Marco van Hout On Transformation Design & How To Tackle Complex Global Problems


Marco van Hout (The Netherlands) is Lead Design & Research at MediaLAB Amsterdam and currently one of the initiators of the Digital Society School, part of the Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences. 

After initiating the widely used Design Method Toolkit, Marco is on a mission to improve the impact of the creative community on the world’s biggest challenges. As part of this mission, he was one of the founders of the international programmes ‘Design Across Cultures’ and Global Goals Jam, in close collaboration with the United Nations Development Programme. 

Since 2004, Marco has been a known advocate of 'emotion- and experience-driven design’. He is co-founder of SusaGroup, serves as board member for the Design & Emotion Society and sits in the advisory boards of creative agencies DOT and Posmo. He is a design faculty member at IE University (Madrid) and lives in a small Dutch town with his family where he occasionally picks up abstract painting. 


Marco discusses multi-disciplinary approaches to creating positive impact, provides insights into innovation, emotion-driven design, user research & views on measuring impact.


Highlights from the interview (listen to the podcast for full details)

[Tom Allen] - To kick off Marco, could you please share a bit about your background and what led you into the world of transformation design? [2:26]

[Marco van Hout] - There were a few things that were really important to me, besides sports and school obviously. First of all, I wanted to please people always. I wanted to know how I could do and create things that would make them feel good. And I was drawing a lot at the time. My drawings were really meant to be impactful, at least that was my thinking.

So, I tried and tried and never got to the point that I felt successful in it and this remained a frustration for me for a long time. Secondly, while growing up, I had a real obsession with being connected to people. So, I was the only kid on the block who would really pay frequent visits to almost every neighbour around. And they probably got sick of me. Nevertheless, you know it was the mix of this human interest and trying to impact feelings that would stick with me for a lifetime. Since then, I've been trying to focus on people. And it shaped me as a professional and as a person up until now.

If I moved forward to my academic life, let's say that's 10 years fast forward, I studied Communications Sciences and I majored in Human Computer Interaction. At the time, it was probably called differently. Once again, all of this was also about human interest and impact. While studying, I started two companies and they both focused on digital applications and websites for companies. At that time it was just pure brochures online, but I learned a lot. And digital design gave me the satisfaction of having to really dive into user satisfaction or usability issues and the direct feedback that I got from those users was astonishing to me. I could get instant feedback and tweak the product to improve it directly. So that was a big leap for me.

In the early 2000's I was focusing on how interactive products could be improved based on the emotional impact of using them; not so much on the usefulness and ease of use and usability, which was the main focus at that time. In that period, not so many people focused on this area, and I thought it was necessary for the design field to start appreciating the human side of product consumption. So, I therefore felt a real passion and drive to start unravelling how people feel emotions and how they feel with products and how we as designers could start taking this into account from the earliest stage in the design process.

You could say that denying that products have emotional impact, is actually to deny that they are designed for human beings in the first place.

So, for me, that was a big mission. Based on that, I co-founded SusaGroup. That company would purely specialise in helping companies to translate the targeted impact in emotions, in experiences, and meaning into interactive services or tangible products. We were really good at getting emotional feedback from users. We started developing tools that could measure those emotions and experience level feedback from digital platforms.


Luckily, there are still many companies using these tools. And, yeah of course the foundational research that was underlying it by among others, Professor Pieter Desmet, a well known figure in this field of Delft University of Technology. I still feel that these tools are relevant today.

After seeing lots and lots of businesses, we worked a lot with fast moving consumer good companies.

Those companies wanted to purely delight and the wow factor was a big topic at the time. They wanted to ‘ooh’ or ‘ah’ their users. It made me feel like it was superficial.

At that time I was ready to move on again and get back to the real human interests. I wanted to not only talk about emotions purely. It made me feel that there was more to it.

I also started noticing that real user research was often neglected, especially by the practitioners for whom it would be most beneficial.

I thought, where to start best is with education. I started working with Media Lab Amsterdam, which is a part of the Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences. There are multi disciplinary teams made up of students. They work with industry and they work on real life projects. I saw that students were doing endless user research, because it felt so great for them and it was always interesting. You constantly find out things about your ideas, so it feels comfortable to do user research.

But at the end, because they didn't have so much time anymore, they used to make these messy concepts or prototypes. I started thinking that this had to change.

So, it was either that people would do endless user research, or the other extreme that they would fall in love with the first idea and never do any meaningful user research at all.

I initiated changes to this programme and it infused the teams with a way to do research, but also to make stuff at the same time. I wanted to enable them to translate quick research results into insights and design criteria and do this in a more iterative way. They could then make design decisions and they were immediately backed up by user testing and research.

Assumptions could immediately be tested by quickly prototyping them.

The outcome was this design method toolkit and an agile form of design thinking to implement and execute the methods. It's still being used with great success. This made me fascinated with creating tools and techniques for designers to improve their impact. Transformation design is my latest topic that I'm working on, which is actually human-centred. You might call it an interdisciplinary process that actually creates desirable and sustainable changes in behaviour. It's focused on individuals, it's focused on systems, on organisations. So, it's extremely broad.

Often transformation designers is used in the context of social innovation, and I found that interesting because I was of course focusing on emotions, but emotions are very individually focused, so I wanted to go beyond that.

Transformation design really integrates the best of design thinking, graphic methods, social design, experience, emotion design and even behaviour design.

It includes everything that is needed to tackle the world’s most complex problems. To facilitate or guide true transformation is something else than really creating world change, but I think it makes people want to wish that they could design the transformation itself and that's the thing that I find really interesting. When the transformation itself is the final design goal, it suddenly becomes really exciting again and for me, at the moment, it is a very good place to be in.


Could you please tell us a little more about the upcoming Global Goals Jam. What are its aims and how do you aim to create positive social change through this? [11:49]

If you talk about transformation design and social change, we at the MediaLAB created this to implement this transformation design on a global scale.

We believe that interdisciplinary teams can boost their creativity by using design methods. Secondly, we believe in the value of sharing and building on each other's knowledge.

We also believe in agile iterative design and we believe in tackling these big global issues by taking smaller local steps. The Goals Jam is a way to kick start this global movement that wants to direct design impact, specifically focused on the global goals, which were adopted by the United Nations and they have a lot of targets and they aim to solve those before the year 2030.

The Global Goals Jam is a two day event. Of course you can't change the world in two days, but with these short design sprints that we facilitate at the moment, over the 30 locations worldwide, teams of designers, developers and people from the local community work together with a tailored tool kit based on our design method toolkit. They will create interventions aimed at these short term targets in support of the longer term goals. We want to achieve a local, short term focus during those two days and that's because we have this as a global initiative. We want people to share things and use each others ideas to actually move towards those end goals better.

This year's really exciting because we have some top level curators such as Bruce Mau and Carlo Ratti from MIT Media Lab that are in conjunction with the EDIT Conference in Toronto. They're going to pick out the best concepts that have the most opportunity to become a sustainable solution for any target of the goals. Some of those ideas are also going to be further developed with a collaboration we're starting called Global Goals Labs, which is organised and funded partly by the UN Foundation. So, the idea is that in those two days we kick start some ideas and concepts based on design thinking, technology and then at the end we want to facilitate and help the second step to really create products and services and systems out of this.

Why do you think that using a design process is one of the best ways to respond to these global challenges? [15:08]

I think good design is done by moving beyond disciplines.

Secondly, the design process itself is really great at glueing those disciplines together and guiding them towards one target. Design really advocates an empathic and human sensitive approach towards challenges.


Why do you think that using a design process is one of the best ways to respond to these global challenges? [15:08 continued]

These global challenges we are facing are really in great need of a human focus. Especially when global perspectives have to make us look beyond cultures, contexts and borders.

Good designers fall in love with the problem and not so much with a solution.

This makes the design process really appealing when it comes to responding to challenges that have to be the most sustainable and the most long lasting solutions at the end. I think when you really dive deep into the problem, you have a bigger chance of achieving that.

Beyond the Global Goals Jam, what local or global initiatives have you come across that you believe are really successfully tackling problems and creating opportunities that provide both social and environmental benefits? [16:30]

Luckily, there are a huge amount of initiatives. Even if you Google lists of best social innovations for each year in let's say the last five years or so, you'll really come across a lot of really great products, services, systems, ideas and organisations that are really interesting.

But the question remains; how many of these initiatives are really the game changers after they have been implemented for a longer period of time?

I think the initiatives that thrive best are the ones that are integrated in the context of the real problem.

At the same time, they do not suffer from policy changes, or cultural changes around that particular problem. A great example I like a lot and am following at the moment is The Ocean Clean Up. It's an initiative by a young fellow Dutchman, whose name in Boyan Slat. His project is arguing for a passive way of collecting all the plastic from the ocean. It uses a kind of funnel technique. I don’t know all the technicalities; it's just there in the ocean and because of the currents, the plastic really sticks to that funnel.

It's a very straight forward technique and it's actually genius in its simplicity and it's already approved that it works really well. The good thing about this project, is that it does not interfere with any international or local policies and therefore is really broadly accepted and supported. This is one innovation on that scale, really tackling such a large, global problem can eventually become a success.

There's one small other example from our own turf from MediaLAB, it's Hemelswater. It literally translates into Heavenly Water. It's a beer made out of rain water. In Amsterdam, flooding issues are increasing as we have old drainage systems and increasingly heavy showers during some periods. The city cannot handle all that water, so what we can do is collect this before it hits the drain systems and then it can be used for other purposes. In this case, it can be used to brew beer. The beer does a great job in creating some kind of movement behind the problem and it's becoming a real kick starter for new ideas. Of course the beer doesn't change the world, but it's kind of a catalyst for change and for inspiring people. Currently there’s even a Gin & Tonic now that's spun off from this Heavenly Water, also made from filtered rain water. We can enjoy the rain from now on here in Holland!


In your work as a consultant and facilitator then and from the projects that you've worked on, what are some of the challenges that you typically experience and how do you work around them? [20:20]

I will highlight one, which is more of an observation.

Working with large corporates does not necessarily mean that you create bigger impact.

This was the first thing that I thought when I was younger, that working with an amazing big company is the best thing that can happen to you as a designer or as a consultant. It's actually the contrary because working with R&D and innovation departments usually creates some kind of bubble within such a large corporate where you create concepts and designs that you aim to be shattering the status quo. Then when things come out, they usually don't.

This is because innovation was, and I still think it is often not treated as a cross departmental thing.

So, I've become a bit more cynical in a way.

I'm waiting for the day that we can break down all the silos in companies and can form real teams in companies that are truly multi disciplinary and have people from all departments.

And of course speaking to other designers, this usually sounds extremely logical, but doing consulting and being in this corporate environment, I would say there's still a long way to go. That's actually still one of the biggest challenges.

What do you believe are the best ways to then measure the social impact of a project? [22:19]

It's a very difficult question. I think if you relate this to my work in emotion measurement and emotion-driven design, the question was, can we measure emotional impact, especially for products? Emotions are quite intangible and of course they highly depend on context and the person. One of the bigger misconceptions usually was that emotional impact is not designed. If this, then that, you know. So, it's not if this, then that happens. There's no one to one relation between this product and the emotion. That's why I also prefer to talk about emotion-driven or designing for emotion and not just design of emotions. Not really design of the emotions itself. The emotional impact is the aim, but it can not be compared to designing a button, the functionality of a button, for example, that either turns on or off a device. It's not just that.

With emotion-driven design it's highly dependent on someone's personal background, expectations, their context, circumstances in which this button is used, whether or not it will evoke either joy or frustration or any other emotion.

So if I relate that to social impact, can you measure that? Well, probably yes, like with emotions, but do most designers know how? Probably not.

Do they think there is a one to one relationship with the products and the emotions between design and impact in a social context, yes. This is because designers usually don't know about research benchmarks. They don't know about pre and post testing so much, data gathering and analysis. So yeah, the design field really only just started ... Of course, you could say 10, 15 years, but that's a short amount of time.

You compare it to the years the discipline is alive already. With emergence of design research, these topics have been explored more, but only within the best design schools such as Delft.

So, not only the ability to show impact is a real necessity for designers of social change, but it's also key for the design field overall.

We all have to prove that there's impact with anything we do.

I think this is where the sharing of research, test results and early prototypes is really needed in the design field. I think there's this lack of culture of sharing in the field that is there in the academic design field where we have these conferences and everything, but there's practically no sharing of intermediate process level results between practitioners. So, I truly believe the design field is in need of kind of a Behance for design research and getting insights from the process of the projects. This way we can quote each other. We can refer to each others learnings. We can take social impact measurement to the next level just by using each others insights. That's a call I'm making for like a year or so now.


What advice would you give then to the budding social innovators who are listening who have an idea like the one you've just mentioned, but they need to take that action to get their initiative started? [26:19]

Well, that's quite simple for me to answer because it's joining the Global Goals Jam. There are 30 locations worldwide. You can sign up and join. It's on the weekend of the 15th-17th of September. The idea there is that we have these challenges that we relate to the global goals, but you're completely free to take and bring your own idea. Team up with people from other disciplines and just make sure it's picked up to help you get to the next stage with, for example, the Global Goals Labs that we are now trying to kick start with the UN Foundation.

It's easy to say just start, but I think you need other people and I also think you need other cities. On a global scale you need people to help you out.

To finish off, could you please recommend a few great books that you think would inspire our listeners? []

[Marco discusses the books listed below in detail.]


Initiatives, resources and people mentioned on the podcast

Recommended books


You can contact Marco on LinkedIn or Twitter. Please feel free to leave comments below.

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