Alberto Villarreal graduated from the MA
programme in Transportation Design at UID in 2002.
What is your academic background?
I have a Bachelor&s degree in Industrial Design from UNAM
(Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México), which is the largest
university in Latin America and ranked amongst the best
universities in the world. The ID program at UNAM, which is 40
years old now, requires all attendees to take 1 year of foundation
courses at the School of Architecture prior to 4 years of
industrial design. So it ends up being a 5-year program. During
this degree, I also had an exchange summer course at the Istituto Europeo di
Design in Milan, Italy.
Since you left Umeå, what have you been doing?
Well, it has been almost 10 years since I left Umeå. I graduated
in 2002 from the MA Transportation Design programme, and at that
time the transport industry was having a slow time, so I started
doing freelance work (industrial design) and I was lucky to have
some big clients like Nike.
After a few months I took a short stage at Pininfarina in Italy but afterwards
decided to get back to the broader practice of industrial design
(which has shorter lead times and a wider variety of materials,
technologies, and problems to solve, than the transportation
So, when I had the opportunity to join LUNAR in
2004, I moved to northern California. At LUNAR I gained a very
solid part of my career as a designer. I started as a junior
designer and ended up managing my own clients and projects
internationally and leading some of the creative efforts within the
design team. I had the chance to work both at the San Francisco and
Munich offices, and I was also part of the LUNAR Elements team
(internal sustainability group), which created the Designers Field Guide to Sustainability,
among other projects.
I was also pretty active in the San Francisco creative scene and
co-organized the local Pecha Kucha chapter for 3 years, being the
most active PK chapter after Tokyo at that time.
After 4 great years at LUNAR, I wanted to come back to my home
country and participate in the vibrant up-and-coming local design
scene. I kept collaborating with LUNAR remotely in a few projects
while I started to set up my own activities, such as opening a Project H Design chapter in Mexico City
(which afterwards became its own separate entity called Razon
Social), a non-profit group focused on using design as a tool
for social development.
In October 2009 I was invited by architect Michel Rojkind to
start a new design company, so we started AGENT.
AGENT is a strategic design firm with a strong focus on innovation.
AGENT was founded in 2009, a time of economic crisis, and it was
created as a company that would present new approaches to current
problems, new ways of solving the constantly challenging and
complex problems we face today and looking forward. One of the
things that the recent crises made us aware of, is that some of the
traditional methods do not necessarily work anymore so new
strategies and ways of thinking need to be applied.
After a year and a half of running AGENT - we&re positioned
as a leading firm in the local scene, and are starting to gain our
own voice internationally. We&ve had an enormous amount of
press (which I never imagined for the first year of operations) and
we&re working with clients in 3 continents.
What is your best memory from your time in Umeå?
One of the things I loved about Umeå, was being surrounded by
passionate and energetic people. It was nice to have access to the
facilities 24/7 and finding an atmosphere with creative people all
The Master program was only 2 years but it was an incredibly
productive period in our lives (speaking on behalf of my
classmates). It was also nice to have the support of all those
other creative folks from different countries helping each other
out and thriving together to get the most out of those 2 years. And
of course, having such amazing facilities and technology framework
was key. It truly felt like we had the best possible tools at hand
so we could just focus on the substance of the creative work and
excel at it (which also felt like a great responsibility). I think
the time spent in Umeå leaves a strong mark in the students, and
creates a bond between us; some of us still keep in touch and work
in some projects together. It is nice to have this community
feeling even after a decade.
Which aspects of your education at UID have been most useful
for what you are currently doing?
I can think of three aspects:
a) The approach to technology (both for design tools and for
b) The focus on conceptual thinking and abstraction, which is
important at the beginning of projects.
c) User-centred design (focus on research and methodology to
Do you have any good advice for new UID students?
Here is my advice: Try to learn all you can from different
people. Diversity has always been one of the most important assets
of UID; the mix of personalities, experiences, and cultural
backgrounds is one of the things that create such a rich
environment for creativity. So, collaborate and learn. Share your
knowledge and build up from the others'.
I remember that we used to have frequent meetings at my class to
discuss projects, this is a usual practice at any company and it is
very important to get used to presenting, sharing, and exchanging
thoughts with a team.
Did you consider any other schools, or did you only apply for
I considered the RCA and the San Francisco Academy of
Art University. But I ended up choosing Umeå because of its
strong technological platform, culture/location, and absence of
Is what you do now, what you dreamed of doing?
Absolutely. I decided to be an industrial designer when I was 9
years old. I am still in love with design and I have not changed my
mind ever since. Of course, sometimes I question and challenge the
basic purpose of my profession but that is why I have also been
trying to innovate within the very own design practice and extend
it beyond the pure for-profit impact. I think it is our job as
designers and creative leaders to re-invent and re-design our
profession constantly and to see it as a tool for progress and not
only as a service for the industry.
We are now starting to use design for other purposes, and
starting to mix the discipline with other ones so that is not
limited to making products but to improve quality of life and to
redefine business models. So we are moving away from being just
design executors, and becoming more strategists. At the end of the
day we are problem solvers, but the solutions don&t always have
to be tangible products.
Are there any skills you would be lost without, skills you
learned at UID?
I don't think so. I became good at 3D modelling while at Umeå,
but today I use a different set of tools. The work I do these days
has to do more with big picture strategy and creative direction
than with design execution. Of course, I get down to the details of
every project almost obsessively, but I am not necessarily the
person doing the 3D modelling or renderings myself anymore.
These days I do more management work and I have learned other
skills (client relationships, team leadership, intellectual
property, finances, etc.). But one thing I learned at Umeå (and
with experience) is to focus on achieving the best result using a
combination of tools and skills. So, instead of just relying on one
particular tool, I have learned to combine methods in order to
achieve the best possible solution in a given timeframe.
What was it like to live in Umeå?
At the time I used to complain about the cold and darkness. But
now I miss the snow a bit. Thinking back, I loved living in a small
city full of students from different countries in a very active
university life (cultural events, parties, sports, etc.). And I
think I was so passionate about what I was doing that I really
enjoyed the time there. I would do it again...
What was your favourite project while you studied at UID?
My master thesis (degree project) was my favourite project.
Interestingly, I recently talked about that project in Spain while
I was giving a lecture on urban mobility, because the research and
strategy I developed back then (almost 10 years ago) are still
valid and the solution is increasingly necessary in many cities. If
I were to do the design again I would execute it in a different
way, but the foundation and support arguments for the project would
probably remain the same.
Was your MA from UID an advantage when applying for a job?
It definitely helped to have a portfolio with strong skills and
a thoughtful process to show. But also we were pioneers on the web
in my class. Having an online portfolio became a key to get the
attention of the industry. I remember attending interviews where
people told me they had seen my work online. Back then having a
portfolio website was not very common.
Are your contacts from your UID time important for your
Yes, I often run into former UID students and there is an
immediate connection. I try to follow the school&s activities
and degree shows to keep an eye of what the students are up to.
Also, as I mentioned, I still keep in touch with people from my
class and with some we are actually collaborating
Did UID prepare you for your professional life?
Yes, I believe it was a very important step to take, and even if
I am involved in a more strategic and management role today, I
believe the foundation I had in Umeå was essential in my formation
as a designer.
What do you miss most at UID?
The long summer days, and of course my friends.
Alberto Villarreal was interviewed in