Tom Van Iersel
Tom’s interest in ‘why people do what they do’ has informed his studies – Applied Psychology followed by a Master’s in Graphic Design at Sint Lucas Antwerp – and his subsequent career as a visual and UX designer, teacher and researcher, incorporating behavioural design, design ethics, prototyping and usability, and web design. Vintage Star Wars toys also score high on his list of passions…
Was psychology your first love?
No, in fact, I wanted to study art. The first year at art academy involved very few courses and lots of independent work. At the age of 18, I lacked the discipline. However, I still wanted a degree. Human behaviour has always intrigued me, so I chose Applied Psychology. It was fascinating: how stuff actually works in the brain, how one synapse lights another, what triggers neurotransmitters. And of course, social experiments in areas such as obedience and attention span. It taught me how to think scientifically, find information, the value of applying methodologies, how to behave less intuitively and reflect more deeply on a subject. It changed how I think about a lot of things and has proved essential in my career as a designer.
Should designers follow their intuition or rules?
That’s the question I asked in my final master’s project. Are there indeed design rules and are they meant to be broken? Is it true that we feel more comfortable looking at certain colours? My aim was to challenge people to think about the rules of design. Take, for example, behavioural design. This tends to have evil connotations, such as tricking people to click on a certain button. However, it can be used to guide people more efficiently to what they really need. As a good designer, you should already do that intuitively. However, applying a methodology (or rules) can help. In this case, they are opportunity, motivation and ability. All three need to be present to trigger an action. The art is getting all three aligned at the right level, so that together they help people to act more fluidly.
When did psychology and design meet in your work?
I completed plenty of internships relating to my psychology studies, including high-level assessment and testing of job applicants. However, I didn’t see myself doing that for the rest of my life. My love of design, graphic novels, illustrations was too strong. By then I had the maturity and knowledge to apply everything I knew about human behaviour to a Graphic Design degree and I graduated with distinction.
I began my career making mood boards and mock-ups for mainly online campaigns then moved to a company specialised in search engine optimisation and AdWords. I was the conversion specialist, figuring out which button scores highest and how to adapt designs to optimise click through. I learned HTML and CSS. My role evolved to web design and I also worked with Drupal for CMS systems. In 2012, I created Mad Robot, moving away from Drupal to focus more and more on user experience, creating wireframes and doing user testing for products and applications. This felt like a natural evolution. The best of both worlds!
Today, I enjoy getting into the nitty gritty: coding, designing user interfaces… I get along with front and back end developers. If they say something is not going to work, I understand why. That’s another big conceptual discussion: should every designer today know how to code? I also enjoy building design systems and applying rules on how all the components should behave. I equally love thinking about the bigger picture and making it tangible. They are all interconnected.
Are you still teaching and researching?
I spent several years teaching HTML and CSS to first year BA students. Now I have moved to a cross-European project researching hate imagery online. Specifically, we are studying the role of graphic design (image manipulation, typography, marketing…) in the polarisation of ideas on social media. We scrape the web using algorithms that gather and download extreme (violent, racist) imagery. We then sift through and study this imagery to understand how it is constructed. We are also working with graphic design students to formulate counternarratives to this kind of hateful propaganda. It’s easier said than done. Our intention is to rise above it and not be as extreme, and at the same time, avoid being banal or too soft. It’s a design challenge.
I’ve followed Namahn for more than 10 years. It kept popping up and I’ve always admired its work. I thought if there is one company I’d like to work for, it’s Namahn. The opportunity arose early in the COVID-19 lockdown. My application, interview and assessment were all done virtually!
And where does Star Wars come in?
I’m a fanatic collector of vintage 1980s toys. I have almost the full run of Star Wars, Masters of the Universe and Ghost Busters. I’m also a fan of Lego® Star Wars toys. It’s part of a wider passion for science fiction and fantasy writing. My large collection is in plain sight at home and my three young daughters do take an interest and ask questions but for them it’s totally normal.
“Make new friends but keep the old. The new are silver, the old are gold.” And one that never fails to put life in perspective: “The world is round; it has no point.”