As some of you may know, I left Lesvos a month ago. I spent two great years that I should share with you.
I am taking one insight away from there. A confirmation that I want 100% of my work to have a positive impact for our world (it’s always good to write it down, try it).
So before to start applying for jobs, I felt the need to do a state of the field by visiting a few countries in Europe. To do networking and grasp updated insights from the different actors and communities practising social and strategic design.
This is not a report nor a research, it’s an informal feedback session -call it a “carnet de bord”- from what I gathered along this travel. Therefore, I assume all kind of biases I will write. I can’t gain a deep understanding of a country’s culture in a few days.
During these two weeks surrounded by buses and trains, I travelled to The Netherlands, Denmark, Belgium and France. I went to the Dutch Design Week, a Hackathon with Techfugees, the ImpactFest and What Design Can Do’s gathering. I am now writing from Brussels (and finalizing from France).
My goal is also to motivate people to follow a similar path. I tried to put a lot of links so you can do your research and maybe find your dream job.
Social design, strategic design, what are those anyway?
Not everybody indeed knows about it. The headline’s blog is “Élargir la vision du design”. It promotes the learning about design, whether your background is design or not. So here are more links that you can read later:
– I generally invite people to read the blog “I think I design” based on Dr. Stefanie Di Russo’s PhD. You can start with A Brief History of Design Thinking: The theory [P1]. – Finally, an easy-to-read introduction about “Business design“. Terminology in design has a lot of overlapping. Business designers are people with a business background who learnt about design. Strategic designers are designers who learnt about business.
Design doesn’t change. But the terminology of design evolves through time and culture. That’s why I wanted to start with France and explain a bit of my story and background. Then move on to every country.
1. The French culture in design?
I remember when I graduated. I was full of hope and ready to tackle meaningful challenges with human-centered approach. I quickly lost my motivation when I searched online for “strategic design job France”. Why? It was only marketing agencies. They were all saying the same thing: “we improve your brand identity through design and innovation”. They were hiring strategic designers to sell innovation to their clients (understand “digital touch”, nothing innovative here). The end-goal was to improve the client’s vision and create marketing strategies to attract more users.
And this is understandable. Paris is well-known to have a lot of luxury clothing companies and large industries. Trends are really important in this field so the marketing sector is quite developed.
I remember applying for a Master in Strategic design, in ENSAAMA (Paris). I realized during the interview that I wasn’t interested because all the showcased projects were luxury brands. Advice if you’re still a student: always check the list of partners of your school. You will learn interesting things about the projects you will have to work on.
I am glad I got a scholarship in IED Madrid. Without these steps I wouldn’t be writing this article today on Opoiesis (fr).
2. Trends in France
2.1 Design thinking
When I graduated, design thinking was expending since a few years and reaching France. There was a lot of “facilitators” offering their services. I remember design thinking was part of a package sold with “open space” and “company culture” sponsored by GAFAM.
It was still perceived by industries as a “team building process”. They could get employees across departments working together for one hour about creative solutions. Then, a man (it’s always a man) with a fancy suit would come and pick the closest idea from his pre-workshop-vision. Yes, that’s the frustration of “being the only designer in the room” here.
2.2 Start-up Nation by Macron
Since then, we also had the “freelance economy”, followed by the “start-up economy”. It reached a new level with the “Start-up Nation by Macron”.
In the start-up world, you’re forced to grow by your investors. It pushes you to use unethical ideas such as addictive user interface to “hook” your users, and selling users data to survive. So, even good ideas turn bad by default. Look at these unregulated electric scooters… we all know this will be on a scrapyard in a few years. How do we know? It already is.
So yes there are social entrepreneurs and we will talk about it later. But more than a social entrepreneur, only an activist entrepreneur (never heard that one) could have a positive social impact. Because this person would need an antagonist mindset to go against the natural start-up growth’s rule: to work for the good of the users & employees more than the investors & personal greed. It’s the only way to not being part of this fast line privatized train driving over our social standards and public services (that our government seems happy to give away).
Design is political: you might want to get over political etiquettes while running co-creation workshops but you don’t have to stay neutral while creating.
Well, well, well it’s getting out of topic. Tell me if you think this is relevant for you.
3. The alternatives in France: why France can be interesting?
In the end I quickly left France and never really imagined myself coming back to live in France. Only a few options remain in my mind.
3.1 Doing a PhD
PhDs in France are quite interesting and seem more qualitative (I didn’t say more advanced) than abroad. Doing a Phd, you get more room to experiment and apply your values. But let’s agree, this isn’t the easy path. In three years, you will develop a specific complex French language that will open you the doors to a new community of researchers & practitioners. Stéphane Vial (fr), Alain Findeli (fr) and Brigitte Borja de Mozota (fr) can be helpful names to learn more about the state of design research in France.
It seems that French schools follow the idea of “research and practice”. Your PhD thesis must improve the global design’s knowledge. But practice must confirm or not the assumptions you made. This might be different depending on the school. In TU Delft, you can choose to focus only on theory, like a classic PhD.
Side notes about research:
– You will often see big industries investing on design research, such as Orange, Decathlon, EDF and SNCF. I am curious to know the freedom you can have working with them.
-I will make the assumption that design PhDs in France are still elitist programs. It might be due to the Parisian public schools’ fame; the inadequacy of support; the absence of openings; or as well by lack of attractiveness, diversity and recognition.
3.2 Urbanism, society and governance
A second path to follow for designers willing to have a social impact is to work on public space and services. This is more developed in the Netherlands but France has its own experiences. The main example that uses social design is “La 27ème région“. This one stands out because French regions are financing them. By being agonist, social designers create more sustainable and inclusive projects. You can question power, experiment and meet different communities.
– Update: Few days ago were “Les assises du Design” (replay video) in Paris. The event, in collaboration with the government, has developed 5 thematics to make design a more recognized field. By creating a French Design Council and a French Design Week. But also by anchoring design within public policies. A great way to go if it’s pushed forward.
– For antagonists mindset, architects might be good partners. Their licence give them stronger authority and foundation (joke intended) to contest the wrong use of public space (fr). Licence and regulation for designers is a thematic developed by Mike Monteiro.
3.3 What else?
– An interesting place to look at are the World Design Capitals. From January 2020, Lille will be the capital. An interesting time to visit.
– In France the term “Économie sociale et solidaire (ESS)” might also be used for projects with social impact. Don’t forget that you can miss large communities just by not knowing the right keywords.
– I just heard about BPI France, for potential grants and financial support.
– You can pick a topic from one of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals and find a local NGO working on that issue. There are so many things to do and communities of same minded people to join.
So let’s start our journey abroad.
Of course, from now on it will be harder to give deep insights as I don’t know about their government, policies, culture and context. My insights are pretty much based on fantasies built through the years. These few days of travel helped me to discover if yes or no these fantasies were legit.
1. My fantasy about the Netherlands
When I was a kid, the Netherlands was “the country that will get flooded first”. I don’t know if it affected Dutch mindset or not but I always felt Dutch companies were more open to social and environmental challenges. You remember when I was doing my first job’s research? Well most of the interesting results were in the Netherlands: Enviu, Except… and Philips (we all have weaknesses).
I have done my Erasmus there. I spent six months in the lovely town of Maastricht studying interior architecture (I am a generalist, I like diversity in skills). Courses were in Dutch but the Dutch system made it good: we were seven students and courses were one-on-one sessions with fluent English speaking teachers. There, I have learnt to like the work made by Dutch -and German- architects. There was a sense of “ethics and sobriety” that suits me. I had a great opinion about the society in The Netherlands and kept that in mind all along. It was a running joke for the past two years that after Lesvos I would go to visit and live in Rotterdam. Half done.
2.1 The strongly connected community
I went there for the Dutch Design Week and wrote a full article about it. Still, I felt the article was more a description of projects than a real feedback based on personal feelings: I didn’t like it (neither did you).
I discovered in Eindhoven a strong creative community built on the Design Academy of Eindhoven (DAE). I talked to young graduated designers whom confirmed this network. It’s quite interesting but also might take longer to get in if you’re not from the school.
One exhibitor from the DAE told me: “Today I am exhibiting because I knew the host of this studio and she invited me. […] When someone needs a skill, we come, help or share another friend’s contact… A friend photographer came to help me for the shooting: he is fully booked now, helping all around during the event…”.
Another French graduate told me: “once graduated we created a studio all-together. Many graduated students create their studio. It’s quite simple in The Netherlands, you need an address and it’s done in half an hour”.
I can agree on this last example: the graduation show was filed of “studio [name]”.
2.2 The Design Academy and social design
Here is a funny story that will introduce this school. I learnt few days before my visit that the school had a Master in Social design running for almost ten years. Curious, I went to the graduation show to meet some students, see their projects and talk with them. The exhibition was on a large shed. I went in and walked through all the different sections and the different projects… then I arrived to the exit door with no sight of social design. End of the story.
Let me explain. The modus operandi of the school seems so connected to materiality that all the exhibited projects are similar. Whatever the Master you’re doing or the year you’re graduating, you will end up with a high-quality product that you can proudly exhibit to get hired. I checked the alumni’s page of the Master in Social design: it looks like a Master in Product design. Only when you read about the projects you can see wide topics such as dyslexia, ageing population, soil contamination or languages. With its artistic aspect and work on materials, I can ask: is it social design or critical design?
I didn’t have the chance to talk to these students (I didn’t find them) but if you grow as a critical designer, maybe activism is a closer field than social design. One of the only example of activism I found in DDW is Foundation We Are… a group of graduated students from the DAE.
2.3 Eindhoven city hall
Recently, I saw a job opening for a full-time strategic designer. It was written by the city of Eindhoven. I was quite surprised that the city had in-house strategic designers. It was too late to apply.
After reflection, it would have been a difficult journey. Speaking the local language is a strong asset. You have to communicate with locals and read new policies daily. But look at this extract. I wish to read this more often:
“In recent years we have worked on many projects with our own municipal designer and we have discovered how we can make design thinking work for the city. In co-creation with stakeholders at different levels, solutions have been developed for issues where the user is central. Design thinking is now familiar within our organization. It is time to take the next step.
• You listen carefully to what the organization needs and find out the question behind the question.
• You like to bite into complex social issues. Consider, for example, improving the safety policy of the municipality, the changing role of residents and the municipality in the new environmental law or the major task of making the city natural gas-free;
• You provide direction to the development and assurance of design, and its working method, in the municipal organization. You also provide informal direction to other designers working in the organization;
• You maintain relationships with the design courses and the designers in the city. You know what is going on and thus also give direction to municipal policy in the field of Design in Eindhoven;
• You are also a source of information and adviser for managers, sector heads and department heads who want to use design thinking. And you proactively identify which politically and administratively urgent and current social issues lend themselves to a design thinking approach. You advise the responsible director and alderman about this.”
I didn’t visit Rotterdam so much unfortunately. I discovered many studios and creatives in Keilewerf 1 & 2. The government is giving grants to designers for the only purpose of research. With no specific outcome needed back. It’s also easy to get in touch with them and get feedback on how to fit your idea to a grant. It gives good opportunities to get an office in this area and experiment for a year. Check at Stimelringsfonds.nl, or Mondriaan Fonds for public funding.
4. The Hague
During my travel I got recommended by a few people to go to The Hague. I have to say I had no clue about this town, but my curiosity pushed me to do some research about it. I finally found the ImpactFest: the “Europe’s largest impact meetup” that “will once again demonstrate that social impact and economic success go hand in hand”… quite a promise. So, I went.
4.1 The ImpactFest
I found there the social entrepreneurs you were waiting for. But the beauty of The Netherlands (and what seems to be a big difference with France) is the diversity available during this event: entrepreneurs, social entrepreneurs, companies, social companies, NGOs, academics, politicians, … I even saw military officers. This diversity -and inclusivity- is much more social than the social design presented earlier in Eindhoven.
And it’s one of the lessons shared during this event: partnerships are great. Indeed, and I learned this on Lesvos, partnerships make organizations more sustainable. For Lesvos, it brings more diversity of income, volunteers and expertise. It also helps to solve needs and problems based on each other’s resources.
Social companies seem like a great deal between NGOs struggling with their fundraising and companies struggling with their ethics (sarcastic mode /off). But what seems to lack for social companies and that I can find only with NGOs now is the activist mindset. The mindset of people working for other people because they deeply care about it. When I am saying that, I am not comparing it to people who do it for money first. I am relating it to some damn need of professionalism in human interactions, and need of “Do No Harm” approach both within social companies and design field. Because what you learn working with NGOs (which I never learned elsewhere before) is that your work is not neutral. Either you do good by solving people’s issues, or you harm. And harming can cause direct death in such context, so you better care about it. It’s more straightforward and visible in humanitarian field than in design field but consequences are the same. Unfortunately, focusing too much on the business side and the so called “positive impact” can blind social companies. They might forget about the negative impact they create on people’s life reported as “edge cases” if reported at all.
This is probably a project I want to focus on. To transfer humanitarian standards & tools to social companies. I remember having a course at school about building a social business model: – People were “users”. Treated from a top-down perspective where we bring our solution to them. Doing a quick survey of the population that will have for only goal to make sure it confirms our assumptions. Never we talked about the potential harm we will create and how to measure and prevent it. Humanitarian aid, through its history, had many occasions to face the deadly consequences of a wrong assessment. So, they learned much quicker than social companies. I made a training for volunteers if you’re interested to take a few positive steps already.
I discovered a matching program for social entrepreneurs from Euclid Network which could be interesting. Indeed, I still appreciate social companies as it should correspond to my strategic design background, but I still can’t fully connect with it. I am also aware that spending two years on Lesvos with extra-motivated and activist people is enlarging my own biases and critics. I am sorry (no, I am not).
To give a quick example about this side effect, there was a funny moment during the ImpactFest. A speaker talked about the fantastic world of new technologies in computing and the growing leading power of China: you know, the quantum computers, AI, … facial recognition.
At the end of the presentation someone brought the ethical issue of such resources being used by the Chinese government. His value towards innovation and technology got smashed by ethics. Of course he knew the topic. Of course ethic is also part of his values. But you could seehim struggling to reply in a clearly (I didn’t push him further by introducing the environmental impact of supercomputers and technologies).
It is this dissonance of values that bothers me with social companies. It’s a community claiming loud to be doing good (focusing on people) and claiming loud that technologies are going to save us all. I am surprised to see the lack of autocritic about the use of technologies and its potential negative impact on people we want to help and nature. It makes me quite doubtful about the real motivations of this community. Again, this is an example: I could see that the spectators had similar doubts during the presentation.
4.2 Strategic design for humanitarian innovation
Humanitarian aid & Design
Design in the humanitarian field isn’t something new. IDE Global had in-house strategic designers for years. Anglosaxons are much more advanced on the development of strategic design. The concept of IDE was to create a product that solves a large challenge and empower local entrepreneurs to sell this product. If this foundation practised co-creation and ran sustainable projects on their side for years, it’s not the case for NGOs.
International NGOs (INGOs) have teams dispatched across the world. Each one of them with their budget. It’s hard to find an NGO with a global strategy towards innovation AND with in-house designers.
I made a quick research by curiosity about existing innovation labs:
– IRC: Airbel Impact Lab in the US (regional hub in Jordan). Categorised as “research & innovation”.
In 2004, the creation of Clusters within the humanitarian field enhanced “predictability, accountability and partnership”. This helps to coordinate efficient and quick emergency responses to crisis. NGOs started to create their own networks (eg: Start Network). These networks are organizing and trying to improve their standards together. So they created “collective innovation” workshops to solve their challenges… but they have no designers in-house neither.
So where are the designers?
Back to The Hague What I observed in The Hague is not the creation of a “network for emergency” running collaborative workshops. It’s an organisation specifically created to build a network that will enhance innovation.
– The Dutch Coalition for Humanitarian Innovation (DCHI) welcomes “governmental actors, knowledge institutes, academia, businesses, and humanitarian organizations in the Netherlands who develop and scale innovative solutions to increase the impact and reduce the costs of humanitarian action”.
– The Spindle, created by Partos, “connects, strengthens, renews and represents its members (100+ NGOs) with a view to effective development cooperation”.
If they can bring win case studies, it could develop this field and motivate designers to finally get involved. We could have a generation of humanitarian designers (I know it’s not new but let’s be honest, humanitarian designers have to be really lonely people at the moment).
Designers have a great card to play and should push forward to prove they can be useful within the humanitarian field. This introduce a question: Are designers really interested in doing good? Behind this provocation is a fact. In more than two years on Lesvos and thousands of volunteers met, I only saw three designers. One is I.
5. TU Delft
During my travel I had a quick stop in TU Delft. I wanted to talk with PhD researchers, unfortunately, after contacting them on Linkedin, it wasn’t the right time. But I still went, by curiosity. TU Delft is a huge university. When I arrived there, I got lucky. There was the graduation show of the Bachelor in Industrial design engineering. So, I went and checked the projects. Unfortunately, school’s partners were industries like Ravensburger. It resulted in a quite boring show to my taste… I was observing new designers going into the consumerism’s side by default with little or no -visible- insights about environment.
And it makes more sense now. The PhD researchers are mostly working on the circular economy. It matches the industrial & technical world of TU Delft. Interesting fact, I managed to get in their alumni dashboard and like any other schools, there is no category “design” when you’re searching on their job’s list. I always find this incredible.
6. Carnet – side notes
During my stay, the horizontal hierarchy in Dutch politics was a recurrent topic. I compared it to the vertical hierarchy in France. I think a country is a bit healthier when any citizen can send a mail to a minister and expect a personal reply. Of course, it wouldn’t be fair to compare two countries on this aspect without talking about their differences in term of population, size and culture, … It’s like comparing the use of bicycles in the flat land of the Netherlands with the (amazing) hilly town of Marseille. And then complain that Marseille’s people don’t use bicycles.
Of course, the “Dutch way” also has its own biases. It might be easy to talk with any politician and get their approval about a project. But it doesn’t mean that the crowd of employees in-between will give its approval and follow with the same enthousiasm. This can make projects harder to launch than top-down decisions.
I had some time to visit the Humanity House in The Hague. Topic? Migration:
Denmark – Copenhagen
1. My fantasy about Denmark
This one will be quick: I never had any interest about Denmark. Every time someone talked to me about Denmark, it was to say:
– “The country and the people are boring, don’t go there.”
– “Bicycles everywhere.”
Well, I could guess by meeting a few Danish people on Lesvos that there were far from being boring but still, I never expected to visit them anytime soon.
But it happens that I heard about a hackathon organised by Techfugees. So, I decided from one day to another to go there and see by myself.
2. Copenhagen: the lifestyle
I have to say I quickly got surprised by the coherent character in the architecture:
– The modern architecture nicely contrasting the older town’s character.
– The visible notion of “hygge”: I felt at home from the first day.
– The well-thought-out architecture of the social building I was staying. It completely surpassed the Netherlands in my mind. It took the same ethical base and added a warful cosy atmosphere (by design, not through decoration).
– Even the schools have bars on the ground floor, which is coherent to the students’ drinking habit. Amazing.
I can include the fact that everybody speak a great English and would switch to it in your presence. To the extent that I arrived in a room and people sitting next table switched to English (or maybe their language is too difficult for themselves too).
If I decided to go first to this hackathon, it was with the hope to find a community of hackers, developers & activists sensible to Techfugees challenges. I was trying to find a community I could feel comfortable with. Because let’s be honest, that’s also what I am looking for. It’s probably the critic of Eindhoven that pushed me to go to Copenhagen (and the cheap price of the night bus ticket).
The event was happening at the University of Copenhagen and I could feel it was much more business-oriented than expected.
– The school focusing on business and IT.
– The -classic- incubation’s perspective for the winning price (far away from the activists I expected).
– The feedback much more business oriented.
Of course, the event’s bubble should not influence my perspective on Denmark. And the world-famous Danish Design Ladder (2001) developed by the Danish Design Council helps me to give some perspective. It quickly reminds us that Denmark had a national strategy towards design since 2001. If we add to this the Scandinavian culture -that I connect to environment and social- we get the idea that social, environment and design might be well-integrated inside the Danish business mindset (it’s a hope at least).
I haven’t found a lot of NGOs but I heard they exist and that’s a great introduction for Brussels.
Belgium – Bruxelles/Brussels
1. My fantasy about Brussels
As you may know France and Belgium are always joking about each other’s, in a friendly way. So, it’s fine to say that I picture Belgium as a grey small village with no government for way too long. Brussels is of course the European capital and has most of the European institutions. This fact is quite interesting because I came back from Lesvos: the EU’s fail & shame. A 9-months-old baby died yesterday of dehydration because of the insalubrious conditions of Moria camp. But to not blame randomly, I also assess the complexity of such a system.
It seems the ASBLs are quite organized and developed as a community. More than 60% of the people I met were working on social-related work. Topics were unemployment, homelessness, formerly incarcerated people, abused people, families, art, … Brussels has a lot of social challenges to overcome. I felt there was a bigger need for social workers than social designers. But that’s maybe exactly when a social designer should jump in.
3. Brussels: the EU & networking
When it comes to the EU, networking is a 24/7 job. You can see people exchanging business cards around a coffee. A lot of people can be accessible if you know how to connect. At the same time, it seems that nobody is accessible and if you want to contact someone you will barely be able to speak with the assistant. That changed a lot compared to the Netherlands.
It’s a closed bubble that wants to look open to the world with no success. They compensate by being smart and unbeatable on a large range of topics. I have seen young extra-motivated people, confident on being doing good for society. I have also seen ego’s competition. There could be a lot to say but because I don’t know this world, I also feel to have too much biases to comment on it even though I easily get attracted to it.
I learnt during a Skype about strategic designers working for the EU Commission on a Policy Lab. It was an interesting insight which also made me discover companies like Namahn and ShiftN using human-centered design with governmental and public entities.
4. EU & NGOs
In the end, INGOs might be higly visible in Brussels but they just have small offices doing advocacy. If you want to work as a designer on such NGOs it might be better to focus on their headquarters or regional offices.
5. Brussels: the school
The school of St-Luc has a Master in Social design as well. I was quite surprised and would be curious to know more but I couldn’t meet the teachers yet.
Before publishing the article, I had a quick stop in Amsterdam. I went to Radical Collaboration organised by What Design Can Do. It was a one day workshop around 5 different topics. I joined the “No Waste Lab” group. We used basic co-creation tools to develop challenges. These challenges will help to develop next year WDCD’s contest.
The brand identity with bold impactful words is attracting a lot of creatives. In a way, it allows to build a community but the event had less diversity than in the ImpactFest. I didn’t get out with a lot of insights but I got out with a great smile.
At the end of the day we received a book called “Designing Activism: 31 designers fighting for a better world”. This was a perfect personal conclusion to this travel.
“With the aim to encourage all designers to do the same, in this book What Design Can Do presents thirty-one creativity activists who fight for positive change.”
What I wrote is part of a journey with a specific context. It’s a way to transfer a mental process on paper. To connect the dots and reflect in a more structured way about all the insights I received. It’s also for curious people to learn and comment with their insights. To run a conclusion that is based on observation only:
– We can take away that yes, social design practices differ from one country to an other. – It seems that values change from one community to another and frame the actors we want to involve or not. This choice influences the way we conduct a project and the impact that we have. It would be interesting to measure the life span of projects depending on the choice and the number of actors.
I was happily surprised to see designers working on the social and/or strategic side for more than 15 years. Men and women who walked their paths, being alone or not, and made it through. I wish to see these people talking more often to students.
I will emphasize the end for the few students and freshly-graduated designers from around Europe who contacted me to get feedback from this journey. Thank you for reaching out. It means a lot to me and your messages are really motivating! Continue going to events. Continue contacting people on Linkedin. This is highly valuable. Question people about anything every time. You will learn more and get the motivation to follow the path that you want. Keep the work you’re doing. I hope we could all connect, support each other and share our experiences all-together. It sounds like a proposal so what are we waiting for?