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Web Design in the Netherlands

Dutch Web design firms have garnered international recognition and do work for international clients. (Photo: Franck Fife / AFP-Getty Images)

The Netherlands has a vibrant design community encompassing architecture, new media, music, dance, visual arts, and all sorts of experimental art.

As an Amsterdam-born Dutch-American who has spent a lot of time outside of Holland, I believe I have a unique perspective on this. I see, for example, how the Netherlands is a country that loves its rules and regulations and prides itself on how well-ordered its society is — and it really is. For every imaginable situation and question, the government has a well-designed guidebook and institution, but anything that isn't covered by these preset regulations is difficult for them to digest or respond to. This love of rules is the famed Dutch pragmatism, better known because of its tolerance of soft drugs.

Yet many Dutch designers seek to appear or even be avant-garde, revolutionary, and rule-breaking. I believe this is a direct reaction against the sometimes irritatingly nitpicky worship of this country's labyrinthine regulations. In doing so, they often strike an American tone or borrow from American culture, using American expressions and imagery or directly translating American slang into Dutch. A prime example in wide use (not just by Web designers) is "vet" — Dutch for "phat," a hip-hop term. "Bling" is also quite popular, and has found its way into design here as well, with a plethora of posters, magazines, and sites using diamond and gold encrusted lettering, more so than in the U.S., actually. The end result is designers catering to a target market that seeks to be in tune with American culture as a way of rebelling against their perceived and often very real rigidity of Dutch bureaucracy.

One distinct advantage of working as a Web designer in the Netherlands is that the population is very aware of design trends, and recognizes as well as appreciates good design. Whereas in the United States a client might insist that Times New Roman font be used throughout a site design because their company's CEO knows nothing else, in the Netherlands they are more likely to understand that it is not a suitable font for the Web. They may even request you design a custom typeface for them, and are more likely to give you full artistic license to do something unusual, even for corporate Web sites. In comparison many American corporate sites wind up being a bland mix of white, blue, gray and standard stock photos of smiling business people and support staff, while Dutch ones may opt for lime green, hot pink, and strange (i.e. attention-getting) photos.

A bizarre phenomenon I have observed here is that almost every Web design shop worth its salt seems to have developed its own content management system (CMS). This is likely out of necessity in order to stay competitive. The economy is not doing that well, and to maintain a decent profit margin I think Web designers have resorted to getting clients "hooked" on their own custom CMS. I suppose this helps them retain their clients better, since the clients won't be able to go elsewhere easily. There are plenty of open-source programmers active here, many of them widely known and respected, but when it comes to actual Web design firms offering CMS solutions, they push their own solutions rather than open-source ones such as Joomla, e107, or Drupal.

Personally, I feel it is much more beneficial to the client to use an OS solution, because it means they could much more easily go to another Web designer or developer for support later on. So how is that good for Web designers? By offering OS solutions to clients and explaining it to them like this, they understand the Web designer is doing what's best for THEM, not the Web designer. It also helps the Web designer in that there is generally a large support group of other developers constantly improving their chosen CMS, which saves the developer time.

Companies do typically hire local firms. If a company is Dutch-speaking and located in Amsterdam, they're more likely to hire a Dutch Web design firm based in Amsterdam. Companies like to have the opportunity for face-to-face meetings, and like to know that their Web designer understands their specific market, which is quite often also very localized. Network relationships here tend to be very close and intermingled, which is both good and bad. People (logically) prefer to hire people they know, and word of mouth is powerful. Interestingly, many Dutch design firms have garnered international recognition and do work for international clients, but the reverse does not seem to hold true.

Architects, graphic designers, and to a lesser degree new media firms based in the Netherlands have made a name for themselves around the world, to the point that "Dutch design" is often considered untouchable. This was especially true in the late 1990's, when books like "SuperDutch" came out. The hubris of those days is long-gone, and designers are taking a more pragmatic approach now. Add to that the fact that the EU has expanded eastward to include the considerable Eastern European talent, and Dutch designers are finding once again that they need to reinvent themselves the way the Dutch at large have always done so to succeed.

Dutch design is at a crossroads and needs to embrace the world, and I'm sure the resourceful pool of Dutch talent will manage it.

View the Worldpress Desk’s profile for Casper Voogt.