Mark Vanderbeeken interviewed on engageID

Today engageID, the student newsletter of the highly acclaimed Chicago-based Institute of Design (part of the Illinois Institute of Technology), published a rather lengthy interview with Experientia partner Mark Vanderbeeken on experience design and some of the differences between the European and American praxis.

Mark is quite proud that his interview also launched a new interview section in the newsletter, that sets out to know more about how design is understood and practiced in different cultures and markets.

The interviewer was Enric Gili Fort, who was particularly sharp in the framing of his questions, in part also due to the fact that he is originally from Barcelona and worked in the Netherlands, so he knows the European context rather well. Thank you Enric!


On 22 September engageID, the student newsletter of the highly acclaimed Chicago-based Institute of Design (part of the Illinois Institute of Technology), published a rather lengthy interview with Mark Vanderbeeken, senior partner of Experientia, on experience design and some of the differences between the European and American praxis.

The interview launched a new interview section in the newsletter, that sets out to know more about how design is understood and practiced in different cultures and markets. The interviewer was Enric Gili Fort.

The interview was originally published on the engageID website of the Institute of Design, and has been reproduced here under a Creative Commons arrangement.

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Enric Gili Fort: Thanks for agreeing to participate in this interview. As the author of the popular Putting People First blog and as a partner of a firm that is based in Italy, we thought you would be a great person to talk about experience design and innovation outside of the US.

Just to get us started, could you talk a bit about your background, what has been your career path and how being Belgian have you ended up being partner of a design consulting firm in Italy?

Mark Vanderbeeken: First of all, thank you for the invitation to this interview.

To answer your question, I have always been interested in human behavior and in communications. In fact, I am trained as a cognitive psychologist (with degrees both from Belgium and from Columbia University, New York). I then started working in the broad field of communications and marketing, in Belgium, in New York and in Copenhagen, gradually taking on more strategic roles and challenges. In 2001 I was asked to work on the communications for the meanwhile no longer existing Interaction Design Institute Ivrea (in Italy), where I came to realize that my interests in human psychology, communications, innovation, and strategic visioning could be integrated within the nascent discipline of people-centered experience design.

So after Ivrea, I decided that I liked Italy enough to stay here longer. I knew Jan-Christoph Zoels from Ivrea and met some good Italian people (Michele Visciola, who actually also has a psychology background, and Pierpaolo Perotto), and together we started a company. We are all in our forties, have all lived in the United States, and have quite a bit of experience behind us, It is a good fit, since our skills are complementary. It allowed us to create the company with exactly the right mix that we wanted: user research, design prototyping and business strategy consulting, all combined into one.

EGF: You (and your company) have extensive experience working with both European and American companies that are looking to grow through innovation. From your perspective, what are the similarities and the differences between those companies at the time they are looking for innovation consulting services?

MV: First, I would say that the broader economic context is somewhat different in Europe, with a much more important public sector here. This also means that many European companies do work for these public institutions. This translates into a slightly different role for experience design. I would say that in Europe (and to some extent also Canada) you hear a lot more about design for social innovation, about service design, and about the role of experience design in healthcare, education, tourism, local or regional economic development, and public services. This even affects Europe-based multinational companies who work in consumer products like Nokia and Philips, as I tried to illustrate in my blog.

Experience design is based on the idea of giving people a role in the design of the products and services that matter to them. Both in the US and in Europe, it is believed that this approach will lead to better products and services and therefore to better economic returns. However, in Europe there is perhaps a more explicit social or ethical drive: by giving people this co-creative role we can establish to a more socially inclusive society. A lot of innovation in Europe comes from public institutions, from the European Commission on down.

Another difference between Europe and the US is the role of the mobile phone in society. Michael Mace of Rubicon Consulting recently wrote that the mobile phone is a tool in the US, a lifestyle in Europe (and Asia). The US has a more PC-centric innovation culture, i.e. a culture of innovation focused on the workplace, whereas in Europe and in Asia people expect more innovation on mobile devices and in their social environments. Perhaps it is because people in Europe spend more time outside the workplace or use more public transportation.


EGF: Why do you think big European companies like Nokia or Philips get involved in projects with public institutions? Is it simply because a) public institutions have bigger budgets and better business, b) they have organizational goals of corporate social responsibility or c) just because of the management’s ethics and the opportunity to give back to society by having a positive impact?

MV: This is a difficult question for me to answer, since I have never worked for such companies and can only second-guess their strategies. Private companies work within a broader social, political and economic context both in Europe and the US. Aside from the fact that public institutions are often important clients for them, they also want to be perceived as good corporate citizens, as this will help them in the long run. There are definitely also ethical and CSR reasons, but I am not close enough to the companies to assess their importance of these reasons.

EGF: Since you intensively collect examples of innovation in the public sector in your blog, could you highlight an example of one successful initiative and a failing one?

MV: I think the exemplary work at the UK Design Council, which is a public body funded by the Department of Trade and Industry, is a great example of how a public institution can generate innovative modes of thinking, prototype them on the ground, promote them widely, and then influence a much wider area of society, both within the UK and outside.

Many regional design-driven development projects, and I highlight a few of them on my blog including the Belgian C-Mine, the German Zollverein and the British DOTT07, could not exist without strategic government leaders and policy makers driving them. These projects come about as public-private partnerships, with win-win results for both of them.

What drives these projects is that they look at innovation beyond technology and allow substantial space for user research, citizen participation and a people-centered design methodology. A pure technological approach to innovation does have its merits for sure, but is not the only way to go about it.

EGF: Design and the way it is perceived are changing. More and more companies are looking at design/innovation consultancies expecting to gain advantage and grow.
What are the current challenges that design consultancies have when dealing with new clients (both public and private) that never before considered design?

MV: Challenges are always opportunities. The question is how to make them work for you, how to define yourself within the context of these challenges. Let me describe a few we have come across.

First of all, people still often think of design as an aesthetic activity that makes a good product look great. Italians for instance have a very important tradition in that and are known for it globally. The experience design approach is of course much more about a way of thinking a problem, doing research and then solving it, rather than about making something look good. The "design as a methodology" approach is still fairly new here, but also quite logical, once you explain it to it. But the leap is not so big either. Many product designers have architectural training, especially in Italy. Architects are trained in a methodological approach. Many younger firms are now actively engaged in participatory design.

A second challenge we are facing with some companies, but definitely not all, is a short-term financial logic, where usability can be perceived as an added cost, rather than an investment into a strong product. This is changing though.

A third challenge is the structure of European companies, who are not always used to combine their R&D work with their marketing activities. Experience design addresses both, or better transforms both. Unlike the typical R&D department, experience design is not technology driven, but people driven, and unlike the typical marketing department, it is based on what people actually do, rather than what they say they do. Sometimes we work with the top management.

Fourth, technology is often seen as the territory of engineers, and this is not just the case in Europe. There are many excellent engineers but they do not always have a people-centered or design minded professional methodology. Companies and public institutions can sometimes spend much energy on technologically splendid projects that people for some reason do not want to use. The step to a more people-centered approach might seem obvious, but is not always straightforward. If we want to change that, we need to know how to best talk with engineers, we have to understand the ‘engineer’ way of thinking, but also not be afraid of setting out a human-centered vision.

In fact, all these challenges are cultural challenges. Part of our role as experience designers is therefore helping to bring about a new culture of innovation, not just through our work but also through our public engagement in the social role of design. At Experientia we communicate a lot, run seminars, and organize lectures. We organized last year the first World Usability Day event in Italy (, which was very well attended, and we are doing it again this year. And we are editing an entire issue of UX Magazine (the members publication of the Usability Professionals’ Association) on usability and governance.

Our main challenge as experience designers is how to define our new role within the society we are part of. I think we should not shy away from the larger discourse on regional innovation. We are working within a social and economic context and we have to take on our responsibility of helping to change some of that context through a more human-centered approach.

But every statement about challenges is also relative. We have recently worked with major Italian companies and several regional authorities here, and they were mostly delightful in their flexibility and their openness.


EGF: If we put together the fact that design can be an economical growth enabler for a region and the fact that designing for public institutions can have a greater impact on society, it makes the designer enter in political waters that designers haven’t usually navigated before. How easily can a designer do his job in the public sector while remaining neutral and politically agnostic, and how influenced by politics is this area?

MV: As I said before, experience design is based upon the premise of giving people a say in the design of products and services that matter to them. It naturally requires participation and co-creation. Giving people a say is a political, democratic act in the true sense of the word democracy: let the people rule. I think it is exciting to think about experience design in this broader socio-political way. This is not party politics of course but it is social and moral choice that we strongly believe in.

Neutrality and agnosticism are difficult words in this arena. We want to give people more of a say, which is a choice and therefore not ‘neutral’, but we want to create tools that give everybody that say, which again is ‘neutral’.

Within any political context you have to position yourself well. We position ourselves as solid professionals, and have never been hired for political reasons. We want to keep it that way.

EGF: A few months ago you launched the e-democracy blog exclusively dedicated to "citizen participation and web 2.0 in public authority websites." What triggered this fervent interest in this topic? Who are you targeting this blog to?

MV: I actually changed the subtitle because web 2.0 is just a tool and therefore not so relevant in what I wanted the blog to be about. The blog, which you can find at, is now subtitled "creative ways to increase citizen participation in online public services". We are currently working with two regional government structures in Italy and it is inspiring to see how young people there are bringing in a very strong people-centered innovation approach.

They ask questions like: how can we create online services that work for our citizens? How can we make them usable and friendly? How can we have people participate more actively? How can we best manage this involvement of people without being overwhelmed by thousands of messages? How can we be a responsive government service and how can the web help us with that?

Our Experientia blogs usually start out as a way to structure our thoughts and our research. In fact, Putting People First originated that way as well: as a permanent home for the many emails with article links I was sending out before. The E-Democracy blog is for those interested in innovation in participatory public services on the web, and this includes our public sector clients of course. Bob Jacobson, one of the most thoughtful voices on experiences calls it a "necessary new venture aimed at exploring the interface between more representative forms of governance, technology, and social innovation."

What you call my "fervent interest" probably stems from a deeper empathy for the social role of design.

EGF: What are the reasons behind this people-centered sensitivity among young people? Does it have anything to do with lack of paths for youth, especially in Southern Europe, to become economically independent from their parents and a strong will to do something to address the problem?

MV: I can only speak for the people I dealt with and these are very well educated, well traveled and well read individuals who are working with passion for a public institution. They do not have high salaries, so they get their personal satisfaction out of the drive to deliver a high level service and to do something meaningful for society and the country they live in. They are interested in people-centered design because it resonates with their ethical drive as a committed employee within a public institution. So yes, there is a strong will to try to help address the problems they see around themselves.

EGF: You have blogged extensively on governmental initiatives promoted by small regions to revitalize their socio-economic area. Some have set up long-term and heavily funded programs as it is in the case of North East England’s DOTT07, others even have started design Schools with a business twist from scratch like the Zollverein School in Germany, etc..

MV: I am interested in how a visionary approach that is focused on creativity, design and participatory co-creation can become a tool to change an entire region.

Though related to the creative industries thinking of Richard Florida, these approaches go further and are based on creating synergies: between business and education, between public and private, between culture and tourism, between vision and reality, and between people and structures. They are about creating critical mass and about excitement. They usually take place in deprived areas, which for years have been lingering, and had big brain drain problems. They also often have spectacular sites full of old industrial buildings. And they have young and energetic public authorities that are trying to change the dynamic through visioning and systematic and sustainable planning.

I am currently working with some people in the East of Belgium, not far from where I grew up. I always knew it as a former coalmining area in decline and they are totally turning that around now. It is amazing how fast they are: two years ago they were still doing the master plan, yet most of the site will be ready in 2008. And we are talking about a huge endeavor.

Design and participatory co-creation for social renewal is a complex challenge, but one that fits very well with the European way of doing things.

EGF: What do you think has changed in the last years in Europe to make these regions so hopeful and willing to invest in these, for some, ambitious enterprises? Do you know about similar initiatives outside Europe? Do you think this would be possible in countries where public sector and progressive policies are not so common?

MV: Europe is changing fast. First of all, people travel more. The EU has this wonderful university student exchange program, called Erasmus, and many people in their early twenties spend 6 months to a year in another European country. Through traveling, the internet and good education systems, people in more remote areas of Europe are just as educated and knowledgeable as anybody else. Yet, there are in a sense more opportunities for them there, not necessarily more jobs, but definitely more interesting challenges.

Second, globalization is making us change. I just posted an article about the small Italian city of Prato. It is a textile town of 180,000 inhabitants. 25,000 of them are Chinese and there are 2,000 Chinese entrepreneurs who own one quarter of the town’s textile businesses. Doing nothing is not an option. We have to change.

The reason why regional authorities invest in such projects, often with the active help of their national governments and EU programs, is because they realize that these initiatives can become engines for renewal. Often such regions suffer from brain drain to the bigger cities and lack of investment. A major project with a clear and sustainable vision can help change that, create enthusiasm and put the place back on the map as an interesting destination, a valuable place to invest time, money and resources in. Regions are aware that they can change themselves and are working at the right level of action: beyond the city, but not as big as a country.

This is of course not just happening in Europe. Take a look at what the Michigan Governor is doing on design and how she emphasizes quite similar policies in quite a different economic context. Look at how American cities are investing in libraries and museums. The approach is slightly different perhaps, but not fundamentally.

I am not really sure about the situation outside of Europe and the USA but would love to learn more. I hear about more top-down approaches to regional innovation in Korea and Singapore but I am not a specialist. I invite people to comment on my blog with their own experiences.

EGF: I have recently read your post about Prato, and it is indeed a totally fascinating issue. From your multiple interactions with regional authorities across Europe, how do you perceive the adaptation gap between political leaders that are committed to help their regions make a transition to new social models, and big parts of the population that are still very conservative and very resistant to change? Are these leaders doing their job at educating and helping people understand that these changes are inevitable and that the solution is to be more flexible and adapt? If so, what strategies are following?

MV:Leaders are not always that visionary and people not always that conservative. For some issues it is actually quite the opposite. I can only suggest that more participation and co-creation in democracy is one of the ways to reduce the gap between the citizens and their representatives. And that’s what we are trying to work on.

EGF: With the introduction Central and Eastern European countries to the EU there is still a clear imbalance between western European countries and the newly added members. What are these regions’ governments doing to catch up in terms of development?

MV: I love working in Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) because of the dynamic, eager, and innovative young people there. They are now part of the EU and their hands-on, curious mindset is influencing the rest of Europe.

I am not a specialist in CEE government policy, but I notice two developments.

Although the last fifteen years has mainly been a time of catching up, and trying to address the most urgent and immediate needs, CEE countries and people were quick to learn and were less stuck in existing structures and modes of thinking than some in Western Europe were (and still are). They were often free enough to choose better.

Second, they invested a lot in educating their people and people invested a lot in educating themselves. I met many hard workers and hard learners with entrepreneurial mindsets. I am really optimistic about these countries.

But it will take a little while still before we see experience design companies there. Or perhaps not even that long …

EGF: As a final question I would like to ask you about the current role of the designer in society. It seems that its practice has been getting more and more abstract in the last years and it has reached a higher meta-level. As someone that has personally committed to attempt to tackle more complex and systemic problems in design, how have you seen this evolution and why do you think this change has happened?

MV: I don’t think the practice has become more abstract. We do a lot of very concrete work through contextual observation, user testing and prototyping. I think that over time we have become aware that a designer needs to take the role of the needs and the context of people more into account, because only then can we design something meaningful and relevant. This approach can be applied to car design and mobile phones, but also to hospitals, schools and public services. Yes, it is systemic, holistic and complex, but not necessarily abstract, and definitely not removed from the concrete needs of people. I would rather argue the opposite: only by being holistic, we can really have an impact.

EGF: Mark, I want to thank for your patience and time answering our questions around design, education, politics and society. I do really appreciate your thoughtful comments and I want to highlight how enlightening and enriching it has been to have your perspective in the state of design in Europe.

MV: You are welcome and thank you as well for this opportunity to set out and share my ideas.

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