Learning by doing teaches you to fail and to be humble

The value of experimentation.

Timing is crucial when it comes to setting up something new or making important decisions. Not everything can be a success, and in this day and age that is also no longer important.

Text: Petra Janssen 
Image: Studio Boot design agency

Success is something of a short-term concept. It’s much more important to look for sustainable success. That may not be as profitable economically, but it does make people and the planet better and more full of promise. As a designer and cultural entrepreneur, you are always

in close contact with the (environment surrounding) society. Having a core attitude like that requires that you always take an inquisitive approach to work and evaluate things based on the times.


After teaching at the Design Academy Eindhoven for ten years, I came to exactly that conclusion in 2011. I decided to take matters into my own hands, alongside my work at my own design agency. I started up my own projects. 2011 was the year of the first major crisis, which no one at the time knew would happen. The destruction of the Twin Towers in New York, Greece nearly going bankrupt and banks on the verge of collapse. We held our breath and no one had any answers.  That was the year we took the plunge and organised our first festival, where we could also maybe find a few answers ourselves.

Building a village in ten days

We created a list of questions, looked for a free space and asked friendly designers and artists to participate. We also issued an open call to idealists, amateurs and other professional groups. Anyone who wanted to help us build could contact us. We held the festival ‘Huttenfestival de Vlek’ (Hut Festival ‘The Stain’) in the Spoorzone area of Tilburg. In ten days’ time, we had built a village within a city and created a society that was shaped from the bottom-up. This was a learning process for exchanges between different people and different professional groups. Everyone worked together: rich and poor, professional and amateur, the business community, government and citizens.

Looking back, it’s only now that I can see how important and impactful experiments like this are. Experiencing things first hand, trying things out, and especially making things tangible and visible – that gives people perspective. It tells a story of how things can be done differently in our society. It’s not only a question of believing, but primarily of doing.


In 2012, we set up the first pilot for Social Label, in which we show the importance of design. It originated at the Huttenfestival and started with a question from the guys at Amarant Group from Tilburg. At Social label, makers who have fewer opportunities in our society work together with designers. This means exchanges, getting involved, learning, work and pride.

What exactly do we do? We create custom-made works, giving meaning to design. This has resulted in a movement with fourteen workshops and seventeen designers. We have a beautiful collection that is a testament to what can be accomplished. You just need time and attention to create something tailor-made for your target group.  Looking back, this has resulted in some beautiful work and several workshops have evolved from hobby work to actual work.

A 10-year experiment

In 2015, we started a ten-year experiment in Den Bosch, the city where I live and work. We started a ‘collaborative work of art’ at a former factory site from De Heus Veevoeders: the Werkwarenhuis. Here, we make something out of nothing. It’s a nice challenge that showcases every facet of applied art. This includes design, architecture, placemaking and programming. It offers an enormous opportunity for creatives to show that we take a different approach to working together. That we will have to design the future in a different way, now that we have less space around us, less greenery and a diminishing quality of life.

I started teaching people in the community how to apply design directly and to showcase it. It’s important to know that once you step outside your bubble, you’ll find that only a small percentage of residents in the Netherlands are actually familiar with the meaning and power of design. The Werkwarenhuis also houses the Social label lab where we give meaning and visibility to the word inclusion.


What I have learned and continue to learn from all of this is that making social problems more tangible provides insight into how to take steps and learn from each other in order to design a good solution for change. Some do it via politics, others through economics or culture. Design is a nice bridge between all of these areas. Context and time determine what is needed, without losing sight of aesthetics and enjoyment.  Creative entrepreneurship and vision can offer multiple solutions to societal problems. Here, working together and being able to listen are key. Design Doing.

I graduated from an art academy as a graphic designer. It’s a wonderful profession where you make visual translations, for example, for global problems or for a local performance.  Due to changes in the graphics profession and an increase in the variety of different media, the starting point for design has also changed for us. We moved from only working two-dimensionally to also working three-dimensionally. In doing so, we maintained the research method and identity of a graphic designer. We call this 2.5 D. The experiment involves not being afraid of failure and being able to clearly define what it is you want. 2.5 D does not exist, which gives me the space to create something out of it myself. I can put a new bright spot on the horizon. With it, we can build and shape our own world together. We decide how we will communicate.  You can see a lot of examples of other initiatives at the World Hope Forum. This is a worldwide movement initiated by Lidewij Edelkoort and Philip Fimano. Keynote speakers and low-key inspirational sessions are organised here to gain a different view of our future world. I truly enjoy working with others and sharing different visions. That’s something we can all learn from. That’s why experimenting is so important. It’s the only way to gain new insights.

Petra Janssen

Studio Boot

Werkwarenhuis Foundation

Social label Foundation

Ambassador, Netherlands World Hope Forum

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