Olivier pursued a career in architecture for ten years before gravitating toward Flash-animation work and interaction design. He has a Civil Engineering degree in Architecture and a Master’s degree in Cultural Studies both from Katholieke Universiteit Leuven. A keen sportsman, he runs or cycles the 15km journey to work every day from his home in the leafy suburb of Tervuren.
Did architecture prepare you for the move to user-centered design?
The move from designing buildings to interfaces was smooth. Basically, the act of designing is second nature to me. I’ve been designing in some shape or form since the age of 17, when I first decided I wanted to be an architect. Architecture taught me that what counts is the end result. How you get there, the trial and error, the discarded ideas are part and parcel of achieving the right end result. I’m not afraid to get hands-on! Architecture also teaches you that your design is never the ultimate solution, just one of many potential solutions. This gives you mental distance and teaches you to think objectively.
How did you develop an interest in interaction design?
This came via designing websites. After ten years in architecture I felt that theoretically I could build any building in Belgium and that I wasn’t learning anymore. I picked up some books and started teaching myself Flash-animation design and began designing websites. I soon relised I was having more fun doing this than designing buildings. For one year I practiced as a self-employed web designer and was very successful.
When did Namahn come into view?
I got to know Namahn by attending their guest lecture series. I got a sense of the company culture and the people who worked there. When Namahn called me in to help redesign an existing software package for a client, we had the chance to get acquainted on the job. The collaboration was fruitful and I haven’t looked back since. Another major deciding factor to join Namahn was that my girlfriend and I decided to start a family. A career change seemed well suited to this big life change.
What aspects of working at Namahn excite you?
Interaction design requires a collaborative effort and that’s a refreshing contrast to the world of architecture, which is peopled by individuals in competition. I also made a discovery at Namahn: usability testing. I love sitting beside people in their own environment as they use software. It’s something of a shock to see how people appropriate and change it. The same applies to buildings; after two years of existence, a new building is completely transformed by its occupants. Of course, as a designer you want things to be useable and beautiful, but our challenge is to design not for our context of use but for other people’s context of use. If people don’t get the design, it means it’s not good. The user is never wrong.
Software has a shorter shelf life than a building. Does this bother you?
For me, good architecture is about eternal concepts, space, light, etc. When designing a building, you have this idea in your head that it will last forever, which is a heavy burden. With software, you know the end result will live for a couple of years, until the next upgrade. This lightness appeals to me. It has to be good now but it’s not eternal. However, the responsibility remains to ensure that within its lifetime, it’s as pleasurable and easy to use a possible.
And your life outside the office?
At Namahn, we are expected to manage our time efficiently and high regard is paid to private time. Therefore, in terms of my work I certainly have time to pursue my passions: running marathons, cycling, photography, and reading. But with three small daughters at home, I have less time to indulge myself. I still buy books, but somehow they just don’t get read so fast these days!