Yalenka Mariën

Before graduating in Product Development, Yalenka already managed to inject a strong element of service design in her thesis, which focused on having a social impact. “Designing a physical object sometimes makes sense, but most of the time it does not!” Attracted by working in an agency environment, she swiftly joined the design and innovation agency Fjord in Paris, where she grew her service & interaction design skills while taking up a design research teaching role in an art school. Yearning for elements of home she never expected to miss and ready to expand her design knowledge in new directions, she returned to Belgium and joined Namahn.

What inspired you to start your career in France?

I chose Paris for a very pragmatic reason: Fjord said I could start immediately after I graduated! We grew from a small agency of 14 to 50 people and by the end I was considered as one of the experienced designers. Fjord also joined the global consultancy Accenture. Being part of that organisation was a great experience. You are actively encouraged to set career goals and objectives. I was promoted fast, for which I am very grateful. Living abroad made me aware for the first time of my own cultural identity. I found myself looking forward to home visits. Most importantly, I was getting too comfortable. It’s so important to continue learning and I wanted to feel that again!

How did you first discover Service Design?

Product Development made sense as a study choice, being everything I’m interested in (creativity, science, human centricity) rolled into one. However, the main focus was on the mechanical, physical and visual aspects of design. Looking back, I was always coming up with other stuff, challenging the design brief. But this taught me to work in a structured way, and how to handle criticism and people. My aha moment came in the 4th year when I followed a course on Service Design given by Kristel Van Ael, Namahn partner. Now this was the kind of designer I wanted to be, tackling complex problems, bringing structure to chaos…

What was the topic of your thesis?

It was a brief from the Flemish Government on how to improve the provision of special computers to people with communication disabilities (like the one used by Stephen Hawking). In the care industry, there is a graveyard of medical equipment and a stigma attached to reusing it. 80% of these devices are no longer used after one year, which not only represents a financial loss but also these people are not getting the help they need. I set out to find a solution.

It was a highly emotional experience. Communication is close to our identity. Oral expression is very important in our culture. How could we provide the right psychological support to people going through the process of accepting disability, but also address the practical implications? My thesis ended up being service design, but also business and strategy design and of course, I had to design a product! My solution was a system to provide disability aids as a service, including computers but also access to therapy centres and other support. Because I could not get my hands on the actual computers (they are produced by third parties) I designed a special plug that fits over a computer’s plug and emits a signal “I’m being charged”. If after two weeks no signal has been received, then the person could be contacted and asked why. As part of my thesis, I also worked on an interface for a shared digital patient profile. It’s great to see the government is now making strides forward with this.

Is having a social impact important for you as a designer?

It’s one of the main reasons why I chose Namahn. We work for a wide variety of clients, including in the social sphere, and we always think about the social impact. For example, our work on control rooms takes into account the life of employees using them but also the public service they provide.

How do you see your role as a designer today?

I feel responsible for making the design process as transparent as possible. I’m not a huge fan of the old-school, guru type of designer. Design methodologies and tools are living things and at Namahn, we take time to experiment. I love taking things apart and seeing where I can add something new. I think this makes you much more creative.

Are you still teaching in France?

Absolutely! I really enjoy teaching because it allows me to formalise what I want to do as a designer. It is very complementary to my work at Namahn where I share knowledge with colleagues and clients. I always start my design research classes by saying “I’m Flemish (so excuse my French), very young, short on experience but full of passion for what I do. And I don’t know everything!” Not taking myself too seriously and playing the Belgian card helps to break the ice and make people laugh. I’m even forgiven for using “tu” instead of “vous”.

What are your passions outside work?

I’m “une bonne vivante” as they say in France. Now that’s something I adored about living in Paris. You can eat well almost everywhere and for a reasonable price. This increased my passion for cooking. I used to hassle restaurant owners for the recipes of dishes I particularly loved. When they weren’t forthcoming, I would spend days trying to recreate them. Aside from cooking, I practice Pilates and yoga for the exercise. The spiritual side is still out of my grasp, although I’m trying hard. Meditation is difficult for me; I find it impossible to shut off things around me.

Your ideal place to live?

For now, it’s Brussels. I love the chaos, complexity and mix of cultures. I had not lived here before joining Namahn but a major criterion for me was to be able to come to work by foot, so that decided it. But I’m still dreaming of building a passive house, with a huge garden where I can have chickens and a goat to make my own cheese. I love extremes: I’m happy living in the city centre but also sleeping in a tent in the countryside beneath the stars.

Your life motto?

I always tell my students is to be aware of bias. Bias is always there, it makes no sense to claim you have avoided it. As a designer you need to be aware of all the biases and see if there are negative consequences on your design and if they need mitigating.

Another maxim I have is: you get what you give. Maybe it’s a cliché, but I strongly believe that when a situation is negative, you must try and inject positivism. Or when there is no energy, give energy. It’s small-scale karma – my first step to spirituality!