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Dutch design: how Amsterdam remains cutting-edge

Amsterdam is one of Europe’s foremost design cities, and from the rings of its 17th century canals to Renzo Piano’s NEMO museum, the city has long been a breeding ground for innovation. Here we catch up with some of the city’s top creative shops to get their thoughts on how the city remains cutting-edge, and what makes it so attractive to clients.

Vandejong's branding for international photography fair UnseenThe Dutch were among the world’s earliest explorers, pushing through the boundaries of the imagination and discovering new worlds never previously conceived. It’s little surprise, then, that innovation lives and breathes in the walls of Amsterdam’s design and creative agencies.The city boasts a high concentration of renowned, international and Dutch designers, architects, advertising and communications agencies, and according to Menno Liauw, owner of Amsterdam-based creative agency Vandejong, it is a gathering of talent that "ensures continuous cross-fertilisation and raises the standard of creative work".Vandejong has been based in the city since 1989, developing strategies and concepts for clients such as photography museum Foam and Dutch multinational banking and financial services company Rabobank, and more recently creating the world’s first one person restaurant. Liauw argues that Amsterdam is one of the world’s most interesting hubs to work in, due to its “unique concentration of economic and cultural activity and its energetic atmosphere”.“As well as being one of the leading financial capitals of Europe, Amsterdam houses the headquarters of seven of the 100 biggest companies in the world and some of its most renowned cultural institutions,” he says. “And with its strong focus on innovation and technology, it’s an ideal base for any creative company.”It’s a sentiment echoed by ...,staat, the strangely named creative agency whose work spans design, branding, architecture and advertising. Insisting that the agency could write a book on what makes the city such a great place for creative shops, senior project manager Annette Kemper thankfully limits ...,staat’s response to a couple of soundbites.“Firstly”, she says, “Amsterdam is international. There are over 177 nationalities living in the city and we embrace different cultures, insights, habits, ways of thinking and living. It’s what makes Amsterdam. We are a truly global village where everything is just a 10 minute bike ride away, and since we are a relatively small city in a small country, we need to think internationally.“Secondly, Amsterdam is liberal. Although the political climate has changed a bit over the last couple of years, Amsterdam can still be considered a very open minded place. It gives space for creative thinking.“And lastly, Amsterdam is laid-back,” she says. “We like to work hard, aim for the best and be competitive. But we also like to gather in one of the many bars, on terraces, in parks or on boats to have a beer and enjoy life. There is a great sense of togetherness.”The city’s appeal can by summed up by the fact it embraces the new, Kemper tells us. “New people, cultures, habits and thinking”. KesselsKramer's logo for AmsterdamAmsterdam’s laid-back attitude harks all the way back to the 1600s, according to Camiel Bulder, strategic planner at revered creative agency KesselsKramer, who explains how merchants built their homes and warehouses close to each other on the canals, “which may have struck a healthy balance between working and living ever since”.Bulder adds that Amsterdam was also “spared from heavy bombardments in WW2 and 20th century high rise architecture” which resulted in “a city that is adapted to the human scale and which is called home by people from more nationalities than New York”.This human scale, the work/life balance, and the multicultural nature of the city are all pulls for brands, says Bulder, and with KesselsKramer’s portfolio including work for companies as diverse as Tele2, J&B Whisky, Grand Marnier, Greenpeace and citizenM, we’ll assume he knows a thing or two about what clients want.“Because of the multicultural tradition, it is common to do business in English here, and this in turn attracts the right talent,” Bulder explains, before citing the city’s excellent infrastructure and proximity to one of Europe’s most convenient traffic hubs, Schiphol, as another attractive proposition for businesses.Headquartered in a 19th century monastery, KesselsKramer’s creative output ranges from ad campaigns to photo books, a feature length documentary and royal memorabilia, while founders Erik Kessels and Johan Kramer have gone on to find fame in the fields of photography and filmmaking since first setting up in 1996. Perhaps the agency’s most recognisable work, however, is its tourism campaign for the city.“When KesselsKramer was asked to develop a tourism campaign for Amsterdam, we noted that there were no landmarks like an Eiffel Tower or Sydney Opera House to turn into an icon,” says Bulder. “This city is, even more than others, about the people.”“Amsterdam’s identity is defined by those who live, visit, or seek refuge here. That insight provided the starting point for the logo and campaign that became Iamsterdam. Today, Iamsterdam has developed into a campaign carried by the people, demonstrated by the many pictures of people climbing the life-size Iamsterdam logo that circulate the web.” Dolly Rogers created the identity and user interface for Amsterdam-based WeTransferIt is the relationships between these people that are key to Amsterdam’s success as a creative city, says Dolly Rogers founder Jennette Snape. “Creativity is a lifestyle in Amsterdam,” she explains, “and you’ll notice a strong connection between the commercial entrepreneurs and the artisans of this city – more so than I have experienced working in any other city.”“This is the perfect combination, because these communities need each other to thrive and develop, and clients will always benefit from this kind of relationship. Commerce, creativity and clients. It’s the perfect threesome,” she adds.Snape, originally from Australia, set up Dolly Rogers in 2008, and since then has designed the visual identity and user interface for Amsterdam based tech-startup WeTransfer, created a campaign titled ‘Prove You’ve Got Balls’ for Movember Netherlands, and encouraged people to seduce their friends for MTV Mobile. Variously described as a creative agency and as storytellers, Dolly Rogers, like many others in the city, avoids calling itself a straight-up design agency. Snape explains that Amsterdam certainly offers both multi-disciplined agencies and traditional design agencies, but argues that design “crosses all disciplines these days,” adding “I guess it depends on whether you position yourself as a generalist or a specialist.”So, as the boundaries between disciplines break down, does a pure Amsterdam design industry really exist? Nike+ House of Innovation Windows at Selfridges by ...,staatLiauw agrees with Snape, saying that while there are still many agencies who have design as their main focus, many have also become “increasingly aware that design is much more effective in combination with content”.“Modern society requires solutions that go beyond an attractive exterior,” he says. “Design is thus becoming an integrated part of a larger story.”KesselsKramer’s Bulder is a bit more blunt, exclaiming: “If you refer to creative agencies, forget about disciplines”. He goes on to say: “Let’s just focus on solving communication problems first. If it’s a good idea, it should be able to express itself through any possible discipline.”Meanwhile, Kemper, on behalf of …,staat, suggests the “Dutch school” of design has undergone an evolution: “The classic Dutch design school, like Droog Design, the Eindhoven Design Academy or graphic heroes like Wim Crouwel, is not that recognisable anymore. It has evolved, become more blurred.”“There are a lot of amazing designers, creatives, digital thinkers and fashion designers here,” says Kemper. “It is the city where disciplines meet and blend, and that’s a good thing. This is reflected in the way multiple international agencies, game makers and brands have decided to make the move to Amsterdam in the last couple of years.”So, despite a reluctance to acknowledge a ‘design scene’ in the city, it seems times really are exciting for Amsterdam design. And just as the city is made all the more interesting through its global outlook and welcoming nature, it is the design industry’s ability to embrace and adopt other disciplines that allows it to flourish and remain relevant.

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