WDCD 2018 is all about (re)designing design

For edition eight WDCD is back where it all started: the Stadsschouwburg in Amsterdam (photo: Leo Veger).

“Technology is not the driving force, but heart and imagination”, creative director at Google Creative Lab Robert Wong emphasizes in his keynote lecture on the closing day of the What Design Can Do conference in Amsterdam. A perfect conclusion after two days of exploring the new design landscape.

“Perception shapes reality“, journalist and activist Ahmed Shihab-Eldin stresses during his lecture about classic journalism and its inability to see the world from different perspectives. Events are always framed, but the hint of objectivity masks other frames. That needs to be changed. Shihab-Eldin is often mocked as an activist, but he doesn’t care and even likes it: “a good journalist is an activist”.

Ahmed Shihab-Eldin is a journalist and activist (photo: Leo Veger).

During the opening speech of edition eight of What Design Can Do (WDCD), Richard van der Laken, one of the two founders, doesn’t use the word activist. But his story is clear: a good designer is always trying to alter our perception of a new reality with design. That’s an activist deed. Wikipedia says:

Activism consists of efforts to promote, impede, or direct social, political, economic, or environmental reform or stasis with the desire to make improvements in society.

Close to the description Van der Laken gives of the role of the designer. In eight years WDCD has transformed into one of the most important international design conferences and festivals. Founders Pepijn Zurburg and Van der Laken, both also running the design acengy Designpolitie, have set up a conference in São Paulo, later this year Mexico City follows. Nairobi and New Dehli are next. WDCD is also initiating design challenges for designers around the world. Ideology is essential for the organization. The responsibility of the individual designer and of the design community as a whole is the central theme of WDCD.

Joel Towers explains why design has to be redesigned (photo: Leo Veger).

That doesn’t go unnoticed in the design community. The last few years there has been a lot of critique: WDCD wrongly pretends that design is the solution for all the big problems in the world. On design blog Deezeen Ruben Pater wrote about the Refugee Challenge WDCD initiated in 2016:

There is no doubt that the WDCD Refugee Challenge deserves credit for raising awareness among professional designers and the public that this humanitarian crisis should be addressed.
But it fails to acknowledge its own political position as an actor in the refugee crisis, and does not address the responsibilities of designers themselves. A shelter is not just a shelter, a campaign is not just a campaign — they relate to larger political ideologies and sentiments. If we do not take the impact that design has on the world seriously, design for good can do more harm than good.

Van der Laken responded in Dutch newspaper NRC:

Design is not a magic stick that solves al societal problems. You also need companies, governments and citizens for that. But design has more to offer than most people think.

Both Pater and Van der Laken agree that designers have a responsibility that goes beyond the artefact and the user.

Designers designing a new way to design for the UN’s global goals at the workshop lead by Digital Society School Amsterdam and TU Delft.

In the 1990s Richard Buchanan, professor design and innovation at the Weatherhead School of Management, developed a model to understand the historical changes of design. According to Buchanan the scope of design broadens: in the 1950s and 1960s design was a synonym for the artefact itself, during the 1990s the user became the centre and this century the impact of design on the environment gains interest. In his article ‘Design Research and the New Learning’ Buchanan talks about four orders of design: symbols, things, action, thoughts.

The idea that design has its own ecology and that the designer is able to influence the way design changes its environment, is more and more accepted. That insight was last year’s conference central theme. ‘How to influence the design environment’, is this year’s question. Joel Towers, dean of Parsons School of Design, summarizes in the first keynote of day one: “design helps us learn to live in the now”. That isn’t easy. “To make it work we have to reinvent design.”

Designing design.

The consequences? More emphasis on understanding society and the way the societal system works. Designers need to be able to reframe the system in order to come up with real solutions. That’s a huge challenge. Every story, every workshop, every lecture give the hundreds of designers present at the conference more confidence.

Designer Dave Hakkens explains his open source plastic waste re-use machine.

Can we change society? Of course we can! Dutch designers Marjan van Abel and Dave Hakkens show the way: both use new technology to enable citizens to take matters in their own hands. Bottom-up instead of top-down. Yes, they use technology, but (also) design new social behavior. Van Abel and Hakkens let it seem so easy, but the conference many design workshops shape a more nuanced picture: redesigning design is more difficult than you think. Every design school is looking for the holy grail: a methodology that translates a beter world into a meaningful and practical design.

Most important conclusion? Investigating and understanding the current system isn’t enough, the essence is to reframe it. In his Skype lecture Richard Florida, professor at the University of Toronto and inventor of the term creative class, gives a good example: “our political systeem is in use since the industrial revolution and it doesn’t function anymore”. We need to come up with new systems, new rules, new practices and in that process technology is a tool and not a driving force.

At the end of the conference Wang concludes: “How amazing technology is, what people do with it is so much more beautiful and meaningful. It is there that designers play a crucial role: show people what is possible. Designers invent the future”.

What Design Can Do Conference Amsterdam. June 24 and 25. Stadsschouwburg Amsterdam. www.whatdesigncando.com.

The WDCD challenge of last year was the Climate Change Challenge, this year twelve design teams and one design school will have a change to come up with new ways to tackle the sexual exploitation of children: No Minor Thing.

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