Pieter-Jan Pieters always know how to bring a smile to everyone’s face with his work. The jury commends this young designer for his playful inventiveness, in combination with the particularly high quality of his product development process.
Pieters is light-hearted and inventive in his design approach: a quality which many clients really appreciate. Even his motto - not doing exactly what the client asks for - flies in the face of traditional design practice, and the jury commends this for its conspicuousness and daring.
His agency in Eindhoven, OWOW, got off to a particularly good start about four years ago; the Kickstarter project he launched to give his graduate project an extra boost in the market at that time has really been able to count on the attention of the 14-member jury.
But now Pieter-Jan Pieters is back on our radar, because OWOW employs a small staff of about ten and is already raking in national and international contracts. To keep this up, in-house skills are regularly developed and honed based on what the client needs, and the young agency keeps growing as a result. The jury sees Pieters as a promising young talent because he has managed to extend his initial success without sacrificing his particularly playful way of doing things.
DOING PRECISELY WHAT THE CLIENT DIDN’T SAY
Author: Annelies Thoelen
Pieter-Jan Pieters (°1988) is from Nijlen and graduated from the Design Academy in Eindhoven four years ago. He set up his own agency, OWOW, almost immediately after leaving. Pieter-Jan currently divides his time between Eindhoven and Antwerp. A conspicuous player, OWOW as an agency is on the upswing. With about ten young whizzes in its employ, it has been raking in the national and international contracts.
However, this isn’t the first time that the designer has been singled out for an award in his budding career. A few years ago Pieter’s work could be seen at Toegepast 18 in Hasselt. It was his potential for growth and substantial track record that got him selected for the project. He was designing The Social Button at the time, with some assistance. This ‘button’ would interrupt cell phone and WiFi signals when pressed. It poked fun at how our real-life social lives are overruled by our digital lives. He had also previously managed to secure a Keep An Eye Grant for up-and-coming talent and a nomination for the René Smeets prize from the Design Academy in Eindhoven.
Pieter-Jan Pieters has a fondness for music. He is probably best known for his MIDIS: a collection of compact electronic musical instruments, about the size of a bank card. He initially launched them in 2015, through a Kickstarter campaign, which caught on around the world. The MIDIS collection is made up of four small tools, which can be used to control music software in a surprisingly free and intuitive manner. Each of the perfectly finished instruments (Wob, Wiggle, Drum and Scan) creates digital music in response to simple hand motions. Wob takes wavy hand motions and transforms them into undulating sound. Wiggle modulates a sound selected in advance when tilted and turned. Drum behaves like a virtual drumstick in mid-air. Scan reads a ready-made drawing and converts it into sound.
In other words, MIDIS make the composition, and certainly the performance, of electronic music a lot more expressive and intuitive. And let’s face it, the current visual of a musician staring hard at his or her laptop on the stage is hardly delivers a wow factor. What’s more, each of these innovative little instruments is available in ready-to-go or in kit form. In kit form, the consumer receives the electronics by mail, in the shape of a printed circuit board plus a set of digital files for the casing (so it can be printed on a 3D printer). This leads to countless options for personalisation and offers benefits in terms of local production. By doing this, OWOW is chiefly targeting the innovative segment of the (semi)professional market, which is also why it has sold everything itself online since autumn of 2016.
It’s fantastic to see how a promising graduation project, with a quick boost from Kickstarter and boundless enthusiasm, can become a successful product distributed all over the globe. When I put this to Pieters on a rainy November evening, he tells me with a sunny smile that yes, the goal really is world domination.
But Pieter-Jan Pieters wouldn’t be himself if he didn’t take it just that step further and throw in an extra splash of playfulness and humour. He has also taken the MIDIS concept and developed the instruments into a number of real network instruments, which produce digital music not through hand motions, but by moving other body parts. It was a playful campaign Real Booty Music, and one that enjoyed international success. Among others, it resulted in a YouTube video that went viral, which of course Playboy and Lil Wayne snatched right up.
That also means that the MIDIS success is largely responsible for OWOW’s incredibly productive start up. The talks Pieters was able to give, and the visibility they led to for him are what helped him win those contracts later on down the line. He describes the company’s growth as extremely organic and mainly links it to the contracts themselves. He very quickly taught himself interface design, for example, by watching a few YouTube videos, after reassuring a customer in China that he had the skills. “I bluffed my way in,” he says with pride. “That meant I had to work six times longer than a person with the right skills. But during that time, it’s great that I got the chance to acquire that experience, because we capitalise on that knowledge now every day.”
Pieters describes OWOW’s activities himself as somewhere between design, engineering, branding and advertising; however, with a name like the ‘Omnipresent World of Whizzkids”, we can mostly expect it to come with a nod and a wink. In other words, OWOW quite literally stands for the world of clever kids all around us, whose fathers say they need to grow up, but who rebel against this. That’s how OWOW preaches a way of life that appeals to clients. It results in ultra-creative products that are inundated with a good helping of ‘feel good’ vibes. Pieters sums it up nicely: “Why spend your whole life making and selling things you don’t actually like? You only live once, right?”.
Pieter-Jan Pieters lets loose in the design trade too. He is creative, young and unruly; all he does is use technology to bring his ideas to life. In the process, he steers clear of any methodological dogma or rulebooks. Above all, he doesn’t take himself, or his design practice, too seriously. He sees fiddling around as a way of life .
To some extent, the brightness and breeziness of his approach originate from his spell as a trainee at Teenage Engineering in Sweden: an innovative design agency behind several pocket synthesisers and wireless speakers. With a broad grin he describes this environment as: “a highly thought of company of six blokes, in a garage full of go-karts and Lamborghinis” In this playground (sic) he decided that a good dose of humour and a playful approach were qualities worth preserving in his own design career. Once voiced, it became a reality.
This makes his own particular way of doing things special, because he always starts with the things that give him pleasure or the things he wants himself. And it flies in the face of the more traditional design practice, where the wishes and requirements of the customer are paramount. In his own words: “what we’re good at is doing precisely what the client didn’t tell us to do”. Pieters consistently bases his projects on his own dreams, on tinkering and building things, and is also proud to call himself a professional tinkerer. It is this almost childlike naivety that to make Pieters’ work so incredibly creative and appealing to clients. Since the destination is unknown at the beginning of the process, the end results will end up falling far from pattern of expectation a good amount of the time, and that’s a good thing.
OWOW is now also an agency specialising in radically different segments. In each, the designers follow the same bright and breezy method to get to the crux of a problem, whether they are designing new types of musical instruments, or working on advertising campaigns, apps, websites, new brands, or developing new technologies in the care sector. And that’s why OWOW is expanding so rapidly, working both on commission and on its own initiative. It’s the latter point where he would like to see more time spent. Hence the arrival, in 2015, of a new partner, one to remind the designers that playtime is over and the project has got to come in for a landing.
However, however playful they may be, the finished product is always highly functional. It’s not for a lark that one of the mottos at OWOW is “we design growth” - music to the ears of many a client. Beyond aesthetics and humour, OWOW pursues relevance and quality in its designs. That’s also why they focus so hard on a perfect finish. A project has to be well thought out, inside and outside, and cleverly put together. Even when it comes to prototypes, Pieters insists on perfection, in the details and in the finish.