Design isn’t about having a lot of money, it is a mind tool that allows you to make the most out of what you have.Diego Alatorre
After graduating as an industrial designer, Diego Alatorre did not want to design just more consumer goods. At the Faculty of Design Engineering, he embarked on a Master’s in Design for Interaction. “I had some ideas on design for sustainability, and on what I could learn in Delft, but my time here was really mind-shifting”, he says.
Before coming to The Netherlands, Diego Alatorre already knew he wanted to do a Master’s degree somewhere in Northern Europe. “After graduation I moved to Germany. My father’s mother was born in Hamburg and I wanted to get to know that side of the family”, he says. Professionally, things were less clear, though. “When I finished my bachelor’s, I believed that the world didn’t really need more saltshakers or chairs. So what could I do with my knowledge?” Coming to Delft gave him the answers he sought: “I learned that you can use design as an instrument of change and that really broadened my idea of what I could do.”
Diego discovered other things about himself too: “I found out that I am very sociable and love to work with people. Happily, some of the lecturers employed me as a student-assistant, and that gave me the opportunity to teach.” He also realised he was interested in the way people interact with technology. This was a central aspect of his graduation project which he undertook at a company supplying psychological services. “My assignment was to create a set of tools that could help people with burnout, so they did not have to go on a waiting list for a psychologist. Often, people get burnout because they believe the way to deal with stress is to work even harder, but this causes even more stress and so on.”
The original idea was for an app, the go-to solution nowadays. “Additionally, it was my idea to create a physical tool to support the app. After all, we live our lives in a tangible world. Uber would be nothing without cars, or Airbnb without houses,” Diego says. Using some off-the-shelf sensors, Diego developed a wearable sensor vest that could monitor users’ heart rate, breathing and physical activity. “From this we could deduce their stress levels. The app then encouraged them to reflect on why they were always stressed in the mornings, for example, and would also give tips on moving and breathing.” In the end the product never materialised: “The cost of miniaturisation proved to be too high. Yet, I was content with what I did, because I had had the chance to incorporate so much of what I had learned into the project.”
Diego is now a fulltime lecturer and researcher at UNAM, (Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México), the country’s largest public university, based in Mexico City. “I was given the chance the set up my own co-design course. I managed to incorporate a lot of the ideas I had brought back from Delft, ideas on design for emotions, context mapping, and creative facilitation”, Diego recalls. “Now, teaching is about 60 percent of what I do, but I am also interested in education as a research subject, in particular how we can foster education,” he says. In that respect, taking students out of the confinement of the classroom works really well, Diego found. “When students have to express what they are learning to other people, they themselves start to understand things better too. It also gives them responsibility. They have to commit to what they do and test out their ideas before they present them publicly.”
Diego likes to link projects to special events, like last year when the World Bike Forum took place in Mexico City. “We found out that a lot of kids don’t know how to cycle, but there are also a lot of people that have unused, often broken bikes at home”, Diego says. “We ended up designing a service where we collect those bikes from people willing to donate them, teach high school children how to repair them and then distribute them to schools so children who cannot afford a bike can learn how to cycle.” Thus, the project was a success on various levels. “The kids just wanted to learn to cycle, the high school pupils wanted to learn a skill to make money, and the students wanted to learn how to design services for the public good. Design isn’t about having a lot of money, it is a mind tool that allows you to make the most out of what you have”, Diego says.
UNAM is one of the largest universities in South-America, with hundreds of thousands of students. “We simply cannot take on more students, so we try to extend the limits of the university in other ways, by non-standard academic practices, like sharing knowledge through different media.” That also includes bringing design education to people who don’t have access to it now. With them in mind, Diego is setting up a low-threshold design workplace, a makerspace where people can come together to create and learn. “Most children go to public schools, where creativity is not facilitated at all. But you don’t need expensive machinery for design”, he says. “It is about having a critical mind, a social perspective, and the ability to come up with simple solutions to the world’s problems. About making your ideas tangible, and learning from the way people use them.”
The time is just right for his plans, Diego knows. ”Mexico City is 2018 World Design Capital, with different groups of people coming together to showcase what we are doing in the design community.” In one activity, six local universities have joint forces. “Mexico City is a huge and heterogeneous place. Managing the teachers and students from six different universities is interesting in itself from an academic viewpoint”, Diego says. With a little help from the ‘Laboratorio para la Ciudad’, a local think tank for creativity, the joint design project could result in a permanent design course. In another project, designers calling themselves ‘design activists’ have come together to question the status quo. “Design is usually seen as a means to sell products; we see it as a way to activate people. We want to form a network of people who want to design for social change.”
In his limited spare time, Diego still finds time to act as an volunteer for TU Delft Alumni Relations. “I am very good at connecting people. I organise events, like hackathons, and when a group of students in construction management and engineering came to Mexico, I organised an open talk so they could meet with students and companies.” He is also trying to setup an exchange agreement between UNAM and TU Delft, and he visits study fairs to give talks on how to get a student scholarship. He likes working on the social side of academic life. “When I was a student in Delft, I was part of the Mexican student association. I now organise reunions for TU Delft graduates living in Mexico. The social part of academic projects is very important. You don’t get to know people just by sitting in an office with them, but by sharing a meal or a laugh with them.”