Career Pathways: Lara Penin


By Shani Rodan

Lara Penin is the director of the Transdisciplinary Design MFA program at Parsons, The New School for Design. She is also a co-founder of a research lab called Design and Social Innovation for Sustainability (DESIS Lab) at Parsons, which is part of an international network of similar labs. Her practice is related to service design, social innovation, transdisciplinary design, and participatory design. She is author of a newly released book on service design called An Introduction to Service Design: Designing the Invisible.

We spoke with Penin about the pivotal milestones in her career journey and how design has shaped her career trajectory.


What was your first design job?

I graduated as an architect in Brazil, where I am from originally, and I worked as an architect and designer there for a number of years.

How you did get to where you are now?

I went to Europe for grad school, and I did my PhD from the Politecnico di Milano. I joined a group of design researchers studying design and sustainability and that included design and social innovation; service design was really starting at that point. I joined the research group of Professor Ezio Manzini, who was and remains a really important voice in this field. That was a pivot for me in terms of orienting my career towards this direction. Ezio Manzini happens to be the founder of the DESIS network to which my research lab is affiliated to, and we are founders of the New York lab, started through our first funded project when I joined Parsons almost ten years ago. We applied and received a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation to our first project which was about amplifying creative communities. That project allowed us to get started with the lab. We’ve done a number of other projects since then.

When did you realize you could make a difference through design?

Everything that I do with my career has been precisely to demonstrate that design can positively transform society. Because I am a design educator, a number of students who passed through me were educated with these concepts as well, so that’s one way of making a difference. The other way of making a difference is doing the projects that we do in the lab. We demonstrate new directions that design can take towards making a positive change. Design is an engaged form of activity, so you have to be in the world doing something. Being a research lab within a design school means that we’re not here doing consultancy work. We’re trying to push the boundaries of what design can be, and remain experimental, innovative in the way we approach projects.