Out There, Right Now

Open Design Programme, WdKA

Deanna Herst & Michelle Kasprzak
Mon 5 Mar

Case Study: Open Design Programme, WdKA

An extract of the paper On “Open” Authorship: The Afterlife of a Design, originally published in Disegno, Journal of Design Culture

This article discusses the ramifications of open design for “author-driven” contexts in the curriculum of the Open Design Programme (Social Practices) at the Willem de Kooning Academy as a primary case study. We intend to question the supposed juxtaposition between the principles of open design (sharing, participation) and traditional notions of authorship (exclusivity) by investigating “open authorship”. Moreover, how could the aesthetic dimension contribute to a socially or individually relevant “afterlife” of the design for the user?

This paper also explores the notion of “open authorship” through examples from the Open Design Programme of the Willem de Kooning Academy. One of the objectives is to investigate the as yet underexposed aesthetic tradition of open design and its possible relevance for art and design education. This is embodied as “open form”, a (historical) perspective on openness from an author’s point of view (Wölfin 1929, Eco 1962, Hansen 1959, Raaijmakers 1988-92)

The case studies explored here represent a new generation of designers and we are confident that there is a strongly interdisciplinary future for open design.

Deanna Herst, Michelle Kasprzak

Case Study: Open Design Programme,
Willem de Kooning Academy

“The poetics of the ‘work in movement’ (and partly that of the ‘open’ work) sets in motion a new cycle of relations between the artist and his audience, a new mechanics of aesthetic perception, a different status for the artistic product in contemporary society. It opens a new page in sociology and in pedagogy, as well as a new chapter in the history of art.” (Eco 1989) The paradigm shift and debate about openness in design authorship—as has become manifest in art education—has instigated the undergraduate program open design at Willem de Kooning Academy. The aim is to investigate a possible common ground between social, technological, and artistic design approaches, a form of design authorship where the (social) utilitarian (de Condorcet) and the aesthetic (Diderot) meet. Because the aesthetic tradition of open design is still relatively unexplored, we will introduce open and participatory strategies to complement the conventional set of design methodologies.

The Open Design Programme consists of interdisciplinary courses in the second year of study, a pre-minor in the third year, and a minor and graduation programme in the fourth year. Each course introduces certain participatory and open strategies focused on aesthetics in relation to designing for users, which exposes students to “artistic frictions” as a result of this often complicated relationship. Students are challenged to critically reflect upon the fundamental properties of open design. The questions include: What is openness in design? What is open authorship? What are aesthetic design strategies for instigating participation, iteration and appropriation within the context of social needs and desires?

Students are challenged to critically reflect upon the fundamental properties of open design.

The strategies introduced in the courses are mostly derived from artistic practices, which are then questioned and explored within design projects. Examples include: Cadavre Exquis (elective course: exploring the open form and iteration), ‘Opening up. The (His)tory of Things (second year: design autopsy, questioning the closed nature of mass products), Collective Collection (second year: collaborative design, networked infrastructures), Cultural Probes: Confrontation Pieces (third year: creating dialogue through provocative design), and Non-Expert Experts (fourth year: disseminating expert-amateurs’ knowledge, user-based design). Each course also offers the students new approach for their practice: whether testing provocation to generate user input, exploring the open form in relation to iteration, employing an ethnographic method in the non-expert expert project or using prototyping and iteration methods in Collective Collection.

Collaborative Aesthetics


Collective Collection focuses on collaborative authorship and open, participatory strategies in various design fields like product design (open design), graphic design (open-source typography) and fashion (open-source fashion). What happens to your role, identity, product or collection when it is composed in a (networked) collaboration? Students were required to design a collective collection (literally: a collectively designed collection of works) based on possible needs, behaviour, fantasies, frustrations or fears of users. They learned to direct a participatory design process by exploring instructions, rules or recipes, and to explore the participatory properties of the product. They were also encouraged to use prototyping and iteration techniques to explore possible ways to approach their chosen product. 

Memory Your Memory project, Sophie Dirven

Sophie Dirven’s Memory Your Memory project  worked with the residents of a care home for the elderly. Dirven interviewed the residents of the home, soliciting their most treasured memories and anecdotes. She then worked with the residents to draw a representative image of that memory, which was laser cut into a wooden game piece. The final game works much like the child’s game “Memory”, where tiles are placed face down and players flip tiles over and then put them back, trying to find matches and remember where the tiles are as they play. Thus, a common memory game is given more meaningful content, and provides a conversation piece for the residents as they play together and share their stories. The game itself functions as a collection or archive of the residents’ memories. The game is also open-ended and extendable: a new collection of memories can be added to the game at a later time.

The game is open-ended and extendable: a new collection of memories can be added to the game at a later time.

Confrontation Piece: Provocative Aesthetics

Secret Stories of Users, a Confrontation Piece introduced students to participatory design techniques through cultural probes and user research. They investigate how user research could also be used as a “tool” for participatory storytelling. How could secret stories about personal needs and fascinations of users inspire the design and contribute to its relevance? Taking the cultural probe as a starting point, the assignment challenged students to design a “confrontation piece”, a thought-provoking design intervention intended to connect with hidden stories, knowledge, and the skills of local artisans.

Memre (Memory), Hilko van Idsinga

The project Memre (Memory) by Hilko van Idsinga focused on forgotten crafts from the Surinamese community in Rotterdam West and on ways to open up their knowledge for future generations. Through interviews in the neighborhood, he discovered that in Suriname, women used to make jewelry and toys from local fruits and kernels. How can jewelry and puppets making of seeds and nuts be reintroduced into the daily lives of expatriate Surinamese? His aim was to design a kit that encourages cultural fusion and inspires women to once again take up their former craft using similar Dutch fruits. This knowledge could then be transferred to children in order to honor and restore the craft. For his research project, he created a kit, whose aesthetic is reminiscent of the Surinamese Awara nut and which contains a combination of both Dutch and Surinamese materials, to make jewelry. When testing this confrontation piece, the object appeared to trigger many specific memories of Suriname. Based upon this outcome, he designed a new kit including a book to collect and disseminate stories about the objects. As a trigger for further participation, he designed new jewelry and shared his blueprints online.

For his research project, Hilko created a “kit”, whose aesthetic is reminiscent of the Surinamese Awara nut and which contains a combination of both Dutch and Surinamese materials, to make jewelry.

Opening up: Sharing “Non-expert Expert” Knowledge

As noted in our discussion of the three traditions supporting a notion of open design, it is clear that there are particular groups and communities with vested interests, and who invent, design, and create without being recognized as designers, artists, or even as being creative. This group of “non-expert experts” (Kasprzak 2014) may be highly skilled and devote exceptional amounts of time and money to their craft, but, without the validation of an art academy education, critical reviews, or engagement with particular niche marketplaces, they operate under the radar. In many ways, the “non-expert expert” groups, who focus more on explicitly creative output, are a slightly different variant of the “pro-am” concept described in a paper published by the think tank demos: “amateurs who work to professional standards”. (Leadbeater & Miller, 2004). As groups with enormous talents and expertise, these non-expert expert communities are ideal for forming collaborations with practitioners in other disciplines, including design.

The recent Open Design Minor Programme requires the students to seek out, engage with, and co-produce an open design project with a community that holds deep, and possibly unusual, knowledge. The course syllabus states: “this project challenges you to develop a dialogue between non-expert expert makers, audiences and designers. Eventually you will define your own approach to open design. think radically – open doesn’t mean allowing people a constricted set of choices (e.g. a dress offered in different colors and lengths) but having an honest, deep, and challenging engagement with user groups and communities to stretch the limits of your design concept.” (Kasprzak & herst 2015) In addition to being encouraged to discover non-expert expert communities themselves, the students were provided with a range of non-expert expert communities for their research. The intention was to break down the roles between designers and “amateurs” and have the students interact with groups which hold informal knowledge in a wide range of subject areas, and recognize that this informal yet valuable.

Exchange Knitting, Yvonne Swiers

The project Exchange Knitting shows fashion student Yvonne Swiers’ fascination for knitting techniques. She collected these skills from various sources (knitting clubs, specialists in open knitwear) and continued her search through an online platform she developed, thus both collecting and disseminating knitting knowledge. n her site she invites knitting enthusiasts to both upload and use files in order to preserve knowledge. At the same time, the project is about exploring collaborative aesthetics. In her own collection, she uses patches from different knitting techniques resulting in a “Frankenstein” dress or cardigan collection that reflect both her and the users’ identities. At the same time, this project also questions openness in design. Embodying the paradigm of open design for artists, Yvonne encourages sharing of the techniques, but is clear about her role as designer, as author of the project and the collection.

In her own collection, Yvonne uses patches from different knitting techniques resulting in a “Frankenstein” dress or cardigan collection that reflect both her and the users’ identities.

Wheelshare by Wietske Lutgendorff

Shared aesthetics and knowledge are also fundamental aspects of Wheelshare by Wietske Lutgendorff (Advertising), who closely collaborated with an expert wheelchair user (Eric Groot Kormelink) during the developing stage. With this project, Wietske intends to make wheelchair users and their environment visible by providing them with an open source toolkit and platform. With this she allows them—as experts of the experience—to show what kind of obstacles they encounter on a daily basis. The project consists of a downloadable ready-to-print 3D file of a grip for a smartphone. Once the wheelchair user’ phone is mounted onto their chair with the custom grip, they are encouraged to record videos of their movements through the city, including all the obstacles they encounter. The Wheelshare website makes the users and their videos visible, public and shareable.

#Wheelshare: follow the instructions and start wheelsharing

Wheelshare exploits the aesthetic power of multiple perspectives and camera views to keep the viewers intrigued and encourage possible participants to contribute to this kaleidoscopic view. It also opens up new perspectives for non-wheelchair users, who have likely not seen the city from this point of view, and also have little idea about how inaccessible public space can be. Lutgendorff hopes that the platform will also serve as a policy tool, as public accessibility is currently being debated by Dutch politicians, and accessibility for wheelchair users in the Netherlands ranks among the worst in Europe. To fully exploit its potential, this student project needs further marketing and professional support.

The full research is available here.


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