The 5th edition of What Design Can Do, the conference on the impact of design, was loaded with interesting speakers. This year, the main question was 'What am I doing?' Speakers shared stories on their personal development, journalist Jeroen Junte had the audience of 900 designers to swear to an oath, and the organisation launched a challenge for designers. So, the question really is 'What can YOU do?'
Brazilian chef Alex Atala showed the audience how design can make use of the senses. 'Food is the most important social media' he says, because food brings people together. After having worked as a chef in Europe, Atala realised you can only really innovate and experiment with flavours that are embedded in your genes, flavours of your youth and native country. He returned to Brazil, where he now works on translating flavours of different locations into dishes. Norwegian Sissel Tolaas travels the world with a clever little machine that captures smell. She made smell maps of different cities, and presents the odour of Amsterdam to the audience – composed of water, dog hair and piss. Luckily we could enjoy the smell of banana confetti a few moments later, followed by the scent of the gherkin chandelier by Bompas & Parr, a device that conducts electricity. Speaker Charles Spence also proved how important the senses are, by showing us how dominant our sense of 'sight' is. Even professional wine tasters are unable to taste accurately as soon as they have seen whether the wine in their glass is red or white.
Speaking of mapping: illustrator Jan Rothuizen, who published the beautifully hand-drawn 'Soft Atlas of Amsterdam', recently made a detailed map of a refugee camp in Iraq. It is an interactive map, you can actually 'walk' the streets of the camp. Rothuizen questions our typical image of refugee camps; that of sad people behind fences, waiting for a bag of rice. In reality, life simply goes on in these camps. Soon enough, entrepreneurship pops up and people set up small shops and restaurants. Residents can visit the barber, buy a wedding dress or sit down and have a lemonade. As soon as you realise refugees spend a global average of 17 years in a camp, it is good they take matters into their own hands and make a living.
Designer, maker and connector
Architect Michael Murphy states that the real value of buildings is in the way they are built. In the hands of the makers, having made use of local materials. He pleads for a 'lo-fab' way of building. In Africa, he designed several hospitals, that contribute to the wellbeing of patients through their design. Architect Diébédo Francis Kéré is from Burkina Faso, was educated in Germany and has built many buildings in Africa too. He underlines the importance of the designer as a connector, with one foot in Western culture, and the other in African reality. He makes use of the potential of local communities, and uses traditional techniques in the buildings he designs. Just like Murphy he states the importance of the hand of the maker. The Brazilian Campana brothers also consider the maker and his skills to be the most important starting point; their studio is one big bustling workshop. 'Everything I learned in design, is by making things with my hands' Humberto says. Many new insights originate in experimenting with material, precious materials as well as waste. The Campanas work with common coconut doormat material, bubble wrap plastics and ordinary brick. By applying the materials in interesting ways, the Campanas create showpieces that have found their way to galleries worldwide. Techniques are crucial, and important to preserve.
From designer to do-er
After the inspiring talks of designers that turned do-ers, journalist Jeroen Junte took the stage, joined by a gospel choir. He pleaded for a type of Hippocratic oath for designers, en made the audience of over 900 designers swear to it. The 9 statements included designers to promise to deal with makers and materials in a responsible way, and to make sure an end-product is useful, and does not harm people during use or after it is disposed of. One of the statements that stood out was the promise of designers to respect the limitations of their profession. In times where 'design' is considered to be so impactful and effective, it is important for designers to be aware of their responsibility and the limitations thereof.
The oath nicely fit the design challenge the organization of What Design Can Do launched. 'Designers need to address urgent issues in society', challenge leader Dagan Cohen stated. Whether this is the climate change, refugees, privacy, obesity or information overload. You can still submit topics, and in a few weeks an open call will follow for submitting plans. If your proposal wins, you do not only get a grant to realise your plan, but you also get professional coaching by the organisers and partners of WDCD. And who knows, you will be a speaker at the next edition of What Design Can Do. On stage, as a real do-er.