digital design

Mastering Digital: this empty canvas

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Second post in a series about my experiences at the Master’s of Digital Design, Amsterdam, The Netherlands.

The promovideo for the Master’s programme is clear: ‘We need people leading The Change’. What change that is exactly, and what role I see for myself, I’m still figuring out. And like with most design challenges, it all starts with an empty canvas. Or, like in our case: a studio where the walls are completely covered in whiteboard foil. ‘Pass the marker, will you?’

Beginning of the academic year. First encounters. A blank canvas waiting for you to leave your mark. There’s always something tantalizing about it. That feeling when the future for a project is in your hands — completely. What shall I draw? What is my claim? How will I frame the problem at hand? And, what tools are best suited for the job?

Morpheus: “This is the construct. It’s our loading program. We can load anything, from clothing, to equipment, weapons, training simulations. Anything we need.” (The Matrix, Warner Brothers, 1999)


Great, power!

I don’t think there is a mightier moment in the design process. Completely submerging yourself in the ideas of potential success. Of all the beautiful things to come. Utter creativity, but above all: your influence as a designer. Only to realize you are exactly that: a designer. Just one. Singular. So, the question is: how will you use the power at your disposal? Like a dictator? Or with the interests of your users in mind? The interests, of the people that trusted you with all this power in the first place. Will you invest your powers of creation to make this world a better place, or will your design efforts merely result in being a small part of a bigger problem?

“You take the blue pill, the story ends. You wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill, you stay in Wonderland, and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes.” – Morpheus

Great, responsibility!

Why quote The Matrix? My point is that as a designer, you always have a choice — and therefore — responsibility. It’s a recurring theme within the Master’s programme: why do you do what you do? How does it affect others? As part of the Design Ethics course, guest lecturers like Daniel LaTorre (digital placemaking) and Mary Flanagan (critical play/values in design) are also shining examples of this.

Key take-away: to develop a sensitivity for the values at play within the context of your design problem. The only way to achieve that is by making the people you’re creating for an instrumental part of your design process.

Tabula inscripta

So this seemingly empty canvas that we start with is never as empty as it looks. Because whether it’s the end user, a colleague, or client: every person has their own way of looking at things. A unique perspective for you to learn from. So, before assuming you know them — best try some actual user interaction. In a more casual setting, perhaps.

Which brings me to the 24 lovely fellow students I get to share the studio with. Are you curious to get to know them? You should be. Beginning of the year, we all presented ourselves to the world at the first official meetup of the Master Digital Design.

Have a look, and share you thoughts below!

This article was first published in Dutch on Adformatie, on 21 September 2017. As an inside reporter, Jouke writes about his experiences during the first year of the Master’s programme in Digital Design (AUAS).

Mastering Digital: back to school

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First post in a series about my experiences at the Master’s of Digital Design, Amsterdam, The Netherlands.

In 2007 I started my career as Designer, and later, Art Director. In April 2017, I chose to apply for the brand spanking new Digital Design Master’s programme at the Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences (AUAS), to give my creative intuition the update it had been longing for the past few years. Because no matter how many courses or workshops I engaged in alongside my daily profession as a designer, the space for in-depth research and real experimentation (read: time) was always lacking.

HvA Leeuwenburg, Amsterdam Amstel

It simply felt like the right thing to do. It’s been over ten years since I graduated from the arts academy in Groningen. Ever since, I’ve worked at a bunch of different agencies, ranging from informational design to branding and campaignbased, commercially driven design studios. It allowed me to not only hone my skills in concept and design, but also in strategy and digital development. Preferrably all at once. I’m perfectly ‘T-shaped’, if I do say so myself. But still, there was this itch that wouldn’t go away. Because our role as creatives in the design process is rapidly shifting. Where a brief used to give freedom, clients increasingly believe there is a set path towards success. Viewing the creative process as simple sum of tools and technology. And why not — everything can be measured, right?

Indeed it can. But did you ever stop to realize that if this set path to success is so clear, literally everybody will go down that road? Consequently obliterating any competitive advantage you were expecting from it? If your brand or business is looking for that blue ocean of opportunity, then the best way to go is a venture into the unknown. Relying solely on your intuition as a compass.

I admit; it’s a risk. One that requires more than just a leap of faith on my part as a designer. Because more importantly, you need your client to trust you. And trust needs to be earned. Which is why this year I chose to go outside my comfort zone — and indulge myself in an environment where the ability to empathize, research, experiment and iterate are at the core of every project.

If there is one discipline that puts experimentation and iteration center stage, it’s quite probably digital design. But I have a confession to make. Because I’ve been maintaining a bit of a love-hate relationship with User Interface design. Why? The digital domain is stacked to the rim with conventions and best-practices that either improve usability, or supposedly increase conversion. So far so good, right? But I’ve also found a downside. Because the more I tried to incorporate these theories into my designs, the more they started to look alike. And that’s exactly the opposite of what I want to achieve as a strategic creative.

The more I incorporated UI practices into my designs, the more they started to look alike.

Hard reset

All things considered, it was time for a change. Which is why, on a Wednesday in April, I took the train to Amsterdam Amstel station to attend an informative meetup at the Hogeschool van Amsterdam about the upcoming Master Digital Design. You can guess what happened next. I still get the goosebumps going back to the moment. Another day at the office, but this time I’m staring at the acceptance e-mail on my phone. Mind blown. I had kept all of my ambitions to myself, and I knew: this opportunity won’t present itself a second time around.

People first

As it happens, the artist in me sometimes wants me to believe I can take on creative challenges all by myself. And for some cases, that might ring true. But for the digital trade, there’s absolutely no way. And I’m not even talking about the formal interaction between the client, my colleagues and myself. No, the one thing you cannot do without is the unfiltered communication with the people you are actually designing for: users and stakeholders. Sharing your concepts. Building prototypes. User testing. Willingly allowing yourself to fail. And be ready to kill your darlings, because you know the next generation will be better.

The one thing you cannot do without is unfiltered communication with the people you are designing for.

For the better

And in this joint process, I want to strive for a better world. Not for the PR, or to satisfy my naive millennial mindset. Just because we creatives have the power and responsibility to shape world around us. From beautiful, to meaningful.

This article was first published in Dutch on Adformatie, on 21 September 2017.
As an inside reporter, Jouke Zult writes about his experiences during the first year of the
Master’s programme in Digital Design (AUAS).