Dori Gíslason – Design Education, Social Development and Maputo

by Kate Andrews | April 26, 2010

Halldór Gíslason, known by most as Dori, is a project leader and teacher in the Faculty of Design at KHiO, Oslo’s National Academy of the Arts, Norway. With an extensive career in Architecture and teaching, Dori is currently located in Maputo, on a special mission to support both the establishment of the first higher education academy of art and design in the country, the Institute Superiore de Artes e Cultura [ISAC], and a number of social design action projects, both directed at innovation, entrepreneurship, design and gender equality. We spoke to Dori this week as he lands back in Maputo again.

Notes on Design: Can you tell us a little about yourself?

Dori: I am an Architect originally, but have worked for design in various forms over the years. I was a senior lecturer in Architecture in the UK during the Nineties, moved to Iceland to become the first dean and establish the first Faculty of Design and Architecture at the Iceland Academy of the Arts 10 years ago and then moved to take over as the Dean of the Faculty of Design in Oslo National Academy of the Arts in Norway, where I worked until a year ago. I also worked in the Norsk Form design centre – a Foundation for Design and Architecture in Norway – focusing on projects directed at making the everyday simpler, easier and more beautiful. There is an active institution working there named Design Without Borders that I’ve worked with, they run a number of international development projects.

Notes on Design: Where and how did your career start?

Dori: In the beginning I worked as an architect and design consultant in Iceland after education in UK and Italy. I ran an architectural practice and still do – designing various buildings, private houses, companies etc. It was and still is enjoyable, but Iceland is not very big, so I had to move abroad again to enjoy bigger and broader stimulus and dialogue about design, and its function in society.

Notes on Design: Why did you choose a teaching career?

Dori: Because of the stimulation of the dialogue that you have in education, there is more time for research and experimentation than when one is busy with every day practice. Students do fantastic work in their projects and stimulate new ideas and possibilities for design and architecture. Education continually opens up new avenues that practice does not have time nor money to address. And, it also evaluates and criticizes practice, which is great.

Notes on Design: Whilst there is a great deal of emphasis on evaluation and critical thinking within education, do you think there is a need for established design criticism at industry level?

Dori: Wow! Yes. It is our responsibility to be critical to industry and business. It is our role, both as singular designers and the whole of education. But we also need this the other way around. I just returned from a meeting in Geneva where we were planning a workshop for Senegal, Zambia and Mozambique. This is going to be about the creative industries and economy and is part of the UN program for that field. We discussed both education and development extensively, but I also insisted on the inclusion of delegates that are in practice now, often with no education but long term experience. We often forget to listen to them.

In the other direction, I am the leader of the Cirrus Network – a network of design schools in Northern Europe. There we have discussed lots about our cooperation and collaboration with industry and business. We’ve held conferences about the matter and it has been great to see how the Scandinavian countries are developing this cooperation under the political strategies of ‘innovation’ – something that governments have loved during the last 5 years. I have participated in various projects researching innovation, which have often looked at the more business orientated ‘make profit’ aspect from industry and the ‘social response’ aspect from design. These two aspects have to work together if the world is to be better.

First Day of School in ISAC, Maputo


Notes on Design: You’ve been in Africa for the past year, can you tell us why you went there and what you’ve been doing?

Dori: In my last position as Dean, I became increasingly interested in how design should be integrated into all activities: in business, industry and services, for example. In Oslo, we did various research and student projects in that direction in my faculty.
 But I had decided before I took the Dean’s position, that I would not do more of those basic administrative jobs and I should go somewhere where my network and experience could be of use. I did evaluate various places and came to the conclusion that there is less need for designers in Asia since industry and design is really growing there greatly during the last two decades. 
In Africa however, design is much less active and has to be developed as an integral part of their cultural and industrial development.
 I also came to the conclusion that there are enough designers in Scandinavia and quite frankly I would not be missed!

Notes on Design: What have been the most surprising and most challenging aspects of teaching design in Maputo?

Dori: Apart from learning Portuguese, I have had to use a completely different mindset about dialogue and evaluation in Maputo. The wins are many but very small. My own challenge has really been to look out for the fundamentals in design that we often do not discuss in European schools. We just start. I have loved discussing the curriculum, the procedures and the pedagogical advice that I can offer to the very promising staff in the new school.

Notes on Design: Can you tell us a little about one of the designers in Africa that’s stood out for you?

Dori: There are actually so many. I, for example, live in a 1954 modernist block by Pancho Guedes, but he is really Portuguese. The Zimbabwean architect Mick Pearce is also a great architect and environmentally driven. For example, his Eastgate Center in Harare is based on termite mounds. There are many great people working in textiles and fashion too, like the Senegalese Oumou Sy. She is much more than a couturiere – she is a poet, a playwright, an activist, and a cyber pioneer who opened West Africa’s first internet café, in Dakar.

There are many people here that kind of do not fit the ‘designer’ mould, which is great in my opinion. This situation is more similar to my home country of Iceland. With almost no industry, people have to create their own work somehow, and sometimes it is some kind of a fusion of music, art and design that is activist based and focused on the better good of society. Of course there are also many that are in it for the money (or to survive actually).

Mozambique has much weaker design culture than in art, music and dance. It is great to be in an academy developing design as part of that culture. It is possible to use the other art forms to support design based activity. You can see an example of this with a project named ‘Without Balance’ that is based on an exhibition held during the build up to the COP15 summit in Copenhagen. The name is: Sem Balança (Out of balance); Dance and visual communication about global warming and the environment.

Notes on Design: What are you currently working on right now?

Dori: I am working on many development projects, but the largest one and most important has been supporting the establishment of the first higher education Art and Design Academy in Mozambique, named INSTITUTE SUPERIORE DE ARTES E CULTURA [ISAC]. 
I have spent good time supporting the locals in developing the program and various other practical issues. I have also been teaching design theory, the relevance of design and then mentoring the teachers.
 The school is a state school, opened formally on September 3rd by the Minister of Culture and Education.
 I am also doing research on the integration of design in development projects and also gender balance in development and service design work.

Notes on Design: Alice Rawsthorn confirmed last year that the ‘new breed’ of social designers have proven design as ‘more than a creator of things’. What are your thoughts on where we go now? How do we ensure a sustainable social role for design?

Dori: I have always been of the opinion that she promotes. But I am initially educated as an architect (and they are makers of societies often) and then as a semiologican and in philosophy that is really about how society functions and interacts. Therefore this is never new to me. At the same time I understand the dialogue in design because some of design comes from exploration in material and form, while society takes second place. So we see here a convergence of architecture and design with the support of anthropology (now we have a number of anthropologists in design faculties, I did set up one in my faculty in Oslo) ethnography, politics etc. This is great because it opens up different motivation in the design field.

Workshop in photography and lighting, Maputo


Notes on Design: How would you assess the state of design right now? What and where are the opportunities?

Dori: My opinion is that designers and design knowledge (notably, I hate the term ‘design thinking’ that comes from USA business schools) is fundamental for the functioning of the society of the future. There are so many things in the mundane everyday life that we really hate because they have been wrongly executed, the problem definition was wrong etc. You find this in the health sector, transport sector and of course where I am currently very active, in the development sector, both in our western part of the world and in the developing world.

Notes on Design: What advice would you offer to young design graduates looking to use their skills for social purposes? How can they get started and involved?

Dori: It has been decided now by the leaders of my faculty in Oslo, that no student can graduate from the program without participating in development projects. In my mind this is what all young designers have to look out for. For example: more than 50% of the users of design today are not users of ‘good design’ but people living in the developing world. But I also really, really advise people not to start up another ‘action based development socially responsive project. Far too many exist already and they just compete for the same pot of support. But there are great opportunities all around. Go to the socially focused websites, or even my site or Kate’s site and find them in the links sections. And join them.

Pin-hole photography project, Maputo


Notes on Design: So, what are your next steps and future plans?

Dori: After the establishment of ISAC here in Maputo we are (in Oslo) developing a ‘change of knowledge’ program, at the moment projected for the next 3 years, where Norwegian designers, and design students and teachers, meet the designers in Maputo. Ideas are to run various common projects, developing transfer of knowledge in both directions. I have got most of the funding for this work from the Norwegian Foreign Ministry, but also some research funds for evaluation and report.
The strategy of the KHiO design faculty in Oslo is that no student in the faculty graduates without some experience working in development areas, working on service solutions or product development with local craftsmen or industries.

The world of design is so much more open today and the profession is quite international. 
Also, more than half of the users of design today do not live in Western type economies and we need our designers to gain better understanding of the conditions. And, not just move in with Western pre-conceived ideas and sometimes strange design solutions (or problem definitions). 
We also want to address the ‘design for the other 90%’ issue and integrate design in all development or industrial projects, at a much earlier stage than just coming in at the end to decorate or do the logo. Designers can and have to be involved in all manner of areas and sectors; health programs, agriculture, sanitation solutions and so on.

Find out more about Dori at, follow his experience in Mozambique at and follow Dori’s live tweets @dorigislason


Designer and writer Kate Andrews was the original editor of Notes on Design blog, founded in 2007.


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