Sanne Wijbenga worked for many years at Studio Dumbar and Fabrique in the Netherlands, before deciding to move to Germany in 2014. He is currently Director of Connected Living at IXDS, a service design agency that is difficult to pigeonhole — like Sanne himself. We spoke to Sanne about his career path, his growth as an all-round creative, and the reasons for his move to Germany.
Could you briefly take us through your career, Sanne?
My first job was at Studio Dumbar in Rotterdam. This agency is primarily known for its visual identities for KPN, the Dutch Police and Dutch Railways, to name a few. Dumbar was just starting to set up a digital team and that was exactly where I fit in. We did everything ourselves — interaction design, visual design and programming; we tried out a lot of stuff. I stayed there for five years.
Before that you had studied illustration at HKU University of the Arts in Utrecht. How did you end up at the digital team of a branding agency?
During my studies I gradually came into contact with digital possibilities and I started making more and more animations and interactive things, like video games. When I finished art school I basically did everything but illustrations. For me, there was something magical about bringing a static picture to life and programming came easy to me because of my talent for math. This made interactive design the most logical step.
Illustration felt very old fashioned and flat. Telling stories through metaphors in an image was a little different to what I had initially imagined. The focus in the education was very much turned inward and basically excluded the outside world and the exciting things that were going on at the time.
And then you were able to develop yourself further at Dumbar?
Exactly! And when I felt I had learned everything there I went to work at Fabrique in Amsterdam. They don’t create advertising campaigns that are online for two months; rather they focus on creating added value for users in the long term. I designed websites and apps there for a wide range of consumer brands, including the Rijksmuseum, Artis Royal Amsterdam Zoo, Albert Heijn’s Allerhande as well as ING Bank and Nuon Vattenfall. So yes, amazing clients and projects.
I no longer have to be able to do everything myself, but I find it incredibly fascinating to learn from others and to see what I can add to my skill set.
After six and a half years at Fabrique you moved to Germany. Why Germany? Was that a logical step?
Ha ha, no. I moved to Germany for love. My German girlfriend and I traveled back and forth between Amsterdam and Munich for one and a half years, but there comes a time when you don’t want to do that any longer and you have to make a decision. And then I said: “I’ll pack my bags and give my notice at Fabrique.” Then I went to Munich and I started again there.
Lots of people in the Netherlands want to work abroad and have a kind of cosmopolitan dream that that is very easy to do in Europe. Is that idea correct?
It is certainly different in Germany. I think that a city like Amsterdam is very internationally oriented. The German market is big enough that it can focus on itself. German is still the language of communication; it is often hard to switch to English here. That is unthinkable in the Netherlands. So no, I don’t think we are there yet, not in Munich at least. Things are probably different in Berlin or Hamburg.
How did you resume your career in Germany?
I was looking for a job for four months to start with. I had a lot of coffee with people and in doing so gradually built up a network here. And then an opportunity at SinnerSchrader came along. One of the biggest digital agencies in Germany. SinnerSchrader has a very strong background in IT and is able to do very complex big projects. At the time they were looking for a creative director at the relatively new office in Munich. When I started at SinnerSchrader I set a couple of goals for myself: I wanted to learn German, get to know the German culture and master the role of Creative Director. After a year I looked at that list and thought: I’ve achieved those goals here now.
When you understood that you thought: it’s time for something new.
Exactly. Because I missed the creativity at SinnerSchrader, the projects were just too big. And then IXDS came along. They compete more with agencies like Frog and Ideo. It is a complete different type of agency with a unique approach; much more focused on innovation and product development. I now work with colleagues from various disciplines I had never worked with before, such as service designers, industrial designers and business designers. Very enriching.
I always try to tell young creatives that want to do too much at the same time that they first and foremost have to choose one thing to focus on..
How would you characterize yourself in the IXDS team, now you work with so many people, all with different knowledge and skills?
Have you heard of the T-shaped person? The vertical bar of the T represents the depth of your knowledge, skills and experience, whereas the horizontal bar represents the breadth of your knowledge. For me, the depth is screen design. So when I work with visual or UX designers they notice that I understand what they are talking about. I can also help when there is a very concrete typographical problem. And that also gives me credibility, I think. I don’t have that experience in other disciplines, like service design, but I am able to work with them. I no longer have to be able to do everything myself, but I find it incredibly fascinating to learn from others and to see what I can add to my skill set.
Is it important that young creatives start developing their breadth of knowledge at the beginning of their career?
I think there’s a misconception that you can immediately be a generalist. You become one. I always try to tell young creatives that want to do too much at the same time that they first have to choose one thing to focus on. Saying that, I don’t mean you have to switch off your openness and curiosity, but that you have to get really good at something. Because most companies still think in terms of profiles. You are not going to create a very special job for someone who still has little experience; that is more of a possibility later in your career.
If you get down to work, do your job well and you continue to grow, at some point it is obvious to you what you are good at, what you like and how you can develop this further. You just have to keep at it. In my career I have done plenty of projects that were not always great fun, but that taught me a lot.
No single step needs to be perfect. If you know that something will give you a lot, than that is enough.
Perhaps we are now afraid to commit ourselves, with the dread that it is for ever.
I took a big step by moving to Germany a couple of years ago. And that has made me start looking at my work in a different way. You should see it as a kind of journey. When your suitcase is full and there’s no room for anything else or there’s nothing more to gain, you have to go on to the next destination and take the next step. No step needs be final, so people must not be afraid about tying themselves down for a time. No single step needs to be perfect. If you know that something will give you a lot, than that is enough. And you have to trust that things will surely turn out okay and that there is always a plan B. There are so many possibilities, that I think there is always a place for skilled people.