Fredriksson Photo: Erik
When Maria Göransdotter shows me around at the Umeå Institute of
Design (UID) she does so feeling very at home. It strikes me how
versatile students must be. The institute has 3D printers, walls
are full of sketches, there are wood shops and car models made in
clay. Everywhere I look I see prominent trademarks that UID has
collaborations within all kinds of business sectors. Not surprising
as UID is ranked in the top globally.
"In June each year, we have a degree event where companies from
all over the world join us and can chat on neutral ground and get a
feeling for where design is heading."
Maria Göransdotter applied to UID for the opening year, in 1989,
but was rejected. Instead, she took history of ideas, which she was
quickly mesmerised by. She was attracted to the breadth of the
studies, and it was no disadvantage that the former Department of
History of Ideas at that time had inspiring lecturers such as Ronny
Ambjörnsson and Kerstin Thörn. In 1995, she was admitted to the
doctoral education in history of ideas to write a doctoral thesis
on good taste, interior decoration and the introduction of
modernities in Swedish homes. But it was never completed.
Gradually, she started teaching at UID via a course on history of
technology and design instead.
ALTHOUGH, HISTORY OF IDEAS has always had an
important role also on UID. The theme of the current doctoral
thesis revolves around how to write design history for it to have a
greater impact on design work. She uses ideas of Scandinavian
user-centred design as examples in her work and carries out her
research by studying in detail material and methods that has
affected Swedish design discourse and practise from a history of
"The world of design lacks history today. If we are to change
the way we design and create a sustainable future, we must
understand that the present always derives from a history that we
must be aware of in order to question. Otherwise, we risk tunnel
vision in our progress."
UMEÅ INSTITUTE OF DESIGN is like a melting pot
of nationalities. Over the years, students have arrived from nearly
forty countries. It may be safe to say that Maria Göransdotter's
upbringing contributed to her enjoying such an environment. As a
five-year-old, she moved with her parents to Saudi Arabia, where
her father took a job as a road and structural engineer. The same
father, by the way, built the Campus Pond in the 1960s.
When the family arrived in Saudi Arabia, the country was in the
midst of a huge transition, the ancient Bedouin and nomad culture
co-existed alongside modern, fast-growing cities. This rapid growth
attracted huge infrastructure companies from all over the world.
Maria's family moved back to Sweden in 1979, after five years
overseas. The move was caused not least by the growing religious
fundamentalism in the Middle East.
"It was an amazing experience to have lived there. Those years
really shaped me, and I cherished learning that there are many ways
of looking at the world. My school was international and my friends
came from Japan, North America and Jamaica, for instance."
Also as an adult, Maria Göransdotter studied abroad. In 1989-90,
she lived in Perugia, studied literature and learnt Italian. In
1995, she was back in Italy on a scholarship, this time in Bologna
to study aesthetics and semiotics. One of her teachers was the
world-renowned author Umberto Eco, whose novel The Name of the Rose
was adapted for the screen with Sean Connery as lead actor.
"It was pleasure mixed with great challenges. He was a performer
and was well aware of his stardom."
Maria Göransdotter has worked full time at UID since 2008 and
has been a part of the institute's management team ever since. She
has shouldered the role as head of department from 2013-15 and was
vice rector from 2015-18. Beside her current doctoral studies, she
is also lecturer in history of design. For a while, she was
employed as a study administrator at the Department of History of
Ideas and as director of studies at UID.
"I've seen the University from many roles and angles and I'd
like to say that I have a 360-degree perspective now. I've learnt
so much and, without lying, I can say that I've had a lot of fun
along the way. As a teacher, it has been stimulating to get direct
access to students. And on a managerial level, I've enjoyed being
able to make overall and long-term changes."
HOWEVER, THE PERSONAL research is now in focus
with an aim to complete the thesis in early spring 2020. In her
doctoral thesis, Maria explores how ideas and methods that are
currently integrated in Scandinavian user-centred design carry
norms and values from specific, historic contexts. She studies the
Swedish Welfare State (called folkhemmet), which can be considered
a huge social design project, and which forms the basis for much of
the design that still surrounds us.
"By looking back in time we can also view the present from
another angle, and learn how to design different for the future.
It's a broad approach, that among other things include our view on
democracy, participation and sustainability. Is it really obvious
that consumption should continue to be at the core of new design?
Should we always strive to produce new items?"
WHEN MARIA GÖRANSDOTTER says that she works
almost full time on research, it may sound as if she doesn't have
other things going on. But indeed she does. She teaches some
courses at UID and at the doctoral school at the Faculty of Arts,
she is member of the board of an international design network, she
assesses work at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts - and
participates in developing a whole new Bachelor's programme at UID
with funding from PUNKTUM and with a planned start for 2022.
"The new programme ties onto my and others' research, which is
why we are trying to build an education that is based on the needs
we may have for design in the future. The design sector is under
constant development in this ever so complex world. Design at
present also includes things that we can't see or touch, such as
algorithms and big data. To incorporate this together with
historical perspectives into a new education is an exciting