28 Apr, 2016 · Wouter Boon

Amsterdam’s Digital Design Crosses Borders Easily

 

In the past years, digital creative work from Amsterdam has been on a winning streak at the many international award shows - every year its award-share increases. There are many reasons for this trend – such as the fast and dense broadband infrastructure and a profound design tradition – but the most important factor seems to be Amsterdam’s explorative and collaborative mentality.

Growing like wildfire

In the Netherlands the digital design industry is on a roll. Especially Amsterdam seems to have become a quality label for companies from around the world when it comes to digital creative work. In the trade press news such as “China Southern Airlines chooses Mirabeau to develop new app” is becoming the rule rather than the exception. And since it’s not just China Southern that feels attracted to Amsterdam, there is a chronic shortage of digital talent in the Dutch capital; digital agency Mirabeau, for example, is on the lookout for no less than 25 new digital specialists.

Another large player in Amsterdam that is constantly browsing the market for talent is MediaMonks. With over 400 employees ‘the largest digital production company in the world’ has been growing like wildfire. Last November the production company acquired Stopp, a Swedish leader in VR, and only last month Cricket Brasil, an agency specialised in building installations. Today ‘the Monks’ have 8 offices around the globe. But it’s not just about scale; creatively ‘the Monks’ are also winning; in 2015 they won 26 Cannes Lions and 4 Webby Awards.

Centre of the world

What is it exactly that makes the Dutch digital design industry so successful? First of all, an important factor is the country’s geography. Amsterdam’s harbour and central location in Europe have already planted the seeds for its international success in the 17th Century, during Holland’s Golden Age. At the time the capital’s harbour and the Dutch East India Company – the first multinational in the world – turned Amsterdam into the centre of the world. At the time the city was a magnet for trade and new ventures. What benefits the digital industry is that the entrepreneurial spirit has survived – though it’s Schiphol Airport nowadays functioning as the city’s international harbour.

Another important factor supporting the digital industry is the fact that the Netherlands have one of the densest, fastest and most reliable broadband infrastructures in the world. It’s one of the reasons why the country is leading in electronic dance music, why the Amsterdam Internet Exchange (AMS-IX) is based there and why Google just started building one of its biggest European datacenters near Groningen.

In Amsterdam, in particular, the creative digital industry is also catalysed by its cultural and international climate. Thanks to a special mix of a progressive attitude, many world renowned cultural institutes, a large expat community and a bicycle-friendly atmosphere the city has become a hotbed for creativity. And this attracts even more creative talent and businesses.


Amsterdam as entrepreneurial centre of the world during the Golden Age - painted by Johannes Lingelbach (Source: Wikimedia Commons).

Design tradition

There are thus many beneficial circumstances, but what are exactly the intrinsic qualities of Holland’s digital design? Bert Hagendoorn, founder of ‘Dutch Digital Design’ - a platform that promotes the best digital creative work from the Netherlands - believes it’s his country’s profound design tradition. Hagendoorn: “For decades, the Dutch are known for their conceptual and thought provoking designs, regardless whether casted in graphic, industrial or architectural forms. With digital becoming an integral part of our lives, this tradition is simply following its natural course and incorporated in the many digital concepts that are nowadays produced here.

Dutch Digital Design is a taskforce of industry organization Dutch Digital Agencies, who represents more than 110 digital agencies. Adjan Kodde, chairman of the organization, is optimistic about the future of digital design and believes that the industry is only at the beginning of its real growth: “Digital is pervading our lives more and more and with increasing speed. Every aspect of this pervasion requires a well designed strategy, UX and user interface so that it works intuitively. The fact that we, as a country, have been crafting designs for decades is a key to the industry’s success.

It almost feels as if the digital scene is making itself ready for a second golden age. And though the digital ‘nerd’ is stereotypically known for being shy and modest, he is slowly but surely claiming his success. Hagendoorn: “In the past our Calvinistic nature has prevented us from being openly proud of what we accomplished, but with Dutch Digital Design we help the industry to draw international attention to the great digital stuff that’s being created here.


Sweetie, a well-crafted digital work, but it’s the attitude that makes it typical Dutch (Source: seoceros.com).

Sweetie

When taking a closer look at the cases that Dutch Digital Design is proudly pushing forward, it is difficult to pinpoint an exact style that makes them Dutch. After all, ‘digital design’ can be as diverse and flexible as the code that wrote it. Therefore, it’s probably better to think of a mentality, rather than a style. ‘Sweetie’, for example, an animated sexcam ‘bot’ that uncovered more than 1,000 cases of international child abuse, shows how far the borders of the creative domain can be stretched. This concept, created by creative agency Lemz for Terre des Hommes, won 13 golden Lions and the Grand Prix for Good in Cannes in 2014. Not your typical digital design case; apart from the fact that is was well crafted, it was especially the boldness and unconventional character of the concept that made it stand out internationally.

Another mentality aspect is the Dutch no-nonsense and directness, which helps to convince clients to push for the best idea. On top of that, Amsterdam’s many international inhabitants give the city a culturally neutral attitude, laying a foundation for creative concepts that can easily travel around the world. A good example of all these different personality traits coming together is Code d’Azur’s ‘Must See Map’ for airline KLM; a personalized, crowd sourced map that provides travellers with the best local tips of the cities they are visiting.

No-nonsense can also be found in the attribute ‘clean’. Both in Dutch Design as well as digital, clean means keeping things simple. When you look at Dick Bruna’s Miffy (in Dutch ‘Nijntje’), one of Holland’s most famous export products in design, you know what is meant by that. In digital it’s a crucial ingredient for making intuitive UX and UI designs. Since the digital world is becoming increasingly complicated, the simplicity and intuitiveness of the designs is key for both their attractiveness and usability.


Designer Dick Bruna keeps things simple with his ‘Nijntje' (Source: babypark.nl).

Collaboration

As said, though, form is not the most important element that influences the digital success of the small country that largely lives below sea level. Jeroen van Erp, professor Concept Design at the University of Delft: “It’s indeed the mentality of the Dutch culture; independent and explorative. This already started with our great painters Vermeer and Rembrandt in the 17th Century”. Van Erp, who also co-owns digital design agency Fabrique, believes that the source of this mentality, easily crossing conceptual borders, is a horizontal, non-hierarchical structure. “Outside of the Netherlands our lack of hierarchy is often perceived as a little strange. But it helps us to more easily collaborate with specialists in other domains and combine skills in new ways. And eventually also in simply getting things done.

Not so long ago, it was a combination of simplicity and independence that helped Fabrique win a pitch against three British design agencies to build an innovative website for the Design Museum London. But there was more to it. Van Erp: “Design agencies are especially good at orchestrating innovation because they not just have an eye for detail; we are a specialised species but at the same time we can easily zoom out and look at the bigger picture”. That’s how Fabrique came up with the idea to shorten the security lines at Schiphol airport with a face scan. Van Erp: “Coming up with a face scan is not the kind of digital design you think of when you’re only occupied with the details”.


Design Museum London website by Fabrique.

Master Digital Design

To anchor the industry’s success, Dutch Digital Design is now developing its own Master program, just like what the Amsterdam fashion industry did with its internationally renowned education AMFI. Hagendoorn: “We are already attracting a substantial amount of business to Amsterdam. Finding enough skilled designers is still the bottleneck though. In order to take young talent to the next professional level, we - in collaboration with 10 Dutch agencies and the HVA – are now creating a one-year Master. This should accelerate the level of knowledge and skills in our industry and even attract new talent from abroad.

No wonder that the Dutch digital agencies are investing in this brand new education. If their industry is indeed only expanding in the near future, and more Chinese corporates discover the qualities of the Dutch design culture, the 25 open jobs at Mirabeau will only be the tip of the iceberg. When this happens, the Dutch will be needing all the digital talent they can get their hands on.

For the second year in a row leading digital agencies from the Netherlands (Fabrique, Code d’Azur, MediaMonks, DDB & Tribal Amsterdam and TamTam) presented their ‘Dutch Digital Design’ work and mentality at the Advertising Week Europe conference in London.

This article was written by Wouter Boon and loosely based on an article by Erwin Wijman.

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