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
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
for Johnny 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
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,
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
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
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
Rahul Sen was interviewed in November 2010 by Jarrett Bishop and
Helping Hands (Explained) - A
glimpse into the future of Integrated Health Care from Ergonomidesign on Vimeo.