Mastering Digital: this empty canvas

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).

Author Jouke Zult

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