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Work that isn’t work – Jason Kempen for DUDE Magazine

A little while ago Partnership Creative Director in our Amsterdam Studio, Jason Kempen, shared his thoughts on the importance of encouraging designers to pursue creative projects outside of the Studio. Originally published in DUDE Magazine, a Dutch design monthly, the article shares the success of one extra-curricular project in particular – Senior Designer Gali Lucas’s sculpture for Amsterdam Light Festival. DUDE had kindly allowed us to re-publish the article here…

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At the end of 2018, we challenged our design team to enter the Amsterdam Light Festival with one rule: they had to submit designs with meaning. No pretty light sculptures for the sake of it. We wanted to see works deeply symbolic of their reality or imagination. This was to push the team out of their comfort zone and to keep connections between heart and design strong. But mostly because we need to keep fearlessness alive in everything we do.

Just like the sculptures in the festival, every day we try our best to translate creative ideas into instantly recognisable brand work. In this case, the medium happened to be light. Our team members tapped into different cultural truths to produce their ideas – from plastic waste, to technology and ocean wildlife. Why enter the Amsterdam Light Festival? It’s not a client. We don’t use light work as medium. It takes time, effort, creative guidance and unbilled hours. But these are exactly the reasons we encouraged our team to enter.

The reality is that (for the most part) what we do every day serves a commercial purpose. We help our clients realise business objectives through design. As rewarding as it is, it means we have to follow a specific given brief. The checks and balances are necessary, but the risk we run is to have a studio of designers who become jaded against fearlessness. They might produce what they think needs to created, instead of something original and bold.

Big ideas are compromised in any creative process – this is a natural. The difficult task is guiding teams to keep the spark alive and deliver big ideas at all. Keeping the confidence to put them out into the world but knowing they might return looking different. As creative leads, we have to be the gatekeepers and guides, so our designers never lose the fight they start out with. We have to tell them – repeatedly – to start big and be prepared to whittle down.

We also need to make them brave in the face of change. Be liberal with trust while providing a safety net. Our only request should be: challenge, surprise and delight. Tell them to imagine the ‘What if’. When you start wide, you can push the boundaries and step out of the lines. Entering the Amsterdam Light Festival is also a way to live the promise we give to designers: if you are interested in life and the world outside the studio, you will create better work.

If all of our designers look to the same media for visual inspiration, we will end up in a homogenous sea of sameness. Though there is a place for industry publications (like the one you’re reading), it’s just one part of the bigger inspiration mix. Along with a culture of hard work and high standards, we should be aiming to build a culture of interest. Fashion, politics, exploration, travel, niche Japanese papermaking or Icelandic architecture – whatever it is. It’s about getting off Pinterest and into the real world. On the flip side: challenge your teams to read or listen to something they don’t like.

The process of creating entries for the Light Festival was a living example of this principle. One of our designers proposed a blooming green flower arrangement that would spill into the canal – from close up, the viewer would see not flowers, but glowing green bottles – a comment on the trash problem in the canals. Another idea was a floating whale above the Prinsengracht, reminiscent of the Dutch history of whale poaching. These ideas were not derivative – and it showed.

Creating a culture of fearlessness doesn’t mean protecting your team from the world – one of the best gifts we can give is resilience. It’s about creating a small safe space at the heart of the studio where ideas can live – even if it’s only for a few minutes or hours – but involving everyone in the full design process as well. Maintaining bravery is not easy to do. Balancing commercial and creative, we live and work in a challenging environment that often makes us question what we do.

I’m proud of the work because it’s not a visual display for the sake of it. I’m proud of the work because it’s immediately recognisable as a social truth, but it’s also an eerie experiment of darkness and light. But the thing I’m most proud of? It has nothing to do with work.

Jason Kempen is Partnership Creative Director at Design Bridge Amsterdam. If you’d like to join Jason’s team, check our Careers page for the latest opportunities.

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