My journey towards becoming a systemic designer and researcher started in 1994 when I enrolled in a MSc degree in Industrial Design Engineering at Delft University of Technology (Netherlands). I chose design because I liked the combination of technical and creative subjects. During this course I became gradually more interested in the human side of design, and I graduated cum laude in 2001 on the design of a user interface for television for Philips. The brief was to design something innovative and fun to use. Around this time terms like ‘user experience’ and ‘design for emotion’ had only just started to pop up, and I spent quite a lot of time experimenting with new human-centred design methods, including scenarios and interaction aesthetics.
Coming from a family of teachers, I searched for a job in that direction after I graduated and was lucky enough to be offered an assistant professor (lecturer) position at the University of Twente, where they had just started a new Industrial Design degree. This was a very interesting time to start working as a lecturer as many subjects needed to be developed from scratch. I could apply my interests in human-centred design methods in developing subjects such as scenario-based design and human-product interaction. During this time I became interested in research and started working on a PhD in human-centred design. I was particularly interested in how designers design usable products for other people. I conducted many studies with practicing design teams in the manufacturing industry and student design teams, and subsequently developed a workshop technique and a set of guidelines to support design teams in designing for dynamic and diverse use situations. Based on these studies I was awarded a cum laude PhD degree in 2012 for my thesis.
In the meantime my personal life had taken some unexpected turns. While I was working in Twente I got together with Willem Mees, a product designer who I had met at uni in Delft. We got married in 2008 and tried having children for many years, but sadly had to give up on that dream. This impacted our lives in many ways. For my professional life it meant that I wanted my work to be even more meaningful and I started looking for other opportunities for my research.
Around that time I heard about the work of professor Kees Dorst at the University of Technology in Sydney (UTS). He had studied the practices of designers for many years and found that expert designers have a very sophisticated way of addressing problems. He thought it would be interesting to apply those expert design practices to problems that are not traditionally associated with design. For that reason he founded the Designing Out Crime research centre at UTS in 2007. This research centre is aimed at solving problems related to crime through methods borrowed from design. When I heard about this work I got really excited as it uses design to address complex societal problems, which to me felt like a very meaningful application of design. I started to get interested in how my expertise of human centred design processes would fit into this and after some conversations with Kees Dorst I was lucky enough to be offered a job in Sydney!
In 2013 Willem Mees and I made the big move to the land down under. At UTS I started supporting organisations in the public sector and private sector to respectively address complex societal problems, and gain competitive advantage. I specialised in public and social sector innovation, and learned to apply the frame creation methodology developed by Kees Dorst.
What I liked about this work is that I could build on my expertise in human-centred design practices, while at the same time being exposed to a for me completely new field: innovation in the public sector. While I used to work with product designers, I now mainly work with public servants and help them tackle complex societal problems through my expertise in human-centred design. Working with public servants is great as the majority of the people I work with have taken on that job to make the world a better place. So far I’ve worked with people who work for local and state government, in the educational sector and in the health sector. I’m particularly interested in topics related to mental health, youth and education.
In 2016 I also joined the core teaching team of UTS’ very exciting new transdisciplinary double Bachelor degree in Creative Intelligence and Innovation. In this degree we bring students together from 25 degrees across UTS and together we explore the creative, future-focused, transdisciplinary practices that are required to address the problems of the future and to create ‘the jobs that don’t exist yet’. Following the success of this degree UTS established the Faculty of Transdisciplinary Innovation at the start of 2017, in which I now hold a full-time position as Senior Lecturer.
Working with colleagues across a very broad range of disciplines, from engineering to journalism, from law to midwifery, and from creative writing to science, I have come to realise that if we really want to make a difference in addressing complex societal problems, we need to look beyond our own practices – in my case human-centred design – and focus our efforts on bringing people together across disciplines, learning from each other, and developing new creative practices that transcend the individual disciplines. I have also learned that transdisciplinary practices require a thorough understanding of systems and of complexity. Since 2016 I am part of an international research and professional community that brings these systems thinking practices and design practices together in what we call ‘systemic design’.
As a researcher I am currently further investigating systemic design and studying public and social sector innovation practices. To meet the demand of public sector organisations who are trying to address complex problems and who want to learn about systemic design I have co-founded RAD social design in partnership with the amazing designer Lucy Klippan. My plans for the future are to keep exploring the fascinating field of transdisciplinary innovation, and to share my knowledge with students and professionals who want to make a difference.