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The stuff, plus the bigger context of the stuff

Design used to be about making products both functional and attractive. These days, design intertwines with technology and sociology and reaches far into every aspect of our lives, even contributing to societal change. Caroline Hummels is at the cutting edge of this development. As a Professor in the Industrial Design department at the Technical University of Eindhoven (TU/e), she’s pushing the boundaries of where design can take society. She observes: “in this department we’re focusing on making things with technology, interactivity and intelligence. But I think in general the field of design is opening up from the stuff, to the stuff plus the bigger context of the stuff.“

Hummels, who came to the TU/e in 2006, infuses her research and teaching with a passion for design and a belief that it can help make communities more sustainable and inclusive. “Design was always about integration and the holistic” she says, “and that’s why its boundaries are spreading. You can’t do design anymore without the engineering, the sociology… all the different perspectives. It makes it more messy and more complex, but I personally think that’s lovely.” She now leads the Design & Theory for Transformative Qualities department, where she focuses on how design can influence the ways we interact with each other and our surroundings.

Hummels realized she wanted to be a designer when she was 17. Growing up in a family that ran a busy party venue, her hobbies were making things and solving mathematical challenges. She recalls: “I just grew up between people, so I always wanted to do something with people, and to create things and figure out how they work. That was the combination.” She studied at art school before completing her studies and PhD at the Technical University Delft, and was more than a little idealistic. She says: “For me, it was about the imagination - making your dreams come true. I had no clue what the dreams were, but just imagining and building stuff that’s not there yet, that you might create through your hands. That’s still one of the drivers for me today - it’s the process as well as the outcome that’s interesting.”

In that process, Hummels develops her own new areas of learning, but also relies on the expertise pooled within the department. Colleagues and students bring a business, psychology, or science perspective but don’t ringfence themselves academically. Hummels explains: “I could get offended that someone with a background in psychology comes to my department and says that they’re a designer. But I think it’s way more interesting to say, ‘you’re growing towards me, I’m growing in other directions, and now we suddenly have a really interesting set of competencies and we can solve some things’.”

She finds that the University and region are unique in their collaborative attitude: “That’s the reason the Brainport region is thriving” she comments. “What we have is a nice combination of industry, research institutes, design and art approaches – a mix of different perspectives.” Hummels believes that the success of the region has contributed to the success of the university and vice versa: “I think we’re rated the highest worldwide for papers in collaboration with industry, and most of it is tech industry. I believe in ecosystems, so the fact that we’re here and that we grew - we’re basically part of this ecosystem of the Brainport region.“

Hummels experiences this open collaboration-first hand as part of a multi-disciplinary team working on Health and Wellbeing in the region, with projects ranging from improving the vitality of neighbourhoods to focusing on elderly care. She says: “I think that lots of people are interested to see that not only can we research it, but can we build it together? Can we make our region healthier and improve its mobility, sustainability and vitality? I think that definitely wouldn’t be possible without the players in the region to make it happen together.”

Hummels thrives on searching for the next piece of the puzzle. During a sabbatical last year, she embarked on a series of “One Hundred Encounters” - meeting people with extraordinary insights, to expand her knowledge and feed into her research. She explains: “I thought, if I go across the world actually trying to figure out how other people perceive these changes in society or the changes in technology or education, and I learn from them what they do; that doesn’t only spark me to figure out where design could go, or how we could anticipate trends or directions; but I can basically advertise to the outside world what we do in Industrial Design in Eindhoven, and the Brainport region.”

She plans to compile the interviews into a book and has set up a research lab to process the information she’s collected. She’d like to continue to do several interviews a year. “I’ve created a life-long project for myself” she laughs wryly, “but all the stuff I learn, I immediately incorporate in my research, I mean that’s the fun part. The things that I learn from people immediately change my perspective on certain things, so it grows again.”

So what role does Hummels see for design in the future and her future in design? “For me it’s a very big role because with design you can explore, create and offer possibilities and opportunities to people to create their own lives” she explains. I don’t have to say ‘these are the rules and you have to use it like that’. I could also say ‘I make things for you and I let you determine what it means and how you interact with it’. So I think that’s where design and technology can bring something interesting to the world - acknowledging that we’re not all the same.And for me, that’s where the Brainport region is very interesting, because I’ve talked and worked with so many people that are open to exploring these alternatives.”

And is she still an idealist? She smiles: “What I’m interested in is not only having the ideals, but the search for a way to do it, to measure it, to figure out what the mechanism is, how it works, how we could influence it. Deep down I’m an idealist, but not without having my feet on the ground.”

Written by Victoria McKenzie © Brainport Development