Design Engineering #1 — Enabling Creativity

Vietanh Nguyen
3 min readJan 26, 2021

Marco Christis’ job is to translate crazy ideas into code. He is one of the many design engineers I am lucky to work with. His approach to design engineering discipline is: build to enable creativeness.

A creativity bus

Marco shared with me about his most memorable project: Face Your World. More than ten years ago, he worked with the Dutch artist and city planner Jeanne van Heeswijk, commissioned by the Wexner Center for the Arts in Columbus, Ohio.

Face Your World started in Columbus, Ohio, USA.

They transformed a school bus into a studio on wheels equipped with a network of computers. During summer vacation, the team drove around the city and encouraged local kids to take photos of their own neighborhoods. Marco wrote a multi-user program to process these photos and let the kids rebuild where they live.

The Interactor program allows children to ‘engineer’ their surroundings, combining and re-using existing elements to devise new and innovative visions for their city.

He created an environment, the bus, where children created imagined worlds that they would like to live in.

After Columbus, Ohio, Face Your World did a similar program in Amsterdam, the Netherlands. Delightfully, the team convinced the city’s officials to convert youthful visions into an actual park.

Staalman park was designed by school children participating in Face The World.

The secret to power-up oneself

Design engineers are not limited to a single technology or a platform. While working in Face Your World, Marco learned 7 new technology stacks: Shockwave 3D, Adobe Director, Macromedia Multiuser Server, Flash Media Server, MySQL, Coldfusion even vinyl stickering to make the bus happen. He went outside his comfort zone by working with others of different disciplines, watching the tools they use, and asking how they think.

I asked Marco which partner taught him the most. He recalled Remon Tijssen, a design director, who amazed him with the ability to see possibilities in something that seems mundane. They worked together to launch an iOS app called Whorl to create graphics, patterns, and animation. Prototyping was at the heart of their collaboration. Every time Marco cracked open a new capability of the SpriteKit library, Remon would find a new parameter to generate visual art. They prototyped more to push the technology’s limit and have more fun themselves. Consequently, the launched app reflected their design process: the user started with a couple of parameters like shape and size and immediately saw the app conjured patterns in real-time.

Marco and Remon enabled others to learn complex tools by continuously playing and seeing results instead of watching video or textbook tutorials.

Design engineers are not limited to a single technology or a platform.

By facing unfamiliar tools head-on, Marco enabled others to push their creative boundaries, from a park imagined by children to a community that can create art without formal training. Do you enjoy learning new skills and working with others to build unconventional ideas? Then you are likely a design engineer like Marco.

This is the first article in my series on Design Engineering. If you have questions about this best unknown job on earth, leave a comment or reach me on LinkedIn.