What it feels like to become a designer

Adapted from the speech I wrote for the University of São Paulo’s 2015 Classes of Design and Architecture & Urbanism graduation.


I’ll never forget the first class I attended in this building, five years ago. It was History of Art, semester one, taught by professor Agnaldo Farias.

When my colleagues and I got into the classroom, each found a Sonho de Valsa (‘Dreams of Waltz,’ a Brazilian popular truffle chocolate) on top of our desks.

Sonho de Valsa, a gift from our first teacher Agnaldo Farias

Agnaldo, in his uniquely poetic way, started the class stating that this small chocolate, which is just a cheap, ordinary, and taken-for-granted object in most people’s lives was, for him, one of the most beautifully designed things in the world.

He spent (and this is true) the next 3 hours elaborating on these little truffles. He spoke about their packaging color, the semi-transparency, and ruby-like shine of the plastic. He asked us to appreciate the sparkling sounds they made as we pulled the ends apart to open it up.

“Open them slowly,” he said, “and watch the way in which, unbeknownst to hurried consumers eager to quench their sugar needs, the two characters in the packaging spin around dancing the waltz as the package opens to reveal its sweet, precious gem.”

I’ll never forget this moment.

Five years ago, we got into that classroom as regular folks, unable to consciously notice most of the poetry, intention and care someone could invest in the packaging of a $1 chocolate. And tonight, my colleagues, we will be leaving this same building with the task of becoming the professionals that put this same intention into any project that falls into our hands.


As the semesters went by, we’ve also acquired and sharpened the opposite side of such perception skills: not to appreciate the hidden beauty in everyday things, but to criticize everything that lacks such care.

This is when, in the views of many, we become incredibly annoying people.

Who among us hasn’t, for instance, lost at least one friend that couldn’t put up with our constant finger-pointing at inadequate letter spacings in restaurant menus and signs? That couldn’t handle our daily ergonomy checks, telling them the chair they were sitting on for 8 hours a day would eventually destroy their posture and health?

This inevitably happens to design and architecture students alike: I just overheard two architects-to-be pulling their hairs off due to a construction firm placing an 11" drain in their perfectly modulated 10" tile floor.

I’ve increasingly become so annoying myself, in fact, that around the eighth semester, my parents gave up buying me Christmas or birthday gifts. For they cannot understand how it is possible for a white t-shirt with no branding to be ‘inadequate.’ Or why on earth would someone spend so much time comparing all the available white t-shirts brands to find the one that passed all our insane design requirements.

Living with such a sharp eye may seem, for most, like a curse. But those who know us well enough can tell that they’ve never seen people who take so much interest, pleasure and love in what they do.

Because, as another teacher of ours, Professor Cláudio Portugal, would say:

When the t-shirt fits the wearer, the chair doesn’t hurt, the restaurant menu is legible, the drain is aligned with the tiles, and the chocolate packaging brings joy, the world becomes a better, more sane, humane place to live in.

So, my fellow colleagues: we, as designers and architects, will reach into so many people’s lives from now on. These people’s time on earth is their most precious, limited asset, and they will spend a good part of it interacting with the objects, buildings, and systems we design. I congratulate every single one of you who tonight accept the overwhelming, but delightful task of honoring the preciousness of this time, and will work from now on to make it as sane, beautiful, comfortable, and devoid of pain and frustration as possible.

Thanks.