Arne Van Oosterom: Designer Interview

Designer Profiles, Innovators & Creators

headshot-arne_van_oosterom_klein2Arne Van Oosterom authors the Weblog that accompanies Design Thinkers, a strategic design consultancy in Amsterdam that specializes in business, service and social innovation/ transformation. Oosterom is also a lecturer and chairman of the Service Design Network Netherlands.

1. What was your first impressionable moment that involved design? I grew up in a family of artists, illustrators and designers. So I guess creativity is in my genes and design has been a part of my life as long I can remember. Drawing, photography, writing and making music were things that played a major role in my life while growing up. And they still do. Being creative is a way of life for me. It’s the way my brain works… quickly bored, constantly wanting to be stimulated and always restless.

2. What is service design? Service design is designing and organizing the interaction between (service) provider and end-user using creative tools and methods.
An important service design principle says: co-production leads to co-ownership, which turns customers into ambassadors. Meaning: organizations and governments should empower the consumer. Easily said, but in reality most marketers and communication managers have no idea where to start. They are used to only dealing with the cosmetics — the outside. Implementing ideas using this service design principle has major consequences for the internal organization.

But all the new developments happening around us are pushing us to take a look beyond boundaries of traditional media, top-down structured businesses and marketing techniques. Even though organizations and governments usually play it safe and are not easily persuaded to move into another direction, the necessity for change is getting stronger.

This is where service design can be instrumental. While using service design methods, organizations are forced to look into a mirror and deal with realities. Besides that, service design offers methods to use newly found insights for developing ideas, concepts, prototyping, building and implementation. Service design is a holistic approach and looks at the whole system. The back stage and front stage of a service organization.

I believe that service design is a natural response to the changing world, which is fueled and accelerated by new technological developments.

3. What is social innovation? To me, it means adding real value to people’s lives by designing better systems. But personally, I don’t like the word ‘innovation.’ It’s one of the most misused words ever and has lost all meaning. I feel attracted to the word ‘transformation.’ So I would use ‘social transformation’ (through the design of systems) or just social design.

A few months ago I started the Social Design Task Force in collaboration with people from agencies and universities in France, Finland, Austria, Scotland, England and the Netherlands. Our aim is to use our creative talents, networks and recourses to improve people’s lives. This means we are involved in a very wide range of projects. For example: We are trying to find a way, a system, to get people (living in cities) to use their bicycle for trips up to 5 kilometers. If the project would succeed it will dramatically reduce traffic jams and improve safety, health and air quality in larger cities. Another project is a crowd-sourcing project for Greenpeace where we try to get young people actively involved in climate change issues.

We are trying to find solutions to problems that affect our lives in a very personal way.

4. You spend a lot of time traveling and going to speaking engagements.  What is the benefit of attending these forums? We, at DesignThinkers, are pioneering and want to be at the forefront of developments. This means we are searching all the time, always hungry for more knowledge, new insights and meeting new people. Being connected and having conversations with professionals from many different disciplines is the best way to keep learning and growing.

In some ways it’s almost an addiction, but I have to keep moving and keep challenging my ideas. I refuse to believe that I know all the answers. Like most people, I don’t know much. But I’m working very hard to find out what the questions are.

If I stay behind my desk there is a chance I would start to believe in my own delusions. I’d start running round in circles. Putting my ideas to the test in the real world, with people who might not agree with me, is very hard, sometimes painful, but always of tremendous value.

5. If you go to just one design conference anywhere in the world, which would you recommend? This is very difficult to answer. In fact I don’t like going to conferences as a spectator at all. Especially those conferences aimed at people like me. Usually the programming is about telling us stuff we already know by people we already know. There is always a lot of agreeing.

That is why I primarily go to conferences to meet people. Initially I go to meet up with people I met before, in real life or online, and I always end up making new friends.

But if you are interested in service design and want to meet and greet the professionals, I have to recommend going to the service design conference 2009 held in Portugal. The conference is organized by the International Service Design Network (http://www.service-design-network.org/), of which we are part, and is a great opportunity for me to meet up with all my friends and colleagues from around the world. But be warned: they are agreeing with each other all the time…

6. Much of what you talk about on designthinkers.eu has to do with innovation and creative thinking.  Who is a good example of executing good business sense pertaining to innovation and creative thinking in the Netherlands? My first thought is TomTom. They showed that with creative thinking and a new approach you can create a whole new market and even be world changing.

And I am a big fan of the way Phillips is trying to integrate creative thinking in their organization. Phillips is a very large and complex organization, so implementing new ideas is not easy. But I applaud their courageous attempts and I’m expecting great things from Phillips in the future.

7. As a product designer, you have to meet the demands of consumers.  Do you believe consumers are more conscious, or ‘smarter’ than, say, the consumers of even 10 years ago, and are demanding smarter designs from today’s designer? People have the same basic needs as 10 years ago. That has not changed a lot.
What I find more interesting is the amazing impact the Web is having on our world. Internet is upsetting the balance in a major way. It makes companies and governments more transparent and vulnerable and it enables people to self-organize.

Everything in our world is organized and structured by the law of networks. And Internet is a new kid on the block, but it is going to have an unparalleled impact. We are witnessing the first symptoms of a much larger phenomenon that is going to restructure everything we know.

The opportunity the Internet gives consumers (or ‘prosumers’) and citizens to self-organize into influential peer groups is going develop into one of the biggest social and economical changes of our time.

8. What separates the designer from the average consumer, and how do you bridge that divide? A good designer is a translator or intermediator (much like an artist).
The designer is the bridge. But in the end we are all just people, and consumers and all people are extremely creative.

I would like to add that I don’t think designers should be put on a pedestal. Lately, people are trying to convince me that designers have super powers. Well, they don’t. As far as I know they are no smarter than the next person.

9. You use Twitter and are registered on LinkedIn.  What do you feel is the best way to reach designers around the world in regard to communication technologies? I do not target designers per se. So I wouldn’t know. I like to connect and have conversations with people. People I can learn from or have fun with.

I’m on Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook, MySpace, Plaxo and everything else because it’s part of my job. I advise customers about social media and so I must experience it first-hand.

I’m always trying to connect all my social networks together. But in general they are unsatisfactory and just crude versions of what is yet to come. I can’t wait for web 3.0 to break down all the walls.

But I must say I’m enjoying Twitter… against all expectations.

10. What should the ideal designer do every single day, with the intention of becoming a better designer? Work hard and make lots and lots of mistakes. If you don’t experiment and try and try again, you won’t grow. Even the most talented and famous designers had to work long and hard and fail miserably many times before becoming world-class.

And last but not least: don’t let anyone tell you what to do. Think for yourself.

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