Finding inspiration in people, planet and all things in between, Teresa Franqueira has spent much of her career advocating for the transformative power of design. An industrial designer by trade, Teresa founded her own design studio and worked in the glass industry in Portugal before becoming a professor and researcher at the University of Aveiro. Focusing on the intersection of social innovation, sustainability and service design, she sees designers as important agents of change and works to equip her students with a ‘critical and proactive spirit.’
As part of the Design for Social Innovation and Sustainability (DESIS) Network, Teresa leads the ID+ DESIS Lab research group, working alongside Masters and PhD students to explore design for social innovation. She was also recently appointed as international coordinator of the association, and was a key figure in the creation of the ‘DESIS Statements 2020’. The collaborative document is a set of statements meant to reaffirm the association’s commitment to a politics of design based on care and solidarity in order to advance equity, inclusion and social justice goals.
We invited Teresa to share what design activism means to her, the role of designers in activating social change and the next frontier of industrial design.
What are some of the key principles that guide your work? Where do you find inspiration and hope?
People. Respect for the planet. The principles of environmental sustainability and circular economy have always been a reference in my work and I have a very strong belief in human beings as agents for positive change. Although to a large extent, human interventions and actions have damaged our environment, I believe that we are capable of moving towards healing and regeneration.
What is your understanding of design activism?
Design activism is in fact the essence of design, of good design, of design for the common good. It is being proactive and not reactive.
When I mentioned that people and respect for the planet guide my work, it is in the sense of believing in the positive impact that people, and even more so the designer, can have. Designers are intimately a part of the ecosystem that builds our artificial world, and so they must infuse their work with a motivation and willingness to design for the common good. Designers not only have the ability to observe the world and anticipate problems, but also to devise opportunities to innovate and find solutions.
What does good design mean to you? Do you think true design innovation requires a disruption of the status quo?
In addition to anticipating and preventing problems, good design can be summed by Dieter Rams’ 10 Principles for Good Design. We know that incremental innovations happen every day and many of them increase our quality of life, but radical or disruptive innovation is what can effectively change the system.
The status quo needs to be broken to give way to innovation that delivers a positive environmental impact, and designers have an active role to play in building this new world.
In your opinion, can bottom-up design initiatives and grassroots movements be successful without support from the top?
I don’t think so. I have always advocated for the synergies between the two approaches. The bottom-up initiatives are usually more tactical, while the top-down is more strategic. They need each other to be deployed effectively.
What do you think are the most important resources and skills for a designer to possess right now?
Empathy and mastering the techniques of ethnographic research. Design is sort of ‘live’ anthropology and archaeology and if designers are not able to understand human nature and the complexity and interdependence of all living creatures on the planet, they can’t make good design. Analogic resources continue to be an asset to the designer, together with all the digital tools that help in the creation process. The ability to design and model analogically is still the most important resource and skill that a designer should have.
Do you think the current design pedagogy is doing enough to help designers be more proactive in their own work?
Maybe. There are many differences from country to country but I think some design schools are doing a remarkable job. For my part, I have worked to ensure that new generations of designers leave university with a critical and proactive spirit, confident in their professional abilities in emerging design fields. The design job market is still very traditional, and the difference can be made through an entrepreneurial attitude and a unique approach to design activity.
In your opinion, what is the current impetus for designers to develop sustainable, social projects? How can design be utilized as a tool to safeguard democracy and equality?
New generations have a different view of the world, information is much more accessible and allows us to respond quickly. Individuals like Greta Thunberg make me believe that future designers may significantly change the type of products and services on offer and the very way we consume them.
To me, designers are ‘special agents’ inside society that are able to foresee what is new and, hopefully, act on that to have a positive impact in the present and in the future. Our current context shows us that freedom and citizens’ rights are facing new threats, even in the democratic contexts we took for granted. As agents of change, designers bear a responsibility to identifying these threats, debate their origins and consequences, and perhaps most crucially, develop sustainable social projects with democratic principles at their core.
In an ideal situation, what is the next frontier for industrial design? What needs to be done now to ensure we get there?
We must be more sustainable, promote a circular economy and design only what is needed with existing materials. We must design to nourish the planet and find product/service solutions that minimize our ecological footprint. To reach that, we not only need designers trained in this perspective so that they start introducing those changes when they enter the industry, but we need to shift the way we consume to nudge companies into a different production model.