What we’ve got wrong about design — and how to unlearn it

Every other year, prominent designers — such as architect Rem Koolhaas and Tom Kelley, a partner in design company IDEO — convene at ‘Tasmeem Doha’, an international conference for art and design hosted by Virginia Commonwealth University School of the Arts in Qatar (VCUarts Qatar), a Qatar Foundation partner university.

Since its founding in 2004, Tasmeem has primarily revolved around talks, workshops, and exhibitions showcasing the end product of major Design projects.

The structure of these events, however, has long dictated not only how design conferences are made, but how design itself is understood.

“A lot of the time, we sit down and listen to talks by designers, and it’s always a presentation of their portfolio; it’s something that they’ve done, something that they’ve completed,” says Yasmeen Suleiman, Materials Curator and Assistant Professor at VCUarts Qatar.

For Yasmeen, there are common risks in portraying design as an activity that places considerable emphasis on the finished product.

“Highlighting the outcome of the design process risks obscuring what it is that we do, what the creative industries are capable of, and what value they are adding to the economy,” she said.

To offer a more accurate representation of what design entails, Yasmeen, along with Hadeer Omar, Noha Fouad, and Wajiha Pervez — all VCUarts alumni who graduated from the MFA program in Design — successfully applied to become the co-chairs of this year’s Tasmeem.

“A unique layer of Tasmeem Doha is the addition every new team brings to it, so it depends on the team curating or organizing it to decide what spin they want to give it,” explained Wajiha, Textile and Interdisciplinary Designer.

The ‘spin’ that the team has added this year is to choose a theme that foregrounds the reality of design as an activity in which the journey and narrative hold more weight than the tangible result.

“The theme this year is ‘Hekayat’, which means stories, tales, or narratives,” said Hadeer, Visual Communicator and Independent Filmmaker. “As designers, we are very interested in processes, and in the journey you take to make something.

“People tend to focus so much on the goal, and ignore that the journey itself is an outcome. So, for us, ‘Hekayat’ is mainly celebrating design as a process of making.”

This often-downplayed sense of humanism in design is partially responsible for its common perception as a niche endeavor exclusively associated with people with specific artistic skills.

“We sometimes feel, as designers, that the current understanding of design is quite exclusive, because if you don’t understand the language or jargon it comes with, then you’re sidelined,” said Noha, Industrial Designer. “But there’s something about narrative and ‘Hekayat’ that everyone can understand and relate to, and if they can do that, it means they can relate to design as well.”

One way that people relate to design is through the ‘journeys’ that accompany the activities in which they are already involved. Whatever they do, it is likely that the result will be preceded by a specific process that guides their work.

“When you look at medical students, they design all the time and use design thinking in all the decisions they take, every single day,” said Hadeer. “Engineers do the same thing, and so do journalists. Every single person who makes something that has an outcome uses design thinking, because you have to have a structure; you have to have logic behind every single step you go through.”

Unlearning design
Perhaps unlearning the idea that design has no familiar structure that others can recognize and identify with cannot happen without involving people in the conference itself. One practical step the team is taking to show that design is intrinsically inclusive of the larger community involves opening up Tasmeem Doha to the public.

“As designers, we don’t just look at other designers’ work for inspiration,” said Yasmeen. “We look to physics, literature, history and all these other diverse fields to gain our knowledge and information. In the same way, we’re treating the event as one that is oriented toward others as well.”

Tasmeem Doha 2019, which will take place at VCUarts Qatar from March 13–15, will be open to the public and will feature a series of activities and programs designed to offer visitors an experiential journey that is intended to be familiar and recognizable.

“We will have the conference on a Friday to be more accommodating,” said Noha. “We will also have the regular set-up that people are used to: food trucks, outside seating areas, and a lot of indoor activities that are interactive, rather than lectures.”

Through this event, the four co-chairs of Tasmeem Doha 2019 want the world to know how design is adding economic value by adopting the same processes that other valuable fields are engaged with.

Visitors this year can expect a lot of activities geared toward the community and a setup that complements their pace and affords them the opportunity to be active participants or engaged observes. Either way, it is hoped that they will find it a time of the year to celebrate and get a glimpse of what design has to offer.