Social reinventions

With the support of the Brazilian government, Paula Dib of Transforma Design is tackling pressing social and environmental issues.
Posted 30 Mar 11 By Design Indaba Craft Interviews / Q&A Comments

From the Series

Paula Dib is a Brazilian product designer. As the founder of sustainable design practice Transforma Design, Dib isone of a small number of experts in Brazil’s sustainable design sector. She employs design thinking to address social and environmental issues through participatory initiatives that inspire change.

Transforma addresses the challenges faced by communities by transforming their environment, using local skills and resources. Products created by the Brazilian communities that Transforma works with include kerosene lamps made from recycled tin cans and wooden stools from discarded fruit boxes. There is also beautiful jewellery made from recycled glass, and bags and other accessories made from bright, discarded banners. Even coffee filters are given a second life by Transforma - these are turned into interesting notebooks.

In 2006, after running Transforma for some three years, Dib was recognised by the British Council with an International Young Design Entrepreneur of the Year award.

Here she answers questions relating to sustainability, her own design process, social design as a form of empowerment and the government involvement in designing for good.

How do you define the type of design that you do?

The designer has the difficult task of framing himself in such a broad and fascinating activity. For me it is hard to define. Some call it social design while others call it design for development, or sustainable design. I see design as a creative tool for transformation. What I try to do is think creatively and act locally in different contexts and circumstances.

What influences your belief in the importance of sustainability through design?

I believe that sustainability is something we should seek in the broader sense of our lives: Questioning certain actions and reviewing old habits. As designers we carry an even greater responsibility. When thinking of a new product we must be conscious of every step in the production chain, from raw material extraction to disposal, through the entire production process.

In your experience, how can social design be employed to support emerging economies?

The look of the designer can capture opportunities in the most different circumstances. When a “new way of looking” arrives to a "sleeping region" and awakes the people to the potential that they have, literally in their own hands, a process of transformation is stirred up. First through observation, and then through actions and attitudes. While this is true it’s important to understand that there is no miracle formula for achieving change. It’s necessary to develop adequate supporting pillars to the realities we face, inspiring people not only to produce but to think of their activities as a business. A process that often requires time and investment.

How does social design empower people?

In my working process the most important thing is to first get to know each other and build confidence in an equal relationship. It starts with walking, talking, showing interest and playing, lightly and freely as in childhood, with no expectations. The next step is devoted to working with materials, and here we want to leave everybody free so that new and spontaneous ideas appear. The designer’s role is, little-by-little and with respect, to join the most interesting results and encourage them to realisation. The whole process is built up collectively, generating results with meaning and references for the community, nourishing the feeling of belonging and know-how, and all the elements related to it.

How do you introduce design as a tool for social, economic and environmental empowerment into communities?

A good way to establish the rhythm and work development is to start with the place and the people who live there, as an organising principle. When working with groups and communities it’s essential to develop a creative way of observing, and live in the place with a deep sense of relationship. Perception requires involvement: Observe holistically, experiencing every detail. Respect traditional techniques, the use and extraction of raw materials, processes and time of each place, and work with enthusiasm to renew and rediscover. Be aware of these many aspects, challenge everything to be different and challenge yourself to think differently. Rely on local resources and skills, using all instruments and creative tools, derived from the design. In the end we are all part of a big movement.

What are the key factors motivating your work?

The art of dialogue, and the opposition and contradiction of ideas that lead to other ideas.

Are there certain characteristics that all your work carries?

Not really. Each community reveals a different collection, based on their vocation. The result is usually modern, folk or classic, resulting from a genuine mixture.

Does design improve the self-esteem of communities?

The mobilisation inside the groups is a generous, attentive, observant process stimulating potentials, which arise from a collective exercise of experimentation and discovery. This usually produces strong feelings of motivation in the people involved with the project.

Transforma Design - is it a reference to the ability to transform?

Yes, it received this name because of the strength and meaning of the word “transformation” (the act or effect of transforming something, or oneself); along with the word “form”.

To what extent should culture and heritage be part of design?

Within the contexts that I work the recovery of cultural traits, histories and traditions are fundamental to the process, and often part of the end result. The recovery of these traits strengthen the relationship with the community, bringing out unique features that enrich the product and create a connection to the place.

Do you work exclusively with locally sourced materials?

I give great importance to this, and try to facilitate and encourage the use of local raw materials. Also as a way for people to look at what's on their land and their region.

In Brazil, is social and sustainable design still quite a new thing? What do people make of it?

It is not something new but has gained much strength over the years. There is a great interest among young people as we see this theme being introduced with force in universities. Many NGOs and institutes working with culture and development have made great efforts to work towards sustainability in a stronger and more effective manner.

You have the support of the Brazilian government and a few large organisations - does this make your work easier?

These days the Brazilian government takes a more active and realistic approach to social inequalities. For example, companies are being pressurised, both by the government and by the consumers, to obtain quality seals and to meet quality standards. It is possible to join efforts and work in this conjuncture. The support happens when tied to projects with limited duration, but makes all the difference working with big partners.