh… I never thought of that!’


We just benefit so much from exposing ourselves to people who are not in our bubble, and once you experience that, you can’t undo it. I think anyone who exposes themselves to a more human-centric approach can’t go back. It alters your entire approach to design.”



Smiling at the camera, a group of individuals at the Universal Materiality Exhibition, on which Sour collaborated with Open Style Lab

Source: SOUR 

Project: The Universal Materiality Exhibition, which opened its door at Parsons School of Design (NYC) in 2019. SOUR collaborated with Parsons, HKPOLYU, ITC, and Open Style Lab on the exploration made with textiles, design processes, and fashion for aging/disability, with the goal to encourage people to consider the ways disability is interpreted in bodies, abilities, and through the act of dressing.



SOUR also understands the importance of collaborating with professionals who have the relevant expertise and language skills to work on a project and facilitate co-creation sessions.


“Even if you are a very large company, you will never have all the experiences you need in a project. You have to have a certain level of elasticity as a team to expand for projects as needed.


Our core team is 15 people. Sometimes the project team will grow to 24, because we bring in people who are the right fit for the project. 


Over time, practicing this, I feel like we’ve built a network of individuals that became our extended team. It's really about knowing your people and investing in building that network over time, and globally. 


It takes practice to do collaboration well, but in such a volatile, complex world we live in today, we have to realize we can’t do everything ourselves. And it’s so much fun!”



Illustrated graphic with text that reads: 'A digest on Co-design by SOUR'. The word Co-design in orange has segments missing from it. The graphic shows a diverse range of hands holding orange spheres; that fit into the gaps in the word Co-design - suggesting that everyone has a part to play in the process.

Source: SOUR



Why aren’t more designers doing it the SOUR way?

SOUR is in the minority in the design world. Pinar shared some insights into what needs to happen for more designers to adopt collaborative practices.


“We need to get rid of that myth that co-creation is a more time consuming and expensive process. If you don’t have a well-informed design process or actionable insights that you generate from co-creation, you actually spend more time and money in research or prototypes afterwards. 


Also, because this is the design industry, I think we need to get rid of our egos. It [co-design] can feel diminishing to some experts. Designers need to work with others to create solutions for everyone. If you really want it to be about yourself, be an artist. You can put out your artwork and you don’t have any responsibility to anyone. But when we say architecture, urban spaces, products and services, it’s not about you, therefore it can’t be about your ego.”



Credit: Wundermap Thompson Argentina

Project: Degree Inc for Unilever, the first inclusive deodorant, for which SOUR co-designed with people with visual impairment and limited mobility. 


Two ways to approach a problem

Solving real problems and making a difference to lives and communities is at the heart of SOUR’s mission. To demonstrate how they approach this, Pinar described the two angles from which they can explore a problem, the ‘top-down’ and ‘bottom-up’ approaches.


The bottom-up push

When it comes to a bottom-up approach, SOUR’s team is pretty well-oiled. Much of their work to date, has involved co-creation with communities, the individuals affected by a particular issue. Designing solutions in this way forces a bottom-up push for change.



Visual render showing the Degree inclusive deodorant from three angles. Click to read case study PDF.

Source: SOUR 

Project: Degree Inc for Unilever, the first inclusive deodorant, for which SOUR co-designed with people with visual impairment and limited mobility.


In 2021, SOUR worked with Unilever and Degree, to create an inclusive deodorant. The multi-award winning design was a co-creation with people with upper extremity impairments and visual impairments. Pinar explained why this particular project was a success in her view.

“It was a great example of how co-creation and working with communities can create better outcomes, because it was such a successful project. I mean, it won awards, yes, but it also won acceptance by the community. We are happy that it became a benchmark for other brands to take on such projects.”

The project received extensive publicity and industry recognition, but I got the feeling that for Pinar, the biggest victory was that it made inclusive design a talking point, and it may be a catalyst other brands need, to explore inclusion in their own products and services.



Sour's 'Community Based Organisation Working Model Recommendation'. Click to download 'The New Jersey Data For the American Dream Initiative.'


Source: SOUR

Project: Together with the NJ Department of Labor, SOUR looked into how might the department's training programs and outreach around them be more inclusive of overlooked or underserved communities. 


Top-down policy

The second way to approach a social or urban problem is from the top, down. This involves working with policy makers to affect change. It’s about exploring how systems and processes can better serve the community.   


In a recent project with The Department of Labor of New Jersey, SOUR set out to answer the question of how to reach people who are chronically unemployed, in a better way. Pinar explained how the team set out to do this.


“We had co-creation panels of community-based organizations that have such an audience, as well as unemployed individuals themselves, to really understand what tools the Department of Labor could create that can really serve them and how the Department can work with the CBOs to better serve these communities.”


Pinar praised the Department of Labor In New Jersey for being so open to such a human-centric process and their willingness to hear the feedback from the communities. This is an unconventional, perhaps unique way for a government body to explore how they might create more effective processes. Surveys and focus groups might be commonplace but gathering this depth of data in such an open, unbiased way, from the community is rare, even though it seems fundamental.




What does a SOUR future look like?

When I asked Pinar about her vision for the future at SOUR, she was careful to talk about growth in a mindful way.


“’Growing’ to me, is not necessarily becoming a 1000 people company, I use ‘grow’ more in the sense of personal and professional growth. As our portfolio grows, I think we would be interested in exploring even deeper collaborations between public and private organizations to push for change. I think our skillset in design research synthesis and design, will serve in even more top-down policy and how we can influence that. 


We are starting to think more into how we impact more policy, how do we think of more top down systems and strategies, like with our work with the Department of Labor. I’m hoping that as our name and presence becomes more powerful, we would be able to get into even bigger conversations in the top-down and hoping really to merge those efforts.”


Pinar’s two-pronged approach aims to unite the bottom-up push with the top-down policy. Top-down policy can be very slow and the bottom-up is not always cohesive or collective. Pinar emphasizes the need for both in order to create effective solutions for as many people as possible. When top-down and bottom-up approaches work in sync and meet in the middle, this is when the magic happens, and meaningful change can occur.



Sour WFH Family Pockets

Source: SOUR

Project: During a participatory research on the impact of Working From Home, SOUR created Family Pockets, a play kit for parents and kids, promoting communication, collaboration and bonding through six different activities. 


What is inclusion to you?

Finally, we had to ask Pinar the question we ask all our community spotlights. This is what she had to say, “Inclusion is recognizing differences and accepting them. We talk about inclusion from a race and ability point of view, but we are all so different! In the end, being accepting of one another, and making space for each other’s differences, that’s what inclusion really means to me. 


Thank you to the lovely Pinar for sharing the amazing work and values of SOUR Studio’s with us. It’s inspirational without the emotion, because what they are doing is simply, how things should be done. The more we share the SOUR story, the more others can see, it’s not easy, it’s not always comfortable and it isn’t about the recognition, but if you really want to solve social and urban problems effectively, this is how to do it - the SOUR way.


Find out more about SOUR: website, LinkedIn, Medium

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