Guest column

Hans Gubbels

Director/chairman of the Museumplein Limburg Foundation

What is the power of design?

This might seem like an unnecessary question, particularly when you’re in charge of a design museum. Nonetheless, there are many possible perspectives on design. The Anglicism “design” is nearly always used to allude to an object in other languages. In this case, we usually think of products in which unusual, mostly aesthetic qualities play an important role. These exclusive products distinguish themselves from the norm, based on the work of a creative person, which may perhaps also be described as applied art. I would prefer to call this the more poetic side of design.

However, if we are to view design as an English noun or verb and translate them to Dutch, we get “ontwerp (noun)” and “ontwerpen (verb)”. These two words instantly evoke a very different feeling in Dutch. Wikipedia has the following to say about this. “A design (‘ontwerp’) is a description of something new or a description of something that already exists. In other words, ‘ontwerp’ is a description (projection or model) of the (future) reality.” This is a much more active approach that refers to both the process and the final product. This is not something artists work on, but instead, is the work of engineers, architects and scientists. For me, the Dutch noun for design (“ontwerp”) is the much more prosaic side of design.

Social relevance

In our approach to design at the Cube design museum, we make the conscious choice to not focus on expositions with design classics or famous designers even though this might lead to great articles in the newspaper or higher visitor numbers. We actually feel challenged to provide a different interpretation of the social relevance demanded of us as a Limburg provincial museum. As a public institution, Cube concentrates on the design process and as we call it, “design for human needs.”  


Given the fact that Brightlands’ innovations also focus on creating a better future for us all, we see ourselves as an unsolicited partner. There is even more that connects us however. The creative power of designers and their methods is an excellent match for the innovations taking place at the Brightlands campuses. Here are just a few examples. On May 9, Cube will open the Nature exhibit featuring 63 design projects by international designers including Michelin’s vision on tires, the Vision project. A project like this can serve as inspiration for the work at the Brightlands campuses, but the specialized materials expertise available at these same campuses can help turn a design like this into reality.


At Cube, students and designers work with visitors each day in the design labs on a new design. This type of valorisation of innovation leads to new insights. An environment like this that is open to the public naturally also offers great opportunities to test out Brightlands’ innovations on the general public. Cube deploys its network of designers and creates connections through its annual program full of events, lectures and workshops. All of this focuses on designers as a catalyst for a successful transfer of the Brightlands campus innovations to small- and medium-sized enterprises. We will be organizing the Future of Design Industrial Summit on June 13 that centers on the role of design in Industry 4.0. 

Two-sided perspective

But to return to the initial question: a prosaic approach to design results in innovations that lead to makable products that work. The poetic approach gives innovations relevance, a face and a higher market value. For me, the power of design lies in this two-sided perspective.

Nederlandse versie: gastcolumn

Over Hans

  • Director/chairman of the Museumplein Limburg Foundation (Continium discovery center, Cube design museum and Columbus earth center) since 2015
  • Member of the Board of Directors of Het Laagland theater company 
  • Member of the York Forum since 2014

Based on his enormous fascination with the world around him, Hans Gubbels decided to study mechanical engineering after graduating from high school. He also obtained diplomas in technical computer sciences and marketing.


In 2000, he sold his company which focused on designing concepts for amusement and theme parks, world’s fairs and other public centers. 


After a bit of wandering, Hans Gubbels started as CEO of the technology museum in Kerkrade 15 years ago. This museum has since grown to become a unique worldwide cluster of an experience, a museum and a discovery center focusing on the themes, respectively, of earth, design and science and technology. These visitor centers – Columbus, Cube and Continium – have been created as open institutions for storytelling, engagement, debate, co-creation and sharing knowledge about the world around us and the earth on which we live. The cluster’s mission is to strengthen society by offering a platform for solutions for a sustainable future.