My story

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.

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. 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 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) who 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 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 to address complex societal problems through design. I specialised in public and social sector innovation. 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 and social sectors. Working with people who work in these sectors is great as most of them have taken on that job to make the world a better place. I 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 wellbeing, 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 started to work as senior lecturer. I combined this work as an academic with working as a designer in social design agency Rad Social Design which I co-founded with Lucy Klippan.

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’.

In 2019 I moved back to The Netherlands to work as Associate Professor for my alma mater Delft University of Technology at the faculty of Industrial Design Engineering. Since I graduated from there in 2001 the faculty has added new application domains to the curriculum and research program including service design and more recently ‘design for complexity’. My role in the faculty is to bring in the transdisciplinary and systems perspective. For this purpose I founded the Systemic Design Lab together with my colleagues Nynke Tromp and Jotte de Koning. In the lab we work with students, researchers and partnering organisations to study and develop methods and practices to tackle complex societal challenges, building on both systems thinking theory and practice and design methodology.

Since the outbreak of COVID19 I am also engaged in various initiatives to promote student and staff wellbeing. As with my other work I adopt a human-centred, transdisciplinary and systems perspective on this challenge.

My future plans are to continue exploring how we can most effectively use and bridge different ways of knowing to tackle the complex challenges that we are facing as societies. In the area of systemic design I’m particularly interested to learn more about human relationships, how relationships impact social systems, and how we can design for them. In the area of transdisciplinarity I’m interested to learn more about research integration and innovation across knowledge domains and how we can shape our academic systems to enable the generation of knowledge that benefits society and to promote that students and staff learn and flourish together. I’m looking forward to see where this journey will take me!

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