With formal training in both ceramic technology and industrial design, Koen De Winter has had a long and varied career for companies including Axis Lighting, Volvo, and plastics manufacturer Rosti/Mepal. Some of his product designs are now in the permanent collection of MOMA in New York and other museum collections on both sides of the Atlantic. In 1979, he moved to Canada where he became Vice President of Design for Danesco Inc. and a professor at the Université du Québec à Montréal. Since 1990 his design office HippoDesign Inc. has developed products for a large number of Canadian, American, and European companies. His lighting fixtures have earned him a Canada Design Award and two Best of Canada Design Awards, as well as invitations to speak about his work across North America. He was also awarded Product of the Year (Frankfurt), the “Prix Hommage” at the Grands Prix du Design, and the prestigious Henry van de Velde award (Belgium). Upon retirement he co-founded a ceramics studio called Atelier Orange. De Winter Designs
De Winter was formerly a member of the board of the Conseil des métiers d’art du Québec and President of the Canadian Industrial Designers Association; currently, he serves as President of the Crafts Commission and a member of the board of SODEC.
As an industrial designer, what is your design approach?
Some years ago the Museum of Civilization in Québec City organized an exhibition on Danish design under the title “Design: The Problem Comes First.” Although I realize that it might no longer appeal to the younger generation, my approach has always been to very seriously ask the question: What is the problem? If there was none, I usually abstained and I must say that in hindsight the projects that offered real answers to a problem were the most successful ones. New insights into function, into new technologies, or into new perceptions on the place and importance of a product create new and very successful products.
Looking back at your experiences, what is your favorite part of being an industrial designer?
Inevitably my favorite part is successfully reaching a large number of users, but it is a little bit more complex than that. As a designer you have to create added value. That implies that you have to make good use of materials, use moderate amounts of labor, and restrain your costs on one hand, while aiming for the highest real and perceived value on the other. But I loved the process itself: a process that always confirms the simple fact that critical thinking leads to better results. I have to admit that industrial design is a profession in which you are never disappointed. If the product is not as successful as anticipated it is almost guaranteed that it will end up in a museum collection or get an award.
In your career, how have you seen the evolution of the industrial design industry? And what do you think was the most significant change?
The profession has changed considerably. When I worked on my first products in 1967-68, the industry had a strong vertical integration. Philips is a nice example: as a designer at the head office in Eindhoven, one could walk the distance between any service involved in development and production, from fundamental research, lighting laboratories, ergonomic research labs, perception research, etc., to production and assembly of most products, including the production of packaging and anything related to it. Globalization and a generalized movement toward building around “core capacities” have made it more difficult for designers to stay up to date in their knowledge of the different processes. The result is less innovation simply because more is dictated by subcontractors and the whole panoply of different companies involved in research, production, and marketing of the products. It has become much more difficult to get everyone around the table. Another change is the fact that the profession has become very attractive, and design schools attract about 30 times more students than they did 30 years ago. A third major change is the media attention for design. The jury is still out on the real effects of this exposure on the design practice, but it is obvious that it has created a double identity: the designer as a media personality and the designer as a professional within the industry. It is tempting to expect that exposure leads to real projects but the reality seems to tell us the opposite. The combined results are interesting because a number of younger designers see no other choice and turn to producing their own designs. For a much smaller market, certainly, but also in more innovative ways than before. It is not clear yet if the resulting exposure of the individual designer can be turned into a real benefit to her or him, to the consumers, and to the industry that serves them.
What is the design vision that you instill in your students?
From the previous answers I guess one can conclude that I try to convince them not to rely on demand for their services. That too has changed. When I applied for a position at Volvo in Gothenburg, the human resources person called the design office and gladly announced, “We have found a designer!” To be successful in design one has to have the strong motivation to identify problems and the willingness and capability to solve them. So the first question for a young designer or an aspiring one should be: Am I that person, do I see products and situations that have to be improved, and am I willing to do the hard work that is needed? If not, there is still room for another real estate agent, or any other honorable profession.
What can be done to better train the next generation in industrial design to face the current reality of the industry?
We probably have to do more than just one thing. I think that the fact that a designer can no longer walk into the factory behind his office, but rather often has to design at a long distance from production, has to be compensated for with better technical knowledge. The opposite has happened. I am also convinced that we should train young designers in better understanding the aspirations of their clients—the industry, yes, but most of all the users. I am convinced that we have to learn to think inside the box and not outside the box. In other words, within acceptable limits: within financial resources, technical capability, and human capacity, and with respect for the environment and the needs and aspirations of the users. I also think that we should widen the scope of our activities. There are large groups of the population that are systematically ignored because designers know that they get no media exposure. Originality certainly has its place, but we always look at successful companies like Apple by looking at their latest product achievements. In order to learn from them we should look at the first ones and learn from how they started.
In your opinion, what is the importance of competitions such as the CLUE for the next generation?
In spite of all my previous statements, I do feel there is an important role for original and innovative thinking. It is simply part of the whole process. Design cannot evolve without taking risks, but risks have to be taken in the proper context. Designers too often think that it is the role of their clients to take risks. In the process they forget that what is at risk is people’s employment, the reputation of a company, the confidence of shareholders, etc. Open competitions like this one are very good places to test ideas, to test products, and to test the capacity of designers to answer the call. Another important benefit is that competitions are a way for designers to distinguish themselves from the pack. I am not sure I would have had the career I enjoyed if I did not win a number of competitions early on.
CLUE’s third edition theme is: ONE FOR LIGHT, LIGHT FOR ALL. With this in mind, how can personalized lighting help us to live side by side, or improve the society in which we must live together?
Personalized lighting in its largest sense means that lighting can be adapted to individual needs all the way from the absence of lighting to a variety of lighting levels and colors according to task, activity, age, and the presence of electronic equipment, for instance. Lighting is an energy-consuming service, and personalized lighting is without any doubt a way of reducing energy consumption by allowing personal input into the level, characteristics, and quality of the lighting. We are now living and working in environments that are often lit at too low or too high a level. We often forget that lighting is a multi-facetted commodity. It influences productivity, comfort, and energy levels, and it also gives a sense of security in public places. These are all individual sensations, and creating the possibility of influencing them individually is a great step in the right direction. The electrical network that supplies the energy can also be modulated and we are not far from the integration of lighting into electronic media and networks.
What advice would you give young designers to succeed in their industry?
You saved the most difficult question for the end… I have no advice to give to young designers. They know best how they want to shape the future. They know better than my generation how to formulate their aspirations and those of their generation. My other advice is more or less universal. It is always better to know more, to be better informed, and to avoid guesswork. The electronic media provide us with a lot of information, but without knowledge you do not know what to look for. It always seemed important to me to be able to show a common level of passion with the industry you work for. That level of passion and interest can only be shown by knowledge. I remember the first time I discussed cookware with a New York-based distributor of cookware. After a discussion about the assortment in general I asked him about handles, if the American market preferred the Latin geometry or the Northern European one… He looked at me and replied, “How do you mean?” I explained how Southern European chefs learn to hold a saucepan and how it was different from Northern European chefs. After that meeting he never doubted that I knew more about cookware than he did. As designers we often pretend to be ahead of the pack… If that is true we should show it, and if we show it I am convinced we will succeed.