Getting Emotional With… Jeroen van Erp

This interview was originatlly posted at Board member Marco van Hout interviews fellow board member Jeroen van Erp.

Jeroen van Erp is a co-founder and Creative Director of the multidisciplinary design agency, Fabrique, based in the Netherlands. The agency specializes in designing across the whole range of design disciplines: in many instances, the traditional boundaries between graphic design, industrial design, spatial design, and interactive media become almost completely indistinct. Jeroen is a guest lecturer at various educational institutions and a member of the board of the Netherlands Graphic Design Archive (NAGO for Nederlands Archief Grafisch Ontwerpen) and the Design & Emotion Society. He is a known design thinker in the Netherlands and abroad and an important advocate of ‘emotional design’. He is co-author of books that relate to the topic, such as ‘Design & Emotion’ (2003), ‘Design & Emotion Moves’ (2008) and ‘ENRICHING’ (2008).

First, what is your definition of design for emotion?

It all has to do with a creative process for which the intended experience for the consumer has been taken as a starting point. A different perspective creates different solutions.

How did you get involved in the Design & Emotion Society initiative in 1999?

A conference was held that year on the topic of design and emotion, initiated by the Faculty of Industrial Design Engineering of Delft University of Technology. I was invited to that conference and was present at what turned out to be the kick-off meeting for the Design & Emotion Society. This meeting was organized spontaneously as a result of the enthusiasm, synergy and energy present among the participants and in the conference room: this definitely needed a follow up! I stepped into a world I didn’t know existed.

What has the founding of the Society meant for your own perspective on design and your company, and what has it brought to the design discipline in general?

For me personally, it has brought a lot of new contacts, friends and insights. Furthermore, I’m proud to be part of a group of people who initially had a somewhat far-fetched idea, but which has now become a ‘trending topic’ and perhaps even an established discipline within the design community.

Talking about this level of establishment. The Design & Emotion Society is now 12 years of age, how mature is the discipline and what is necessary to make sure it grows, not just in quantity/ adoptation, but also intellectually?

Hmmm, I guess we’re still growing and taking shape. Certainly not mature yet, and more importantly: we have to gain something in order to get the design community and industry more involved. That’s our biggest challenge in the coming years.

How do you think we should approach this challenge, and what can we learn from the growth of other disciplines within the design community?

The design community is dependent on industry, and industry depends on making money. A good example is the growth of the user experience community (UX) in recent years. A lot is happening over there. This is due to the fact that you can make a lot of money improving the performance of an online shop, for instance. This is a good example of a discipline that is a) related (with overlap) to the design & emotion community and b) stresses both user and industry benefits. In order to attract more people from industry we should focus a bit more on the benefits that the industry can gain from our discipline. Also: it’s time we started communicating real and truly great examples. Attracting more designers to our community will take more time. Until recently, designers were not educated as researchers. In general they often don’t have a clue what research can do for them. I’m glad this is changing now.

In an interview with, you talked about the difference in strategy between Philips Senseo and Nespresso. You talked about the (exaggerated) endless product extensions of Senseo and the fresh approach of Nespresso. How would the comparison be if you examine this in the context of ‘design for emotion’? 

The world doesn’t stand still. Features that were differentiators yesterday are a commodity today. Industry continuously has to innovate in order to offer products that are relevant. This has everything to do with evoked emotions or created experience, especially from a positioning point of view. I was surprised this video caused so much commotion. People keep on getting back to me about these 4 minutes of footage. My main message was: ‘dear people from Philips, don’t go for the low-hanging fruit.  You will ultimately regret not having taken a big leap’. Nespresso came up with a perfect product-service system, a domain almost invented by Philips. The reason why it’s interesting to take the big leap is described in Verganti’s Design Driven Innovation.

This is interesting. I recently talked about this with Waris Misbah, from Warwick University in the UK. He mentioned that Verganti talks about radical innovation in his book and puts it this way:

“A company looking for radical innovation of meaning does not get too close to users, because the meaning users give to things is bounded by the existing socio-cultural regime.”

Waris’s question to me was: what methods can we use to identify possible future needs or meanings that customers might attach to a product, which if discovered might significantly enhance the creative process and hence lead to radical innovation?

What would your answer be, taking a stand from a design for emotion point of view?

I guess Verganti’s ‘radical’ is close to Loewy’s ‘most advanced yet acceptable’. He doesn’t mean ‘extreme’. Mind you, he’s an economist. I do not completely agree with Waris. If we had taken the existing socio-cultural regime as a starting point, we would have never developed mobile phones. The digital revolution has proven the opposite: it changed our socio-cultural regime. Verganti also indicates that industry has a tendency to innovate too cautiously. It’s easier to predict the outcome of incremental changes of a product or a service. It is therefore a safer approach than heading for radical innovation, but also as Verganti shows, a less profitable one. In general, industry tends to restrict itself. Consumers are really willing to embrace innovations, but only if they follow the Loewy statement.
And coming back to your second question: there are several methods to identify possible future needs. One of them is the ViP method, developed by Paul Hekkert and Matthijs van Dijk: .

Now, on to your daily practice – your company, Fabrique, is a multi-disciplinary design agency. Is there a main theme to your approach between disciplines? And, how does emotion/ experience have a part in it?

We started out as a multi-disciplinary design agency. During the past decade, we made the move from doing (within a discipline) to thinking (more strategic, goal oriented). This automatically resulted in a more discipline independent approach, focusing on the goals rather than on the means. This means that the focus is on the effect of the design, triggered by the emotions it evokes or the experience the consumer buys. Our biggest problem is the fact that within big companies, products and services are organized in different departments. If you get a call from the interface department, it’s hard to influence the hardware and the other way around. This results in developments  taking place slowly. Too slowly, in my opinion. There’s no central approach.

In your key-note at DE2010 you introduced your model (see image below) explaining the design discipline in relation to design-in-business/practice. Can you explain what drove you to develop it and how it can help other designers/ businesses?

The fact that a lot of research is focused on the experience of the user annoyed me. First: we never deal with a user but always with a client that wants to run a business. The client’s main focus is on convincing the consumer to buy the product, which requires a different point of view than the user will have. The dynamics of this convincing game are quite different from what you are taught or what researchers would like to know. This doesn’t mean that the user (or as I prefer to say: the consumer) isn’t important, on the contrary. But if I only work from the perspective of a user/consumer, this won’t make my clients happy. I see it as a vital role for any designer to balance the concerns of the user/consumer and the client. Secondly: the model shows that decisions at each and every level influence the product experience. There is a tendency, both in education and research, to mostly look into details instead of approaching the problem from a holistic point of view, in order to design the total experience. In my opinion, the only way to create competitive products is to take the total experience as a starting point.

Which designers and which design thinkers have shaped your own thoughts on design?

Nice question. So many people, with a wide variety: from craftsmen to thinkers, from graphic designers to architects. To start, I have great respect for Wim Crouwel and Ootje Oxenaar, two of my former professors at the Faculty of Design Engineering in Delft. Both graphic designers by training but in fact awesome design thinkers avant-la-lettre. I did my internship in 1986 at the renowned Total Design design agency. There, I developed a great affection for graphic design, especially the fact that those designers were more opportunity driven than that they were held back by constraints – which I felt was very much the culture in Delft. Two other heroes are Peter Saville (famous for his Joy Division cover art) and Neville Brody (he took type design to the next level). Apart from these graphic designers I think there are some interesting things happening in architecture (including MVRDV, Koolhaas, Ito), and I love the work of product designers like Jasper Morrison and Marc Newson. But the person that rises above all of the others, is probably Buckminster Fuller, an independent thinker and practitioner, always shifting paradigms.

I often get questions by readers asking for recommendations of books that address the topic of design and emotion. There are very few that really talk explicitly about the topic, but what would your recommendations be?

I would say: write your own! But seriously, I suppose everybody knows the hardcore D&E stuff like Hekkert and Schifferstein’s Experience Driven Design or the books of Donald Norman. They’re the basis. I still get very nice feedback on the Enriching book, which is more of a (two week) workshop diary rather than a real book, but it shows what a different perspective can do. I’m really interested in how to embed the experience-driven approach into design practice, what it could do and what the benefit for both consumers and industry could be. Verganti’s Design Driven Innovation showed some great insights. The proof of the pudding is in the eating, so I like publications with examples. From Floating Wheelchairs to Mobile Car Parks shows 35 great graduation projects, very inspiring. Practicing a more strategic or benefit-oriented approach demands a different mentality from both designers and industry. Still inspiring from that point of view is Gilles Deleuze’s Rhizome, because of the attitude he describes. This book is aimed at philosophers, but is very suitable for designers as well.

Final question, Jeroen. I always like to hear from experts like you what’s next in design. What are the main trends that we need to follow to keep up with the fast-paced changes in our discipline and our society?

Oh, a very good question!. The Design & Emotion Society is part of a movement where the design goals were redefined from instrumental (often technology-oriented goals) to the effect it has on the user’s mind. From my point of view we are once again at a turning point where the focus shifts to the relevance of the design – where design is not limited to the physical world but also to services and even politics. This ‘design for relevance’ doesn’t exclude the other two views but is more an addition: a view from a different and more holistic angle. It also takes account of the industry point of view.

Thanks Jeroen, for taking the time for this interview!