stories. all the shit that comes up.

“the story becomes the thing we tell ourselves the next time we need to make a choice.” arrived in my inbox this morning from Seth Godin.

A life choice is like a design process choice.

And if we see life as just a happening, like Alan Watts described [among others] a collection of events that will inevitably take place, the learning we are here to do is how to respond, interpret and derive meaning from as to design our next interaction [intervention rather].

These memories Seth Godin refers to will ultimately be what we store in our intelligent hard body [as well as our soft body]. The stories Seth mentions is exactly the ‘shit’ that comes up in introspective meditative practices.

Sometime ago in Bali a friend poignantly asked “Ok great, all this shit has come up, so now what am i supposed to do with it?” Re-design your brief.

ps. Seth is on my list of people I want to meet in my lifetime, hint hint ♥

on medium

through being in, not through being about

Yesterday, Sunday, in a peaceful community coworking gathering I looked around me to the diversity of creative (re)searchers. Yes, academia, re(searchers). Because everyone plugged into life, into their itch, into creating, into giving into the world, is (re)searching the beautiful mystery of what are we here to do in the first place. In this I was reminded of why I am doing this PhD project in the first place. It's good to be reminded of why; and probably not by academia, but by the world itself. It's good to be reminded of what are we designing for; through being in, not through being about. Any design research should be a "mesearch", too. It's about the individual being in the collective. About becoming the design. About re(searching) the unnoticeable in the interconnectedness of all things; and helping them notice each-other. Sustainability can only prevail if we design from within, not from outside.  Makespace Coworking provides pop-up creative spaces offering a change in daily routine and a kinder relationship to "work."

the space between Design and Art is The Nothing.

theartofquestioning4 20141023 184808 copy

“But what is remarkable is that, precisely in the way scientific man secures to himself what is most properly his, he speaks of something different. What should be examined are beings only, and besides that — nothing; beings alone, and further — nothing; solely beings, and beyond that — nothing. What about this nothing? [...] If science is right, then only one thing is sure: science wishes to know nothing of the nothing. Ultimately this is the scientifically rigorous conception of the nothing. We know it, the nothing, in that we wish to know nothing about it.“

  Martin Heidegger, ‘What is Metaphysics?’ in Basic Writings: From Being and Time to the Task of Thinking. Edited by David Farrell Krell. (Wiltshire: Taylor & Francis, 1978), 95-6.



A thought I am developing through my research.   My research touches intangible qualitative data, although approached through a design methodology, which can be argued to be 'scientific'.

Although I struggle with that.  I struggle with that because the space between design and art is that, design as a science does not allow space for the immaterial, as art does - the nothing.  The nothing is the space where you experience, nothing.  You experience awareness.  You experience the viscocity of time.

Sustainability is to care.  You need to care to be sustainable.  Sustainability is about caring that something is a part of you.

"... if such a direction is actually design at all, or if it is art. Faced with the significant challenges posed by sustainability, and the conventional role of design in fostering consumerism it becomes important to ask if we can, or indeed should, think of design in another way. "  Stuart Walker (2014) in Designing Sustainability


Why this, why now, and why not something else.


A reflection on my research interest and its relevance to contemporary practice. The interest for proposing and conducting this research project at academic level grew out of a need found in practice whilst working on the communication design of social enterprise Doi Tung in Thailand in 2011.  As a communication designer, I felt that my expertise and skills tailored mostly to design within market-driven contexts were not entirely applicable to the particular scenario I was dealing with.  Working in such a space required a more specific understanding of how communication design should be addressed within projects of social innovation for sustainability.  How it could play a significant role in the process and not as a last stage of ‘image-making’.

At the time of writing an initial PhD proposal, guidance generally available and accessible to communication designers interested in this sector focused greatly on how to make their practices more sustainable, e.g materials and production as ‘sustainable communication design’, or on how to better ‘communicate sustainability’ information, such as traceability of supply chains through visualisation.  It focused greatly on the outcome product of communication design and not the process of designing communication design in this very interdisciplinary space.   Since then and over the last three years we have seen great development in the areas of design for sustainability, design for social innovation and a growing interest in systems thinking, also within communication design.  Some of this knowledge has gone beyond academia and become more widely available for designers to apply in practice.

As this PhD develops through time within the fast-paced research environment we work in, communication design within social innovation and sustainability will undoubtedly gain importance and momentum.  However, today, I find that specific knowledge on this subject is absent.  More specifically, and regarding the questions this research addresses, what I find to be absent is guidance relating to the ways in which the development of the communication design itself can catalyse participation in initiatives of social innovation for sustainability.

The initial question proposed for the PhD project in this specific context addressed how communication design might generate more empathy between the producers and consumers within a given social enterprise.  This question emerged out of the challenge I had faced in my practice.  However, as the academic research developed in the first year of the PhD it became apparent that empathy was an underlying subject and should not be the focus point of the academic investigation.  Generating empathy is one of the mechanisms employed by communication design, clearly seen in many social and environmental campaigns.  Questioning empathy in itself would not answer the primary proposition of the research nor contribute to knowledge in the field of communication design within social innovation and sustainability.

Having a good understanding of the wider contemporary landscape of sustainability communications, the research came to a point where it was important to identify what area it would be conducted in, who exactly where the producers and the consumers.

One of things I learned from my valuable experience with the Doi Tung project was also one of the main challenges at the time.  The coffee produce of Doi Tung is its main income and also the one product which the community is extremely proud of.  My struggle at the time faced creating communication design ‘experiences’ that would clearly convey this passion of the producers for their coffee plantations (and therefor generating empathy with the consumer).  I lacked the skills and tools to articulate through communication design the importance of the biological understanding and relationship between coffee producers to their environment.  Their relationship to their ‘material’, the soil and the trees, was a different kind of relationship from that of the ceramic artisans and silk-weavers to their raw materials.  The poetics of food growing was extremely difficult to “communicate” through other than “to experiencing it yourself”.  Somehow it seemed quite important to explore this because thinking around food allows for a better understudying of what sustainability is, the networked and interconnected systems we inhabit in and contribute to.

To situate this research further, from the beginning there was a predisposition to ally it with small-scale initiatives.  Perhaps given my background and experience as a designer with small-scale projects, local brands and social enterprises are what is most familiar to work with.  In this sense, the research never intended to look into or collaborate with large-scale sustainable brands or established fairtrade organisations although it acknowledges many of its best practices in communication and strategy.  Another relevant point in this sense is the cultural context of the research.  It was questioned whether it should focus on emerging and “developing” markets (given my experience with Doi Tung in Thailand) or whether to focus on “developed” markets such as the western context.  The questions asked in this research could have been investigated within both scenarios and have different outcomes.

Whilst looking into design and social innovation I noticed the apparent interest in the food sector particularly within the urban environment.  Food access being one of the key challenges for sustainable development of the urban context, it is an area that is being researched by many designer researcher across the western world.  I came across the recent research on alternative food networks and the different types of initiatives which support a sustainable development of urban food provision and culture; such as local farmers markets, box delivery schemes, food surplus innovations, community supported agriculture.  Another aspect of this growing dynamic sector was the interest in the social implications of these upcoming food initiatives; how they contribute to general wellbeing, social cohesion and even an economy of happiness.  With much ground to explore in terms of possibilities for communication design research this became the chosen area for conducting this project.




* Research content:  Joana Casaca Lemos under Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial No-Derivs 3.0 Unported

The Designer as The Lens. (to be published)


The Designer as The Lens. “The universe is made of stories, not of atoms.” Muriel Rukeyser “The speed of darkness” (1968)


In the same way that atoms live microscopically, some stories can live unnoticed if not placed under a lens. This is the case of many emerging initiatives that promote sustainability across industry sectors worldwide. In this space the designer plays a determinative role to magnify and frame essential stories of this world in constant transformation, stories which are often shy in their nature, imperceptible and on the periphery of mainstream. Storytelling as a method in design has gained large momentum over the last decade. Frameworks, media and technological advances are vastly explored, whether to communicate complex information through narrative and visualisation (Lankow, 2012; Klaten, 2011) or to engage actors in systems, interactions and experiences (Erickson, 1996; Brooks, 2010). However, with the purpose to understand how the designer himself plays a role in listening and telling the story of things on the edge of the mainstream, the unconventional or unfamiliar, I will take a step back to reflect on the purpose of the art of story-telling and of story-listening.

Storytelling is more than a method. It is a universal ancient means of education, cultural preservation and way of imprinting moral values across societies and generations. Stories have allowed us to travel both back in time and forward in the future. For a story to exist it requires a time and space, a plot, characters and a narrative voice. The experience of storytelling is vested in the narrative that is, both told and listened. Throughout history, stories have unlocked the potential to aggregate common beliefs and move people to create communities of shared interests. This is still true today, however through very different means and for very different ends. Technology, communication and connectivity has allowed for the constant telling of stories, embeded in the mundane, through complex multiple layers of time and places. Regardless of the technological advances, it is still through storytelling that in fundamental everyday life that we make sense of our existence and our contribution to the wider world. In the current times of abundance for initiatives promoting more sustainable ways of living, designers play a key role in deciding what stories and details are brought into actuality – what to magnify, what to talk about. The designer as a maker is a native explorer of the world equipped with the tools to discover the most interesting stories in society. However, each designer is also an individual with a background, unique point of view, beliefs and motivations, which inevitably shape the way a story is told and how others take part in that vision - imagining the way things are, were, or could be. I understand this diversity of voices to be a positive trait, a collective of rich potentialities that can feed into each others’ narratives and build new ones. I further illustrate this point borrowing from Walter Benjamin’s perspective on the nature of storytelling.

In the late 1930s, in his seminal essay “The Storyteller” Walter Benjamin expressed a deep concern for the oral tradition of storytelling coming to an end. He feared that “experience of value” was decreasing as a consequence of Modernity; technology, industrialisation and new forms of social organization. Storytelling was being replaced by The Novel. Although both narrative formats, the ultimate difference between the two can be paralleled to the difference between speech and writing, voice and text, fundamentally presence and absence. The novel is seen as a solitary experience of the reader, whether storytelling is understood as a participatory and collective experience. The purpose of storytelling is inspiring others through the embedded moral of the story - or “the experience of value”. In this perspective, what distinguishes the storyteller from others who tell narratives (such as the novelist) is that the storyteller tells the narrative from experience - whether his own or that of others - and in the process it becomes a shared experience of those who listen. In this sense, when telling stories of unconventional sustainable behaviours, the storyteller (the designer) has an imperative position to bring about positive human value because “traces of the storyteller cling to the story the way the handprints of the potter cling to the clay vessel”. This is why the capacity of the designer as a lens is extremely valuable. Through correctly amplifying positive aspects of unconventional sustainable behaviours in a designerly, compelling and engaging way, it guides the listeners to understand why these sustainable behaviours exist and why they matter. The role of the designer as a story-listener is equally important to that of telling the story. As a lens in the world, the designer needs to be participative and present because people ultimately are the milieu of the craft. These qualities are true of designers working within social innovation and sustainability, a fertile ground for stories of unconventionality. Throughout time we have been fascinated by stories of novelty; tales of unsung heroes, of travellers in journeys from far away places, of epic places where history was made. As Walter Benjamin recalls, the best stories are “embedded in rooms in which people have died, or rooms where people have been born”. Hence, the elements of uniqueness that memorable stories are made of, can be found on the fringe of the mainstream.

This is where I am at odds with Walter Benjamin; “the art of storytelling is reaching its end because the epic side of truth, wisdom, is dying out.”

On the contrary, I believe it is emerging. We have not lost the ability to exchange experiences. Considering the growing number of social innovation projects inspiring values towards a sustainable good life, the art of storytelling is now extremely important to transform and leverage the audience formally known as “passive listeners” to become “active tellers”.



* To be published in DESIS Design Philosophy Book 2015 all rights Joana Casaca Lemos & DESIS

* Image rights Man & Camera


Erickson, T. (1996) Design As Storytelling. interactions. [Online] 3 (4), 30–35. Benjamin, W. (1968) The Storyteller: Reflections on the Works of Nikolai Leskov in Illuminations. 2. Vol. 241. Random House LLC. Lankow, J. (2012) Infographics: the power of visual storytelling. Hoboken, N.J: John Wiley & Sons, Inc. Klanten, R. et al. (eds.) (2011) Visual storytelling: inspiring a new visual language. Berlin: Gestalten. Rukeyser, M. (2005) The Collected Poems of Muriel Rukeyser. Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press. Quesenbery, W. & Brooks, K. (2010) Storytelling for User Experience: Crafting Stories for Better Design. 1st edition. Brooklyn, New York: Rosenfeld Media.