Hi Gordon! Could you describe in a few sentences who you are, what your design background is and why you wanted to become a designer?
We are the social and service design agency Afdeling Buitengewone Zaken (ed. Department of Extraordinary Affairs). Born and raised in Eindhoven, finished growing up in Rotterdam. Our name actually tells you exactly who we are: the design department that you call on to deal with social issues that arise now or in the future, that have become locked in and in which divergent interests are in play. The extraordinary things. In order to tackle this, we carry out design research and experiments that enable us to crack the issues and provide them with a new perspective. We do this, for example, to keep young people out of debt assistance and to connect government communication with all the different target groups in the Netherlands, and we discover ways to get those who are exhausted and stuck in traffic out of their routine. Why did we become designers? At Afdeling Buitengewone Zaken, we all have the same mission: try to bring about social improvement using our design skills. Increased social cohesion in neighbourhoods, lower heat stress, more equality: you name it. We call this field 'social design'.
How did you come together to start Afdeling Buitengewone Zaken?
Around 2010, we graduated in Industrial Design from the Technische Universiteit Eindhoven. At TU/e, we were already a close-knit, motivated club and once we graduated, I think we all felt there was more to be gained if we all stayed together than if we all went our separate ways. We found a nice starter space in what was then still the desolate Strijp-S and got our first assignments. The assignments we now work on for ministries and large public organisations obviously did not drop into our inbox on day 1. Logos, films, art installations and software – we've had a variety of projects. But never aimless; from the beginning we knew where we wanted to go. Whether consciously or unconsciously, we scraped off a piece of the Afdeling Buitengewone Zaken every week and re-built it. In fact, in exactly the same way we work on projects. The society we now live in and the design climate in the Netherlands has of course shaped us enormously to where we are today.
Where from can we know Afdeling Buitengewone Zaken?
We often work behind the scenes at large organisations and often at the beginning of longer design projects. You don't see any of our products on the market, but it is possible that your employer's initiative to no longer work from 9 to 5 (which lands you in road congestion every day) has been initiated together with us. We are also very active in our field of Social Design. Together with other social designers, such as Nicky Liebregts, we strengthen the field in the Netherlands through publications, meetings and research. We do this under the heading SocialDesign.nu.
On Instagram, you shared a photo of your project about sex work and sex workers with us. Last year, you presented this project in the Dutch Design Week on the Ketelhuisplein. What did the project involve and what kind of reactions did you get?
I'm glad you asked, that was a very interesting project. We worked on the stigmatisation of sex workers for What If Lab, a programme of Dutch Design Foundation. Did you know that one in five men has visited a sex worker at least once? You would think: enough manpower to find out abuses among sex workers and report them to the authorities. Yet there are almost no reports made. During Dutch Design Week (DDW) 2019 we searched together with the public in the 'What If lab: Safety matters' for motivations and ways to motivate and activate clients of sex workers to report their problems. We stood on the Ketelhuisplein for a week with an inquisitive installation. We presented propositions, asked people whether they had visited sex workers or had considered doing sex work themselves. Strange questions? That's what most people thought, too, which gave us refreshing insights. Based on these insights, we developed a new proposition to make it easy to find licensed sex work instead of quickly getting bogged down in something illegal. Great need and relatively easy to develop; now we have to wait and see if the organisations involved are up to the challenge.
You now work with quite a large team of service designers. How do you determine who works on which project?
That depends on several factors. All service designers, there's 10 of us now, have the same foundation and mindset, supplemented by a specialisation. One excels in behavioural change, another in setting up experiments and yet another in design ethics. On top of that, each designer has his or her own development plan, for example to acquire new skills to change organisations. This fits in nicely with an assignment in which an organisation seems stuck and/or has jaded employees. Each assignment comes with a different complexity, process, context, etcetera. Based on the competencies, the development plan, seniority and of course practical availability, we create the design team. By the way, during the process we exchange and expand the team – also with third parties. We keep it flexible, because we always come across surprises.
How do you get new assignments? Do you sometimes start a project on your own initiative, or mainly on behalf of clients?
We regularly participate in public tenders, pitches and open calls. And many satisfied clients also come back to us. Our goal is to have one third of our projects under our own initiative by the end of 2020. For example, we are now dealing with heat stress, which we feel is going to be an interesting issue in our society and we can already be of value in it. Then we will search for a network on our own to initiate assignments or develop a case ourselves. We believe that by taking the initiative we can respond more quickly to relevant issues and take even better advantage of the process. We like to be partners in projects ourselves – social design doesn't stop once an assignment has been completed. It requires dedication and taking responsibility.
What's the craziest assignment you got from a client? And what's the most fun one?
We don't get that many crazy assignments. At least, nothing that makes us blink. And they're all quite fun. Our work does take you to remarkable places or you find out about interesting customs. For example, for a project for a smart energy supplier in India, we found that some illiterate residents in remote villages put their solar panels on the roof incorrectly. I think all of our work is pretty fun. Like, it's no haute couture à Paris. But I genuinely think it's much better to find something that lets people in Hendrik-Ido-Ambacht sort their waste better.
What do you want to achieve in future with your work?
Social impact is really hard to quantify, but we're working on it. Having said that, I would love for our way of thinking to be internalised by civil servants, so they can react more quickly and in practical ways to changes in society. If you really want to have a social impact, you have to facilitate others; we can do that as designers. Less bullshit, more action. Maybe that's why we're in Rotterdam? In addition, it is fantastic if we can be heavily involved in improving people's lives; whether it's about an improved place in society, less domestic violence or a roof over the heads of homeless youths. We're on the design scene for a good cause.
If you could choose one person in the world to work with (a designer, politician, artist, scientist or someone else), who would that be and why?
The national ombudsman. Or ombudswoman. Boring? Not at all. They are THE place where citizens can tell their story about the ins and outs of public services, and they ensure that organisations get to work on those points for improvement. We can work with that; it is an interesting position to make a difference in society.
Do you have any news to share with the DDW community?
Well, not really. Except that we just hired two fantastic service designers that we are very happy with!
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