Richard van der Laken fights social injustice one design challenge at a time - Friends of Friends / Freunde von Freunden (FvF)

Richard van der Laken fights social injustice one design challenge at a time


In his 1938 book, Design in Motion, artist Laszlo Moholy-Nagy urged the design world to see the profession as an attitude of resourcefulness and inventiveness.

In conversation with Richard van der Laken, the co-founder of the global design foundation and conference series, What Design Can Do, Moholy-Nagy’s thoughts immediately spring to mind. For What Design Can Do, this attitude relates to creating solutions that not only respond to the needs of both individuals and society, but stimulate change. A trained designer with over 30 years of experience—in 1995, he co-founded De Designpolitie, an Amsterdam-based studio, with Pepijn Zurburg before introducing What Design Can Do in 2011—Van der Laken, and his team of researchers and designers, ask creative thinkers to interpret global shifts and climates. Whether social, political, or cultural, they are ubiquitously subjected to far-reaching challenges; some of which, according to Van der Laken, governmental organizations rarely tackle. By developing multidisciplinary conferences and workshops, What Design Can Do engage an eclectic cast of visionaries—emerging or established—worldwide, from their base in Amsterdam to Mexico City. They address climate change, provide support for the victims of man-made and natural disasters, help asylum seekers settle into new communities, and even champion social justice. Yet the projects also resurge an interest in making, whether by hand, mechanically, or digitally, and embody recent shifts in design culture as it becomes more diverse and inclusive. It’s a big ask, one that has concerned van der Laken for most of his career.

  • What Design Can Do (WDCD) aims high. Have you always had a strong vision?

    When I started as a designer, I was still developing a vision. And I still am. How you look at things is something that constantly changes. As life does. Throughout my career as a graphic designer I have always been more interested in the impact of the things I make—the effect design has on people rather than the aesthetic side. That’s why I’ve always admired designers like Anthon Beeke [whom he interned with upon completing university], Tibor Kalman, Milton Glaser, or the French collective Grapus. They all had a strong, direct, and very engaged attitude and visual language.

  • With De Designpolitie you and your business partner Pepijn Zurburg received a lot of attention for that direct and critical approach to design and visual communication yourself.

    Being more focused on effect and impact, I have always tried to make things that tell a story and that people recognize and react. Whether we used nudity, the human body, or well-known brands and iconography, we always tried to translate that in new images and messages. And that worked.

  • Gorilla, your visual column that commented on current affairs, took the cover of De Volkskrant for three and a half years and later appeared in the weekly magazine De Groene Amsterdammer. Why was this outlet important?

    We were able to ventilate our own opinions and reactions on the daily news on a national platform. Gorilla is a good example of how we live in The Netherlands and Northwest Europe. Probably this is the only place where a designer gets the opportunity to go all out on the front page of a newspaper, on a daily basis. That is a precious thing that we—Dutch, German, and Scandinavian people—should be very aware of. Very often when I present Gorilla abroad, people are amazed by the total freedom we get to make things and express our opinions in the media.

  • How did Gorilla change your perspective as a designer?

    After a few years of working on Gorilla we suddenly saw that the news is in perpetual motion. The dance between the USA, China, Russia, Iran is a repeating song. The same counts for Dutch politics. It was surprising to see how little we learn, whether you are the president of one of the most powerful countries in the world, or just a humble designer from The Netherlands.

“It doesn’t start with the societal issue, it starts with the fact that you want to make stuff and you have to use that energy and channel it in the right direction.”

  • And yet, you have made your mark, which is quite a luxury. What does the idea of designers’ frustration mean to you?

    I think the main frustration is that, as Tibor Kalman [known for his work as editor in chief of Colors Magazine] said: “Good clients are smarter than you, bad clients are dumber than you.” When you work as a graphic designer you make the cover of the book, but you do not write it. Many designers have an opinion. It can be very frustrating when you work with people, organizations, and issues where you see the opportunities, but they don’t. On the other hand, if this client is smarter than you, then you have to step up and take the opportunity to make things that matter. A good client is something to take very seriously and cherish. The good thing about initiating your own projects is that you are the owner of the content. If you fuck up, you are the one to blame. You can never hide behind your client.

  • With De Designpolitie you focus on commercial work. What sparked the foundation of WDCD?

    I have always focused on concrete things and translating ideas into something tangible. When the economic crisis hit the Netherlands in 2011, we were sort of out of work—a good reason to initiate something instead of waiting and sitting on your hands. I just wrote down a one-pager, invited some friends and design colleagues, we drank a lot of beer, had a conversation, and the rest is history!

  • Your aim is to divide your work into three chapters; climate change, social justice, and health and wellbeing. Do you view them as separate entities?

    It’s a methodology. We think we can have more impact if we focus on a few specific issues—within those we need to find our own specific identity. The topics are so huge, so omnipresent, that you have to make these choices to make it understandable again. On the other hand they are often all interconnected. You could say that the refugee crisis is also connected to climate change; many refugees are so-called climate refugees.

  • How do you plan to build on the various challenges?

    The Refugee Challenge was our first and I’m still thinking about how we can continue that specific program around refugees. At the time, we didn’t have the resources, which is a bit frustrating. The danger is that you create something and then you’re gone. In the media, it may not be hot anymore, but the topic is still hugely present.

  • How do you deal with the magnitude of the topics you address?

    It’s important that you’re very aware and stay open; everything is about societal and environmental issues. Sometimes it’s also about beauty or poetry or fun. For us, it’s important that it’s very energetic, that there is great fun and good energy because that’s the only way to address those issues. It doesn’t start with the societal issue, it starts with the fact that you want to make stuff and you have to use that energy and channel it in the right direction.

  • What does that approach mean in practice?

    First and foremost, it includes a lot of research, interviews with experts, and workshop formats with experts, designers, and stakeholders. In Mexico City we dealt with waste and involved a local team with members of the municipality of Mexico City, designers, and experts in the realm of waste. With them we work out the real issues, and how we can translate that into issues that are relevant for designers. We always work in collaboration with the so-called problem owner.

  • After examining the problem you translate its need to be solved into challenges. Can you give me an example of a successful project and how it translates to everyday use?

    One example is Twenty, a project by Mirjam de Bruijn, a designer from Eindhoven. She has a very simple and strong idea [that revolves around removing water from household products and cosmetics—it makes up 80 percent—to save transport, CO2 emissions, and waste afterwards]. She is now working with Unilever to develop a shampoo concept. Another project, called Power Plant, is a concept for the world’s first self-powering greenhouse. The designer, Marjan van Aubel has now found an investor and is developing it here in the Netherlands and in South Africa.

  • For an assignment on sexual exploitation you collaborated with the Dutch Public Prosecutor’s Office, which is a whole other direction than climate change. What did you learn from that cooperation?

    That there are all kinds of violence taboos. The Prosecutor’s Office wanted something similar to our Refugee Challenge, but with a focus on this very important but also delicate issue. We knew this was very difficult but as WDCD we should have the courage to take the responsibility and go for a topic like this. When we talk about sexual exploitation you also think, Jesus Christ, what can design do there?

  • What exactly can it do?

    It’s not only about intervening when a girl or a boy is exploited. The period before or after is crucial, making children but also parents or schools more aware, to pick up the signals. Many are being exploited in hotel rooms, in the hospitality sector, which is why we had a team specifically focused on hotels. You have to make the cleaner or receptionist pick up the signals and report them.

“It’s about an attitude, how you look at the problem.”

  • How do you plan to execute these ideas?

    We prepare briefs for the designers we collaborate with, who then come up with proposals around the issues. In the end, we had about 14 proposals and the Dutch Public Prosecutor’s Office is currently looking at six of them (a great result) to see if they can continue with them. The next step is to connect with other departments or organizations. The proposals touch on different disciplines, from product and communication design to developing an app or game, it goes in many different directions. It’s about an attitude, how you look at the problem. When you are a creative thinker you don’t think in disciplines, but more in solutions to achieve your goal.

  • In terms of goals, where do you see WDCD moving in the future?

    I see a need to become a platform for designers and creatives in areas or countries that don’t have such a strong infrastructure as The Netherlands or Germany does. For example, we worked in Kenya for the Clean Energy Challenge. There is no magazine, no events, or festivals; no infrastructure for these people. Of course, there are designers and creatives but there is no context. It is super difficult for them to use their skills and channel that creative energy in the right direction. In the long run, it would be great if WDCD could offer that to countries where it’s much more difficult than in developed countries.

  • Providing access to creatives irrespective of where they are from is what makes design more diverse and inclusive, at the end of the day. How do you aim to drive locals to bring about change?

    Take the example of Mexico City. We ask the Mexican creatives themselves in the hope that people feel connected and engaged with their own local situation in order to solve it. I think that’s a much stronger drive than when you work on some kind of an abstract question. Of course you have to live up to it, in a more local and concrete context.

  • When you look at yourself, what keeps you going?

    It’s important to keep on creating with that energy, that genuine energy that you want to make and develop things. It can be very tangible, a poster or whatever, or it can be that I develop a program of an event, anything that’s very clear and tangible, something with a beginning and an end, that’s really important.

Richard van der Laken is the founder of What Design Can Do, a global foundation and platform for the advancement of design as a tool for social change. Since its inception in 2011, WDCD has undertaken numerous activities to promote the role of designers in addressing the world’s most pressing societal and environmental issues.

This interview is part of our ongoing collaboration with German fashion label Closed, which also includes portraits of ceramicist and designer Iris Roth and fashion stylist Maryam Malakpour.

Text: Ann-Christin Schubert
Photography: Jordi Huisman