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From Otis in LA to COMA in Amsterdam

As a model for design education, Amsterdam/New York studio COMA's mentorship for students from Otis in LA is a resounding success.  The students are exposed for three intense weeks to all facets of Dutch design, art and culture. 

By Gabrielle Kennedy / 29-03-2012

It all started back in 2009 when Marcel Hermans and Cornelia Blatter of COMA were invited to lecture and teach at the Otis College of Art and Design in Los Angeles.

“At lunch one day the students jokingly said they’d love to visit us and we said, why don’t you,” says Hermans.

Both of the award-winning designers have taught across the United States and Europe.  “And we both love working with American students,” says Blatter.  “They are open and enthusiastic; they work hard and are serious.”

Out of that lunch grew a semester module curated and hosted by COMA. Every spring a group of students comes to Amsterdam to spend three weeks with Hermans and Blatter to engage in an intense workload of workshops, studio visits, client contact and projects.

The programme aims to be about design, communication, lifestyle and art.  It is about exposing students to new ways of thinking, hearing stories about success and failure.  It is about how to stay independent, take risks and have the courage to do work that they believe in.  It is also learning about how to create a buzz, how to find a complete story in a project and how to broaden their understanding of what design can actually be.

“Most of the visits were not overly focussed on being a graphic designer,” says Joy Scopa who participated in the programme this year as well as last, “but rather about thinking about the city in and interesting way – learning to be more conceptual, and how to conduct and use research.”

The broader potential of design was indeed one of the main focuses this year; learning – as designers – to not only be thinking about layouts and making things look pretty, but how to become talking partners with all different kinds of people.

“All design students need to be able to think conceptually and to translate ideas into a visual form,” explains Blatter.  “We also want them to write more, to be more expressive and to learn how to formulate those ideas.”

The programme last year included visits to (amongst others) theoretician Louise Schouwenberg, Non-Fiction, Sophie Krier, Premsela - the Netherlands Institute for Design and Fashion, Joost Grootens, Eveline Lohbeck, and blogger and Wetransfer entrepreneur Nalden.


“It was such a rare opportunity,” says Scopa.  “My mind is still boggling from that experience.”

This year Berlin was added to the agenda where they visited Christoph Niemann Studio, Hort Studio, Node Berlin, ONLAB, and Betterplace Lab.  Back in Holland they met with Harmen Liemburg, Louwé Harmine, Lesley Moore, Billy Nolan who talked to them about research and the editorial process, Thonik, Maureen Mooren, LUST to learn about infographics and date visualization, Niessen & De Vries and Peter Bilak.

Via TED Talks, Blatter found The Winddrinker, a project out of TU Delft being realized in Somaliland.  A windmill is used to pump up water from the ground and to treat salt water or polluted water into clean drinking water.  The current prototype can produce an average of 60 000 liters of clean drinking water per day.  That is enough for 10 000 people. 

 “It’s a great project but it needed some design help to clear up its message,” says Blatter.  

First the students met with aerospace engineer Sjoerd Dijkstra and construction engineer Abdurahman Ahmed to get some first-hand input.  From there they brainstormed, did further research and finally wrote and visualized their solutions.

While here, the students also spend a good deal of time at COMA focusing on building identities, editorial design, research, writing and graphics.

At every studio the students were full of questions about how to get started, and also wanted to see and hear about work that failed or was just bad.  

“Hansje van Halem was one of my favourites,” says Scopa.  “She showed us her notebooks, walked us through ideas that worked and ones that failed and told us why.  It is so intimidating when all we see is polished, finished work.”

Seeing the good and the bad has given Scopa more confidence.  “What I take home is a bigger drive to stay small and independent,” she says.  “Many of the designers I spoke to focused on integrity and how to maintain it and I feel that need to stay authentic too. I really saw that in the smaller studios everything just made much more sense.  You just have to walk into a studio like Peter Bilak’s and immediately see that the space looks like him and he looks like his work. It all just harmonized and I was really moved by that.”


Images: Large at top Cornelia Blatter and Marcel Hermans of COMA.  Small from top Joy Scopa, the 2012 Otis + COMA students, Scopa in Amsterdam, the Louwé Harmine visit, the Lesley Moore visit (x2), Thonik (x2), workshop with Eike König from HORT, workshop with Harmen Liemburg at the Rietveld Academy (x2), at Peter Bilak’s in Den Hague, and at the Christoph Niemann Studio in Berlin.

The international mentorship programme between Otis and COMA has been made possible thanks to the help and cooperation of Kali Nikitas, Head of the Department of Communication at Otis.

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