Alegal stories

(un)Designed encounters that open possibilities for the legal-illegal. Is it possible to imagine new scenarios for the dehumanized conditions that happen among alegalities?  

  • Roles: Design Strategist, Design Researcher and Project Manager.
  • Methods:  Design as Inquiry, Rapid Prototyping, Design-led Research, Service Design Tools.
  • Partners: Sure We Can Redemption Center.
  • Achievements: Presented at the Design Studies Forum.

The challenge: Can collectors in New York City, bend the law and perform a public service, they undermine the private recycling sector as they profit from it, and they engage in an act of physical labor that puts them in active contact with the remains of the city. Because of this, canning affords many of the forgotten people in the city—the poor, the elderly, the undocumented, the non-conforming, the unemployed—a profit and the opportunities for social interactions that others obtain from traditional means of employment. If we look that the actions that happen in this context, it is possible to identify some distinguishing features: these actions are simultaneously ambiguous, dynamic, and ignored.


The proposal: This design project uses canning as a case study to inform and define the struggles and dangers of the alegalities, as well as the limitations and capabilities for design. This project looks at the challenges of designing under these conditions. A series of experiments and project proposals are intended to uncover possibilities for design, as well as some of the practice’s current limitations. 

Inspired by Shukaitis and his book Imaginal Machines, in which he proposes devices that escape capitalism and feed off of creativity, this project envisions design as an imaginal machine with the power to reconfigure existing situations in ways that keep contested scenarios, such as alegalities, open. If Design aims to change existing situations into a prefered ones, then Design (verb- noun) has the responsibility as an ethical act to imagine and articulate possibilities that orient the narrative of these oppressed spaces towards a humanized condition.


alegal (adj): not regulated, nor prohibited.

 Our daily actions are determined by the law, categorizing them in legal or illegal actions, but there are other actions outside the law. Some of those actions outside the law are recognized by the government, called ‘States of exception1, and happen in specific events that allow the government to still have control of those actions. To illustrate the idea, in the last edition of the football World Cup celebrated in Brazil in 2014, we witnessed how due to FIFA’s pressure, the government of Brazil agreed to sign a law bill that allowed selling beer during the tournament’s matches, even though selling alcoholic beverages inside Brazilian stadiums was forbidden by the law since 2003, the government made an exception.

But there are other actions outside the law that happen in our everyday lives, that seem to be blurred and hard to define as legal or illegal actions, these exist in a space I call Alegality. Prompted by Ernesto Oroza’s project Architecture of Necessity2 in which he makes reference to the ability and ingenuity of Cuban citizens under Fidel Castro’s regime and their approach to self-made solutions for their everyday needs. I adopted this concept, in order to define the alegal actions that I am interested in exploring. Those actions are made by everyday citizens in response to political restrictions or low-income scenarios, thus bringing new typologies for services and social interactions. If we look at the actions that happen in this context we find that they share the features of being simultaneously: ambiguous, dynamic and ignored. Because of these tensions they exist in the conflictual space in between legal-illegal and legitimate-illegitimate. We can find more examples of alegalities related to informal economies, such as street vendors, street performers, the black market–forgeries, imitations, the fake market, the sell and consumption of marihuana among others.

Alegal as Design Opportunity

In a society where legalization seems to be the only possibility to claim justice and recognition, I believe that looking at entangled marginalized situations through the lens of alegality and designing under its frameworks opens a space of reconfiguration and new possibilities without looking towards legalization. 

Work in progress

This project is an ongoing demonstration about how alegalities can be a new space for design practice. By responding to social needs and recognizing its struggles, I am aiming to apply design in order to bring a more humanized reality to the actors involved–such as canners, without looking towards traditional problem solving approaches.