fucsia graphic with a duotone portrait of Ignacio, his name and Project Inclusion logo.

humanize the user | interview with Ignacio Urbina Polo

Industrial designer, educator, and curator

Ignacio Urbina is here with me at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, where he teaches full time. Ignacio is a Venezuelan industrial designer, and he has a Master in Product Engineering. Besides being a full-time professor, he has been a product designer for over 20 years. He is a curator and writes about design issues,  a founding member of the American Design Biennale in Madrid, and editor of the design portal di-conexiones.com.

Key Takeaways

  • When designing, we need to go beyond the word “user” which is anonymous, an unknown, and easy to manipulate. We are not designing for “users”, we are designing for “people”.
  • We live longer, and a big art of our lives is completely unattended by design.
  • How do we design with the aging population in mind but apply it beyond that group?
  • Many examples of good inclusive design comes from solving problems for chronic medical conditions.

Q: What part do you see inclusion playing in industrial design? What makes a product’s design inclusive?

design is for people"

When I was studying design and entering its world, I would always hear the expression “design is for people”, and in the last 30 years, the idea of working with people and including people has become more and more common. But still, projects are anchored in the concept of the “user”, which is an unknown face, an unknown person –you can manipulate it, use it, but it’s not inclusion. It’s just a reference of a physical dimension. However, in the last 10 years the idea of really contacting people, engaging with them to produce more information for the projects –information about real people—has been expanding. Not only in schools, in research and teaching, but also the actual practice. We realized that, as a statement, we needed to work not only with and for people but that we need to include people –in the projects, in the idea of the design.

projects are anchored in the concept of the "user", which is an unknown face, an unknown person –you can manipulate it, use it, but it's not inclusion.


Q: You’ve done a lot of work in designing products for the ageing population. Can you draw some examples or stories from that experience? Why are you particularly interested in that sector?

There was an individual project a few years ago, in which we had to start thinking about a “new market”. They called it that. I realized that the idea of “the elderly” is completely new. We have the concepts of childhood, teenagers, professional life, but what happens is that you have more time in your life. And it’s completely unattended by design. Medical products have been looking at that, and in general, we have a major ideal of what “old people” means, and it’s just medical issues. What we have is a huge population that is just living a life with age, by ageing.

We live longer, have more time in our lives, and it’s completely unattended by design

It was a commissioned project where we started thinking about what product we could design, and we started, of course, with the easiest ones, the ones not subjected to medical regulations. We started with some furniture that could help people live better, in a very simple way –furniture that can help you stand up; or small products that can be good for people who have certain conditions or problems, but not any specific disease.

After that experience, which was five years ago, I started a teaching a course here at Pratt. It’s now on its third edition. It tries to understand how design can approach the aging population; that we are not designing for people who have a disease, they are just old people. It’s been a challenge because there’s not a lot of information about that, and what we see in the cities is a lot of older people, and older places.


Q: In my experience, when speaking to older people –which we are all going to become eventually–, they complain about the fact that the products made for them are either grey, plastic and medical –horrible looking— or are very childlike, which is also not appropriate, because these are active, working adults –and tech-savvy, in many cases. They’re not being fully understood by the designers.

In class, thinking and researching on how to do projects for old people, we realized that there are at least two million differences between old people who have a chronic disease like Parkinson’s or dementia –and who are just a small percentage–, and the rest, who are just old people. People who have minor physical issues –joints, vision, mobility— but they are fine, and they’re just red-blooded individuals who have professions, interests. They just get old.

Quote: How do we design in a way that we’re not creating an exclusive thing of ageing people?

So, how do we design in a way that we’re not creating this exclusive thing for ageing people? It’s just for people that have an age. It’s just a condition.


Q: A basic design principle is that you need to design something not just for old people, but something that works for them and everybody else.

Many good examples of universal design are coming from chronic diseases. You start working with the extremes and then you bring the designs to the whole population. We divide the course between different chronic diseases because in those extreme situations you can learn how to bring older people in. But in the end, students are simply working for people –just people who are old.


Q: What you mentioned before is very important: how do you humanize and add dimensionality to a person and go beyond the label of “old”? Labels sometimes act as a barrier against you knowing who you’re designing for.

It’s even strange that the course is called “Design for the elderly” because that’s already exclusive. It makes them seem like a special kind of people, and they’re not special, they’re just old. The course started with this discussion, so to give it this name serves to trigger a conversation about inclusion. This is the main idea of the course. It’s not just because it’s a market, it’s because we need to talk about inclusion. The subject of ageing is a good way to start a conversation about inclusion.

The subject of ageing is a good way to start a conversation about inclusion.


Q: What do you think it will take for the designers and the design community to incorporate inclusion into their perspective?

Not only in the professional practice but also academia, the most important thing is understanding we’re not designing for users, we are designing for people. It probably sounds very obvious, but it’s not. And it’s very difficult to break this barrier. This fine line between designing for something that only represents a person, and designing for the real person.

we're not designing for users, we are designing for people

The whole world probably needs to have at least the sensibility, that’s how do you bring all the knowledge of design in contact with people, and also go back with this information to do design. In general what happens is that you have the two extremes: people working in design almost like in a lab, without any relation with the world –which is fine, it’s a way of producing knowledge; and the other extreme, which is completely connected with people without any idea of design, and the solutions become paperwork, they are common solutions that don’t come from design.

What I’m trying to do is working in this line where people can design answers, but then also understand what happens with the population.


Q:  This is an interesting discussion about the role of the designer. Being a designer doesn’t necessarily mean being in a lab, creating stuff. It means being a journalist, a researcher, an anthropologist, if you want to understand who you’re designing for and their context.

It’s very challenging, especially because I’m teaching young people. In a way, you also have to teach design issues, design projects because the project is the actual subject of the course. But how do you get the sensibility to talk to people –that means when you think about the design you have people in mind. And it’s not just another element of the project.


Q:  It’s about incorporating empathy in the design process.

Yes. In general, empathy is the way to get in touch with people. What we need to do in terms of empathy is just capitalize on what we are as human beings. We are professionals, we have techniques and methodologies, but we are essentially human beings. And we are empathetic in our world, but when we start working we almost forget we can simply talk to people. So, it’s about how we capitalize that and use the normal behaviors we all have to incorporate people in the projects.

What we need to do in terms of empathy is just capitalize on what we are as human beings.

You use your empathy as a person.


Q:  Looking at sustainability, and how long it has taken to bring it to mainstream design –is there anything we can learn from that experience to infer what’s going to happen with inclusion and design?

It’s difficult to say how it’s going to happen, especially with how strong the idea of sustainability is right now. At least the most obvious and strong idea is that every single effort is important for this process. We have to incorporate inclusion it all the time –in conversations, in projects, in the writing, in the creation. By talking about it as much as possible, it will eventually become something normal. I would like to see sustainability and inclusion at the same level as geometry, for example –something we won’t have to talk about because it will be a given.

I would like to see sustainability and inclusion at the same level as geometry, for example –something we won't have to talk about because it will be a given.


Q:  Let’s talk more about the work you do here at Pratt. Can you give some examples of projects that bring inclusion into the discussion and address issues?

There are many students and I teach three courses a semester that have 10, 11 students each, so I have around 30 projects running at the same time during a semester. We work on including people, on getting in touch with people, while learning design. Last semester, one of my students in the master program designed some instruments and tools for people who have Parkinson’s; it was a nice project, because he went to the Parkinson’s Institute and it was tough, but he started asking what he could do as a designer. So we started with the basic ideas, with observation. Let’s start just looking at the people and see what happens, try to be there as much as you can to get empathy with the people.

The moment he started to talk with a group about what he was doing, the work became fantastic. They were simple objects, nice, well done. He told me he wanted to work in projects that didn’t have as much to do with high technology, but were more analogue, about form and texture. All of those projects were discussed with the people, and they turned out great without any direction, naturally.

The students who get engaged with groups and people make their designs naturally –the ones who don’t, struggle. Because the user as an idea doesn’t give you any information about real people.


Q>.That’s one of the basic, core design principles: bring others with you into the design process from the beginning, to make sure you get where you want to get.

And it doesn’t have to be huge research, especially for students who are getting their degree in industrial design. It’s just a conversation –the moment you start talking, the amount of information you can get from just a small conversation is tremendous. Creating sensibility to have this communication, and learn from it to do better projects is one of our goals. Because we have a lot of people working in inclusion, doing very deep research that is important for many fields. We have a lot of designers who only need a few tools to get this sensibility to work with people. This is the space in which I’m working, an area a little overlooked by design, because when you have people already engaging with the idea of inclusion you don’t have to worry, because they are already in that place. On the other side, it’s difficult to bring the specialists into this. In this very fine line of getting sensibility, getting the basic knowledge of how to engage with people, is where I’ve been working for a long time.


Q:  Maybe this also means redefining what research is. So that research is not about sitting in a computer looking at statistics and studies, but getting out into the world.

Also, if we start redefining what research is in terms of design, there are many practices that are not called research just because they’re not recognized as a type of knowledge. We need to change that, we need to reframe it. And part of this reframing is trying to understand this process where you get information, put it into the project and then get it back to the people.


Q:  Do you see any trends or changes in the types of projects that are submitted, that show a bigger presence of inclusion as a theme in design?

Every contest, competition, biennale all over the world already have inclusive categories. There is no way you can curate an exhibition without having inclusion as part of it, not only as a category but even as a theme. You also see schools that are starting to teach it –we have been doing that in academia for a long time, without the imperative that exists now. Because it’s urgent, we need to do it. In schools, there are many courses that not only put inclusion on the table to discuss it, but also now there are courses completely dedicated to it. In many competitions, there are categories just for that, and many international exhibitions are exclusively dedicated to inclusion. What is happening is huge.

Of course, there is a breach between what people are receiving, which is about the market and the industry –and probably the next challenge will be that the whole industry needs to use the knowledge coming from schools and all of the design worlds in a more massive way, to produce objects, products and artefacts for people, which have sustainability and inclusion embedded in them.

 

About Ignacio

I am Ignacio Urbina Polo, industrial designer, educator, and curator. Born and raised in Venezuela, with a Master Degree in Product Engineering from the Universidad Federal de Santa Catarina in Brazil, has been teaching design and related courses since 1995. Currently, he is a Fulltime Tenured Professor in the Industrial Design Department of the School of Design at Pratt Institute in New York.

Ignacio was a designer-researcher at the Brazilian Industrial Design Laboratory – LBDI in Florianópolis, Brazil. Coordinator of Industrial Design of the National Secretariat of Design and Architecture in Venezuela and Director at Prodiseño – School of Visual Communication and Design, in Caracas. He was also a founding member and director of the Metaplug, a middle-sized and innovative consultancy design office in Caracas. He also coordinated the design team of museological devices for the Amazonian-Andean Pavilion in the Expo Aichi 2005, in Japan. Ignacio has been Creative Director in multiple product developments, invited professor and lecturer in national and international universities, curator of industrial design exhibitions and Jury in competitions and design awards in several countries. At present, I do design projects independently, and he is a member of the Advisory Committee for the Iberoamerican Design Biennial based in Madrid, as well as General Editor of the website di-conexiones.com

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