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Design Bridge Visits: What Design Can Do ’17

It’s that time of year again! The What Design Can Do (WDCD) conference has landed in Amsterdam. As always, WDCD’s main focus was on how design can play a role in solving a problem or contributing to a solution on a social issue, and this year’s theme was one of the most pressing problems of our age: Climate Change.

Quite of few people in our Amsterdam Studio were keen to visit and hear from the wide variety of speakers and their individual takes on the issue of climate change. Here are some of the observations our team made – and what inspired them – during the What Design Can Do ’17 talks…

Raven, Junior Designer

What really stuck with me was the self-reflection of this year’s WDCD. The overall theme was about getting yourself involved and doing something, as many small projects can add up to a collective impact. This interactive idea was reflected in the way the conference was set up; the main hall was almost a Roman amphitheatre, where the speakers and moderators stood like gladiators in an open yellow square surrounded by the public. The Climate Council were sitting above, just like an emperor, looking down on the speakers and ready to put their thumbs down and comment by pressing a button and sounding a loud alarm. They could do this whenever they saw fit during the talks and the Plenary Discussion, where 4 speakers sat together and answered questions and debated with each other and the public. This interaction was very interesting to see and, above all, showed that there is no one right answer to the problem of climate change, but that through conversation and discussion we can get pretty close to great solutions.

While we saw the issue from different points of view, the overall message was clear. Climate change is already here and we have to act now to reduce the damage we have been – and are still – doing. I felt inspired to start with myself and do something that can help to contribute to the change we want to see in the world.

Sarah-Katharina, Project Co-ordinator

I have visited the WDCD conference before, but now I’m in the lucky position to have it right next door as it’s only 20 minutes from our Amsterdam Studio. The location this year was amazing, the marvellous concert venue ‘Het Muziekgebouw’ was decorated in the WDCD colours of red and yellow, colours that even informed the moderators’ wardrobe.

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Tuesday morning kicked off with a plenary session and introduction to this year’s theme. They brought together thought leaders from all over the world to give talks and workshops over the course of the next two days, starting with Alice Rawsthorn, a design critic from the UK. Alice’s main message was that design can be an agent of change and provide tools in bigger social and political conversations. Her concern, however, is that design is often still trivialised as only useful to sell things that no-one needs, but that designers also need to communicate the potential of design as an attitude rather than a profession better. And, of course, don’t create sh*t or harmful work!

I also attended the Manifesto workshop with Bruce Mau and Bisi Williams from Massive Change network. Bruce described himself as a person who developed from a graphic designer to an enterprise designer, working on projects such as redesigning the city of Mecca to make the annual pilgrimage safer for people, and the educational offering of Arizona State University.

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Manifesto by Bruce Mau via manifestoproject.it

Bruce is also quite well known for his ‘Incomplete manifesto for growth’ which has been used by organisations all over the world in various fields, and was the starting point for the workshop. His general mission is to change design from form to content, and he has developed a few principles to help guide the design process. We actually engaged with his thinking by doing a few sketching exercises (see my attempt below). Sketching is one the essentials, as it’s a learning method to explore things beyond what you already know. It’s the fastest way to fail, learn and repeat.

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Drawing camels with closed eyes, how about that? We also contributed to the creation of a WDCD manifesto.

Fabio, Senior Designer

I was extremely interested by Conny Bakker, programme manager for Sustainability at the Netherlands Design Institute and author of several articles for the Guardian Sustainable Business, who talked about the future of design in the context of individuals moving from ‘consumers’ to ‘contributors’. Conny called this “Circular Product Design” and I’ve summarised this idea it below.

Every brand today claims to have an environmentally conscious behaviour; but most of the brands have a ‘sustainable’ mindset only until the moment of purchase. After that, the product will likely become waste again.

A good example of Circular Product Design was the robot that Apple built to recycle iPhone components. Apple’s goal is to become 100% circular in the next few years, avoiding waste of often rare materials and minimising the eco-impact of its products.

Consumers are becoming more and more aware of the economical value and the environmental impact of the waste they produce, and brands need to take this into consideration. Brands that fail to contribute to ‘closing the circle’ and don’t take direct responsibility for waste recycle will, at some point, lose business as consumers will want to be active contributors to a better planet and, most of all, they want ‘their’ brands to take this responsibility.

Creative and design agencies are directly involved in this process. Too often designers can think that their job is to ‘dress up’ a product with a story and not consider the impact of the waste once a consumer has used the product. But sometimes creativity can break this process. A good example is the collaboration between the creative minds of Parley for the Oceans and Adidas, who developed a range of shoes entirely made of recycled ocean plastic.

Every time a brand succeeds in materialising such a vision, it will renew its trust bond with the consumer and will be able to move a little step further from the ‘where we come from’ story to the ‘where we are going’ one.

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Nina, Senior Designer

Generally being interested in all sorts of creative talks, the What Design Can Do event is one of my favourite events in Amsterdam due to the yearly changing, always relevant, theme. There is always brilliant, diverse speakers who are always enthusiastic and inspiring.

This year I first had a sneak peek into an ‘activation session’ about resilient architecture. It was super interesting to listen to Marko Brajovic, a Croatian architect living in Brazil, who specialises in biometrics, organic design and experience architecture. Marko talked about the ideas behind his work, such as the ‘Brazilian Pavillon’ he developed for the Expo in Milan in 2015. He said that it is key to fully understand the materials you use, to rethink and to respect them. This attitude you can clearly see in his work, and he often uses materials that are easily renewed, like bamboo. You can see more of his work on his website.

In another activation session, Lebanese chef Kamal Mouzawag showed us how to cook ‘tabouleh’ the proper Lebanese way. For him, food is a communication tool and provides an easy way to connect with people. This is a great thought for a world where many people leave their home countries (there are people from 14 countries working in our Amsterdam Studio alone) and cannot take their home or language with them as it might not be understood by others. But recipes is one that they can bring with them, and by allowing others to learn about and taste the food of their home and culture, it might help people to understand their background a bit better.

Naresh Ramchandani (a Partner at Pentagram), talked about the environmental non-profit organisation Do The Green Thing, of which he is co-founder. The intention of Do The Green Things is “using creativity to tackle climate change”.  Together with a team of over 500 designers worldwide, Naresh leads fun, colourful and provoking work in all kinds of formats with the purpose of raising awareness and inspiring people to live more consciously and help tackle climate change.

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Better by bike – by Ryan Chapman via Do The Green Thing.

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Work and Back – by David Shrigley via Do The Green Thing.

I fully support this idea. I don’t believe that we have to go back to the middle ages to try and reverse the effects of climate change, we should be taking our knowledge and inventions and using them for good for the future. It’s inspiring to me that Do The Green Thing manage to do this with a certain lightness. Naresh and his team avoid taking things too seriously as this often leads to that well-known phenomenon of a clean sheet of paper, a pencil, and the feeling of a heavyweight project that lies in front of you.

Even though the Do The Green Thing blog has gained followers in the past few years, Naresh admitted that he thought that it could have been more successful (a brave thing to admit in front of an audience), and that there is still a long way to go.

My outtake of this year’s WDCD event was this: Content-based design can be a very powerful tool to help us solve today’s problems, and that we must keep on innovating and redesigning.

WDCD Climate Action Challenge

Just like last year, WDCD has issued a challenge to designers based around the conference theme. The “Climate Action Challenge” is a design competition that calls on the creative community all over the world to submit innovative ideas that will help people adapt to climate change and issues surrounding it.

Last year’s competition saw over 600 entries from 70 countries, so if you are a student, a designer or even a collective of creatives and you want to do your part in making the world a better place, you can click here to find out more about the entering this year. The deadline is 21 July and winners will be announced in October during Dutch Design Week. We can’t wait to see what people come up with.

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