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frederick_black_whiteDr. Frederick van Amstel is Assistant Professor at the Industrial Design Department, Federal University of Technology – Paraná (Brazil), teaching courses related to interaction design, experience design, service design, social innovation, and creativity. His PhD thesis, accepted by the University of Twente, maps the contradictions faced by architectural design and service design in contemporary practice. Instead of eliminating them from design, it harnesses contradictions as a source of change. His recent research is focused on the contradiction of oppression and the possibility of designing for liberation. Frederick holds a Bachelor in Social Communication and a Masters in Science & Technology Studies.

Areas of expertise

Personal profile

I’m a Brazilian/Dutch citizen who grew up in a middle-class family from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Rio is a beautiful and chaotic city that inspires me as much as it worries me due to the strong oppressions the population experience in their daily lives. At the age of 8, my family moved to Curitiba, a city in the South of Brazil that is successful in hiding its social contradictions through careful urban planning. The experiences of growing up in these two cities marked my understanding of the world.

Since childhood, my mother taught me to live the Hare Krishna lifestyle, which I follow to these days. That includes meditation, vegetarianism, Indian music, mysticism, studying the Vedas, caring for nature, and other habits. Above all, that means constantly reflecting on my life path, the dharma.

Industry profile

I’m a design practitioner with experience in the following industries:

Check my design portfolio with selected projects.

Academic profile

I’m an active academic in the fields of Design and Computing with the following experience:

See my journal publications.

Research profile

My research agenda is driven by the contradiction between social equality and cultural heterogeneity, which is characteristic of the country where I have born, Brazil. There I witnessed many oppressions related to this contradiction that I would like to address directly or indirectly with my research.

Firstly, I got attracted to product design as a means to directly interfere with the social milieu. I believed that technology could be a shortcut for disempowered communities either to claim or to acquire better living conditions. After joining design projects, I realized that it was not enough just to deliver products to these communities. I became, then, attracted to the idea of participation in design as a way to promote democratic values that granted political power to the people. Participation was not only an opportunity to improve the product but also a way to generate and share design knowledge with the disempowered communities.

Currently, I’m very interested in the question of design autonomy and freedom. Instead of championing my products and methods, I’m curious about learning about vernacular design practices. I think that sustainable social change must start with what people already know. Actually, I like more the idea of supporting any change that is already underway rather than imposing my agenda.

I subscribe to the action research scientific stream, but I recognize the importance of having solid theories based on generalized concepts. Thus, my PhD thesis was an attempt to outline a theoretical framework and empirical method for studying the design process in the context of social change, what I called Expansive Design. I developed this concept through a combination of the ethnographic approach of Cultural Historical Activity Theory (Yrjö Engeström) and the critical phenomenology of The Production of Space (Henri Lefebvre). In addition to this theoretical articulation, I’m interested in any kind of materialistic, situated, embodied, and relational praxis (theory + practice) that harness the potential of interaction design to transform organizations and society.

With this praxis, I believe it is possible to fight everyday oppressions to their roots. Instead of just attacking oppressive design, a deeper knowledge of the historical developments leads to the conclusion that it is necessary to produce alternative practices of design that liberates people from oppression. Together with a handful of Brazilian colleagues, I developed a political ideology aimed at liberation called design livre.

Since I have the experience of working with a wide range of design objects — visual identity, advertising, websites, software applications, games, appliances, interactive installations, and buildings, I see myself in a unique position to research design across disciplines. Far from an essential core of what design is, I see in my horizon the diversity of approaches to intervene in the material culture. Among these possibilities, I choose the ones that address the oppressions that I feel and observe in everyday life: currently, colonialism, patriarchy, and capitalism.

Check a list of my research projects and outreach activities.

Theoretical influences

Teaching profile

My reason to pursue a doctoral degree was, in the first place, to extend my teaching opportunities. I already taught in many universities in Brazil and I liked it very much. Classrooms and design studios keep me in touch with the youth, who still dreams of changing the world. I put a lot of effort to promote their work to the general public since I believe they help to keep the sense of hope for a better world in society.

Since my teaching emphasizes more the process of design rather than its finished outcomes, I encourage my students to share on social media their assignments and projects. Over the years, this has demonstrated useful in confronting students with the unexpected Other.

The project briefs I like require them to respectfully learn with a different kind of person, culture, or technology they are used to. I like to cultivate among students an atmosphere of alterity, cultural diversity, and technological eclecticism. This often leads us to Art, where such inclusive approaches are currently more developed than in the Design field.

Since I believe design education can do more than developing skills and techniques, I’m always seeking new ways to develop critical and creative perspectives over design. The Theater of the Oppressed (Boal), Critical Pedagogy (Freire), Cultural Historic Psychology (Vygotsky), and Reflective Practice (Schön) are my main references for thinking about design education.

I think I’m a good tutor of studio courses, however, my main talent as a teacher lies in bridging the gap between theoretical foundations of design and the everyday practice of designing. I can create practical exercises that help students realize epistemological and methodological challenges while making something tangible. I love using hands-on concept formation methods such as Lego Serious Play, prototyping, improv theater, and others.

See a summary of the courses I taught and/or developed.

Artistic influences

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