Martin Willers is a former student at both the one-year course
IDI, and the BA programme at Umeå Institute of Design.
What is your academic background?
I got a Bachelor degree in Visual Communication at the University of
South Australia in 2004, and another Bachelor degree at Umeå Institute
of Design, after I took the one-year course Industrial Design Introduction. I
studied at UID between 2005 and 2009. My degree work was called
Tangible interaction with solar energy. During my time in Umeå
I also took an after school education in business development at Umeå
School of Business.
What did you do before you came to study Industrial
Design Introduction at UID?
I was working as a freelance web designer and for me it had
become too much like a "copy-paste profession". I was missing some
of the challenges I found when I was studying graphic design. The
reason I chose Umeå Institute of Design, was because of a strong
memory from when I was 17 years old and came to visit UID. My
impression was that it was Santa Claus& workshop; all the
projects seemed so cool and different, and it was as if anything
could be achieved here. When I was going to apply to schools I
actually did not apply to anywhere but to UID. The school had a
serious industry connection that I thought was important,
especially for me with a professional background, but above all,
the education at UID focused on understanding people, which was
truly what I was interested in at the time: Why do people like
things? What functions does design fulfil? So I only applied to
UID, but I applied to everything that was available, all the
courses and even a job, I think.
What did you do after IDI?
I got accepted to Masters at Konstfack, but I still had this
yearning for this meaningful understanding of people and although I
had a bigger understanding now, and I had also learned how to
connect graphic design with industrial design a bit better than
before, I wanted to learn more, so I actually did not accept the
Masters programme. Instead I accepted the Bachelors programme here
at UID, because of their focus on the design process and the user.
I already had a Bachelor&s degree from Australia, but I thought
if I went for a Master&s programme it was more streamlined for
a specific job, and I was not ready for that, I was still searching
for a broader meaning.
What did you do once you finished UID?
I know how important it is to have real life experience, so I
actually did not have a summer off for about six years because I
always did internships. After IDI I felt that I wanted to learn how
to work with a team. Some friends and me approached Umeå
Municipality and asked if we could do a summer design office here
in Umeå, and we created our own called Björken (the Birch). We
ended up designing the new library bus for Umeå, and we looked at
the identity of Umeå to see how we could make the identity
stronger. In Sweden there is a folklore about walking on manholes
with the letter K you get love (kärlek in Swedish), so we designed
them with Kärlek instead of only K, and we had other small
suggestions like that. The library bus was produced and it is
driving around, and now more kids are reading because of that, so
that was a great project.
After the first year at BA, I did an internship at No Picnic, a
design consultancy in Stockholm. Since the project I was working on
with No Picnic was not a fulltime project, I also spent time
researching knight armour and learning about swords, designing
computer characters for a medieval game. During the second summer
at BA I was at Electrolux in Pordenone, Italy. And after
my final year I did some work locally with Design Västerbotten in Lycksele, before I
moved to Stockholm to start People People.
What exactly are you doing now?
For a long time I have had an interest in the environment, when
I was eighteen years old, I was in the Youth Environmental
Parliament. More and more of my projects at UID were focusing on
that: I made my
degree project on how we can make solar energy more interactive for the end user, and I
continued exploring how I could set up a company that would help
people&s needs, as well as being profitable and improve the
planet. The trinity: people, planet, and profit. I got in contact
with the three people I worked with during the summer design
office, and they were working at Nokia and had good careers but
around a year ago they quit their jobs and we started this office
in Stockholm, People People. We help companies making
consumption sustainable and that is really important. We use the
innovation of the design process to solve a lot of big-scale
problems. We try to make common sense out of these complexities. We
are also helping the companies to be more innovative and to
improve, not only to be less bad. We are an innovation-, design-
and sustainability agency.
Is what you do now, what you dreamed of
I think there always was a little visionary in me, and I have
always been able to visualize stuff. At a quite young age I was
having Oscar-speeches in my head. I have worked within so many
fields, and right now I work with strategies around sustainable
design. It is a constant search for me: Why am I on this planet,
what is my skill, what am I here to do? I spend 20% of my time
spreading knowledge about sustainability; lecturing, talking to
companies, having workshops, and the rest of the time we work with
companies on actual problem solving rather than just talking about
it, and I consider that a good balance.
What skill do you think is most important to develop
while you are at the university; do you have suggestion to new
The most vital skill you can possess, regardless of profession,
is having strategies to manage all the knowledge that is out there;
we live in the information society - a massive amount of knowledge
is out there. I think you always should go further than what is
expected of you. Being able to map what is relevant and what is not
relevant is a very important ability. You must be comfortable
explaining why your solution is the best one. You have to be good
at asking questions.
Are there any skills that you learned at UID, skills
you would be lost without?
Before I came here I was thinking quite 2-dimensional; a key
skill is how to visually communicate a complex concept.
Is there anything you wish you had learnt more of while
you studied at UID?
I was tired of all 3-D software, so when I started IDI I avoided
all of them. A general advice is to beat the technology because it
enables so much to be able to 3-D visualize something. I focused on
trying to design a light therapy lamp, because of the darkness in
Umeå, I wish I had done that project in Rhino, because then maybe
it would be in production and help my Umeå friends right now.
What is it like living in Umeå?
There is a unique environment of sharing at the school. It is a
challenge living this close to the North Pole, with the darkness,
the challenge of a very different environment, maybe a much smaller
city than you are used to, but this also creates so many
possibilities. In your student corridor you can get to know a cop
or a scientist, and this kind of atmosphere is really powerful.
When I studied here I was in charge of the parties at the school, I
made poems about connecting with the school of fine arts; about the
invisible Berlin wall I wanted to climb between the institutions.
You have the opportunity to get a lot of international professional
help, a lot of different perspectives, and in every project I had I
involved other people.
How important do you think the international aspects of
I think it is vital, essential; it is what makes Umeå Institute
of Design so unique. This setting of seclusion - you get closer to
people than you would in other circumstances. Having a Chinese
person or a Turkish person or a couple from Mexico in a project -
it is such an amazing opportunity for you to develop as a designer.
It makes you question a lot of your assumptions. Without that, I
think this school would be less than half as good.
How do you think the tuition fees for non-EU students
will affect UID?
I feel really sad; it is hard enough with all the other
challenges; such as moving to a new country, for instance. I
don&t think it is going to go bad overnight, I am not that
dramatic, but long-term it is going to decrease the diversity of
the students, and decreased diversity can only mean decreased
creativity or diversity in perspectives. We need to become more
global, more emphatic to other cultures; the market economy is
global, industrial design is producing things for the global
industry, and you got to connect those dots and see it in a
holistic perspective. I wish there was more I could do about it, if
my company had a lot of money we would put in some scholarships;
that could be one way to solve it perhaps. I would not have studied
in Australia for one and a half year if people had not recommended
the school. Hopefully the already established network can keep
spreading the world, so that people still will get to know about
this secret little place.
All the graduates leaving UID, what sort of prospects
do you see for them?
That is a multifaceted question; the companies are starting to
hire people now after the recession. Unfortunately though, the
society does not recognise the role of design. A lot of the money
for sustainable development goes to teams of engineers, and then
the innovation will be something the market does not understand. If
a designer were on that team, the product or service would be ten
times more likely to succeed. We need to make the word design more
meaningful so that people understand the value of design and
designers. I hope we will se more policy changes, such as in
California, for instance. Arnold Schwarzenegger just recognized the
cradle-to-cradle concept as a very important part of developing
California; they started a green product innovation institute where
researchers and design will meet. I think those contact surfaces
are exactly what we need to develop, more interregional
development, and more collaboration with the municipalities so we
can make more sensible holistic solutions. And who could be better
for that task than a designer who can quickly visualize, quickly
understand perspectives and quickly put it in a human focus?
Compare the education, surroundings and everything in
Australia with your education at UID.
I went to Adelaide, and compared to Melbourne and Sydney that is
a small town. In a sense it was a bit like Umeå; the spirit is
humble, low-key, so there are some similarities between Adelaide
and Umeå in that sense. For me it was part of my youth; going to
the other side of the world where I was out of reach from my
family, I couldn&t be on call - it was a lot about walking my
own path. The school there was really good also, and the friends I
made there, I have for life. The same as here, you stay connected.
It was not as multicultural as here at UID though.
Willers was interviewed in November 2010 by David
Normington and Elinn Bolonassos