Interview with Mexican Born Designer Alberto Villarreal
1. Why did you decide to pursue a career in Design?
I grew up in a very stimulating environment, both at home and in the area of Mexico City where I was born (Tlalpan/Coyoacan area). My parents are both scientists, but my father also received a Masters in design. Having many visually inspiring publications at home was a key in developing an interest in the creative world for me. I decided that I was going to do design when I was about 9 years old and I still haven’t changed my mind.
I’m in love with the profession and even though I find design becoming some sort of a commodity nowadays, the tools are so accessible to everyone. I still believe designers have a very optimistic way of looking at the world and have a tremendous power to improve it. The industrial design profession was born out of the industrial revolution but it is now starting to go beyond the “industrial” stigma and becoming a tool for solving immediate needs for people that don’t have access to the industrialized world. That is why I have recently started to get involved in philanthropic projects for underprivileged communities (Engineers Without Borders and Project H Design are two non-for-profit groups that I work with as a volunteer besides my full time job as a Senior Designer at LUNAR in San Francisco).
2. What Responsibility do designers have to Sustainability?
I think designers have a strong responsibility with the environment and with society. Everything we design has to take into consideration three major aspects: society, environment and economy. Most of the times design gravitates around economic and business goals, but we have to remember that whatever we do has to have a (positive) impact in the environment and in society, if something we create does not satisfy these two other aspects then it is a faulty design..
Usually product needs come from social needs. But unfortunately these needs are not always addressed in ways that respect the environment. So today designers are facing some sort of existential crisis as a profession, when we find ourselves responsible for being part of the system that creates all these products that end up in land fills. At the same time we see that there’s a big opportunity in front of us to influence positively the relation between products, society and environment.
There are enough products out there, and even the so called organic and green ones require a fair amount of resources to be generated. I think there is a huge potential in designing things that are non-material such as services, behavioral-change campaigns and events that foster culture. I’ve always been an advocate of designing to make people smarter as opposed to make them lazier and many times the solution is not in a product. We’ve heard that the most sustainable product is a non product.
While some of us try hard to find the right product to solve a specific need, sometimes we find out that the best solution to certain problems is not in the physical products, but more in changing the way we operate. For example, people might spend a lot of time and money looking for green air conditioning system, but honestly sometimes you just have to open the windows and get some fresh air. More often than not, some very simple behavioral changes bring the solution to problems that can be otherwise addressed with bulky and complex technologies and not necessarily solved.
Eco-design practices have been around for a long time (even when I was in school I remember the subject being talked about at conferences and by some teachers), but it was only a few years ago that sustainability became a trend (a good one in this case) and it reached the design world, of course. Now that sustainability is becoming common place in the media, it makes it easier for us, designers, to talk to clients about the subject and to influence decisions about products that are manufactured in the millions and that have a huge impact in both society and environment.
It is also important to note the difference between eco-design and sustainability. Whereas the first one focuses on aspects that relate directly with the product (materials, assembly, fabrication processes), the second one has to do with bigger aspects such as social responsibility (socially fare labor practices, public health in work areas, etc.).
An area of sustainability that I feel particularly passionate about is the so called “Social Design.” It is sometimes left aside when telling green stories because most of them focus on materials or life cycles (which are equally important, don’t get me wrong) but behavioral change and social balance are a big component in creating communities that will sustain themselves for generations without harm to their members and ecosystem.
3. Elements Team at LUNAR...why formed...what objective...an example project or two and results
At LUNAR we’re focused on using creativity to make a difference. That idea has a double meaning, intentionally. We want to go beyond what is usually expected from designers – to make products pretty – and to make market impacts for our clients. At the same time, LUNAR is passionate about making the world a better place. So we created this internal team, Elements, that deals with everything related to sustainability, both from the creative & operational points of view. In other words, we are taking action in reducing the environmental impact of our internal operations (carbon emissions, trash, energy and materials consumption, etc.) as well as learning, implementing and sharing sustainable design practices in our creative work.
The LUNAR Elements team was formed as the consolidation of several passionate individuals within the company that were learning and putting into practice sustainable thinking in different areas on their own. Now we’re working together and have a dedicated schedule to run this effort in a structured way with clear objectives internally and externally.
Just as an example of a positive change of our effort to reduce the impact of our operations as a company, we got rid of bottled water. We realized buying bottled water generated carbon emissions in the delivery and contributed to more trash. So we implemented a filter that uses water from our current piping system and it is actually cheaper for us, so it is better for the environment and economically convenient without taking any benefits from the actual result: clean drinkable water. Additionally, LUNAR added composting into our trash system and in just three months has reduced almost 60% of our trash output.
As far as projects where LUNAR has applied sustainable thinking, we’ve been involved in green projects for a long time. Some examples are TerraPass, Powerlight, Xootr (aimed at bridging the last mile of public transportation for commuters), BIC (helping them understand future consumer behavior around fuel cells for portable electronics), and others. As the marketplace awareness of sustainability puts back pressure on our traditional clients, we are helping companies like HP create products that are less bad while simultaneously increasing consumer satisfaction.
We’re also trying to influence as much as we can our current projects where sustainability is not part of the product brief but where we see opportunities to improve either material selection, manufacturing processes or even end-user behavior, sometimes with incremental changes and some other times with full implementation.
We’ve joined the Designers Accord and with the LUNAR Elements team we’re making sure the sustainable design thinking is permeated in and outside the company.
4. Message to current or would-be-design students?
I used to teach back in Mexico, and I like to stay in contact with the academia. I travel to Mexico at least once a year to give lectures to different design schools and one message I always try to communicate to the students is to remember to use design as a tool to promote culture and progress. If we keep this in mind, design will go beyond the pure industrial, for-profit world and will be an actual catalyst for improving the world we live in, socially and environmentally speaking. And it will endure beyond the current global commodization of design.
5. What is next for Alberto Villarreal?
Good question. I’m definitely interested in getting more of my time in humanitarian projects and I want to focus as much as I can on that, but I have to find the time because that is one of many interest I have in the design world and my agenda sometimes becomes ridiculously busy. For example, one other thing I’ve been doing for over two years now is co-organizing the San Francisco chapter of Pecha Kucha (a global network of creative people sharing ideas and passion for design with a very specific 20x20 format*, in a monthly gathering). This has allowed me to meet some really interesting people from the local creative scene.
Anyway, in the next years of my career I hope to find a balance in the use of my creative skills for both creating meaningful and innovative products as well as to bring solutions to those places with the most fundamental needs. If we think about it, even in a world that seems to have created a technology solution for almost everything, the basic problems of humanity remain unsolved: hunger, poverty, health, peace, education. So there’s still a lot to do and I hope the design community, along with every other profession, focuses its efforts on the United Nations Millennium Goals*.
*Some related links: