Dr Joana Casaca Lemos On Designing For Qualities Of Sustainability & How Design Thinking Can Create Your Unique Story Of Impact


Dr Joana Casaca Lemos is a hybrid designer, researcher and educator. Joana runs an independent practice with experience across diverse cultural contexts.

Her work is strategically dedicated to support the development of products and services that amplify qualities of sustainability.  She conducts field research, facilitates co-creation and teaches design methods.

On her journey she has collaborated with the likes of IDEO, Forum for the Future, Green School Indonesia, Hyper Island, Doi Tung Foundation Thailand, Edacy Senegal, Challenge for Change Egypt.

Currently, Joana is Professor of design at CODE University of Applied Sciences Berlin, completed her doctoral degree from Central Saint Martins College of Design London and is fellow of the Royal Society of Arts UK.


Joana discusses the designer's way of thinking as a holistic way to reframe challenges into opportunities. Joana talks about designing for qualities of sustainability emphasises the necessity of understanding context shares the importance of having a community of practice .


Highlights from the interview (listen to the podcast for full details)

[Mikaela Stephens] - To kick off Joana, could you please share a bit about your background and what led you into design-thinking, academia and the world of social enterprise? [2.37]

[Dr Joana Casaca Lemos] - Sure. My background is in communications design so that's where I started. Communications design being defined as really tackling challenges of communication between people, through experiences, interactions but also including branding and sustainability as part of that. It was always an interest of mine from very, very early on in my undergraduate degree. I went into more depth through my Master's in Design for Sustainability, and that's where I started to connect the dots between storytelling and designing interactions and experiences that lead people to understand the purpose of social and environmental initiatives. So that’s my background. And a huge milestone is from the project I did in Thailand in 2010 with the Doi Tung Foundation, because that was my very beginning of doing field research, which kind of changed the whole course of my design practice.

You finished your PhD, Design for Communication: a collaborative practice to amplify the qualities of sustainability. Would you be able to tell our audience more about the topic and its social impact? [4:06]

Yes, so my PhD stemmed out of this project in Thailand. That's where I was. I was living in the mountains with the hill tribes there doing field research and there is no internet connection out there. So I was journaling a lot about my work and thoughts that came to mind. And a big kind of ‘aha’ moment back then was, 'What if there was a communications tool that empowered these people to be able to share their story with me?' So, as a designer what if I were more in a position of a facilitator rather than a kind of creating that story for them, or translating that story for them. So that turned into a research project, which became a PhD project, and the focus was to design a new method and a set of tools that empower small businesses that are driven by social, environmental impact. To really be able to articulate what is their story, like what is their purpose, but to also figure out ways to amplify the qualities of their initiatives. I went on to build and test and iterate and evaluate a new design method that generates impact.


Do you believe using a design-thinking process is one of the best ways to respond to global challenges and if so, why? [5:51]

Well when we talk about design thinking, and because I've done a little bit of work for IDEO, through IDEO U, Design Thinking is terminology that we can use to describe the work that people who are not design experts can do on their own. So it's about empowering them with the design methodology that is broad enough for anyone who doesn't have a background as a designer to be able to use and integrate into their own initiatives. Design thinking is very powerful as a methodology in a way. I would say that my work as a designer (this is my practice day to day), has a little bit more depth to some extent. Or maybe I should reframe this answer a little bit, it is a tricky one.

But the design process, or the designer's way of thinking... I think that's a good a good way to frame it.

The designer's way of thinking is a holistic way to reframe a challenge into an opportunity.

And to me that's the key thing in this methodology and whether that is led by an expert designer. So somebody who has been in the field for years and years and this is their day to day practice, or somebody who is completely new and is not an expert. There are simple methods and tools that they can use to reframe the challenge and see it as an opportunity to innovate, to come up with solutions.

And it's also a really important methodology to understand the context, right? Because every community is different, every place is different, the resources are different, motivations of people are different.

And the designers way of thinking is sort of a lens into the world that allows us to understand that context in depth. And that to me is really the ‘designerly way’ of thinking.

Perusing your work, I am particularly interested in a project Design Dharma - which you call the intersection between design practice and the human spirit. Could you explain to our audience more about this? [8:25]

Yes, sure. Design Dharma always brings up a lot of questions! Design Dharma is a project, which at the moment I’m trying to figure out how it materialises and likely will become a small book project. So Design Dharma is a philosophy of practice. It's an approach to look at designer's practices and try to understand what role the practice plays in their day to day lives and how their view of the world or their understanding of the world shifts through the work that they do, essentially. Having interviewed a lot of designers for my research this was a common thread that I found, where everyone mentions this kind of... maybe I can use the word 'spiritual' to describe it... always a soulful kind of dimension to the work. And to me that is true. Because it is about people. We interact with people, we interact with human beings with living systems with… they’re extremely complex and extremely rich, right? And there's a soul to that. There are living things and Design Dharma is a project, it's an exploration very likely to become a small book of stories about designer's lives and the way that the work they engage in shifts their perspective of the world, and of themselves ultimately.


What local or global initiatives have you come across that you believe are successfully tackling wicked problems whilst creating opportunities that provide social and environmental benefits? [10:22]

There are so many, it’s so hard to pick. But I just go off the top of my head here because that tends to be the best things that are in the moment, that are on my mind. Recently we spent quite a bit of time in Indonesia and there I got to collaborate with a local village that is tackling a massive problem of desertification. So all the young people, the youth, want to live in big cities. They don't want to live in their village. So villages are increasingly becoming abandoned and the ageing population lives there but none of the young people, which makes it very difficult to do agriculture or to keep the village going. I've been very inspired by a man who's kind of like the village spokesman ‘Bindu Bali’ and he has drive to create change to his village; to bring in artists, and designers and young entrepreneurs and people that he meets who he feels will benefit his village, and the young people and inspire them, and kind of exchange life experiences. I've been very inspired by him. I spent quite a bit of time there learning so much. I always feel like I learned more, that whatever stories I can help…. I feel like I always walk out thinking I’m the richest person in the world in that moment, it's so nice.

I've also been inspired by bigger organisations. Like for example, Edacy Senegal has inspired me so much. It’s a social enterprise that supports unemployed youth, unemployed graduates with soft skills. Because in Senegal engineering students, like software engineering students, are brilliant at coding and they're brilliant at buildings things, but they really lack creative soft skills. Like problem solving and brainstorming, speaking skills, pitching and presenting skills, speaking skills, all those soft skills which are really the core skills.

And so Edacy is a program that creates design bootcamps. So we're in one week immersions where a cohort of these young graduates can learn these skills and really practice them in a safe space. And then it goes on to support them throughout the year. So there are so many of these initiatives and they are all so different and they all tackle these wicked problems in in their local context. 

Context is the important thing to understand in the work that we do. And I feel like the successful ones are very sensitive to that. They don't try to replicate a model that someone else is doing in another country.

They are sensitive to understand: ‘No, we have to adapt to our story, to our context, to our community.’ And culture plays a massive role in all of this of course.


In your work and many roles you’ve played; as a researcher, designer, independent consultant and facilitator of Communication Assembly, what are some of the challenges you typically experience and how do you work around them? [14:27]

That’s a really good question. And yes, all those roles are so different. I think I've experienced many challenges because my path has been quite independent and, you know, working as a designer as a free agent, and just having collaborated with lots of different people and been in and out of teams. There's been many challenges there.

I feel that as an independent designer or design consultant, very honestly, one of the key challenges, when I first set out to do this kind of work, was to find the right people to work with.

So finding a project that really fuelled my drive, and my aim, my ambitions for design. And then it went onto being a PhD student. Early career research, field research, comes with so many challenges especially when you’re a one woman show. Ready to do research in different countries, that comes with many challenges. But again, you know reframing the challenges and seeing them as opportunities. I think that that's the mindset to the designer. There's also some challenges and I would say it's the balancing act between academia and teaching, and being a designer in the field. So how do these two worlds interact is my challenge at the moment, which I’m trying to figure out. And I believe they have a lot to learn from each other and in my generation of designers I see that there is a desire to embed both. So how can academia and research and real world practice and industry meet?

What do you believe are the best ways to measure the social impact of a project? [16:56]

If I think back to this experience in Egypt recently working with ‘Challenge for Change’ for example. We were a team of six designers, everyone coming from somewhere else. We came together to design a design thinking training for school teachers from all around the world. And the challenges in that are many, because everyone's coming with their own experience as a designer, with their own approach to design and the way they practice. Then we are in Egypt, so we are not in our local context so we have to adapt to that context. And then working with school teachers from all over the world, so we have to also adapt to their individual life stories and that presents a multiplicity of challenges.

I think it's also the most enriching part of design, to be able to see the layers and walk through these layers.

And then as a team I think there's an ease that comes with that, because it's so wonderful to collaborate as a team. And the outcome ends up being that no-one can claim ownership of it, it sort of has a life of its own because it's the result of so many different life stories, different perspectives, different strengths that everyone brings. They’re gifts, right? Everyone brings their gifts.  


What advice would you give to the budding social innovators or small businesses listening, who have an idea but need to take action to expand and create greater impact? [18:43]

Well through my research I set up this project called Communication Assembly. And Communication Assembly is a workshop interaction where different businesses come together to share their experience with each other. To help each other build on each other's experience and perspectives of what they do, and to use these design tools I created around the new concept of qualities of sustainability.

What I learned from developing it is that a...

Community of practice is incredibly important. So for any small businesses out there, that's always my first recommendation - You need to find your community. Not necessarily community meaning the consumer, or community of consumers, but of other small businesses. It's very important to strengthen that ecosystem in the locality, so that is to me the most important thing and I feel that we are stronger by building on each others gifts.

And really learning and creating this shared space, that is a safe space to exchange thoughts and ideas and failures, that's very important. Communication Assembly is a space where that happens in a more facilitated way.

Which countries do you believe are leading the charge when it comes to the support and implementation of social innovation programs that transform communities and what can we learn from them? [20:29]

Oh this is a tricky question. It's very hard to say who is leading that change or who is progressing. I think it's really contextual, and we can definitely learn so much from developing countries but also villages and big cities. It's really tough to answer in in a simple way.

I would say as I've personally been very inspired by geographic locations and cultural contexts that are more off the map, so not necessarily the smart cities (smart cities as in the ones that rely on tech for sustainability and so on). I've been really personally inspired by more remote locations and small, small initiatives that are really maximising their resources. And I think to me as a designer, that's the thing I look for, is how do we make the most with the least resources available? I think that's the big design challenge, and those to me, are the places that I have a chance to visit and learn from. Those are the ones that have really inspired me. But I can see throughout Southeast Asia, in India, that there are so many local initiatives tackling, for example, the trash problem. Same in Indonesia. Even the island of Bali, which is a massive tourist destination, there is no central recycling system. Trash is burnt off Lombok, so trash is a massive a problem. You can go diving and see trash at the bottom of the ocean, which is horrible. So you know, there is small initiatives there that are trying to educate villagers on how to separate trash, the worth of trash, right? How much plastic is actually worth. How much glass is actually worth.  And have people understand that through a different lens.

I'm also inspired by world initiatives like the big ocean clean up. All these technologies for removing trash in the ocean through quite high tech innovative ways. So again. it's very hard to answer which country is leading the change when it comes to social innovation and environmental initiatives.

To finish off, could you please recommend a few great books that you think would inspire our listeners? [23:40]

[Joana recommends the books listed below.]


Initiatives, resources and people mentioned on the podcast

Recommended books


You can contact Joana on LinkedInTwitter or instagram. Please feel free to leave comments below.

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