Could you briefly describe who you are, where you are from and why you became designers?
We are Manon and Joes and for the last two years we have run a Social Design studio, that we named Joes + Manon. Easy to remember. The plus stands for ‘together with’, because our design practice revolves around collaboration: with the target groups in our projects, but also with other designers and experts.
We met during a project for our Master Industrial Design at the TU/e. This project dealt with discussing female sexuality between two generations of women in Kayamandi, a township (slum) in South Africa. In total we lived and worked in the township for six months. An unforgettable experience and a big leap in the deep in terms of collaboration. The collaboration went so well that since then we have done nothing else but collaborate.
Nice to know is that Joes also holds a teaching qualification and Manon attained her bachelor’s in social Geography before studying Industrial Design. We have now combined these skills and interests in what we call Social Design.
What best describes you as a designer?
All our projects are focused on society and so they often start with a question from society. These social challenges are not isolated, they comprise a spider’s web of people, relationships, needs and more besides. Within our work we explore design possibilities within such a web and involve people who are more knowledgeable about the context than we are, such as experience experts or researchers.
Together we go in search of a topic that contributes to the solution of these challenges. Initially focusing on the (desired) interaction, after which we determine the appropriate design medium. This medium can vary from a workshop and social design safari to an experiential dinner and product.
Sexuality is one of our favourite themes as far as content is concerned. It is something that everyone has to deal with, but that we are fairly secretive about. It is very personal and even so culturally determined. A treasure trove of challenges for us as social designers.
Where do you look for inspiration?
We draw inspiration for the content of our projects from - surprise – the society around us. Sometimes certain themes touch us personally and we investigate this in our work. Other times we read something in the newspapers and feel that there is perhaps a design opportunity here. We are also deeply inspired by international topics and research projects. Other cultures reveal our truths to us and often show that what we perceive as normal or unchangeable could be different.
With regard to the process, we like to draw inspiration from other designers and artists, but also from (new) manufacturing technologies. For example, Manon is following a ceramics course and as a result a world of options for processes and results is opened.
You believe in the power of co-design and like to involve the ultimate users throughout the design process. Why do you consider this important and how does it influence the result?
We work with many different themes. This is possible because we offer a design process and work close to (preferably with!) others familiar with the context, such as the user. It is not in our nature to think up a concept from our studio. Prior to putting pen to paper, we venture into the field to feel the context as it were and to seek inspiration. Sometimes quite literally. For a project about wildlife management we joined a nocturnal hunt.
In addition, it is important to share the ownership from an early stage (or to gift it completely) to the future user or project initiator. This offers the best chance for the success of the project, also once we have moved on.
What is the most special or remarkable work you have ever made or designed?
That is without a doubt our Sexuality programme. Here we advocate a pleasant (everyday) sexual development. Made to measure; because after all everyone is different and has their own sexual development with their own desires and wishes. Which explains why we prefer not to use the word ‘normalisation’.
Every day is a sexual day, and then we are not just referring to the deed itself. Our entire society is marbled with (unwritten) rules of engagement around love, body image, relationships, intimacy, gender identity and reproduction. At the same time, we live in a pressure cooker: sexual norms & values shift, technology creates new (online) possibilities and globalisation lets us taste alternative rules of engagement. Confusing and not always comfortable or desirable.
But where there is friction, challenges occur and there are opportunities for design. For example, problems of a sexual nature like taboos, health risks, hormones, well-meant advice, desires, curves and hindrances, loneliness and vulnerability. As designers we grab these with both hands and suggest appropriate, creative interventions. For example, the experiential dinners that we hosted during DDW19 are part of our Sexuality programme.
During the last DDW you literally put sexuality on the menu in the form of a number of experiential dinners. How did this contribute to breaking through the taboos surrounding sex?
Our dinner was not just about sex, but about sexuality in the broadest sense of the word. Topics like embarrassment, pubic lip corrections, the orgasm gap and desire for skin contact were served up. We designed the courses to stoke a particular topic of discussion, among people who were often complete strangers. For example, together with Nienke Helder we designed a ceramic vulva board and Thieu Custers provided us with herbs grown using our urine as part of his Bodyponics project.
Our dinner allowed people to experience that talking openly about sexuality can be a pleasant experience and that sharing can have a liberating effect. In our design decisions we were very conscious of not coercing people to reveal their personal sexuality, although we noticed that the dinner situation was so safe and intimate that many people did this. Something brilliant: one table established a sexuality club including an app group so that they could discuss sexuality with each other after the dinner. Our dinner is a good example of what we see as the power of design: stimulating interactions, opening discussions and bringing people closer to themselves and each other.
In your Instagram bio it states that you tackle complex social issues and transform them with positive social impact. How do you do that?
We approach each project differently. We determine the most appropriate design methods for each challenge. A common denominator in all our projects is uncovering the (hidden) issue behind the question which minimises the scope of the design challenge, specifying and making it as comprehensible as possible. Besides we champion experimentation and iteration.
In umbrella terms we can say that our co-design projects facilitate a positive change. And that we deploy Social Design as a bridge between societal wishes/needs and those of the individual.
If you were able to choose anyone in the world to work with (a designer, politician, artist, scientist or someone else), who would that be and why?
Tricky question. We always find working with researchers very interesting, because we always want to design based on well-founded knowledge. And we have noticed that researchers do not always know how to make their findings applicable. We believe that with designers this is a golden combination. In addition, we could really do with getting a philanthropist onboard, Bill Gates for example, because we have noticed that in the social domain there is very little funding available for this kind of innovation.
You contributed in collaboration with the What if Lab to the international project The Sustainable Society in Indonesia. How did you experience working closely with Indonesian colleagues in such a different culture?
Fantastic! This project linked up the power of design and that is why it was so successful. We worked with Kamil Muhammad (Studio pppooolll) during this project. He has been involved in design/architecture projects within kampungs (informal neighbourhoods) in Jakarta for years. Together we investigated how the expertise of both architects and residents in such a neighbourhood could be addressed in participation workshops within such projects as Kamil is running.
We both worked intensively with participative design, but in a totally different context. Through the insights we acquired into our similarities and differences in perspective/prejudices/assumptions/methods, we learned about each other (and about ourselves) and could consequently perfect the project in Jakarta.
This project is a good example of you are as strong as your local team when working internationally. Thanks to the relationship of trust that Kamil had built with the target group we were given an accelerated opportunity to dive into the context; we slept in Kampung Kunir one night, were able to observe a participation workshop and had the opportunity to interview a lot of architects and residents.
What would you still like to achieve with your work?
We notice that people increasingly take sides. In the future we would like to continue uniting groups and people and look for solutions together. As designers we want to deepen our knowledge of selected themes, like we are now doing with sexuality.
Do you have any news you would like to share with the DDW community?
Yes, we do. The experiential dinner that we hosted during the last DDW has aroused our appetite. We have already designed a dinner especially for Rutgers. This means that we design the dinner (the cutlery, the dishes, the table setting, the waiting staff attire, …) in such a way that a topic of choice is discussed around the table. Imagine how much fun it would be to conclude a conference with an experience like that? In addition, we are in consultations about our experiential dinner as (fun!) sexual education in schools through eating with pupils or getting students to design a course.
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