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Get real: the online and offline worlds of design

May 30th, 2011


The other day daydreaming on Twitter, I came across a link for the “What Design Can Do” (WDCD) Conference. I snapped out of my reverie, because it seemed pretty interesting and relevant – you know, practical ways design can impact the world. I thought, yeah, I might go along to it. I got myself a press pass (by tweeting and then sending an email), but afterwards realised I’d double booked myself. Gah! I went back to my electronic Twitter world, and asked whether anyone was going to this conference – in-the-flesh. Klaas van der Veen (graphic designer and typographer) from Explanation Design replied to my tweet to say he would be there. Furthermore, he agreed to write up this real, in-your-face report.

How did you hear about this conference?
One of the organizers, Richard van der Laken, and I sat at the same lunch table for a couple of years. When I heard of Richard’s plans, I immediately supported him.

Who’s here?
As it’s a first edition, the audience mainly consists of the network of the organizers. They are more about the Art of Communication, or Craft of Making, than about the Science of Problem Solving. Large parts of Everyday Design are not being represented. It doesn’t matter. People see themselves as part of a community, and whether a conference seems to be inside or adjacent to that community, people show up. Online and via social media, the findings at WDCD will trickle down to a bigger audience.

Klaas and Manon from Explanation Design, participants at WDCD conference last week

Why do you think Dutch design has been so prominent on the world scale, and will it continue to be so?
We have plenty of other successful “Dutch” exports (like our soccer coaches, DJ Tiësto and some of our big reality TV formats like Big Brother). Outside the design-related community, no-one  thinks Dutch design is prominent on the world scale. Of course the world design community knows Dutch design, and we have a solid infrastructure for design theory, education, history and practice. The great power of Dutch Design is its clarity, but at the same time it can be a harmful reduction of a message to a few words and a simple image. Design can do a lot to simplify problems beyond recognition – problems that should not be simplified. “George Bush is bad”. “Wind-energy is good”. The world is more complex than this.

So if the design world is in danger of oversimplifying the world’s problems, do conferences like this one make you hopeful?
Yes. On a world scale, you cannot do that much. But people like to see themselves as good, and they want to be seen as good people too, because ‘doing good’ reflects well on them. During this conference the question is asked ‘if you want to do good, and you are a designer, what are your options?’. And designers ask each other “what good do you do?”

The responses could make a significant contribution towards addressing the world’s misery.

The biggest trap is a community of designers that tells itself through conferences, magazines and exhibitions that it’s doing a lot of good. But we are not able to judge ourselves. Others may. Like, the Indian architect Shivkumar accused western designers and architects of not understanding nor acknowledging reality. Really effective and … anti-romantic. I think he is right.

Who would be inspired by this event? And how can we learn more about it?
Probably all people who want to do something for the common good could be inspired by WDCD. Alas, the setup and communication of this event does not encourage people from outside the design in-crowd to come. Luckily, this conference is very much online, speakers are quoted online the minute they have spoken. (Ed: Klaas tweeted and kept me up to date during the two days).  Interviews and the book are available online. But still. People should meet, people should drink in the speeches, and yes, there’s the warm-fuzzy effect: we are all together, we believe in roughly the same goals, and we can do something. People come out of the conference inspired, their heads filled with determination to achieve something.

What’s your take home message from today?
Don’t be held back from designing that one little waterbottle, typeface or tool, just because of the overwhelming chaos the world throws at you from the screen. But assuming the Israeli-Palestinian conflict can be solved from inside your subsidized Amsterdam studio by making a poster is painfully beside the mark. So please get real, be humble and take small steps, we’ll get there.

Klaas van der Veen, @KlaasExD
Explanation Design bv
Laat zien hoe het zit (Show it how it is) NIEUW !!

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