“The field is stretching itself bigger and bigger” - Jurgen Bey on design education and infinite possibility

21 July 2017
“I’ve always been teaching and a part of education,” comments Dutch designer Jurgen Bey. “It’s the common place, it’s where all knowledge is shared. And it’s also the place where the future always exists. If you have students no matter how bad it goes with life or reality.” Such tenacious optimism for the future has illuminated Jurgen’s dual career as an influential designer and educator. Jurgen leads Studio Makkink & Bey in Rotterdam which works in applied art and public space projects, and he is also the director of the Sandberg Institute, the postgraduate program of the Gerrit Rietveld Academy in Amsterdam.

Jurgen has recently teamed up with the University of the Underground, an institution dedicated to redesigning the rules of countercultures and applying power shift in institutions for the 21st century. He is a member of the advisory board and the management team for the University of the Underground this autumn, and here he speaks to Ted Gioia about the challenges of design education, artistic entrepreneurship, and pushing the outer limits of the imagination.

How do you think the role of the designer is changing in the 21st century?
First of all, I think our profession has really developed. The field is stretching itself bigger and bigger. When I graduated from school we had three departments: There was Product Design, there was Graphic Design, and there was Textile Design. They were the three basic kinds of design you could do, and then it changed into 12 different fields. Now we have Social Design, Luxury Design, Experience Design, so there are all these new topics where designers can be involved.

It’s the same if you take something like car design. Normally with the old cars you always felt they had like big noses because they were the ultimate freedom: you could drive a road or drive Route 66 and it’s all about the landscape and the freedom that comes with it. Now all the backs of cars are so high that there is no view and there are walls on the side of the road not to make noise – so that basically you are in a tunnel all the time. And the only thing you are looking at is your navigator, which is now just a map of how you drive. But you could imagine that this landscape is now coming from the computer driving you from one place to another. Especially when we get these automatic cars, then it means that the landscape will be the screen that you’ll be looking at. So then the question is: “Are you going to design them to make maps or do we now need animators to make special animations for when you drive a car?” So it really raises the question again: “What kind of designers do we need for what positions?” Or will it be if you drive from work to school it will only be about the experience – the experience of having time, or the experience of driving through a landscape, or the experience of meeting someone.

How have you seen design inspire social action or invite people to engage differently with their social environment?
Well, there are many different positions of course. If you think about train stations and the amount of people who go through them, we always tend to think that these places need to be engineered, so that you need an engineer to count how many people can go through a space in a certain amount of time. But you can also imagine that such behaviour is much better understood by dancers. So maybe we should investigate how to dance through space to be able to have people get from their trains to their trams.

So how can design inspire social action? It rephrases the question: How do we actually change our public space if social behaviour becomes more important than statistics? Then besides questioning our engineers, we also have to question our culture-makers and our writers: What kind of language is best suited to be on a train station? Or ask dancers what kind of movement would help people to interact better than we did before.


Jurgen Bey: Kokkon Furniture, 1999

How can design teach someone to dream differently?
Basically by being confronted with different possibilities. So I think through design, you are able to rephrase questions and to make the context really different. Therefore you experience things differently and you grow differently. If I think about my education, I was very privileged to always go to schools where the way knowledge was addressed to me made it interesting to me. And I think in design, it’s exactly the same. How can you either tell stories or see how things are made and therefore understand the qualities of them?

What quality characterises a meaningfully “designed experience” to you?
For me it’s really difficult to define. I would probably immediately say “chaos” or “disorganisation” but in a good sense. When you go through a meaningful experience, you’re in this moment of total mental disorganisation when it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly how you feel. Being disorganised means that you put things next to each other that you would normally not, and then when you see them next to each other you can understand them, and therefore you can better understand why reality acts as it acts. We tend to think if we put five similar looking things next to each other then “Oh yeah, this is very well organised,” but if you put five completely different things next to each other then it’s difficult to articulate why they are there. I’m interested in those things that seem so illogical, and then force us to understand their own logic.

What current trend in design do you hate and think needs to challenged?
I think that our biggest problem is that we want to be futuristic but then we don’t know what we need in our future. We throw away so many things because we think, “Ahh no, this doesn’t really matter.” It seems illogical or unimportant so that you think “This we won’t pick for our future.” And then, if you are in the future you would think “I saw this thing and didn’t know what it meant, so I thought let’s not take it – and that’s exactly the key for the next stage.” It’s so difficult when imagining the future to choose what you take with you or not. For me, this is my basic question. It’s also the question that I like most and that’s why I really do believe in a parallel universe where everything happens at the same time in its own line of thinking.

The University of the Underground is a new interdisciplinary creative postgraduate university hosted in subterranean spaces across the globe that’s dedicated to the design of experiences which support power shift in institutions. To learn more about the University of the Underground, click here.


Jurgen Bey: Workspace Theatre model, 2015


Jurgen Bey: Slow Car, 2006

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Ted Gioia

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