EYE institute in Amsterdam during KLIK festival

March 13th, 2016

The genius of the EYE institute really revealed itself during the recent KLIK animation festival. The amphitheater form of the staircase gives people a place to socialize and relax during the festival. Especially loved the way the monumental cardboard creatures look down at the crowd from the top. And the many little displays in and around the staircases.

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Van Beuningenplein: housing by Karel de Bazel

March 13th, 2016

The beautiful housing complex surrounding the van Beuningenplein was created by Karel de Bazel around 1916, in response to a request to create bare-bones, affordable housing for workers. De Bazel is best known for the building now housing the Municipal Archives.

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The artist’s rationale: contempt for Rotterdam

August 22nd, 2015
Two giant globes on a square.

Sculptures proposed for Rotterdam Central Station square.

In Eeva Liukki’s article in Vers Beton ‘Hoe Kissing Earth toch kan slagen’ (How ‘Kissing Earth’ may yet succeed’) she explains why Mr. Eliasson’s sculpture is so wrong for the new station square, partly in a hypothetical future open letter containing the artist’s ‘rationale’. I would like to add my thoughts, inspired by Ms. Liukku’s post. (Note: I quote the ‘letter’ from Ms. Liukku’s post, and have provided translations into English.)

Mistake 1: The station square is not empty!

A square like this one is not an empty pedestal. It is a screen upon which the story of public life unfolds every day, a fabric of small and large interactions. Being part of this, and observing it, is one of the unique pleasures of life in a city.

Public life: the density and variety of these low-intensity contacts in cities is beautiful in itself, and plays a more critical role than it first seems in creating the quality of life in a city. Architects Jan Gehl and Birgitte Svarre explain this in the books ‘Life between buildings’ and ‘How to study public life’. They have improved public life in their native Copenhagen and in many other cities around the world. (Have a look at their Oculus book talk.)

Ms. Liukku’s states in her opening remarks: ‘Het is alsof de Rotterdammers via hun protest tegen dit werk hun liefde verklaren vóór de leegte, een fata morgana uit de tijd dat de stad nog plat lag.’ (‘It’s as though through this protest, the people of Rotterdam declare their love for emptiness, a ‘fata morgana’ from the time that the city lay flattened.’) Actually, people are defending their enchantment with the new experience of public life this innovative station has introduced them to. They’ve fallen in love with it, and rightfully so! The comparison to the ‘flattened’ city after the bombing is inappropriate: no-one in Rotterdam has any love for this idea, no-one likes ‘emptiness’.

Mistake 2: This is not an argument for or against ‘modern art’

Supporters of the sculpture paint us, the opponents of Mr. Eliasson’s sculptures, as people with narrow, retrograde taste who oppose any work of modern art. This is misleading. We are opposing ONE work which is inappropriate for THIS location, and we have good reasons for it. We are defending a highly innovative modern building against a sculpture which will literally physically destroy part of our ability to enjoy the square – this is hardly a retrograde position.

Mistake 3: Narcissism

Ms. Liukku puts her finger on the main problems with the rationale behind this work: it’s a banal idea based on cliches about the work and the city.

Some quotes from the hypothetical artist’s rationale (‘open letter’) in her post:

‘Voor één keer wilde ik niet spelen met water of licht, maar met de zelfperceptie van een volk. Rotterdammers kwamen op mijn pad als uitstekende slachtoffers. Ze troffen mij als het prototype van de chauvinistische en zelfvoldane stadsburgers.’ (For once, I decided not to play with water or light, but rather, with the self-perception of a population. I found the people of Rotterdam to be victims par excellence. The struck me as the prototype of chauvinistic and smug city dwellers’).

‘Ik heb niet lang nagedacht. Ik moest een narcistisch werk maken, een werk waarin de stad zichzelf kust in de spiegel. Voor één keer kon ik uitpakken met de meest platte symboliek die ik kon bedenken: een wereldbol.’ (It didn’t take much thought. I had to make a narcissistic work, a work in which the city kisses itself in the mirror. For once, I could fully deploy the most vulgar symbol I could think of: a globe.)

This is a good explanation of Mr. Eliasson’s own limitations: he can basically only think hoary old cliche’s about the culture of a city (eternal victim, chauvinist, inferiority complex, working-class heroes). And he has only a banal idea for the sculpture.

Mistake 4: Ignorance

To the city authorities responsible for this plan: please re-assess it! Find the right expertise to ensure that it doesn’t end up damaging the city’s public life.
Rotterdam has shown exceptional public support for culture, modernist, traditional and otherwise. As one former director of the International Film Festival of Rotterdam put it: ‘We couldn’t do this in Amsterdam. There would be only a few volunteers – in Rotterdam, enthusiastic volunteers turn up by the hundreds.’ It’s the same for Poetry International – Rotterdam’s diverse population rushes to volunteer as interpreters, facilitators and general supporters of the event, hardly a low-brow affair. And yes, it’s a genuinely BIG city, with wealth and industry and diversity and poverty and culture and problems of all kinds. If it is beyond Mr. Eliasson’s abilities to design for such a complex context, then Rotterdam should tell him, in the words of its honorable mayor Mr. Aboutaleb in a recent speech: Rot toch op! (Get lost!)

Please: cancel this plan. Put the money into something worthwhile.


For deeper understanding of how design supports the quality of public life, I highly recommend Gehl’s work ‘Life between buildings’. Here is a screen cap of a relevant page, from the Amazon viewer:

Page from Jan Gehl's book 'life between buildings'.

Excerpt from Gehl’s ‘Life Between Buildings’, courtesy of amazon.com.

To the creators of the new station in Rotterdam: an appeal for help

August 18th, 2015

This post has two purposes: to thank everyone who created this wonderful station, and to appeal for their help in stopping the initiatives to place hideous sculptures (Kissing Earth) on the station square. Placement of these sculptures will destroy our enjoyment of both the public life this square enables and of the beauty of the station.

Part 1: Why I love the new station

Rotterdam Central Station.

Rotterdam Central Station – “Rtd CS-III” by Jan Oosterhuis. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Rtd_CS-III.JPG#/media/File:Rtd_CS-III.JPG.

The new Rotterdam Central Station – created by the cooperative efforts of Benthem Crouwel Architects, MVSA Meyer & Van Schooten Architects, and West 8 – has improved the lives of thousands of residents and commuters, including myself. This large and yet remarkably transparent building is technically a marvel, enabling thousands of people to flow without stress or disorientation. It is a design that accommodates newcomers to this global harbor city – its distinctive form is unique and memorable, and even from outside, one can see straight through to the trains. Everything is findable.

The quality of the materials – the stone floor, wood cladding and especially the irregularities in the bright metal covering of the exterior, give it an almost handmade feel. And the ‘coolness’ – the subdued tones – was probably a wise choice, considering that a station of this size can otherwise quickly become overwhelming. It has a beautiful cafe (the ‘living room’ full of vintage furnishings) which offers that second essential quality of a station: refuge from the flow.

The overall shape of the facade connects to the surrounding buildings in way that makes this piece of skyline feel more coherent. And it is not an arbitrary form: to me it seems to embody the speed and the extreme linear perspective we experience with when trains pass us. The integration of the old lettering and clock, and other components of the former station, is very welcome in a city in which Nazi bombers destroyed so much of what connects us to the past.

Part 2: Help get rid of these horrid balls!

Two giant globes on a square.

Sculptures proposed for Rotterdam Central Station square.

As I write this, I’m looking in horror at a proposal for two giant, garish, banal sculptures which would totally ruin the station square in front of the facade. What’s at stake here is more than a detail – it’s the whole experience. That square is one of the few inspiring, humane spaces Rotterdam has, and it’s a stage for public life like no other – a genuinely social space! This is important in a city where public life has struggled to re-emerge after the destruction of WWII.

Those sculptures are about as appropriate as a floor-to-ceiling beach ball crammed into your living room. They block the sightlines in this open space and get in the way of every kind of enjoyment of the square and the station. And – it must be said – WHAT STUPID, BORING SCULPTURES THEY ARE! The globe, stylized ?! Granted, this is a prototype – the final design is more subtle, but every bit as banal. The artist has attempted to make up for an impoverished concept by blowing it up to inhumane proportions – basically shouting in our faces.

HELP! I don’t know if it’s possible or desirable, but perhaps as the station’s creators, you can lend your voices to protest these monstrosities! Help us if you can. It would be a terrible shame if we could no longer experience the magic of the new station in full.

A petition can be found at: http://petities.nl/petitie/stationsplein-rotterdam-centraal

Everyday game design: extreme hopscotch

September 20th, 2014

Noticed that kids’ hopscotch paths have taken an extreme turn. More than a hundred steps, winding paths, and in at least one case, a giant crocodile.

IMG_4274_extreme hopscotch

Picture of hopscotch path drawn on sidewalk with chalk.

Hopscotch path with symbols.

Picture of hopscotch path drawn by kids on sidewalk with chalk.

The paths can have almost 200 steps.

Picture of crocodile drawn on sidewalk by kids with chalk.

Giant crocodile is apparently the last barrier – or maybe the goal is to be eaten?

The ‘wonder child’ myth and how it’s destroying interaction design education

February 17th, 2014

PLEASE NOTE: this post emerged from personal experience during my 7 years as a professional design teacher at college level, but also my conversations with teachers and observation of the young graduates entering the field during the last 15 years. Am I getting it wrong? Feel free to weigh in.

I recently saw a group of college-level design students lying in a circle on the ground, with their heads towards one another, forming a flower with outstretched legs as petals, Busby Berkeley-style. They were wearing colored t-shirts which had been chosen to represent the gradations of a color circle.

They were presenting their homework.

The design teacher giving this example was proud. She claimed that giving the class the task of representing a color circle in an original way, had motivated students to engage with color theory. And that this engagement had broken through apathy, disinterest, etc. The t-shirt trick had gotten attention from the media, which she seemed to see as a validation of its value.

Perhaps this is a good teacher. Perhaps she creates insight and competence about color theory in other ways. But her enthusiasm made me queasy.

The Myth

The myth goes like this: high school students arrived in a college design course, spoiled by years of deadening traditional classroom learning. They had a ‘just tell me what to do to get a meaningless number grade’ mentality. But the inspired teacher, by giving them control over which problems they solve, having them collectively critique each other’s work and LEARN FROM EACH OTHER, aroused a sense of PERSONAL OWNERSHIP. The challenge also aroused their CREATIVITY.

After this powerful mixture took hold, a miracle took place. Their original PASSION for learning, dulled by a conveyer-belt education, AWOKE, and with it a full committment and motivation to solving a design problem (often co-created by themselves) in a way that was MEANINGFUL TO THEM. They flourished and produced wonderful, INNOVATIVE work.

The story usually ends with proof: an example in the form of a single Wonder Child who is now (the teacher fills in her achievements _______ ).

The Reality
What none of these teachers ever talk about is that the Wonder Child progressed for reasons that had little or nothing to do with the course. And that a large group of students didn’t learn anything or made only minimal progress. Or even worse, remained in a blissful state of unconscious incompetence, convinced that they’d achieved something just because they felt inspired, enthusiastic, entertained.

Because the ‘learning objectives’ were infected with vague values of originality, creativity, etc., their achievement was never tested. And nobody knows what they achieved anyway, because they worked in groups. Teachers who say they can track what students in a group individually achieved are either lying, stupid or rare workaholic types who monitor a group night and day.

I noticed that the teachers who tell these inspiring stories never talk about the progress of all the students, instead of single iconic wonder stories. Or about the minimum level – the benchmark – of quality that all had to achieve to get a passing grade. Or guarantee that any student graduating can meet this standard.

Design and education gurus feed the myth

This myth is promoted by a steady drumbeat from conferences like TED which feature gurus promoting ideas like ‘kids can teach themselves‘ and ‘bring on the learning revolution‘ and ‘hey, teachers, make it fun’. There is truth in all of these things, but it is being used in a highly selective, dangerous way.

Once you’ve sparked the interest of students, there is a long path to be followed before they really learn anything. And that isn’t always fun. To succeed, the students have to show the qualities which are now unpopular or downright tabu: will power and character. The will power to buckle down and take tough critique, and then try many times again until you get it right. And the character to want to be more than entertained and entertaining.

This is the thing that the gurus and their audiences – usually a product of solid conveyer-belt educations – don’t talk about.

What to do: principles for design education at foundation level

Here are a few ways to remedy this in the first year of studies, at foundation course level.

1. Individual before team
Students should only be allowed to work as teams after first qualifying in Individual assignments that are rigorously evaluated. Don’t be taken in by hype about ‘people learning better in groups’ or ‘real-world collaboration skills’ for ‘the new economy’. Students need precise feedback about their own real level of achievement. Those who don’t measure up should be told early. In real-world practice, we’re also careful about who we let into a team.

2. Judge product, not process
The deliverable should be graded, not the student’s ‘process’ or ‘increased awareness’. If the design deliverables (the solution to the design problem) are properly defined, they should be the best indicator of the competence of a student. If they’re not, there’s something wrong with the design of your course.

3. Few deliverables, much skill
Require only a few deliverables which take much skill to create. Focus on iterations and improvements. Skill now has an undeservedly bad reputation. Professionals who stay in the same role, getting better at doing one thing, are too often seen as losers who don’t ‘develop’ and ‘re-invent themselves’. Real iteration on a design, whether coding or writing or diagramming, is not mere ‘execution’. It’s a deeply synthetic activity that develops creativity, skill and abstract thinking all at once.

4. Teach broadly, test narrowly
If students work on a well-designed, problem-based course, they will learn much more than the formal learning objectives. It’s tempting to test these other objectives. Don’t. Stick to only a few fundamental objectives, and test only those. The proportion of what’s learned to what’s tested, should be 80/20, not the other way around. Test individually and rigorously.

5. Problem-based, context-rich
Problem-based learning is best way to teach design. However, it only works if students have extensive access to the context of use. Almost every answer to a question about the design deliverable should begin with: ‘It depends’ and then mention a variable in the context of use or a related area of practice. So make the context (user information, description of setting, other) available.

The broadest development is achieved by individual iteration on a limited number of deliverables, requiring much skill, and rigorously evaluated with narrowly defined criteria.

Boek & Glas antiquarian bookshop

December 28th, 2013

Special emphasis on typography, history and literature from the 1880′s through fin de siecle (http://boekglas.home.xs4all.nl/). Here are some pictures:

View of bookshop window in dark street, with stained glass above show window.

The shop in the Agatha Dekenstraat in Amsterdam.

Old newspaper setting table, repurposed.

Old newspaper setting table, repurposed.

Books from approx. 1900 - 1940 on shelf.

Whole shelf of books chosen only for beautiful cover designs.

Book cover designs by Albert Hahn, Jr.

December 28th, 2013

Organic and balanced like the Jugendstil, but trimmed down and made calmer, playing within typographic constraints. Many of his book designs can be seen in anno1900.nl, a blog about ‘fin de siecle’ design.

Red and black cloth cover with embossed title designed by Dutch artist Albert Hahn.

Cover design by Albert Hahn for book ‘Jacqueline Vrijlieff.

Theo Thijssen: ‘Het taaie ongerief’

December 26th, 2013
Book cover: Het taaie ongerief by Theo Thijssen

Cover of the 1932 Arbeiderspers edition of ‘Het taaie ongerief’. Design by Albert Hahn.

The semi-biographical works of the school teacher Theo Thijssen immerse you in early 20th-century Amsterdam.

The title translates roughly as ‘the enduring hindrance’. The book is about the physical and psychological torment caused by cheap clothing, at once the most intimate and most public expression of the poverty the main character Joop (pronounced ‘Yope’ in English) and his family can’t seem to escape.

We follow Joop from childhood in a slum neighborhood with his mother and four siblings (teasing, fights), through to the teacher’s college to which he is admitted with a rare stipend (humiliation in class, fear of attention), military service (gruesome inspections), and working life (lying to avoid admitting he can’t afford a jacket).

Thijssen intended it to be a light satire about bourgeois values and the feelings of shame and insecurity they create.

But to a contemporary reader, the suffering stands out. As Joop talks about his struggles with a deformed hat or a disintegrating pair of pants, you see what’s at stake: the ability to go to a cultural event, to court someone he loves, to give an important speech, to find work. “Not fitting in” meant losing the chance to navigate his way out of poverty into an emerging middle class.

You also see how he and his peers combine forces to invent ways around the enduring hindrances. Young people were organizing into clubs with rules of their own making. The Almanac of the Teacher Trainee Union of 1911 gives us a glimpse of the kind of society they must have had in mind. Here are some scans of the pages:

Cover of almanac.

Cover of the Almanac of the Teacher Trainees Union of 1911.

kwekeling almanak 1911 augustus

Engraving showing nude young woman in forest, with smaller figure in background.

Calendar page from teacher trainee Almanac, 1911. The quote at the bottom translates roughly as: Our movement creates a rustling like the wind in the woods: ‘We are the young’.

kwekeling almanak 1911 november

kwekeling almanak 1911 oktober

The ad pages are also interesting:

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Advertising pages.

Advertising pages.

And there are even a couple of black and white photos pasted in, describing a vacation:

kwekeling almanak 1911 vacantie

kwekeling almanak 1911 sunny home

Story about a vacation trip.

Story about a vacation trip.

Learning = creating

December 23rd, 2013

Reading about Arne Dietrich’s 2004 paper ‘Cognitive neuroscience of creativity Reprint CNC PB&R‘, I was struck by the similarity of the four categories to Kolb’s model of ‘experiential learning’. They kind of map to one another. Kolb’s model proposes a ‘cycle’ which can be started at any point, and positions ‘types’ of learners in the quadrants defined by the two continua (processing and perception):

Diagram showing model of experiential learning created by David Kolb

Diagram of Kolb’s model with the four ‘types’ of learners

Dietrich’s model also can be expressed in four quadrants, defined by the axes ‘deliberate – spontaneous’ and ‘cognitive – emotional’:

Diagram of Arne Dietrich's model of 4 types of creativity.

Diagram of Arne Dietrich’s model of 4 types of creativity copied from Susan Weinschenk’s book (see below).

The ‘cognitive and deliberate’ type of creativity sounds much like Kolb’s ‘theorist’. The other four ‘types’ also fit almost one-to-one:

Diagram showing how Dietrich's four kinds of creativity and Kolb's experiential learning seem to match.

The two models combined.

Disclaimer: I haven’t read Kolb’s original work, only the explanations of it by various other authors. So these are only tentative ideas, but here goes:

- Maybe this validates Kolb to the extent that if learning is creating new knowledge and abilities, then the four kinds of creation he posited have some basis in neuroscience.
- Maybe this also invalidates Kolb’s idea of a ‘cycle’. The path one takes from one kind of creation to another is probably nothing like his neat model seems to suggest.

And there has not been any validation of the idea of ‘learning styles’ based on the experiential model (they don’t predict how well someone will learn).

One thing: it explains why my first-year students all seem to have the same learning style (activist – pragmatist). In her book ‘100 things every designer needs to know about people‘ Susan Weinschenk explains that for Dietrich’s cognitive and deliberate creativity, one needs a pre-existing body of knowledge. Coming from miserably bad high schools, lazy and distracted, these kids don’t have any knowledge and aren’t about to put out the effort to acquire it. Whereas the other kinds of creativity (emotional – spontaneous, etc.) seem to take less effort.

Conclusion: forget the ‘learning cycle’ and force them to do the cognitive-deliberate ‘theorist’ bit relentlessly, so they actually develop the capacities they’re missing. Without them, the students will never become real solvers of ‘wicked problems’. I also suspect that the deliberate cognitive creativity is underestimated as a way of ‘priming’ the unconscious to enable the other kinds.