In the last year, we have welcomed three new playground designers to Earthscape’s design team: Niek de Jong, Dylan Torraville and Ismael Velo. Laura interviewed them to help colleagues and collaborators get to know them a bit better!
Laura : Niek, Dylan and Ismael, we are so thrilled to have you on Team Earthscape Play! Each of you have such interesting experiences, incredible skills and fun personalities! Niek, you actually did playground design before joining Earthscape but Dylan and Ismael, you’re translating other skills and knowledge to playground design! Niek, where did you find your start in playground design?
Niek: My student internship at Carve in Amsterdam was for me the moment where the whole playground adventure started. An unforgettable experience! Not surprisingly, I subsequently wrote a thesis on the subject of urban playgrounds. Then I worked for two years at Kompan, as a playground designer. After that I continued on independently, mainly carrying out assignments for Dutch and German play-equipment suppliers.
Laura: Ismael and Dylan, what did you do before becoming playground designers?
Ismael: I studied Industrial Design in Barcelona and Eindhoven (Netherlands) before working for a small boutique product design agency in Amsterdam. Both during my studies and professional life I designed a fair amount of things for children, from sensory toys to a charming little bedside table night light.
Dylan: I am a recent grad from Humber College’s Industrial Design program. At the start of the pandemic, I started working as an Industrial Designer at Spartec Composites. I designed branding assets, did web design and developed marketing content and composite manufacturing for automotive, military and commercial products.
Laura: Where did you grow up and what do you remember about playgrounds from when you were a kid?
Niek: In a village called Doorn, east of the City of Utrecht centrally located in the Netherlands, which is also known as The Utrecht Hills. Lots of trees, so there was a lot of scrambling around, self-made huts and treehouses that included zip lines! Not entirely without risk of course…But in our neighborhoods we had traditional playgrounds, the wooden climbing frames, rubber tiles and steel slides….
Ismael: I grew up in a small town of Galicia, in the northern part of Spain. My family comes from the countryside and we still live there for long periods of time. So I mostly played in nature, or indoors by myself for I am an only child. As an introvert, I guess I developed some sort of intimate connections with my surroundings. I don’t remember any playgrounds from that time so I guess they weren’t really remarkable.
Dylan: I grew up in Aurora, Ontario…just down the road from my elementary school. When I wasn’t riding my bike in the forest or playing ball hockey in the street, I was at the park with my friends. I used to be the “King of the tire swing” – known to swing the tire the fastest! My parents and I used to go on bike rides to a super cool park in another neighborhood that had a rock-climbing wall. I thought that was the coolest thing!
Laura: Here’s a fun question, what is the BEST part about being a playground designer?
Niek: In the first place: the artistic and architectural approach on playground design at Earthscape. But also the scale of the product. Products of this size are very pleasant to work with, the entire design process can be controlled relatively well as a playground designer and the lead time for playground equipment is short. In that regard, you will soon see your designs actually being realized in public, it’s fascinating! But what is really cool about playground design is the often seamless transition from function to form: you basically design the value of play directly in line with the behavior of our users: not necessarily ‘a climbing frame’ but ‘ways to climb’.
Ismael: The idea of being able to create small worlds and places of wonder and amazement. Like creating a stage…for play! These items contribute to placemaking and growth and hopefully make our cities and developments more humane. I love the artistic part of it as much as the architectural and play aspect. The scale is also very different from anything I have worked on before, so that is also special.
Dylan: Best part? Waking up each day and realizing that I actually design playgrounds for a living…wow!! I can express my energy and creativity in a fun and exciting way, knowing that people of all ages will be impacted by this idea that comes from a brain, goes onto paper, into a computer and then is built in real life! So cool!!
Laura: And what is the hardest part about being a playground designer?
Niek: We clearly design for a very special target group – kids! But every now and then you take a step back in the design process because you totally underestimate or OVERestimate the skills and knowledge of children from different age groups. We always learn…
Ismael: Being able to realise your creative vision without stepping over rules and regulations concerning safety. From a creative perspective, sometimes you would like to see things that add value to the playground (aesthetically, functionally, etc.) but if these would not pass the safety tests it would make our lives really hard.
Dylan: Well, there are a few things! First, friends don’t believe you when you tell them what you do for a living (they’re the ones missing out!). Second, work isn’t all play, I do need to be productive. Third, it is a bit sad that great concepts don’t always get built – but hopefully they will someday!
Laura: What skills make you successful as a playground designer?
Niek: In the field of playground design I have seen a lot in my career. I am glad with the experience I have gained at other companies and the set of skills I was taught that I can now use to share and communicate new outside-the-box ideas with Earthscape clients.
Ismael: My success as a playground designer is yet to be proved, hehe. But I do hope to bring my own sensitivity and design aesthetics (mostly developed on smaller, bespoke designs) over to these bigger challenges and merge them with the good play value that Earthscape offers.
Dylan: Well I think I’m REALLY good at thinking like a kid! I love asking myself the “what if?” question…What if this playground was built by aliens from Mars? What would that be like? I suppose my skills in sketching and visualization, task management and media production are big assets, as well.
Laura: What surprises you most about the field of playground design?
Niek: That no one knows it is an actual career – a real job!
Ismael: So far, one of the most surprising facts is the budgets that are allocated to building these structures. I am positively surprised that municipalities and contractors put these resources to building custom pieces that reflect and add up to the character of the sites, rather than just installing low budget, plug-n play solutions.
Dylan: I think I have been most surprised by how much of a team effort it is to design a great playground. From the designers, to the engineers, project managers, logistics teams, quoting teams and everyone in between, it takes a diversely skilled team to create an incredible playground. I have so much gratitude for being a part of such an amazing team!
Laura: Each of you are very skilled at hand-sketching – what are your favourite sketching tools?
Niek: For lots of hand sketching, I just use a pencil and fine liner. As well, Adobe Photoshop & InDesign, of course, and I frequently use Rhino to discover interesting shapes and play concepts, at an early stage.
Ismael: My thinking happens by hand with a fineliner and a marker. That’s how I feel the most free and light to move on and generate a large number of good (and not so good) sketches. For bringing those to life, I use Procreate on my iPad, where I have my colour library for wood and wood stains.
Dylan: Great question! I am a young, old-school guy. I love the yellow barrel Bic ballpoint pen, Copic Marker C2 and heaps of black Chartpak AD markers. A box of these tools with a good stack of 11×17 paper keeps me happy for hours! I also love the iPad Pro and Apple pencil for digital rendering in Adobe Photoshop and Sketchbook Pro.
Laura: What do you like to do when you aren’t designing playgrounds – what are your hobbies and interests?
Niek: You can regularly find me in local Amsterdam bars with a coffee and a newspaper or book in hand. At the moment I’m reading the book called Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari – I recommend it! I play piano in a band called “The Hump” (you can hire us if you like). On Saturday, I debate with my girlfriend what to eat that night. We always buy fresh products at the market on Saturday. I play a lot of golf and the beach is also nearby, which is nice!
Ismael: Going outdoors for a trek and a picnic is the number one thing that makes me feel relaxed and grounded. Before COVID I also danced lindy hop! It is a swing dance from the 20’s and 30’s originated in New York but now very popular in Europe. Lately I have started to learn how to play the piano, a long due hobby that I hope I can start enjoying soon. Learning to play an instrument can be frustrating!
Dylan: You will probably find me outdoors running as long and as far as I can in the forest or stand-up paddle-boarding. Or you will find me creating new smoothies with funky fruits. My current favourite is banana, dragon fruit, papaya, prickly pear and raspberries! SO delicious! I also love to cook, but PB+J and Vegemite sandwiches will always be my default snack. I record my own daily podcast (every week, Monday to Friday) with my best friend and I am always finding different ways to be creative. When we can, I love to travel; to walk around new cities with everything in my backpack, hoping to get lost in a new environment.
Laura: This has been so fun! To end off, tell us, what is your favourite public space in the world?
Niek: The streets and squares of Lisbon, Portugal. I try to visit Lisbon once a year. The city is built on steep hills so there are plenty of squares overlooking the river and the city, very picturesque. The height difference is bizarre! There is a good chance that you enter any train station on the ground floor but leave this place on the 4th floor too. A playground for adults really!
Ismael: I can never really settle for a favourite of anything because I fall in love very easily. But my most recent discovery was the Viaduc des Arts in Paris. It is a suspended garden (Promenade Plantée) built on an old train line, like the famous High Line in New York. It offers a fabulous vantage point over the romantic streets of Paris and although it is situated in the center, is an oasis of peace and quiet. Plus, a lot of creative businesses have their headquarters below!
Dylan: My favourite public place in the entire world is Fitzroy Gardens in Melbourne, Australia. Pre-COVID, I spent four months running, walking and exploring the paths in these gardens, watching Kookaburras, possums, magpies and bats fly in the trees. It is full of hidden treasures, like Cook’s Cabin, a conservatory, amazing benches, beautiful fountains, and a plethora of natural flora and fauna.
Laura: You’re REALLY making me want to hop on an airplane and travel! Niek, Ismael, Dylan – we are so glad to have you on board and know you’re going to help to push the Earthscape playground design envelope to build even MORE spectacular places for kids to play. Thanks for sharing with us!