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The benefits of collaboration

21 January 2021

As in previous years, Dutch Design Week (DDW) 2020 featured the results of collaborations between designers and companies. But what exactly are the benefits for the designers and industry partners who participate in these co-creation projects? Time to investigate…

Considering possibilities rather than problems

One collaboration featured during DDW20 was SUNSEEKER, an outdoor lighting exploration that saw design studio VANTOT teaming up with various partners including Solliance, a company researching next-generation, thin-film solar cells.

“In broad terms, we learned two important lessons through teaming up with designers like VANTOT,” says Solliance’s Niels van Loon. “The first was how to look at technology from a perspective of possibilities and openness. As researchers and engineers, we tend to become fixated by all the problems we have to overcome, but in this project, we instead considered what was possible, which was great. And, secondly, I learned to appreciate our product more, and value its potential.”

“Because we are a research-based company, we seldom develop real end-products for end-users,” he adds. “Teaming up with designers changed this. For example, my R&D colleagues had to get used the fact that our solar panels would actually be incorporated in a product and therefore had to look good as well as be reliable. This may sound very obvious, but actually for people like us, working with conceptual and experimental science, it’s a game-changer!”

Alissa + Nienke
© Maarten Coolen

Fresh perspectives

Another example was the Alissa + Nienke studio developing Fringes & Floats together with EE Exclusives, who develop premium, high-end jacquard-woven fabrics for unique wall-coverings, (couture) fashion, interior and independent art projects.

“Working with designers like us helps companies get fresh perspectives,” says Nienke Bongers of Alissa + Nienke. “We always design specifically with people in mind, and work by ’thinking through making’, which often leads to unexpected new outcomes that go beyond the obvious.” For Fringes & Floats, this approach resulted in a collection of striking woven textiles for wall coverings, room dividers and acoustic wall hangings which will be launched at the beginning of 2021.

“From our point of view, we learned a lot about weaving from this project,” she continues. “It means creating material yarn by yarn, which requires a way of thinking we’re not used to. It was also great to work with EE Exclusives. Their craftsmanship and high-tech machines really opened up new possibilities for us.”

Rick Tegelaar at In4Nite, Low & Bonar (DDW17)
© Dana Dijkgraaf

‘Like a kid in a sweet shop’

Designer Rick Tegelaar had a similar experience through his collaboration with the performance materials company Low and Bonar. “Together with Arno Geesink of Kraft Architecten. I set up a project to carry out fundamental research into one of Low and Bonar’s materials,” he says. “We weren’t limited by business models or business cases, so we could look with an open mind. That’s when you come up with new possibilities.”

After hacking a rudimentary yarn printer, Rick and Arno developed a novel way of printing yarn onto fabric in a way that allowed connections, reinforcements, eyelets and other elements to be added into the material. This will likely become a production technique in the future.

“For Low and Bonar, it was an eye-opener to discover these new capabilities involving an existing material,” says Rick. “But it wasn’t just about the results. I think we brought new energy and enthusiasm to the company and helped them fall in love with their processes again. From my perspective, it was fascinating because I could work with machines, processes and materials I wouldn’t normally have access to. I was like a kid in a sweet shop. There was also a whole team of technicians and engineers helping me realise my ideas. I learned a lot, and also had a huge amount of fun.”

What we often see is that companies encounter problems which can’t be solved by their current way of thinking

Taking an outside-in approach

Someone with plenty of experience in bringing designers and companies together is Dries van Wagenberg of What if Lab, a programme run by Dutch Design Foundation. “What we often see is that companies encounter problems which can’t be solved by their current way of thinking’” he says. “By involving designers, we introduce an outside-in approach. In many cases, these organisations are working together with designers for the first time, so we help them find the right partners. They get involved with several studios before making a definite choice.”

Dries also sees advantages for the participating designers. “Collaboration helps designers because it focuses their efforts. They can address real-world issues, rather than just designing from an idealistic point of view. They also have considerably greater visibility when teaming up with a company than on their own, which in turn increases the chances of them making an impact.”

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Completely ‘circular’ railway stations

A recent example of a collaboration brought to fruition by What if Lab is a project involving the Dutch railway infrastructure company ProRail. “Completely ‘circular’ railway stations by 2050 – that is our ambition,” says Astrid Bunt, director of ProRail stations. “ProRail asked us to help them with this challenge,” says Dries. “They normally work with large architect- and engineering bureaus, but the disadvantage of these partners is that they know all the rules. They don’t know how to break existing patterns. Designers, on the other hand, can bring new insights.”
With the help of What if Lab, ProRail selected four design agencies to participate in exploratory projects. For example, Bygg Architecture and Design examined the social side of circularity. One concept sees stations having a circular ambassador in residence, who identifies and tackles local issues through dialogue with passengers. A test version of this will be implemented at a station in the Netherlands.

No magic wand

“It’s important to note that all What if Lab does is bring the right parties together, and create a framework so that a project can be realised beyond the initial idea,” says Dries. “There is no magic wand in the collaboration between designers and companies. Once they team up together, a lot of hard work is still involved. But, in our experience, we think it’s an approach that clearly benefits both sides.”