Z33 debates: mentorship and collaboration

A view of the Z33 debate last 10 April in the Tiepolo Room, Palazzo Clerici, Milan. Photo by Z33

For the 2014 edition of Salone del Mobile, I’ve been invited to contribute to the Z33 Debates – Designing Futures, writing a small text on the future of design education and mentorship. The text informed the debate that happened last 10 April between Aldo Bakker, Rianne Makkink and Jan Boelen, at the Palazzo Clerici, in Milan, and was included in a small publication distributed during the event. Reflecting on the experiences of the kick-off event of BIO 50, I jotted down some notes for the future of design education, which can be read after the jump. Following the debate, I made a small roundup of the event for Z33– watch the video below as well!


Notes for a future design education

They come and sit in a circle, nervously stare at each other, measuring distances between them and you, them and their next door neighbor, them and their feet. Some take out notebooks, pens: they are eager to start writing, translating their nervousness to the paper, biting the back end of a black ballpoint BIC.

The sunlight makes them squint. The air is clear and sharp, dust particles glint in the light against the wide, blank walls. A moment of silence. And then they start. Alexi. Ana. Pedro. Martina. John. Rita. Many new names, diverse backgrounds, different expectations. You listen. The time you give to others is the time they’ll give back to you. React to their input, say the first thing that comes to your mind. Make mental bridges. They make mental bridges as well. Connect the dots, the few dots that start to emerge. Make connections together, cause and consequence. Who knows where the breakthrough, the breakthroughs, will come from.

Assess strengths and weaknesses, abilities and difficulties. Who can do what? Can we divide tasks or organize the project into diverse steps? Can we control the outcomes or should we let them grow organically? Change the location of your meetings; people react differently to different environments. Outside, inside. Up the stairs, down the stairs, sitting on the stairs. Adapt. Stay in touch, use the internet. Build on previously existing platforms, use the group’s rhythms and habits to the advantage of what you are building together. Listen.

Collaboration is difficult, twisted, entangled, murky. It takes courage to fully dive into it, since the outcomes are not clear. Critical distance is hard once you are at the core of a process, and yet it is essential to take a few steps back now and then. It takes intelligence and a sharp eye, but don’t take yourself too seriously. The consequences and results are hard to see. You should try to see together. Build on each other’s observations and insights. Learn for others, and allow others to learn from your expertise.


Challenge traditional teacher and student roles. Everyone can (and should) learn from each other. Draw. Reflect. Respond. Don’t fall into silence, or retreat to a place where you can’t be reached. Create routines. Be methodical. Work everyday.


These notes were taken following the kick-off weekend of BIO 50, the 24th Design Biennial in Ljubljana, Slovenia. The Biennial has reinvented itself from an awards-based competition to a six-month long collaboration process, where eleven teams are currently working on projects with local and global resonance, tackling topics such as food, affordable living, and water in public space. Team mentors have defined a brief for each category, guiding participants in the creation of one or more projects to be developed during the Biennial. As crucial elements in this collaborative process, each team’s mentors are redefining the role of the design educator, creating new strategies for the future.