Rafaela Valencia-Dongo is an IE School of Architecture & Design alum from Lima, Peru. While studying the Bachelor in Design, she came up with a novel approach to design called Retablo, which places communities at the center of the process. Her experience at IE University, she tells us, was instrumental

Tell us a bit about yourself.

I was born in Arequipa, in Peru, and moved to the capital, Lima, when I was two. I’ve been privileged to be able to explore Peru from a very young age. It helped me understand the gaps we have in the country—from our broken political system to the inequality in education. In 2018, I decided to move 17,000 kilometers to pursue a degree that would give me the right tools and processes to design impact-driven services capable of generating value for society at every level.

You’re the founder of Retablo. How did you come up with that idea?

The idea for Retablo came to me when I was tasked with creating a fictional design studio for a design management class. Essentially, Retablo is a strategic innovation practice that focuses on community-centered design to make a real impact on society. We firmly believe in the transformative power of design to bring communities together and we include them in the design process, producing solutions that actually address their needs.

The name is a reference to the Peruvian “retablos,” beautifully adorned wooden boxes that depict religious and everyday events. They’re made of more than 2,000 parts by families working together, sharing their knowledge and skills with younger generations.

What exactly is Retablo’s approach to design?

Our work is based on four pillars that help us promote a community-centered approach:

  1. We facilitate a space for conversation––de sobremesa,” a Spanish term that roughly translates as “sitting around the table”––so that everyone can voice their needs and their stories.
  2. We work with those stories from the inside, not from the outside.
  3. We hack existing design tools and frameworks to reinvent problem solving.
  4. We build lasting positive change driven by the community.

What is your experience with community-centered design? Any relevant pain points?

Retablo was born from a frustration with the lack of evolution in design frameworks and methods, which have remained largely unchanged since their inception. Design is a complex and multi-faceted field, and there is no reliable one-size-fits-all approach. That is why, after spending four years accumulating experience, I decided it was time to drive this shift toward a community-centered approach.

Can you tell us about some of the projects, methodologies or tools that you learned during your bachelor’s degree that you later applied to your Retablo project?

Of course. I’ve learned countless design tools, methods and frameworks over the past years. From service blueprints and the Double Diamond model to the Business Model Canvas and Agile methodologies. Not only that, but I developed a mindset on how to tackle complex challenges and create impact at scale.

Which of those skills have helped you the most in your professional career?

All of them! The Bachelor in Design at IE School of Architecture & Design helped me build a modular toolbox full of concepts, ways of thinking and techniques. The tools we were encouraged to use in class—Miro, Notion, Zoom, etc.—are still part of my everyday life.

Where do you see Retablo this time next year?

This is just the beginning! I genuinely believe that Retablo is here to pioneer a shift in design and in the way we solve complex problems.

What’s your advice to students who may want to follow in your footsteps?

First, take risks and don’t be afraid to jump into the deep end. Learning comes from experimenting with and experiencing new things. Second, view your projects and the ideas you develop while studying as potential future ventures and patents. You never know where your innovative ideas might lead you. And third, realize that your classmates and professors at IE University will likely play a significant role in your future, so it’s important to take advantage of the opportunity to build long-lasting relationships.