Alexandra Steenbeek studied on the BDesProduct Design programme at Glasgow School of Art from 2013-2017. She was offered a place on the course at the age of just 16, having completed high school at the Internationale Schule Frankfurt. She began her studies after taking a year out to work and travel. She was scouted at Degree Show by creative consultancy Wunderman Thompson and spent three years working there before beginning a Masters in Material andVisual Culture at University College London.

After graduating, Alexandra worked for marketing agency Wunderman Thompson before starting a Masters in Material and Visual Culture at UCL

Alexandra’s research, in both her academic and professional practice, focuses on people’s relationships with objects and material culture.

She believes skills learned at GSA, such as interviewing users and facilitating workshops, helped her transition into the world of professional design
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Can you explain briefly what you’ve been up to since you graduated from GSA?

I graduated from the Product Design programme in 2017. I’ve spent the past couple of years working in a marketing agency in London called Wunderman Thompson and I’ve just started my Masters in Material andVisual Culture in the Anthropology department at UCL.

What was the focus of the work you did in your final year at GSA and did it inform what you went on to do after graduation?

My dissertation and my self-initiated project were born out of the same interest I had in the relationship we have with objects and how objects can help to craft identity. My dissertation ended up being about the evolution of the collective Scandinavian design identity. I was really interested in how that came to be and how it’s evolved into new Nordic design. Now it’s changing but there’s still this collective nature to it.

My other project looked into future nomads and the relationship they have with objects. It explored the realities of moving around and living out of a suitcase and how you can create a sense of home and connection with your past through the fewer objects you have around you. I ended up focusing on soaps and designing a service that creates bespoke soaps based on memory. It looked at how scent and texture can become memory aids and help with storytelling of people’s past.

It’s complete chance that the Masters I’m doing now ties in with [my GSA graduation project]. I’m looking at material culture but it kind of came out of a selfish desire to better understand our relationship with objects. Specifically, the idea of objects crafting identity came out of the fact that I had grown up in various different places. My mum’s Austrian, my dad’s Dutch, but I’ve never lived in either country so the relationship I have with those countries and those identities is quite complicated. I’ve always been interested in how it relates to other people’s lives. It was born out of a selfish desire to understand things better and make sense of things for me. It’s evolved and now I’m doing my Masters on the same kind of subject. It wasn’t the plan, it’s just how it happened.

What do you remember about your Degree Show and how did you end up getting the job with Wunderman Thompson?

With graduation, I remember everything happened very fast, especially that last part of the year was really full steam ahead. Degree show was all really hectic but having everything up in that room was just indescribable. I was approached at degree show by Wunderman and asked to come in for an interview. I was actually going on holiday so I had the interview in the middle of my holiday and as soon as I came back I think I had a week or two before I started working. I was there for three years.


Can you explain a bit about Wunderman Thompson and what they do, as well as what you were working on during your time there?

Wunderman was originally a digital marketing company. They made lots of emails and customer relationship management. The team was started by GSA graduates and it was still really small but it had grown from being three people to eight when I joined. In the time I was there the team grew its UX capability and I think we were eventually around25 people. It grew really quickly because the work we did was quite different in that environment.

Having been born from people that studied at GSA it was a lot of the same methodologies and mindsets [I was already familiar with], and applying that to bigger business issues. The first projectI worked on was looking at BT and what the experience was like joining them, so from when you first think about buying it to day sixty. We had a couple of months doing research talking to people, looking at their website, assessing where they could potentially improve, looking at the bills, visiting callcentres and then we worked together with BT to improve that experience for their customers. We did similar work across various clients and worked together with them to make sure their customers or users generally have the best experience possible.


How did you find the transition from GSA to working for a fast-moving creative agency in London?

You leave GSA with interview skills already so that was fine, or like building workshop materials, that’s stuff you can do. I think the biggest shock for me was moving into a business area like marketing because they have their own jargon. GSA has its own as well. There are little bits that blend together but lots of acronyms were thrown about that I had no clue what they meant. It was a little bit intimidating at first but I had a really good team and I had a lot of support from them so it was the same sort of studio vibe. We were in an agency of a couple of hundred people but because the team was so small it felt like we were a really small agency within something bigger. It was like at GSA– I felt like I could tap someone on the shoulder and ask them a question and they’d drop everything to help me. It felt very cosy.

When did you leave Wunderman Thompson and why did you decided to return to academia and begin a Masters at UCL?

I was at Wunderman for three years and I left in July. I had a week between finishing that and starting my Masters so not long at all. I was thinking of doing a Masters so I went to the UCL open day for a completely different course and when I was there I started speaking to some of the professors and I realised that actually the course I went to see was not the one I wanted to do at all but it was actually the one I’m currently on. That sparked my interested in going back and doing a Masters.


Can you explain why you chose this particular course in Material and Visual Culture?

Just like at GSA, I feel the really interesting stuff happens when you collaborate with people from outside of your discipline and you get that different mindset and different thought processes. Working in collaboration with other people was always where the most interesting stuff happened so I didn’t really want to go back into an art school environment. I’d done it and I loved it but in going to UCL I wanted to challenge myself and learn a different way of thinking about things. It’s also an opportunity to work with people who don’t have a design background and who can perhaps offer me a completely different set of skills that I can incorporate into my work. I still very much think of myself as a designer – I’m doing a Masters in Anthropology but it’s just feeding into my skill set and my thought processes as a designer.

How are you enjoying the Masters course so far? How different is it to your studies at GSA?

It’s going really well, I’m really enjoying it. It’s a bit overwhelming at times because depending on the modules that I take there are completely different people. I’m doing a medical anthropology module now and I’m surrounded by people who are actual real-life doctors. I’m the only person without a medical background so it’s a little bit intimidating sometimes but it’s fascinating and rewarding and I’m learning a lot. I keep making all these ties to my own work that I’ve done in the past and I can see how certain ideas of behaviours make sense because of things I’ve seen before. I’m excited to be able to apply what I’ve learnt to actual work in my own discipline once I graduate. On the whole I guess I’m just trusting the process.


It’s still early in the academic year, but have you thought about what you might like to do once you’re done with thisMasters? Do you think you’ll stay in London?

I’m sure this will change multiple times over the year but currently I’m really keen on writing my thesis on telemedicine and digital healthcare, so I think I’d like to move into that direction a little bit more. I’ve done some of it through my time at Wunderman, working for companies like GlaxoSmithKline but I think I’d like to go more seriously in that direction.

Everything’s up in the air right now so we’ll see what happens. I think before Covid my boyfriend and I were discussing leaving London, potentially moving back toScotland or just going elsewhere. Maybe going to the continent and finding work in Berlin or Amsterdam.

I think the one thing that’s quite exciting right now which is completely different to pre-Covid is that companies are a lot more open to remote working. Some friends of mine have just moved back up to Edinburgh and they are both still fully employed in London. Their companies are still based here but they’re able to work remotely so they decided why not? It’s feasible to go down for a couple of days.You can work from anywhere.


Finally, do you have any advice for this year’s graduating students?

I think get to know the people outside of your year group. Get to know people from first year and second year and everyone around you because everyone’s going to be entering the job market at different times and those are going to be your automatic network when you graduate and when they graduate.The most valuable connections I’ve made in terms of moving and doing different things is definitely the people in the year groups that were above me and below me, so I’d definitely say get to know them because they’re all so awesome and they’ll be great to know when you leave.

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