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Interview

Imagining The New Designer with Manuel Lima.

6 mins read

The world is greatly impacted by design. The decisions embedded in creative production drive the impact of the output. Whether positive or negative, the consequences carry direct results on people and the planet.

The vast majority of discourse in digital design highlights aesthetics, while the ethical, social, and environmental aspects are often cast out of the conversation. This week, we wanted to confront some of the widespread misconceptions and expectations about what constitutes good design with the author of The New Designer, Manuel Lima. Through his work as a renowned designer and knowledge producer, Lima seeks to challenge preconceived design practices, as well as emphasise key actions that designers must take to be a force for good in the world.


Hello, Manuel. I would like to welcome you to SDD, and perhaps start by asking you for an introduction about yourself, your work, and your background.
My name is Manuel Lima, and I'm a designer, writer, manager, father, and mentor at the same time. I pursued my journey as a UX designer with various companies such as Google and Microsoft as well as startups. But my passion for the last 15 years has been data visualisation. My first three books discuss networks and the importance of visualisation and metaphors in societies around the world.


What made you start thinking differently about design?
As a designer, I noticed things were happening around me that were not my expectation of design. I have always thought that design is a force for good. But, I started seeing the dark side of design and technology and noticed topics such as the environmental responsibility of design were not part of the discussion. As a result, I realised that typically associating design with positive impact is not the right approach. 


You have three published books so far, tell me a little bit about your journey and the role you're playing as a knowledge producer.
It started when I was doing a Master's at Parsons School of Design in NYC. I discovered the field of data visualisation during my master's, and I was just obsessed with it.I had a class called Information Architecture, and the teacher was showing a beautiful diagram called the understanding spectrum, where data leads to information, information leads to knowledge, and knowledge leads to wisdom. I started doing a lot of research on data visualisation and grew curious about how information spreads within groups of people. I started blogging and looking into the World Wide Web differently. Then I was collecting examples of networks in science, art, design, and computer systems. And, I created a website titled Visual Complexity, which includes an extensive collection of network visualisations. So, I thought this content is incredible and someone needs to make a book out of this, so I did it. Later on, I was going to conferences and design schools all around the world and noticed gaps in the education system and the absence of design-related topics like psychology, ethics, and environmental science from the curriculum. For me, that was a huge contradiction. The more I learned about design, the more I wanted to learn about the different roles and disciplines that can complement the design. 


Shortly, I started questioning why are designers, who are extremely talented and smart, failing to make a good impact, and this is how the idea of the new book started. 


Let’s dig into the upcoming book The New Designer, what is it about?
In this book, I challenged myself. First, this book contains no images, as opposed to my previous work which was filled with beautiful diagrams, maps, and visuals. That is because the content is quite critical and it tackles several issues related to design responsibility. The book is a wake-up call for most designers to say that we don't have to use technology destructively. There are other ways through which we can shape design. The main purpose of the book is to deconstruct myths. The content is structured into three parts: personal, societal impact, and environmental impact. I start with the personal impact because I think you have to learn to become a self-conscious designer first, then help society and the environment.


 Can you give an example of some of the myths you argue against in the book? 
One of the myths tackled in the book is the common conception that digital is a force for good. I think there is a little bit of techno-optimism around this notion. We need to shift from thinking digital is a benign force and not as harmful to the environment as other things. Somehow, industrial designers and fashion designers are the only ones to blame for the negative impact since they create tangible physical products that affect the environment, but that's not the full picture. The digital world is responsible too, every search we make on Google consumes the same amount of energy as turning on a light bulb for 17 seconds; imagine how many searches a single person makes per day. I want to demystify that every single designer regardless of their field of expertise has a responsibility to be conscious about their practice. Another myth about the environmental impact is that design is for humans. This idea of human-centred design is falling out of fashion. We keep producing solely for humans when humans are just a glimpse of the life cycle of the products we create; products will continue to outlive the life span of a single human in some way, shape, or form. And yet we only worry about the single use for a single user. 


What do you think designers can do to be more conscious? 
It starts with being humble. I think there's a lot of arrogance within design, some assume only designers know the best solutions, leaving out other important disciplines when we are creating any solution.

I love Julia Watson’s book Lo―TEK. Design by Radical Indigenism. It explores all the sorts of natural designs that were created by indigenous tribes around the world. Incredible source of knowledge and empowerment, and we can learn about their relationship with nature as opposed to the way we embrace flawless glass and cement. It is vital to open yourself to alternative ways of looking at the world as we design.


If you are to describe the new designers of the future, what would you say?
This is how I start chapter 10 of the book.

“ The designer of the future is a mix of psychologists and anthropologists, sociologists and ecologists, systems theorists, and a futurist. An activist and a reformer. The designer of the future has a deep understanding of the human mind and the interdependent social fabric that it inhabits. As well as the narrowing complexities of ecosystems both natural and artificial, that support the designer of the future to connect past sustainable traditions with a prospect of radical future change. “

Do you anticipate any criticism of the arguments you present in the book from the design community?
I think I wouldn't expect less, and that's part of the process. I certainly don't have all the answers, but if nothing else, I would like for it to be a wake-up call, some criticism of the book might serve the conversation. I do make some bold statements about capitalist systems and destructive norms, but I feel that it's the right thing to say. I don't mind a backlash as long as it comes with good constructive criticism.


For our readers who are interested in digging into further resources, projects, and books in this space, where do you recommend starting?
That's a great reminder because I need to sort a list of references for when the book comes out to help anyone interested get started. There are recent books that I would recommend one is Speculative Futures by Johanna Hoffman, which talks about speculative design as a great mechanism for designers to think more about the future. The other one is called Design Fiction by the Near Future Laboratory.

We are looking forward to reading The New Designer in March 2023, meanwhile, share with us what you think design in the future should consider. Who are tomorrow’s designers and what do they stand for? share your thoughts with us, ask questions, or pass on your own learnings at hello@sustainabledigitaldesign.com.


Written by Wonderland Team

1 November 2022

An initiative
by Wonderland