Martin Willers

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 doing?

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 students?

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 UID are?

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