What design can actually do

Amsterdam Ad Blog, 28 May 2015

Last week I visited What Design Can Do (WDCD) in the Stadsschouwburg. The two-day conference was celebrating its 5th anniversary and since I’ve attended all 5 editions I thought by now I should be able to answer the conference’s central question; what is it design can actually do?

When I think of design myself, the first two things that spring to mind are: simplicity and elegance. In the context of the conference, however, design has a slightly different meaning. The conference has a higher purpose than simply talking about effective visual identities, colourful posters, minimalistic chairs and modern buildings. The conference wants to activate the design world to create a better world.

When talking about making the world better, the conference doesn’t necessarily mean aestheticimprovements

And when talking about making the world better, WDCD doesn’t necessarily mean aestheticimprovements – which is another important attribute easily connected to the innate qualities of design. Instead, the conference wants to show designers how they can improve the world in a sustainable and charitable way.

That’s why WDCD invites people like Michael Murphy (Mass Design Group), Cameron Sinclair (The Department of Small Works) and Diébédo Francis Kéré (Schulbausteine für Gando) who deploy their architectural skills to create houses and public buildings in Africa that primarily use local resources, both material and people-wise. For example, Murphy gives the people in rural Rwanda a hospital that actually heals – instead of spreading deceases – through its smart design. On top of that the building process generates a feeling of dignity within the local community.

Each year these kinds of charismatic speakers turn the conference into a feel good conference helping you to realise that – unlike the newspapers make us believe – there are also more constructive forces in play than those who cause wars, natural disasters and pollution.

Another creative mind that spoke this year at WDCD is Césare Peeren (Superuse) who shared what one can do with discarded wind-turbine blades. Nature is his biggest source of inspiration. The reason is simple; unlike human beings “nature doesn’t waste anything”. So to force people to be less wasteful Peeren suggests that governments should raise taxes on materials and lower taxes on labour. Unfortunately politics is everything but simple and elegant, so this will probably never happen, but the most important design attribute you could distil from Peeren’s talk is that design should be ‘efficient’.

Peeren also argued that if industrial designers let themselves be structurally inspired by nature, designing beauty is not necessary anymore, because beauty automatically follows functionality. That is where I stopped agreeing with him. Cause his playground of discarded wind-turbine blades is something I wouldn’t want to have in my backyard. Even Michael Johnson (Johnson Banks), who argued that a well-designed graphic poster is not going to change the world, proved himself wrong by sharing his very aesthetic designs. Because – and not despite – his eye-catching design, his social messages have a big impact.

Duchamp is bullshit Sagmeister told his audience. Beauty is at the heart of being human so that it reinforces a design’s functionality.

So, when answering the question: what is more important in design, functionality or beauty, it’s wise to listen to the most creative and funniest man on stage last week; Stefan Sagmeister. Duchamp is bullshit Sagmeister told his audience in one of the break-out sessions. Beauty is at the heart of being human so that it reinforces a design’s functionality. Both attributes are thus equally important.

As said, at WDCD design is more than just creating visual identities, posters, chairs and buildings. At WDCD design represents efficiency, functionality and aesthetics that in their combined form add well-being, dignity and sustainability to our planet. That’s what design can actually do. And I have to say, this makes What Design Can Do one of my favourite conferences. It makes me feel optimistic about the future.

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Also by Wouter Boon