Fight Bureaucracy with Democracy

We talked to the founders of OpenLAB at the Designacademy in Eindhoven — Alvin Arthur and Jim Brady — about how design-students can built a creative environment and empower change by learning from each other.

HalloBasis
Mar 14 · 19 min read


You are graduating as well right now. What are you working on at the moment? What is your graduation work?

Jim Brady
I am working on an interactive installation that focuses on creating an archive through 3D scanning. We have to do two projects for our graduation. My second project is a VR experience about mobile journalism. Like how we receive media not only from mainstream media but also from citizen journalists.


And what about you Alvin?

Alvin Arthur
My first project is basically about merging programming and dancing. So you are coding with your whole body instead of just typing. And the second project is called the choreography of ice-cream. It‘s a performative installation that brings people together to create a recipe and make ice-cream. It comes a lot from my Caribbean background. It‘s mainly about collaboration.


What we learned from the graduation book from Design Academy Eindhoven »In Need of«, is that you experiment a lot with state of the art technology at Eindhoven.

Jim Brady
I Think It has something to do with the school being located in the Netherlands. Because the dutch design is really trying to be innovative and they love experimenting with new technology.

Alvin Arthur
About the technological part: I think the students are really advanced, but the school itself is not that advanced. So we are figuring out a lot ourselves. It‘s not necessarily that we get classes for new types of media. We get taught all the basics like Adobe Suite classes, but if you for instance want to learn about VR or motion tracking, you are really depending on the students. Because we all exchange knowledge and we are motivating each other to do so as well.


Are you in the masters- or in the bachelors-programm right now?

Alvin Arthur
We are both doing our bachelors right now. I am in fact doing my second bachelor. I studied industrial design in Paris at the ensaama 258 for three years, and was super hyped by it. Then, after my graduation I realized, that I didn’t want to make products anymore but rather do something more about design experiences. Then I found out about the Design Academy in Eindhoven, so I came here. I had to choose between master and bachelor and master seemed to be quite a jump from where I came from. So I decided to do the bachelor first. And I still think, it was the right thing to do. And even though it’s a bachelor program, it is still super open and experimental. I mean, I ended up with programming, dancing and ice cream as my graduation topics.


What have been your experiences with the educational system?

Alvin Arthur
When I was in high school, I was kind of depressed, because the school was just boring for me. I was just going to school making minimum effort. I was not struggling, but I just came there to be there, but not really to study. I realized, I didn’t want to be anything like a doctor, lawyer or engineer, but I wanted to do something really open and creative. So after high school I had the chance to go to marketing school or art school and I went directly for the art school wich was the right choice. Especially the first years in art school are what changes you the most, because you really reconsider everything you already have acquired before.

Jim Brady
What have been the differences between those schools?

Alvin Arthur
I think, in Paris it was much more academic. Much more about learning how to draw and we had less workshops. We didn’t do anything with ceramics or textiles and it was really more product focused. But still, as my first study experience it was great. And then, when I arrived in the Academy of Eindhoven and started to work with all these different materials and thinking processes I was really mesmerized.


How about you, Jim?

Jim Brady
I came from high school to the academy. So I didn’t have any knowledge whatsoever beside some art classes in high school and I was really used to this very schoolish vibe. To go to classes from, 8 to 5. I never really enjoyed education, until I came here. When I arrived here, we first had the »Introcamp«.


What is the »Introcamp« about?

Jim Brady
The thing is, every year like 120 students or so are getting accepted at the academy, and they are from 27 different nations. So at the beginning most people don’t know each other at all. So the school supports this »Introcamp« which is organized from the second years students. They built teams with the new students and let everyone introduce themselves. Everybody has to wear weird costumes. I think, it is really well designed in a sense of the social aspects and it’s an awesome way to introduce young people to each other. It really brings – from the first day on – a great vibe and energy. They design the whole experience from the first moment to the last moment. It‘s just a nice way to get to know each other. That’s all you need in the beginning, to feel welcomed.

Alvin Arthur
This event is happening over 4 days and it‘s great, that you are really cut from your normal pace. Especially when you are new, the only thing you can do, is connect with the people. There are games all day long with drinking and a lot of parties. You don’t need more.


It sounds like a lot of work to set up something like this. So who is responsible for the event?

Alvin Arthur / Jim Brady
Yes it is, but the students organize everything themselves. So basically the school finances the second years and they come up with ideas and a plan for the event and then the school gives their ok. If you give young motivated people the option to organize a really strange camp for four days, everybody is down immediately.


So, they come up with new concepts every year?

Alvin Arthur
They have to come up with something innovative and new every year – the names of the teams, the activities and the different locations. What is also important is, that we have these kind of urban legends about the last years. Like »Remember two years ago this or that happened and we have to be better than that« so it becomes a ritual.


This is actually what we want to establish here. The problem we see at our university is to create that spirit, you just described. If you already have that routine and everybody already knows about it, it‘s a settled thing. If you have to initiate something like that – built something from scratch – is probably really hard. What we are trying to figure out, is how to get people into this spirit?

Jim Brady
Especially if you introduce this tradition, that’s already established, within the first years. If you start something like this with the third or fourth year students, it may be slightly more difficult to establish, because they are already used to their old system. You have to find a way to integrate it from the start on.


Do the students from the second year – who organize the »Introcamp« – get any credit points or reward for this?

Alvin Arthur
Yes, they get study points for it. But not like the ECTS. We get study points from the academy itself. Within the academy you have to accomplish 8 study points every year. So you need to do extra work beside your studies in order to get these points. And if you don’t have the 24 points in the end of the program, then you can’t graduate.


Are those extra projects more about social topics and not necessarily design-related?

Jim Brady
No. I mean, it has to be something art- or design-related. So you can curate an exhibition, or do a small internship somewhere, or help organizing the »Introcamp« for instance. They are really trying to set the focus on self-initiated projects.


So they enhance, that people organize or initiate something themselves?

Alvin Arthur
Exactly. They want us to not only focus on school. It‘s easy to only look at the school aspects. When we were in freshman year, Jens – a student from the third year – was giving us the advice: »Guys, it‘s really demanding, but please have an activity beside the studies and never lose that«. I think, what the school is also teaching is, that you need to expand our field of vision.

Jim Brady
Jens also organized a lot of parties and festivals. He was really into music, which inspired us as first year students. I organized a few parties – and Alvin as well. I think, you even got financed from school right?

Alvin Arthur
Yes. I organized hip-hop parties with four other guys as a collective, because there were not so many of them here in Eindhoven. And we got financed from the school because there were so many students from our academy coming to our parties. They really pushed us to organize those things to bind the people. The school invests in that. Wether it‘s for entertainment, community building or collaborative projects.


It sounds like you are already get taught this kind of thinking. If something doesn’t work or you don’t like it, you just change it and do something actively about it. Is that the spirit, that makes projects like OpenLAB come up?

Alvin Arthur
Yes, absolutely. You don’t complain, but you are getting active about it. If you are not happy with something, you have to propose an idea to change it. In general our school is quite positive about that.


From your experience — what would you say are the most important aspects and factors to make a self-organized student institution, like OpenLAB work?

Jim Brady
The thing is, that in the first year all the students are together and you take around courses you have to visit. The second year you choose your department. So while in the first year everybody is together, in the second year the people are getting divided. I think it’s a shame, because my friends and I haven’t been in the same department, so we didn’t do a lot of work together anymore. For me, that was one of the main reasons to start OpenLAB and to get all the different perspectives from the different departments to work together and inspire each other.

Alvin Arthur
In order to create a strong bond, we made people connect directly from the beginning by presenting them selves. In The first week of OpenLAB we asked people to present their portfolio in a very casual way. They brought their work and talked about it and themselves. So everybody knew, what the others were up to. We wanted to create this collaborative project. It was important for us, that everybody first shared where their at. The mentors we recruited, had to talk about their work – in order to get everybody on the same level.


In the article about OpenLAB in In Need of , »Student driven learning« by Gabrielle Kennedy you talked about »…a system of open anarchy has to be found and agreed on that works«. How do you establish a system, that is open enough to let anarchy happen but also provides a frame, that people can work in?

Jim Brady
OpenLAB was of course a huge experiment. We never did something like this before and the students, which participated, also haven’t done anything like it before. We didn’t have a lot of experience, so it was quite interesting to see, how the whole program evolved. We started that framework we thought students wanted and needed. But we were very ignorant in that sense, because people, who participate on a self initiated project, want to take decisions as well. So they were really motivated to get themselves involved. That was actually a huge surprise.

We started that framework we thought students wanted and needed. But we were very ignorant in that sense, because people, who participate on a self initiated project, want to take decisions as well. So they were really motivated to get themselves involved. That was actually a huge surprise.


I guess you also have to show your value to the University? You mentioned the importance of credibility as a sovereign institution. How did you earn this credibility and proved your relevance to the university?

Alvin Arthur
When we presented our idea to the head of education, she was directly hyped by it. I think, that built trust already. We kept on working and working really hard on it and then suddenly it worked out.


Would you say the key is to convince the most powerful person?

Alvin Arthur
It’s the shortest way and if that person trusts you, things are getting a lot easier.

Jim Brady
Of course some people will always doubt your ideas, but you have to prove them wrong. From my experience if you’re motivated enough, you get the motivation from other students and of course some help from the top, you will work it out. When students get a lot of responsibility for their own education, then you can immediately see, that they’re really willing to make it work. They’re under their own control. Normally you rely on your professors and teachers to built the whole framework, but the moment you get the responsibility yourself, you will try to make it happen.

When students get a lot of responsibility for their own education, then you can immediately see, that they’re really willing to make it work. They’re under their own control. Normally you rely on your professors and teachers to built the whole framework, but the moment you get the responsibility yourself, you will try to make it happen.


When you build something like OpenLAB from scratch, there is always the risk that it becomes a little artificial, because it hasn’t grown naturally. How did you make sure, you’re on to something, that will be excepted by the students?

Jim Brady
Within a group of seventeen you really noticed that some people are willing to take a lead, but I think to make it work you really have to listen to every individual. Sometimes that was a bit hard, because some people are a bit more shy than others. You really have to learn how discussions work and most importantly how democracy works.

Alvin Arthur
Democracy and bureaucracy!

Jim Brady
Yes, we had a lot of discussions and sometimes it can be very frustrating as well, because instead of a full day of work, you have a full day of discussions. That can be really tiring. But it also can be very satisfying, in a sense of how the group can work together and how to compromise with each other.


The group will help to establish something, but you always need some people, who are initiators and take the lead. Right?

Alvin Arthur
Yes, there were a lot of people in the beginning, that were like: »Hey guys, we want to follow you on that and we want to make OpenLAB happen«. So basically we met those people and we gave them full transparency and told them: »Look this is what happens, this is what we did so far and this is what we want to do.« So transparency is really important. It’s not always working and it comes with a lot of discussions, but then again it’s so necessary. I remember once we had to do an exhibition. So our three departments – documentation, exhibition and framework – should have had a meeting to update each other. But then it got canceled. And suddenly the people didn’t know anymore, where they were standing and what they had to do. It was becoming a mess and everybody was getting mad at each other. It’s also difficult, because you have to deal with your friends. It’s another context then friendship – so you have to make compromises and discover different sides of each other. It’s a really big social experiment and being transparent is very important for that.


Is the OpenLAB still running?

Jim Brady
It is. But now it‘s called »collective«.


Are you still involved or did you pass it on to a new generation?

Jim Brady
We passed it on. If we are going to be involved in something that students should organize by themselves – not as students but more as curators and managers – that would be a conflict with the state of mind of OpenLAB. So what happened is: People initiated themselves again and got new students. We were there for them in the beginning talking to them and giving them all the advice and information they needed.


Isn’t that a great success for you, that you established something and you can just pass it on without the feeling, that you need to be there everyday to make things work?

Jim Brady
For sure. I was really happy that a new generation was willing to take this mindset and continue it. That’s why we started it. It’s great to see, that it works.


So the university gave you spaces where you could establish this as a experimental environment?

Alvin Arthur
At the beginning, we were scheduled day by day to different rooms and spaces within the school. So we had to check with the schedule, what spaces are available. But this was only at the beginning. Later we moved to the Designhuis in Eindhoven. The school financed that we could work in the Designhuis, which was pretty insane, that they were paying for that new location for us to work at.


We found out that it’s pretty important to have a localization, that people can relate to. You shouldn’t have to move to a different place everyday. That students in the end have a place to go to and identify with. What have been your experiences on that?

Jim Brady
When we had that space at the Designhuis, we tried to make it our own as well. We hung up our own posters, brought furniture and implemented our ideas. I mean, you want to get a really nice and energetic vibe and not only tables and some power plugs. You want to make it your own and create a living environment for the people, that are working there. But not only the space but also the social aspect is important. Sometimes we were discussing and working and somebody said: »Ok guys, drop everything we are gonna get a beer!« and then we went to the park and just had some beers and food. Of course you are working together, but it‘s important that, if you invest a lot of energy in your work, you don’t disregard the social aspects. Because the people will get bored and you have to keep their motivation going. So we went together to sports, like gymnastics or body motion awareness and also gave classes for each other in video editing or coding for instance. I think, all that is really important.


I am sure you collected a lot of insights and knowledge about the whole project. How did you document all the work and all the insights?

Alvin Arthur
At the end of the whole process we asked each of the peers and the mentors to write down a self evaluation of how they saw them – selves within this adventure. Everybody was super direct and transparent about their experiences. I think, that was very helpful also for the next generation, that we passed it on to. We made sound books, as a sort of an audio documentation, where students shared their insides and how they felt about the experience at OpenLAB. The same team – that has been responsible for the sound books – was also interviewing and recording people, talking about their work. At the exhibition you could walk through the projects with your headphones on, plug them to the objects and listen to what the people had to say about it. The whole room were telling you a story on a different level. That was really well done.


When you had the idea for OpenLAB. You had a certain idea about what creative education or design in general should be about. What do you think are future tasks for designers and what do design students have to learn to be prepared for these tasks?

Jim Brady
Be very flexible I would say. Flexibility is the key. That’s also why we proposed, that each week a different student would teach, what he or she is doing to other students. Because you need to be able to use that knowledge around you and apply other perspectives on your own process. We really wanted to have that constant exchange, so that people would be stimulated and be able to be flexible within that framework.


One of our insights – we had while working on our Master – is, that companies are taking a more important role in defining education and shaping our everyday life. Do you think design faculties are aware and prepared for these shifts? Jim I think, here it’s different. We don’t really feel this pressure from companies. A lot of Eindhoven Academy students start their own studios or business after they graduated. I would say almost 80 percent or something. But also the University is like a company itself. They really try to mold their students through their own vision, to get them to be innovative and to create their own identity.

Alvin Arthur
I know that our school refused even Google to come to our university. It really depends. If you look at the MIT, they are very influential on society and they are making a lot of interesting projects. There are companies, which are extremely involved in what MIT does, because those companies investing a lot of money in that school. They produce amazing ideas there, but in a way, that it feels like it’s more the company that owns the rights on that project. I think, you give away something from yourself and from your creative freedom. If that’s right or wrong – I don’t know.

Jim Brady
I think, that’s one of the points, why the head of education as well agreed with our idea. She is aware, that in the current economic situation especially in the creative sector – where things shift so fast – the capability of being flexible is a very valuable asset.

Alvin Arthur
Especially the different mentors – we hired at OpenLAB – really contributed to that.


Were the mentors not working for the university? Were they freelancers or designers, that you hired and payed with money from the university?

Jim Brady
Teachers came to us and gave an example of their work. After some classes
we evaluated the teachers and they were shocked, because since when do students evaluate their teachers, right? But that was amazing and it was a very interesting situation. One of the mentors, Cindy van den Bremen, was not used to this at all and after the third class she gave, we asked our fellow students: »Ok so what do you think, guys? What are your opinions? Is she the right fit for us?« Then we just discussed all those opinions. This was a very valuable and nice experience. Not only for us, but also for Cindy to get
our thoughts, insights and feedback on her classes.


What I like about this concept is, that teachers or professors
have to proof themselves. In the traditional university structures
the professors don’t have to proof themselves as valuable to the students.

Jim Brady
Yes exactly! The important question is: »Why would we still go to school today, if we can get the same knowledge on the internet? And what would be the benefit for us going to this particular teacher?« I want to go to school and meet inspiring people and meet my fellow students. That’s the most important aspect. Also to learn about the different perspectives from a professor and benefit from their knowledge of the design world and their social experiences.

»Why would we still go to school
today, if we can get the same knowledge on the internet? And what would be the benefit for us going to this particular teacher?«

— Jim Brady

Alvin Arthur
To me, it is the design academy here in Eindhoven and as a subculture OpenLAB, for sure. I am also involved in the dancing world. As a dancer
you meet really crazy people – especially from the house and hip hop
scene. They all create new styles and I am very inspired by it.

Jim Brady
I would say design academy as a culture as well. It ads a lot to Eindhoven as a city and the creative culture. For my second internship I went to London to hellicar studio. They do mainly interactive installations related to art, design and technology. I was suprised, when I heard from other students about their internships. It showed me, that a lot of companies are really traditional in a way that, if you go there as an intern you don’t have a lot of influence on projects and you only produce for them. The first moment I entered the studio, I was immediately brought to a presentation to give my opinion and was directly involved with everything they did. I always felt a lot of freedom to give my perspective and opinion. To be that much on a same level with everyone else just feels amazing. It’s the same with OpenLAB. If people are on the same level, you get so much energy and motivation to do things together.


What would you consider the most important aspects of a creative culture?

Alvin Arthur / Jim Brady
Having the right energy. If you have a good chemistry within a group everybody wants to become a part of it. Of course it’s a lot of work, because you need to keep that energy level up and you need to find a way to keep people interested and motivated. For me it’s really important, that each of us learns how we can share knowledge with each other.


Thank you for the conversation!


We are using this platform to share conversations, thoughts and impressions about the future of education in the context of creativity and design. These were published in our publication »Think Talk Work – The campus is dead. Long live the campus.« which can be downloaded for free from our homepage soon.

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