The exclamation point punctuating the logo of the yearly conference What Design Can Do! conveys both high enthusiasm and high expectations. Among these expectations, the event promises to “demonstrate the value of design thinking as a response to the challenges of today’s world”. Since its inception in Amsterdam in 2011, WDCD has become increasingly ambitious in its line-up of speakers and the topics that it tackles, selling out tickets this year with a programme we couldn’t resist. Elvia Wilk reviews the two-day event.
“This is not going to be like TEDx”, I was told candidly by an event organiser upon my arrival in Amsterdam for What Design Can Do. In other words, I assumed, it wasn’t going to be sentimental, tirelessly uplifting, or prescriptive. I tried to hold the would-be doppelgänger in the back of my mind – but two days and 21 speakers later, I decided that the comparison was neither accurate nor inaccurate, but irrelevant.
WDCD was formed in 2011 by a group of designers with graphic designer Richard van der Laken at the helm. It was conceived as an international event that would “call on designers to take responsibility and consider how their work can impact society” – ethics, politics, and interdisciplinarity being your key Google search terms. Housed mainly in the Stadsschouwburg municipal theatre, a grand neo-renaissance building from the late-1800s, the project revolves around an annual two-day event with talks by an increasingly impressive roster of speakers from around the world.
This year, Day One kicked off with a speech from the mouth of the Dutch government: the Minister for Education, Culture and Science, Jet Bussemaker, took the stage. In parallel, Day Two began with Barbera Wolfensberger, chairman of the Dutch Creative Industries Top Sector (which advises the government on how to spend its culture money). These introductions rooted the highly international event firmly within a Dutch context, yet subtly called for systemic change. Both speakers stressed the importance of collaboration between fields – as opposed to what Wolfensberger called “over-compartmentalisation” – and finding ways to funnel money towards experimental projects. These turned out to be pointed and timely arguments rather than platitudes, as I learned anecdotally while milling around with some Dutch designers during a coffee break.
The (over)loaded topic of synthetic biology was breached early on Day One by Daisy Ginsberg and then entered from a very different doorway by Rachel Armstrong on Day Two. Ginsberg garnered giggles and applause with her E Chromi briefcase presentation: a white case (or “Scatalog”) filled with samples of coloured (fake) poop, intended to demonstrate the potential applications of pigment-producing bacteria to monitor the chemical makeup of our intestines. Armstrong presented her work on Living Architecture, envisioning the built environment as an ecosystem (algae façades today; living buildings tomorrow?). Though these presentations were billed as twin talks on nature-technology hybrids and bio-design, their pairing in the programme is precisely what allowed their differences to come to light. And when the question is whether or how to engineer life – one of the major ethical dilemmas of this century – differing viewpoints are entirely in order. As Ginsberg put it: “It’s not what design can do, but what it should do”.
Over the course of the conference each sub-field of design was sketched in: Richard The from Google Creative Lab was interaction design ambassador; Carlo Ratti from MIT’s Senseable City Lab brought his expertise in urban design; data-design came from the Tegenlicht duo Rogier Klomp and Schuchen Tan; Willy Wong described design for branding whole cities; Paola Antonelli from MoMA spoke from the design-curator’s corner. In turn, designer and critic Lucas Verweij threw his trademark wrench into the flow, arguing that the amoebic design profession has expanded too far by swallowing other specialised professions that it’s not qualified to imitate – and promising to solve problems far beyond its capability. “Creativity can’t solve everything”, he quipped.
In a cameo on opening day, Sir Paul Smith presented a familiar if charming this-is-where-I-got-where-I-am fable, showing images that inspired his work and explaining the origins of his business. His presentation was complimented and complicated on Day Two by that of Laduma Ngxokolo, a South African designer whose knitwear line draws inspiration from the textile patterning of his native Xhosa culture. If there was an iceberg below the surface of Ngxokolo’s talk, it was the way the word “culture” was being used by most throughout the conference (culture industry, corporate culture, urban culture), in contrast with tangled issues of identity and empowerment that the term connotes in non-Western contexts.
Dialogue emerged during the 22 (simultaneous) midday Breakout Sessions. I jogged back and forth between several intense debates (plus one food-science demonstration), even catching one bonafide disagreement. Yet during the main talks it was not possible for the audience to ask questions (we were encouraged instead to live-tweet questions with the #WDCD hashtag). Moderators David Kester and Hadassa de Boer lightly engaged speakers after each talk, but this exchange seemed so staged as to be redundant. If the goal is to steer clear of TED-territory, affording real-time audience interaction and feedback in this setting could be very productive in years to come.
At its best, WDCD was a dizzying panorama (what a curator might call a “survey show”) of current perspectives within or against or around the profession – and the speaker line-up was frankly impeccable in terms of providing an arc or overview. (Its gender balance is also worth positively remarking upon.) I might never have contemplated Paul Smith’s striped shirts in relation to the work of Tegenlicht or the field of synthetic biology, but their smart juxtaposition forced me to consider what is at stake in their shared space. To ask what design can do today is to ask what design is today – and the invitees were up for the task of interpretation.
In a short presentation by Rogier Klomp and Schuchen Tan of Tegenlicht, design became a tool for working with massive amounts of information, sorting through the noise to make a readable pattern and, in this case, to visualise various nefarious activities of the Shell corporation.
Much of design’s potential lies in its fluency when working with existing corporate and governmental infrastructures, and its ability to flutter between the light and the heavy, so to speak. In an age when the divide between complicitly and critique is harder and harder to locate, every speaker at this conference was actively, even aggressively engaging with big data and big money – from NASA to DARPA to the UN – grappling with and making considered choices via design. WDCD’s program states: “Too often design is associated with aesthetics, trends and luxury, but design can mean so much more”. The thing is, design is still about aesthetics, trends and luxury – and that’s exactly what makes it so powerful. Nobody at the conference was arguing against making beautiful, sellable products. As Antonelli said during a short lunchtime conversation, “designers have never been uncomfortable changing the industry from within”.
Despite the wildly opposing poles of thought represented in WDCD, I left with the impression that “design”, whatever it is, has some kind of surface tension. While trying to figure out why WDCD had made things seem so nuanced yet so cohesive, I suddenly remembered – this conference is organised by a bunch of designers.
– Elvia Wilk