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Design? It’s child’s play - Tilde Bekker

Early in her career, Tilde Bekker spotted a gap in design research and decided she was going to help fill it. She realised that special user groups like children and the elderly were neglected by designers and that this was an area where she could really extend knowledge. Her pathway has led her to her current professorial position at the Technical University of Eindhoven (TU/e), where she champions the ‘Playful Interactions’ theme at the Industrial Design department, and leads innovative research in the area of designing for children, both for learning and for play.

Bekker started out by studying industrial design at Delft University, and it was whilst she was there that she joined a group researching the relatively new field of interface design. So began her involvement in the area where user meets technology. “I’ve always been interested in the user angle in design” she explains: “looking at the requirements of products so that it’s easier for the user to interact with it.”

Bekker’s early academic posts consolidated this user centred approach, and it was whilst working at the Institute of Perception Research, that she started looking for a new niche and identified the gap which has subsequently defined her career. She began by looking at how to evaluate and design products for children, and the knowledge designers would need. She decided she’d like to meet the other academics working in this field, and unwittingly, ended up co-organising the first conference around the subject. “Well, we called it a workshop then,” she remembers laughing, “I was a little naïve and I didn’t really realise the amount of work it meant”. It turned out to be a great success and her pioneering workshop has now become an established, annual, international conference.

In 2004, the TU/e opened their Industrial Design department and she joined the academic team in User Centered Engineering. Her current role, as Associate Professor, is to focus on intelligent products and the added value of embedded technology; she wants to find out what an interactive product can do versus a non-interactive product. “Technology is becoming more embedded in all sorts of things” she says, “so if you don’t incorporate technology, you miss out on a lot of opportunities”. Her areas of interest encompass research projects on designing for health, the elderly, sport and, of course, children.

In this specialist area, Bekker strongly believes that embedded technology plus a child’s imagination, expands the possibilities of play and interaction. “I’m not saying it’s better,” she explains, “because that’s very hard to prove. But it can lead to more diverse forms of play because you give children more opportunities“. For her, the key is what you try and do with the technology and how you can design with it to support a child’s development and add value. For example, she’s made a point of designing toys without screens so that children still drive the play process: “Part of it is design, but part of it is also how it’s appropriated” she explains.

Bekker’s starting point is to understand what children need at different ages and across all developmental areas. She explains: “if a designer focuses too narrowly on just the social, cognitive, physical or emotional development, you miss an opportunity, because they’re all related, all complimentary.” She believes that you’ll get a more interesting and innovative design if you consider all these different perspectives. This philosophy has also guided the ‘Playful Interactions’ design research theme that Bekker helped set up. This focuses on bringing positive change to people’s lifestyles by attracting them to playful activities and is the theme for many of the long term research and design concepts from Bekker and her students.

Working alongside her students is an important source of inspiration.

“It’s a win-win situation” she says, “I use my research in my teaching, but I can do better research because I work with very diverse students. It’s a much more productive than doing research on your own”. Her collaborative mindset mirrors that of the TU/e and the wider Brainport technology region, characterised by its culture of open innovation. The university forms part of this co-operative ecosystem, where technologically innovative Brainport businesses both benefit from, and bring benefit to their academic partners.

Bekker would like to see more commercial opportunities for the inventive prototypes and patents created in her department, most of which end up sitting on a shelf. “It’s tricky, because we often have interesting concepts” she says, “but we’re not a design consultancy, so there’s a big gap before they would be ready to go to market.” She applauds initiatives like Brainport’s ‘Smart Design to Market’, but thinks there’s room for more schemes: “because a lot of good ideas are being created”.

Right now, Bekker’s focus is on the new field of design for learning. She’s part of a collaboration with local government and schools, with the goal to help children learn in a different way. She explains: “Using a design-based learning approach can be more motivational. You learn to be pro-active in figuring out what knowledge you need to solve something.” She believes this learning strategy can provide opportunities for children of all ages and is currently writing a Horizon 2020 funding proposal which aims to develop it further.

But that’s not the extent of her horizons. Other irons in the fire include a project on ‘Design for Behaviour Change’, where technology is embedded to help, for example, the elderly become more socially and physically active. She’s also working on design research methodology, and is brimming with research ideas: for instance how to make physical exercise at school more fun for children.

As the future fills up with potential research possibilities, where does Bekker’s drive come from? She thinks for a moment and answers: “It’s rather egocentric, because at a basic level it’s my own personal development. I enjoy learning new things, but it’s also a huge motivation that you are creating something that has value for a user group out there”.

Written by Victoria McKenzie © Brainport Development

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