Longread Talent #3: Me and the other: Empathetic design talent focuses on people, not themselves (or things)
In the past seven years, the Creative Industries Fund NL has supported over 250 young designers with the Talent Development grant. In three longreads, we look for the shared mentality of this design generation, which has been shaped by the great challenges of our time. They examine how they deal with themes such as technology, climate, privacy, inclusiveness and health. In this third and final longread, the focus is no longer on personal success and individual expression but on 'the other'.
8 October 2021
The refugee crisis dominated 2015. Although people from Africa and Central Asia have been cast adrift by war, poverty and oppression for years, that summer, hundreds of refugees on often makeshift boats and dinghies drowned in the Mediterranean. The impotence, anger, frustration, despair and sadness were aptly depicted in the photo of the drowned three-year-old Syrian toddler Alan Kurdi's body washed ashore on the Turkish coast. Where the financial crisis of 2008 was almost invisible – indeed, even the bankers were at a loss – it was no longer possible to look away, not only in the media but also on the streets. The misery of the other has become pervasive and omnipresent.
Asylum seeker centres in the Netherlands were full to overflowing. Designer Manon van Hoeckel (2018 cohort) saw the refugees in her neighbourhood during her studies at the Design Academy Eindhoven. Realising she had never spoken to an asylum seeker, Van Hoeckel visited a squatted building that housed people who had been rejected asylum. She saw these people were neither scammers nor pitiful, but rather powerful people who want to participate in and contribute to society – precisely what this group was prohibited from doing. Out of concern and determination, Van Hoeckel devised a travelling embassy for undocumented asylum seekers and migrants in limbo: unwanted in the Netherlands and their country of origin. The refugees, or 'ambassadors', could invite local residents, passers-by and officials here for a conversation. The In Limbo Embassy facilitated meetings between local residents and a vulnerable group of newcomers.
In many ways, Van Hoeckel's attitude is typical of a generation that has benefitted from the Talent Development Scheme of the Creative Industries Fund NL for the past seven years. Design is no longer about stuff but about people. This empathic enthusiasm now permeates all design disciplines. Personal success and individual expression are no longer paramount. The designer, researcher and maker are categorically focused on the other. The 2015 refugee crisis has acted as both a particle accelerator and a broadening of the profession because such humanitarian crises require unorthodox and radical proposals and ideas.
Urban planner Lena Knappers (2019 cohort) studied the spatial living conditions of asylum seekers, labour migrants and international students. As part of her research at TU Delft, Rethinking the Absorption Capacity of Urban Space, she developed strategies to integrate migrants into the host society sustainably. Too often, housing is temporary and informal, such as ad hoc container housing in the suburbs or vacant army barracks. Knappers researched alternative and more inclusive forms of reception, focusing on the interpretation of public space. Ultimately, she has an even greater goal: an inclusive city in which all forms of inequality in public space are investigated and remedied.
The extent to which immigration has become part of the creative disciplines' everyday reality is evident in the practice of Andrius Arutiunian (2021 cohort). After completing a master's in Composition at the Royal Conservatory in The Hague, he focused on the tension between migration and new technologies. In his development year, he studied the impact of displacement and dissent on society and how this impact can manifest itself in soundscapes. What does the integration of newcomers to the Netherlands sound like? A common factor is the concept of gharib, which means strange or mysterious in Arabic, Persian and Armenian. Arutiunian does not want to create specific encounters between people or pursue new forms of living. The cultural influence of migration only serves to enrich his professional practice.
Inclusivity and cultural diversity are now dominant societal issues. For example, the Black Lives Matter movement in the United States has fuelled intense debate about institutional racism. The other is no longer a stranger to our borders and is our neighbour or colleague. Despite this, society threatens to become polarised, marginalising demographic groups as a result. Designers actively engage in this discourse and apply design as an emancipating force for an all-inclusive society, open and accessible to everyone, regardless of background.
The emancipation of disadvantaged groups starts with exploring and understanding a shared identity. Only by understanding one's origins, culture and traditions can one finally obtain a fully-fledged place in society. Giorgio Toppin (2020 cohort) is a proud Bijlmer-Amsterdammer and a Black man with a Surinamese background. His Xhosa fashion label mixes these worlds into new stories, translating them into men's clothing that fits within the contemporary Western context. For the Surinamese diaspora narratives that inform his collections, he travelled to his native country to research and document local craftsmanship and traditional production techniques. He then manufactured sweaters using indigenous knotting techniques and interpreted a winter coat using hand-embroidered traditional prints from the Saramacca district. Conversely, he reimagined the Creole kotomisi, which is difficult to wear, with a comfortable and contemporary cut. Toppin's bicultural fashion strengthened the cultural identity of Surinamese people and thereby increased the understanding and appreciation for their origin among other population groups. After all, Toppin insists his clothes must first and foremost be cool to wear.
Of course, creative disciplines have always been good at strengthening an identity. Fashion, functional objects, interiors and photographic images are simply excellent means for showing who you are and especially who you want to be. In recent years, however, identity no longer signifies a non-committal lifestyle but can also be a stigma that determines one's social position. Identity is not always a choice, yet it has considerable influence on daily life – something to which Surinamese, Turkish, Moroccan and Antillean Dutch people, up to the fourth generation, can testify. Any designer that examines fixed identities must be acutely aware of cultural and emotional sensitivities. The designer who simply explains what is right and wrong lags behind the inclusive facts.
Consequently, designers increasingly work from a position of personal involvement or agency (ownership). Photographer and storyteller Marwan Magroun (2020 cohort) captured the world of single fathers with a migrant background in his documentary project The Life Of Fathers. Magroun, who grew up without a father figure for most of his childhood, sought answers to and stories of an often unnoticed but deeply felt fatherhood. He wanted to dispel the notion that fathers from a migrant background are not involved in parenting. His photographic report and accompanying film (now broadcast on NPO3) has given a group of devoted but underestimated fathers a voice and a face.
queers and extended families
Diversity is embraced and propagated throughout society. Prevailing views on gender, sexuality and ethnicity are shifting. This also means plenty of playing and experimentation with identity and how it can be designed. As a result, designers are no longer a conduit for industry or government but adopt an activist stance. The guiding principle is social cohesion and no longer one's ego. Renee Mes (2021 cohort) wanted to dismantle the stereotyping of the LGBTQ+ community and thereby increase acceptance. She focused specifically on how extended families are shaped within the various queer communities. This self-selected family is often built as an alternative to the rejection or shame from the families in which queers were raised. But this new lifestyle struggles with legal, medical, educational and other institutional disadvantages. Mes's approach was that was make being seen the first step toward recognition.
For her research and film portraits, Mes, who is white cisgender, worked with the organisation Queer Trans People of Colour. Collaboration can also generate agency. Besides, whose identity is being addressed? Or, to use the terminology of Black Lives Matter, 'nothing about us without us'. It is logical – and maybe even necessary – that inclusive design is realised according to these politically correct rules of agency and representation. Indeed, the countless cultural sensitivities demand great care.
selection and scouting
The creative industries are not exempt from equal opportunities. The design disciplines are not free from stereotypes. The Mediated Bodies research project by Gabriel A. Maher (2016 cohort) meticulously maps the gender relationships in the international design magazine Frame. Eighty per cent of the people in the magazine were male – from the designers interviewed to the models in the advertisements. Moreover, women were mainly portrayed in role-confirming and sometimes even submissive positions, such as bending over or crouching down. Maher's feminist practice seeks to deconstruct the design discipline to identify the existing power structure and prejudices. Only after an active process of self-reflection and criticism can design fulfill its potential as a discipline that contributes to societal improvement.
However, attention to polyphony alone is insufficient. Representation should be proportional, especially in the creative disciplines. The Talent Development Scheme actively contributes to this balance with new forms of selection. Scout nights are available for designers, researchers and makers who have developed professionally in practice, without a formal design training. During these evenings, talented designers who work outside the established creative channels can pitch their work to a jury. Many designers who use these scout nights belong to minority groups for whom going to an art academy or technical university is less established.
The self-taught Rotterdam photographer Khalid Amakran (2021 cohort) has developed from hobbyist to professional portrait photographer. After selection during a scout night, he devoted a year to a project about the identity formation of young second and third-generation Moroccan Dutch people. Amakran's 3ish project comprises a book and short documentary detailing this group's struggles with loyalty issues, code-switching, institutional racism, jihadism, and Moroccan Dutch males' politicisation. Representing emerging talents from bicultural or non-binary backgrounds is imperative for the creative industries. Only visible examples and recognisable role models can create a feeling of recognition and appreciation and guarantee the diversity necessary for the creative industries.
The scout nights have selected nine talented practitioners for the 2020 and 2021 cohorts. This number will undoubtedly increase in the coming years. An added value is that these designers are growing the diversity of content in their field through their singular professional practices. Another self-taught recipient is ILLM, the alias of illustrator Qasim Arif (2021 cohort). He mixes the age-old craft of calligraphy with contemporary elements of hip-hop and street culture. Traditional Arabic calligraphy is, by definition, two-dimensional because, according to Islamic regulations, the sculpting of living beings is reserved for Allah. ILLM wants to convert this visual language into sculptures. He also draws inspiration from his own life. He grew up in a metropolis as a third-generation Moroccan Dutch citizen, which informs his mix of calligraphy with pop-cultural icons like the Nike Air Max 1, a recognisable status symbol representing the dreams, wishes and memories of many children from migrant backgrounds. ILLM merges street culture and age-old graphic craftsmanship into a completely new idiom.
drivers of inclusion
The Talent Development Scheme is a necessary social empowerment that naturally coincides with an activist attitude. A sincere and profound commitment to identity and inclusivity guides designers, researchers and makers. Through a capacity for empathy and sensitivity – either innately or through collaboration with the target group – they can catalyse transformative initiatives and constructive debate. This capacity unlocks the creative disciplines' powerful potential: the realisation of a diverse society in which all sections of society are equal. After all, looking at the other ultimately means looking at us all.
Text: Jeroen Junte
During Dutch Design Week, the 2021 intake for the Talent Development Scheme will be presented in the Klokgebouw under the name Stimuleringsfonds Creatieve Industrie presents talent.