Researchers in Residence: Pieter Desmet and Steven Fokkinga

Delft University of Technology features an organization called the ‘Delft Institute of Positive Design.' This institute is the brainchild of Pieter Desmet, full professor at Delft University. The Institute, which is run by a group of researchers, aims to initiate and stimulate the development of knowledge that supports designers in their attempts to design for human flourishing. 

Pieter supervises a dedicated research group that studies various aspects of user experience. Steven Fokkinga is one of his ‘veteran researchers’ and currently is finalizing his PhD Thesis. In July he will proceed to collaborate with him as a PostDoc. Pieter and Steven have also founded a startup that aims to connect the institute’s mission, theories, methods and tools to the real world of industry and other organizations that might benefit from designing for a bit of human flourishing. 

At Reframing Studio, we have always been an admirer of DIOPD. Some of the institute’s most promising students are working with us, and we have jointly executed projects with both Pieter and Steven. 

In seeking even more exchange of brilliance, we have invited Steven and Pieter to occupy our In-Residence program: For a year they will have unlimited access to our resources and we hope to be able to help them wherever we can while we will be on the first row to witness design for flourishing unroll!

GO: We are very pleased with having you guys to kick off our Researchers-In Residence program, and also honored since we know that the university itself has excellent programs for valorization. What are your expectations for working at our place?

PD: At the DIOPD we have a lot of contacts with industry but our core task is an academic one: developing new knowledge. We are driven by scientific curiosity. Commercial organization may be interested and even inspired, but will not easily pay for things that do not directly contribute to revenues. So in Delft we do not aim to align our mindset with industry, and we feel we need to keep it that way. And although valorisation is very well-taken care of, think of YesDelft, we are seeking a different location where we can train ourselves in becoming ‘applied’ researchers. We hope to find this at Reframing Studio. Of course, apart from the location we need to be surrounded by minds that are used to collaborate with industry.

SF: Pieter is a very modest man so let me tell you that people in Delft do not always realize how big he is abroad: some people in Asia collapse when they meet him. This is not surprising given his enormous output: he is board member of the International Design and Emotion Society, he published over 80 scientific papers, he wrote book chapters; edited three books, three special issues, and two conference proceedings on a variety of aspects of experience-driven design. The man is a Big-Shot!

GO: But people respect you over here too: I can see from that frame on your wall that you have been granted the "Teacher of the Year award!

PD: Steven is exaggerating, and he is a big-shot himself too: His first conference paper became an instant classic, winning him a ‘Best Paper’ award, and since then he has published articles in high-ranking design journals, like Design Issues and the International Journal of Design. While still a Ph.D. student, he even served as Guest Editor to a special issue of and Journal of Motivation, Emotion, and Personality. That is extraordinary.

GO: Are these recognitions important to you? Do you lie in your bed thinking ‘what awards will I win tomorrow’?

PD: I just noticed the award has sagged and sits skewed in its frame, meaning I am not checking it before I go to bed. What means more to me than an award is a freshman student emailing me telling me that he attended my course, and that after thinking about it of for a couple of months he discovered that it had changed him as a designer. I am prouder of the fact that he took the trouble of sharing that with me than the award.

GO: One of your hopes is that you will inspire others, who inspired you to do what you do?

PD: Kees Overbeeke, sadly he passed away much too soon some years ago. By the time, I had to start working on my Master thesis I was obsessed with ‘emotions’ but found no one that would agree that emotion would be a suitable topic for a design graduation thesis. Emotions were dismissed to the dangerous untrodden lands of the ‘intuitive’, lands from where no one was reported to have returned. Kees demonstrated trust in me: “Do you genuinely believe in this? Then we will proceed!” By doing that he changed me as a designer. If it weren’t for Kees, I would have been drawing door handles, and salt dispensers at some Ulm inspired design agency.

GO: But what ignited the obsession for emotions?

PD: …I must say, I genuinely don’t know, I just remember that I went to the University of Amsterdam Library and asked the lady behind the desk (Note GO for the young readers: there was no Google at that time), ‘What do you have on Emotions? And she checked her Uniterm index cards and came up with a man called Nico Frijda. He happened to be working at UvA, and I went to his room and approached him. Frijda appeared to be one of the world’s most eminent emotion researchers. So sheer luck also played a big role in the course of these events, and I am glad it did. Sadly, Nico Frijda passed away a couple of months ago.

GO: Steven, who inspired you to grab life by the throat?

SF: Pieter off course! And I also experienced a career change because originally I wanted to become a filmmaker. Because of my aptitude for math and technology I chose the TU Delft, but later in my studies I started realizing that filmmakers are also traders in experience, so maybe I am doing now what I was supposed to do all along. I remember that I participated in a course dealing with emotions and everyone was talking about ‘happy’, ‘beautiful’ and ‘cute’ things and began to long for the horror, the ugly, the insane. I mean, take a motorcycle, aficionados may think they are beautiful but in fact they are designed to be unapproachable, risky and dangerous. So I wrote an essay on that line of thought and Pieter had to grade that thing.

PD: And I was surprised by his authenticity and originality of thinking.

GO:…and the rest is history.

SF: The basis of our collaboration is that we can talk for hours on almost any subject because we are always curious what the other is thinking. This can be work-related, but also on something like self-driving cars or how to improve democracy. We have a similar way of looking at things, but each with our own twist.

PD: What I value in Steven is that for the first time in collaboration with someone, I am not only teaching but also learning from him. 

… he needs to finalize that Ph.D. thesis though!

GO: Is he lagging behind?

PD: No, all is going as planned, but it challenges what I just said: In my role as his promotor, I have to put on the ‘teacher hat’, and our collaboration has long outgrown this teacher-apprentice-type of relationship.

SF: The thing will be delivered end of June! I also really want to have it finished myself because I can’t wait to take up my role as Researcher-in-Residence. For a long time I have been thinking that there is so much knowledge, so many tools and methodologies; what is needed is not another tool but better dissemination: how to get all that beautiful stuff to the parties that put it to work. That will be my task in this Residency.

GO: The big challenge will be how to get access to valuable projects. If we have to wait until projects open themselves up to our approach because they have entered in a progressed state of panic, valuable time is lost with trying the trodden path and fail...

SF: We want to be able to open our clients in trying new things before that happens. Projects in which we cannot even predict beforehand what sort of things will be delivered in the end. These require a sense of trust that they will enable the best ideas and people to flourish. Current programs and methods often aim at the opposite: making sure no risks are taken that might mess things up.

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