Rahul Sen studied at the MA Interaction Design Programme in Umeå and graduated in 2009. He is now working as an interaction designer at Ergonomidesign in Stockholm.
What is your academic background?
I became a designer by accident. Theatre and the performing arts were what I was really passionate about. I did a lot of theatre semi-professionally for 8 years during my studies and work. During this time I acted, co-directed and designed sets with a lot of talented people. Theatre really helped shape my passion to explore human narratives. On an academic note, I have a 5-year Bachelors degree in Interior Architecture, which I studied at the Center for Environmental Planning and Technology (CEPT) in Ahmedabad for 5 years, between 1998 and 2003. During this time, my main subjects were space-planning studios, interior architecture, design history, graphic design, furniture design, textile design and design ethnography.
Since you left Umeå, what have you been doing?
I have been working at Ergonomidesign in Stockholm as an interaction designer since graduating from Umeå in MA Interaction Design in June 2009. Ergonomidesign and the Umeå Institute of Design share a long history and it is pretty cool to find myself here. Over the past year and half, I have been working on a wide variety of international projects in medical, consumer electronics, service design, and other areas. I’ve had the opportunity to design interactions for saving lives, making breakfast, mobile experiences, oil, and a bunch of other myriad projects. Unfortunately most are highly confidential, so I cannot say more until they are made public. My involvement has ranged from conceptual design and ideation, all the way to the final prototyping of solutions. I have also been blogging occasionally forJohnny Holland and for Future Sense, trying to do a bunch of other fun projects.
What is your best memory from your time in Umeå?
It is hard to isolate one memory from among the beautiful ones I made there. I loved the collective, creative synergy of the international student body at UID. I loved learning from my classmates. It was a “creative United Nations” everyday, a Scandinavian monastery for young thought! My best memories will always be the stories and experiences we shared from our respective cultures, and the roles they played in shaping our design thinking. Aside from the difficult weather, it was a tough time adjusting to so many different likes and dislikes, habits and preferences when assigned team projects. However they all turned out to be extremely valuable lessons that I always carry with me, because they polished me as a professional designer, as well as a human being.
Which aspects of your education at UID have been most useful for what you are currently doing?
Everything adds up somehow. It was hard to understand it back then, when I was in the boiling classroom environment, but every little detail contributed in some way. The mix of cultures, the blend of research, prototyping, design thinking, and narrative was the most valuable experience one could hope for. It helped me transition from a background in architecture into interaction design. The interaction workshop was especially valuable for us, because it allowed us a great laboratory to try out new things in. On a more intangible level, it was the creative differences among people that helped shape my skills in communication and design conception – doing together was always more important than sitting alone. It is easy to isolate yourself in a bubble and come up with crazy ideas. It is a whole different world when you have to convince others, create together, and share the consequences together. This lesson is invaluable in industrial design practice. I also met some amazing mentors there; people I look up to as role models always.
Do you have any good advice for new UID students?
I’m full of advice, which I sometimes didn’t take myself (he laughs). Don’t be afraid to try new things. Use the workshop. Make things! Don’t think too much. Use the laser machine. Use your friends’ and classmates’ knowledge and skills as best you can. Most importantly: use your brain without fear. Read as much as you can about design thinking and history, and keep your mind open to the possibilities that exist out there. Look for internships – they are invaluable! Most importantly, try and understand who you are and what makes you tick as a designer. UID is the best place to find out.
What sides are the best to show when applying for jobs; how important is it to show your personality in the designs?
I think it is very important to infuse personality in the way we present ourselves. Very often it is difficult to notice differences in an enormous pile of portfolios with awesome work. Personality stands out to get someone’s attention within the first ten seconds, and engage the reader in a way that make them pull out your portfolio from that pile of hundreds, and then show it around to their colleagues. But you need more than just personality to get hired. You need great work, substance, experience and a lot of luck. Having been on both sides, both sending my portfolio, and now screening them before interviews, I would say that is extremely vital that you do your best trying to make the presentation of yourself as personal, as meaningful as possible.
What should the future designers, the students, anticipate out in the professional world?
You can expect an enormous wake-up call if you’ve never worked before (laughs). If you have worked before, it’s back to grounded reality. But it’s still a lot of fun! Being in school is all about experimentation, play, portfolio, fun and learning. Practice is about making the stuff for real people in their world. It’s about understanding that your decisions have impact on the lives of others. The biggest difference is the way in which you manage time. It’s a pity that I wasn’t time-conscious as a student or I’d have more free weekends! Another huge difference is in the process itself. Having a great idea is the easy part; the really tough part is learning to convince everyone else about it. I’ve had to often use MS Excel as a design tool, to communicate with engineers.
Do you think UID prepared you as well as they could?
Yes, I think that UID prepared all of us really well. Everything, in some way, contributed to bridging that gap between commercial practice and design education. UID’s core belief (which is shared by Ergonomidesign) is that it places users at the centre. It’s a common rhetoric in the design-world to be “user-centred”, but its rare to know what it really means. It’s invaluable as a student to meet real users, talk to them and learn to be empathic. One of the best contributors to the transition was the serious industrial collaboration that UID encourages. It really grounded novices like myself in a semblance of reality. Another important bridge was the way in which UID sharpens our communication skills, be in verbal, visual or tangible. There’s still a LOT to learn when you leave school and start working, but these can be learnt along the way.
What do other professionals think of the students of UID?
There is a universally high regard for students from the Umeå Institute of Design. At Ergonomidesign, about 40 % of the designers are originally from UID. The founders of this company founded the school, so we are well aware of UID’s calibre. When I worked at Teague in Seattle and at Atlas Copco in Örebro, I interacted a lot with people from Microsoft, IDEO, Frog design and Artefact. In all these places there was a mix of curiosity, fascination and a lot of respect for the Scandinavian roots mixed with international flair and flavour that Umeå Institute of Design really brings to all their students. It’s a winning combination and our alumni are proving it out there in the World.
Do you feel that you have become more of a specialized designer or more general at Ergonomidesign, than you were at UID?
I’m a natural generalist – a jack-of-many-trades-but-master-of-none. I have been in conflict with myself about this always. I always wish I could be a Jedi-master at something, focus on just that, and be known for that. However, I think my personality is such that it likes to be involved in a lot of things at the same time, and that helped me in architecture, it helped me in theatre, and I think it will be my path in interaction design too. That core instinct in me has remained intact. However, I feel I’ve really grown a lot and become a better generalist in the past couple of years. I think I have vastly matured as a designer, and a lot had to do with the momentum that I carried with me from Umeå. I always feel I have a lot of unfinished learning to complete, but I know my limitations better. I want to consume more knowledge, skill without turning mentally obese. I have had an open mind – an appetite to learn more, do more and make more. I wish I were back at UID all over again! There is a huge difference when you work in the workshops, the environment of the classroom, or in the studio; you have a lot more scope for experimentation, discovery and play. Once you enter commercial work, you still play a lot, innovate and experiment, but you always have distinct boundaries – deadlines, budget, resources, scope etc. These kinds of constraints can handicap the work in some ways, but they also really enhance and sharpen your skills. You learn to be innovative within boundaries.
What do you miss most at UID, and what do you recommend the students really cherish and hold on to while they are here?
I miss the vast differences in backgrounds that we had, and the experiences that we carried with us to the place. I miss how they brought out totally different sorts of discussions during projects. All of that really changed the way you thought about things. I also miss the fearlessness with which we approached problems; we were daring and bold. When you start working for the industry, you are held accountable. Your decisions somehow tend to get a bit tamer and you get all self-conscious about the things you are doing. I miss that feeling of freedom, and chance to do what your heart tells you. That is what I would ask students to hold on to, and really celebrate while you are in Umeå. I would encourage the students to experiment, and to think beyond constraints, while they have the opportunity.
How do you think the tuition fees for non-EU students will affect UID?
This is a controversial subject that mixes passion with reality. I have blogged about it on the interaction blog. The introduction of tuition fees for non-EU students were inevitable, given that its part of bigger political decisions. I think it is going to affect the balance of the kind of cultural input that we get into the school, not all at once, but in the long-term. The EU has always had amazing talent, but we need people from outside the EU too! We are going to need a sustained infusion of money from the industry, the municipality and the university to keep our heritage of cultural diversity intact, and preventing the soul of UID from deteriorating. No one doubts that the Umeå Institute of Design has put Umeå on the map of the World, and its time for the people who benefit from it to protect it. While I understand that the problem is part of a bigger Swedish and European problem in general, I think we have proven the last 20 years that our students have given back a lot, not just to Sweden, but also to the global design industry. Nature has shown us that the most diverse environments are always the most creative, and they evolve better than species that are all the same mix of grey.
I want to say hello to all my former-classmates and friends back in Umeå and the rest of the World. I hope you are having a great time!