He is senior design researcher at the Department of Industrial Design at Eindhoven University of Technology in the Netherlands and teaches design methods at the Design Academy Eindhoven.
He has published many design articles and four books. His book Understanding Design is a collection of essays that challenges designers and students of design to reflect on design itself, their role as designers and the influence of design in society.
What inspired you to write Understanding Design?
The inspiration for Understanding Design was very personal. It came from having a dual background – I was trained as a designer and a philosopher – and from the fact that as a designer in practice and design researcher I have always reflected a lot on the field.
I noticed that people saw it as a strength that I could reflect on design abstractly as well as on a very practical level, and that I could link the two in my lectures, presentations, papers and columns.
My book was also born from a real frustration with the way many books about design present their grand model of what design is and how it should be practised. I found this to be too arrogant and a real misjudgment of the fascinating complexity of the design field.
The book also grew out of my involvement in design education. All design curricula are based on students doing lots of projects in the design studio, and then learning takes place by reflecting on your experiences during a project.
But I have noticed that this reflection can often be shallow or naive, and that many learning possibilities are missed because we seem to lack the tools to support this reflective activity.
These points very much inform the way Understanding Design was organised. Every page deals with a specific design subject. Every piece starts with a design experience – something that a designer or design student might recognise from their own designing life. This experience is expressed in a lively manner, to draw in the reader. Then the piece continues with the start of a reflection on that concrete experience.
It’s very open-ended – just the start of a reflection is given, as a proposal or a suggestion. These reflections are based on findings from many different fields – design research, of course, but also philosophy, psychology, sociology, anthropology and business sciences. Thus the reader is challenged to start reflecting on their own work from these different perspectives.
The one-subject-per-page format is a real help with this. With a maximum of 450 words it is quite impossible to end a piece with set conclusions, but you can start an interesting train of thought.
That is also why there are no pictures or examples in the book: the reader should take his or her own design practice as an example, and use the book to think more explicitly about their design experiences. I have tried to write the pieces in a light and engaging but thoughtful way, as inspiration for reflection.
This is also a book that should not be read cover to cover in one go: it should be lying around a lot and be picked up when the designer is ready for it. The designer’s own experiences are centre stage in the use of this book. The feedback I get from designers is that they read a couple of pieces every now and then, often in the evening. I am quite happy with that.
What has surprised me when writing the book was that the formula forced me to put into words some aspects of design that I had never seen in writing anywhere else.
The second edition of the book, which was recently released, contains twenty-five new pieces, mostly on the possibilities I see for the future of design and design thinking, and the education part has been extended. Some of the original material has been extensively rewritten. And a soft-cover version makes it more affordable for design students.
Can you tell us about your activities with YDI and ACX?
Through my involvement with two Amsterdam-based foundations – Young Designers and Industry (YDI) and the Amsterdam Creativity Exchange (ACX) – I seek to expand the borders of the design field. YDI does ground-breaking work involving designers in the creation of solutions for social problems.
I strongly believe that the power of design thinking is needed for many issues in today’s world. We have networked ourselves (which is great), but in doing so we have also networked our problems – this means that the problems we face are not solvable anymore in the old conventional ways (through analysis, hierarchical decomposition and so on).
Within a YDI project we work together closely with many partners in a problem area to set up design experiments that really work to bring the issues forward. We work with partners like the City of Amsterdam, the Ministry of Health, banks, care providers, housing corporations and builders.
These experimental design-driven projects are valued as real deep learning experiences by the partners, making them reconsider how to move forward in an ever changing world. For the young designers, these projects provide an opportunity to step outside of the confines of their profession and use their design thinking in a new and different way.
Within the framework of the ACX we provide a meeting place for designers and entrepreneurs within Amsterdam. We use a very special format to ensure that at ACX events people really meet, that sparks fly and new initiatives are generated. Contracts are often dreamed up and signed within a couple of hours.
What will you be researching in 2007?
One big project for this is year is the finishing of a new book entitled Journeys in Design. I am writing it together with Professor Bryan Lawson (Dean of Architectural Studies at the University of Sheffield University, UK) and it is about the nature and development of design expertise.
We are bringing together many models, methods and strands of knowledge about the development of professional expertise, and applying that to design.
This is a whole new way of looking at what it means to be a design professional, or a student of design. What are the ‘journeys in design’? What are the possibilities? What are the difficulties one faces when developing as a designer?
We distinguish seven layers of design expertise, in which we try to cover all levels of the design field, from the absolute beginner to the visionary designer. It’s a really ambitious thing to do!
I hope to be presenting our findings at the connected07 conference in Sydney this winter.
What do you think of the Australian design scene?
From what I have seen it provides a good level of design quality and is quite in tune with international developments. What really excites me is the dynamic of the place.
There is something in the air; the world is changing, opening up a wealth of opportunities for design to develop. Having an open attitude, and a willingness to experiment and learn, is vital in such an exciting but unstable environment. Within the new knowledge economy it is not the one who has the most knowledge that wins, but the one who is the quickest learner!
Australia has all the cultural ingredients in place to become this hub for design experiments, to become the place where design develops itself.
I see real opportunities for Australian design to jump ahead of the field right now. That is my ambition within the next few years. Right now I am looking for the people, schools, companies and institutions that are willing to work with me to make this happen.