Joannes Vandermeulen

Joannes studied Archaeology and Oriental Linguistics at K.U.Leuven. In 1987, he founded Namahn as a one-person human-centred design consultancy. Today’s Namahn partnership works out of an astonishing location in central Brussels and has become an established name for the supply of high-quality interaction, service and systemic design. Joannes focuses on business development, while regularly lecturing at universities and international conferences. His passions outside work include economics, evolutionary biology, cognitive science, yoga and learning Farsi.

When did you first discover human-centred 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. While doing so, I observed the gap between what people need from technology and what they actually got. When writing my first user interface engineering specification (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.

How have perceptions of design evolved since then?

Design thinking has become fashionable! That said, the majority of organisations today now recognise the link between good design – providing a smooth user experience – and business success.

What has been the greatest evolution at Namahn in the past 5 years?

The introduction of systemic design as a discipline infuses all the projects we do and helps us to get to grips with the more complex tasks our clients now want to perform. Today, we have to deliver even more added value, earlier and faster. Projects have become more complex, as have peoples’ expectations. This is a reflection of ongoing changes in society. There are more actors involved, and they have also become more sophisticated. We are able to handle high complexity because of the calibre of our people.

Can you give an example of how this plays out in projects?

Namahn’s USP is the fact that we can deal with end-to-end design projects. We can start from the fuzzy front end, where systemic design comes into play, defining a strategy, policy or product – whereas before, we were only called in once the (corporate or governmental) intervention had been decided. One example is our work with the European Union to visualise the implementation of policy decisions.

Then, we look at what a policy decision implies. What services/products should be provided and how should they be delivered to stakeholders? This is less abstract. Each service implies touchpoints and if these are digital, which is increasingly the case, Namahn handles them. For example, we are now established in Belgium as a provider of control room design for major public services. Not only do we help to redesign the virtual control room, we also redesign the physical space in order to create a cognitive system where people and technology seamlessly collaborate.

Namahn is known for its open culture…

For a Belgian agency, we have a fairly international team with diverse backgrounds. Kristel and I practice complete transparency with open-book management and we always strive for maximum clarity. Our culture of openness is unique and it’s a conscious decision. Our openness extends to our total willingness to transfer knowledge via a variety of formats: helping in-house teams to grow their skills and build maturity, coaching, training, boot camps, joint teams, publications, lectures, our extensive library. Our people and clients really appreciate this.

Why is this important for you?

Quite simply, sharing gives us pleasure. It is also a great way to inject new knowledge and ideas into Namahn and be embedded in the local ecosystem. Not only our company culture but also our huge building allows this to happen. We open it up for clients and the local community to use. This creates an interesting intermingling and builds goodwill. Outside businesses hours, Brussels-based organisations can request to use our open spaces for brainstorming sessions, as a rehearsal space for actors, singers and musicians, for sewing classes… Because it is an open house, people respect it.

What future evolutions do you see for Namahn?

We will continue to work for clients where we can make a real difference. We’ll continue striving to develop and rethink techniques and methodologies to help these clients produce the best products or services. These projects require top talent and our strategic location in the capital of Europe helps to attract those capable of taking this vision forward.

Staying resilient means embracing change, continually innovating and finding new business models. We are currently exploring several avenues for diversification but will always remain true to our core. We even encourage our people to say, “I want a change”. Then we endeavour to help them on the next steps of their career journey, even if that is outside Namahn. I see that as a sign of strength and important for Namahn’s future moving forward.