By Rachael Steven


With teams in Amsterdam and Beijing, Lava Lab researches and experiments with new technologies from augmented reality to interactive apps and social media. It is an offshoot of design agency Lava, which was founded by Hans Wolbers in 1990.

Speaking at creative conference Design Indaba last week, van de Zandschulp and Martin said that much of Lava Lab’s work is focused on using technology to engage with millennials (those born between 1980 and 2000) – an audience its clients had been struggling to reach.

It recently created an interactive app for Amsterdam Museum encouraging high school students to interact with an exhibition of 17th century paintings. Titled #GoldenAge, the app used Bluetooth transmitters (iBeacons) to send push notifications to visitors’ smartphones and smartwatches as they passed by paintings, revealing the stories behind them. Visitors could also make ‘friends’ with the artists, view their bios and status updates and receive private messages from them.

Visitors using Lava Lab’s interactive app at the Van Gogh Museum. Lead image (top): the Golden Age project for Amsterdam Museum. Images via Lava (

Lava Lab also worked with Why Not and HearUsHere to create an app titled IPERFORM for Amsterdam’s Van Gogh Museum which delivered animated GIFs instructing visitors to experience the museum’s artworks in new ways. It is now developing an open-source platform, Flinck, which will allow other museums and galleries to create similar experiences and promote their collections online.

Explaining the differences between millennials and other demographics, van de Zandschulp and Martin said millennials see themselves as “creative innovators” and want to play with open-source tools and interactive technologies. They value brands which are experimental and efficient, they said – and ones that speak their language. Here, the pair share some advice on interacting with millennials and discuss how investing in a research and innovation lab has benefitted Lava as an agency.

CR: What are the most common mistakes brands make when talking to millennials?

Cecilia Martin: I think in the way they communicate, they don’t understand that first of all, their storytelling is not just

[about having] a beginning and an end. It’s more fragmented – there are many, many stories are happening in parallel – and their way of talking has evolved a lot, so how do you embrace this kind of language, which is a lot more emotional and dynamic? A lot of brands find it very difficult to do, probably because they don’t have many millennials in their team. Also, brands should not be something based on control. They need dynamic identities that work across platforms and they should be designing tools that millennials can create with…. Brands try to control their image, they have regulations and it’s about coherence and they don’t realise that they need to lose control.

The Van Gogh Museum app delivers animated instructions to visitors, encouraging them to interact with the artworks in new ways

And what brands are doing good work?

Klasien van de Zandschulp: The Met Museum in New York has a media lab and it’s great because they work with millennial students. They do an internship programme working together with them to look at new ways to tell stories or what to do in an art museum, which I think is really interesting. Another one is [Dutch airline] KLM, because they use Twitter in a really smart way. They’re really honest about mistakes they make, they tweet with you, and they have really developed a language that everyone appreciates more and that fits more in this age. It’s not super corporate … they have really opened up their communication and I think that’s really interesting.

270b282454d99f13b889a51e8f48aac2-1080The Moscow Design Museum – a mobile museum with a flexible identity

What do you think are the most effective platforms for engaging with millennials now? Is it still Facebook, Twitter and Instagram?

KZ: Yes, and Snapchat also. Instagram is really important because it is so visual … and I think a lot of people still use Facebook, but millennials are already looking further, looking for new exciting apps to communicate with.

CM: They want platforms that they can use to get together and do things. The tech is just a means to an end, but Facebook is still, for now, the most used media for them. The biggest success of Facebook is that you have the most people on one platform and [millennials] like that efficiency of saving time by getting in touch with many different people. But as Klasien said, they are now looking beyond that, so we need to build new platforms…. In a way, Facebook is good, because you can read the news and keep in touch with people and so on, but it’s also limited in terms of what you can do. It’s quite controlled.

c23760ca404030dd0439afe0790ea79a-1500The Golden Age project for Amsterdam Museum delivered push notifications and private messages to visitors’ smartphones and smartwatches when passing by paintings

A lot of your work is also about using technology and apps to enhance physical experiences…

CM: That is the one thing this group values the most. They are ready to spend their money on experiences more than anything else, so technology should enable that. Technology should be seamless, something they don’t even have to think about [because] it’s often the experience you’re enabling that’s most important.

What kind of research have you been doing to determine how to engage with millennials?

KZ: We sent out a lot of online research about museum visits [for #GoldenAge] but also to get more general information about them … and we do a lot of desk research, trying to read everything that has been published about them. We’ve also done a lot of user researches with millennials in the museum.

CM: It’s also about utilising your networks and going out and speaking to them. We’re very DIY as an agency, we don’t wait for big projects to make things happen, we just research and experiment.

Did you set out to focus specifically on engaging with this age group when you started Lava Lab?

CM: We wanted to innovate … to open up new possibilities for our clients, and really explore what had potential and what was just the next cool thing. Working with millennials was a way for us to drive innovation [because] they are the real drivers of innovation now.

How does Lava Lab work – are the teams at the agency separate?

KZ: Everyone at Lava sometimes also works on Lava Lab cases. At this moment, we are researching what is the future of graphic design in virtual reality and augmented reality: What does it mean for font design? How do fonts behave? And how does a brand behave? We are constantly working with different people and we ourselves [at the Lab] are sometimes working on Lava cases, so it’s an exchange of knowledge.

CM: We bring innovation we can take to Lava projects and vice versa. We’re always looking at where we can make more money and where we can learn more knowledge, and we also work with governmental funding so we don’t follow just one business model…. You have to be willing to invest [in innovation] because you’re not going to make a profit from day one.

What are the plans for your open-source platform, Flinck?

KZ: It’s still very much in development. We’ve got a content management system where you can connect stories to Bluetooth technology and we’re also co-operating with other partners. There’s one that creates his own CMS for museums, like a plug in for their system, so museums can have their collection online and attach the same stories in the physical space. So we’re developing that, and we will launch it in the next week or two. I’m curious what will happen and how people will start to use it.

Were you at all concerned about creating an open-source platform?

KZ: It’s really scary for a lot of people – we constantly get questions like, ‘what is your business model?’ – but that’s not what’s important. You want to create something that will change the world and that people will want to share, you’re not thinking ‘I’ve created something and I need to make money from it.’ On the other hand, you also get a lot of input. If someone creates an open source system they’re going to adapt it and add to it, so it’s give and take.

Why did Lava Lab set up a Beijing arm? 

CM: Celine Lamee [creative director at Lava Lab Beijing, and formerly of Lava in Amsterdam] had developed this relationship with Beijing Design Week [the agency created an identity for Beijing Design Week in 2013 and set up a mobile design agency during the event, offering logos and identities for local business owners]. She really wanted to bring Lava there and embrace the dynamics of this other part of the world and it’s doing very well…. The Chinese population is very technology driven so it opens up a very different landscape, and an accelerated one I’d say.

A lot of your innovation work is with museums and galleries. Are the museums you work with in Amsterdam very open to trying out new tools and technologies?

KZ: It’s interesting because last year I was at SXSW and I presented some of these projects, and when we were talking to people from museums in the US, they said that they felt Dutch museums and galleries were more experimental, and that some of them in the States are a bit scared [of embracing new tech]…. I think in England, museums are also maybe more daring to experiment [the Tate has been partnering with digital culture project The Space, while the Royal Academy launched Ai WeiWei’s blockbuster exhibition online earlier this year].

CM: Some museums are really investing in technologies and others are really behind, but museums and galleries are interesting because they offer this space that we can experiment in. There are lots of stories to tell, and maybe we can apply [what we’ve learned] to other things, like events or a festival.

Cecilia Martin and Klasien van de Zandschulp were speaking at creative conference Design Indaba in Cape Town. See for details

Read more here:: Amsterdam’s Lava Lab on using technology to talk to millennials