Kristel Van Ael

Kristel Van Ael

Kristel studied Industrial Design in the 1980s, the era when design was the big marketing word and designers were expected to deliver the differentiating ‘lifestyle’ selling factor. Kristel was more interested in what a good design could bring to users as a service, rather than the ‘outside’ of the product. Although she has experimented with graphic and web design, the design of intelligent products remains her passion. She describes her arrival at Namahn as “having gone full circle in my journey to understand the (es)sense of design, I’ve arrived back at what I really love, a combination of software and hardware design”.

What did you do immediately after graduating?

I helped to develop the design studio of a marketing company. We started out with five people; by the time I left there were nearly 30. We were one of the few companies in Belgium to work with computers and I cut my teeth on the very first Mac SE 30. We discovered everything on-the-job, which was great fun. I gradually co-developed the studio towards a 2D and 3D packaging design studio, which was quite successful. Eventually a multinational marketing company bought the company. Creative exploration became limited, so I left and joined a small independent design company.

Do you like working in small teams?

Yes, but sometimes many hands are better than a few. For example, with one other person, I set up the newsletter for the Union of Belgian Designers (UBD) that over two years grew into a 200-page full-colour magazine distributed internationally. We did everything ourselves—writing, design, layout, distribution, PR, advertising…—and we didn’t have proper funding, which was eventually the death of the project. It was simply too big for two people!

How did you discover the Web?

That was in 1998, whilst working for a web design company. It was still the beginning and we acted as web design pioneers. We explored and experimented: there were no boundaries! That lasted for four years, until the management bought an advertising company of 150 people and changed direction towards advertising, never my talent nor passion. So I opted to work part-time and started as a self-employed web designer. I set up a network with other people to make websites for the creative community (for musicians, like Walter Hus, choreographers, like Wim Vandekeybus, plus cultural events and associations).

How did you get to know about Namahn?

I met Joannes in 2002 at the ‘Doors of Perception’ conference. We knew each other by sight because our kids went to the same school in Brussels. We soon discovered we were reading the same books and thinking about the same stuff. I began to work freelance for Namahn, doing reviews of user interfaces and participating in workshops. I always knew that if and when Namahn started going into product design, there could be a place for me.

What will you be doing at Namahn?

Namahn has a lot of clients already asking for expertise in interface design plus hardware and new product concepts. There are not many companies doing both therefore we have a great opportunity to build out product design expertise. We’ll be exploring the possibilities of integrated software and hardware interfaces. This is not about making the hardware itself but defining interaction with hardware—for example where to put a button on a tool: should it be on the touch screen or on the hardware? In the first year we’ll be developing expertise and methodologies internally. My dream is to eventually go into innovation, defining new product ideas and strategies but always in the field of interactive products, from a user perspective.

Do you have any pet projects outside work?

I’m setting up an Internet Opera Platform with composer Walter Hus and filmmaker Peter Krüger. We want to create a platform that approaches opera differently, using all the possibilities offered by the web, for example, playing with narratives, combining opera viewpoints, encouraging cooperation between creative people throughout the world and experimenting with the interactive film medium.

And I hear you like comic strips?

As a student I enjoyed the French-speaking creative comic strip genre, magazines like ‘A Suivre’. I’ve gone back to comic strips more recently as a way to stimulate my dyslexic daughter to read. Once a week, we go into town and buy comics. I’ve also re-discovered the comic novel, ones like Maus: A Survivor’s Tale, and Persepolis. And I’m getting into Manga (my current favourite author is Miyazaki, creator of Howl’s Moving Castle and Princess Mononoke). Basically, any artistic comic strip I see, I buy!