Joannes Vandermeulen

Joannes studied Archaeology and Oriental Linguistics at K.U.Leuven. In 1987, he founded Namahn as a one-person consultancy and built it into a practice of 20 people, housed in an astonishingly spacious and unique location in the center of Brussels. Most recently, Joannes realised a longstanding ambition to run Namahn as a partnership, enabling him to focus on business development, while regularly lecturing at product design schools and contributing thought leadership as a conference speaker. His passions outside work include economics, evolutionary biology, cognitive science, yoga and family travel.

How did you enter the realm of human-centered design?

In the early 80s, I worked as an executive secretary in Brussels and New York City. I developed a fascination for computers and discovered my talent for written communication. I made presentations on Total Quality Management using the Apple Lisa at Honeywell Europe. I wrote user manuals for senior executives and designed crude digital dashboards for project managers using Microsoft Multiplan at the European Commission. I observed the gap between what people need from computer technology and what they got. When I came to write my first user interface engineering specification in New York (using Interleaf on a Sun workstation), I discovered the discipline of human factors engineering and user interface design. I read the first edition of Ben Shneiderman’s “Designing the User Interface” and knew I was on to something.

What has been the greatest evolution at Namahn in the past 20 years?

We have successfully established Namahn as the most distinctive and reliable supplier of human-centered design for digital products in Belgium, an achievement of which we are proud. But one thing remains unchanged: our primary ambition is to create teams that are highly valuable to our clients.

Have perceptions of human-centered design evolved in that time?

Today most organisations recognise the link between good design and business success. ‘Design’ is now acknowledged as a strategic advantage. The recent financial crisis clearly illustrated this: companies that successfully (and profitably) surfed the crisis were those providing a smooth user experience. Namahn is now spontaneously asked to coach and train in-house design teams and to become involved earlier in the process of designing products from scratch.

How important is the Namahn building?

It is (literally) a huge asset! Our neighborhood St Josse is densely populated, but when you walk into Namahn, you are struck by the luxury of space. It’s not only a fantastic place for us to work, but our clients also enjoy coming here and soaking up the atmosphere. Plus, this enormous space permits us to welcome a variety of non-profit making initiatives that we all respect on the margins of Namahn, resulting in an interesting cross-fertilisation of ideas. These include an office for Axcent (an NGO promoting dialogue between the religions and beliefs in Brussels), Ester Goris’ sewing classes and the music studio of the Belgian composer Walter Hus. And in addition to our own library, we take care of the private library of Dirk Lauwaert, the Belgian film and photography critic.

You recently gained a partner at Namahn: has this changed your open approach to running the business?

I’ve always dreamt of working in a partnership but was never successful until now. Being two partners brings a more balanced decision-making. Kristel and I continue to practice complete transparency with open-book management and we strive for maximum clarity. Namahn’s culture is to function entirely as a team: each of us is exposed, with nowhere to hide. Namahn only attracts people who embrace this openness and feel comfortable with it. We all like to be challenged intellectually but we also put high value on our lives outside work.

Is Namahn specialising in certain domains within human-centered design?

For the past six years, we’ve strongly invested in growing our know-how in safety-critical systems (emergency response, supervisory control, traffic management, intensive care…). Human-centered design for such digital systems, involving high levels of complexity and many stakeholders, is a huge responsibility. There is a lot at stake in terms of safety and human lives. You really need to feel comfortable operating in this environment and Namahn has reached this place. We are also entering the domain of service design, by which I mean designing a service with multiple touch points: road tolling, for example. A good user experience here is not just an added value in terms of likeability and learnability, but a fundamental requirement for efficiency, both for the customer and for the service delivery organisation.

How does the next decade look?

At Namahn we will continue to search for clients where we can make a real difference. We’ll continue to develop and rethink techniques and methods to help these clients produce the best products, in particular techniques to foster collaboration between stakeholders and early visualisation. Our ambition is to work for the top segment of companies across selected industries at international level, and in particular, in the areas of high-stakes systems and complex service delivery with multiple touch points. These projects require top talent and our strategic location in the capital of Europe certainly helps to attract those capable of taking this vision forward.