INTRODUCTION: Haraldur Thorleifsson
October 10th 2023

In our photo editorial journeys across diverse countries, we have the delightful opportunity to encounter various individuals from all walks of life. Haraldur Thorleifsson unequivocally ranks highly among the most inspiring persons we’ve met. This distinction is not due to his candid, international news-making discussion with the contentious Elon Musk on Twitter but rather, it is attributed to his multifaceted journey through the spheres of design, music, and societal impact. As the founder of Ueno, a thriving design agency, and the instigator of several impactful social projects, Haraldur not only deftly navigates his professional landscape with a sharp design acumen but also orchestrates projects that reverberate with his personal experiences and convictions, particularly in addressing and transforming issues of accessibility.

We had the pleasure meeting him in his apartment in Reykjavik.

Ramp Up Iceland Project: Aiming for Global Accessibility

Q: As Ramp Up Iceland gains momentum with the aim to construct over 1500 wheelchair ramps throughout the nation, what aspirations do you have for the project’s broader impact on global accessibility?

A: We’ve opened ramp number 850, so we’re more than halfway done. By the end of this year, it should be about 1000 ramps completed. We plan to finish the project next year. The main goal for the project is to make Iceland the most accessible country in the world. That’s an ambitious objective, much bigger than just building these ramps. We’re also in the initial stages of expanding the project to other countries. Currently, we’re working with Paris, Stockholm, and Ukraine to start test projects, hopefully this year. The aim is to see if we can implement this idea, take it to Europe, and potentially expand it further.

Influences and Convictions Stemming from Personal Experience

Q: How has your personal journey with muscular dystrophy influenced your life’s perspective and decision-making?

A: Any kind of obstacle like muscular dystrophy shapes your understanding of the world. I think, on the other extreme, there are people who go through life thinking everything is easy and wonderful. Most people, however, face some kind of obstacle. In my case, it’s my disease, which has many effects on my daily life. Some are due to the disease itself, but many come from the lack of ability to fix or build things in a way that are usable by everyone. And those are the hardest ones because, again, I can’t do certain things physically, which is a natural limitation. The fact that I can’t get into buildings because no one thought it would be smart to build a ramp is really annoying. These are the issues I want to help fix, structural problems in terms of accessibility for people who use wheelchairs or have mobility issues, as well as in other areas where we have systems and structures that are not usable for everyone. These issues are truly frustrating to me, especially when there’s a systematic imbalance that makes life unnecessarily hard for people.

Bueno: Channeling Success into Community Impact

Q: Can you share the inception story of bueno, your non-profit, and how you determine who to support?

A: It started with my design agency, Ueno, which was very successful. We grew rapidly and did well financially. So, I quickly wanted to see if we could use some of that success to improve the communities around us. We tried a few different approaches, one of which was donating our time to build solutions for people with problems in the industry we were working in (websites, designs, etc.). But it turned out to be more helpful to just donate money and let people decide on their own how to use it best. We selected companies where we felt that a donation could help them improve. There’s no specific selection process; it can be very broad. As long as it empowers people to do something on their own and helps them achieve a dream or, hopefully, help others in the process.

Guidance on Impactful Giving and Making a Positive Impact

Q: What advice would you give to others seeking to make a positive societal impact?

A: We tried donating our time, which is very common for people to do when they have certain expertise. However, it doesn’t always work, and it didn’t perfectly work for us because it didn’t always align with what those companies needed. Therefore, I’d always suggest donating money to help others in the best possible way.

Design in the Digital Age: Connecting and Impacting

Q: With your extensive experience in digital design through Ueno, what insights might you offer to upcoming designers and entrepreneurs keen to make a societal difference?

A: My agency focused on digital design. The digital age has brought us many advantages, such as the ability to go online, press a button, and get almost anything. But through this, we’ve lost a sense of connection to community and the world around us, even though we should be more connected through it. People are becoming more isolated. While we focused on making sure that whatever we were building was functional and user-friendly, we also aimed for the design to create an emotional connection, making people feel more connected to the world around them, even if it’s just in small moments. The goal is to help people feel less alone and make their interactions as pleasant as possible, even though we will never fully replicate real-world interactions.

Influence of Iceland’s Unique Cultural and Geographical Landscape

Q: How has residing in a distinctive location like Iceland shaped your creative endeavors in design and music?

A: Yes, both positively and negatively. Icelandic people are very independent, and because there are so few of us, people often wear many hats and have to do many jobs. They are decently skilled in various things. Many people have a side hustle, create art, or make music on the side. There’s a mentality of doing a lot on your own. As a designer, I was also the copywriter, concept builder, creative director, and project manager. When I lived in the United States, I noticed people were more specialized, meaning there were larger teams with more in-depth knowledge to achieve something. However, it was always beneficial for me to have a broader skill set and oversight in multiple areas when I started doing both design and music. Wearing many hats made it easier to get things started, but I realized that I do need to find specialists to make things as good as possible in areas where I am not as strong.

Distinct Qualities of Icelandic Living

Q: Having resided in multiple countries, what unique aspects differentiate Iceland from other nations?

A: Iceland is very small. I lived in neighborhoods in other cities around the world with more people than in the whole of Iceland. It’s small in terms of population but very big in terms of land. There’s this strange dynamic where the amount of space is so vast that sometimes I missed the ability to interact with nature, which is incredibly unique here. On the flip side, it can sometimes be hard to do things because we’re so spread out. You can go for a walk in Reykjavik and not see anybody at certain times, which can be both good and bad.

Hafnarhaus: Fostering a Vibrant Creative Community

Q: Tell us about Hafnarhaus, the largest co-working space for creatives in Iceland that you co-founded.

A: As I mentioned, Iceland is very small, but we have many creative people. What I felt was missing the most is that many of these people live and work on their own. They’re often very skilled at what they do but need to work with others to achieve anything. This becomes challenging when you’re so isolated. We wanted to create a communal space where people with similar mindsets could meet and interact. Currently, there are around 220 people working there, with individual and communal spaces accessible to them, which helps connect and create new initiatives to elevate projects or visions.

Upcoming Initiatives: Anna Jóna

Q: Any upcoming projects you’d like to discuss?

A: We’re currently building and opening a cinema and restaurant in Reykjavik called Anna Jóna. It’s a very emotional project named after my mother, who passed away when I was a child.

Thank you Haraldur for participating and we hope the paths cross again!