Alberto Villarreal

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 industry).

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 time.

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 products).
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 support concepts).

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 UID?

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 tuition fees.

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 professional life?

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 professionally.

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 March 2011