The Dutch Design Week is over again. For nine days, 2600 designers had a citywide platform to share their ideas and designs, and tell their stories. Previous editions of the Dutch Design Week showed a broader relevance of design in our lives, but this year’s edition was especially relevant, not only to its visitors but to our planet.
if not us, then who?
This year’s theme was ‘if not us, then who?’ Asking the question, nay, challenging they who pose the question to think about their responsibility as a designer, and the recipient of the question to think about the impact of design. Highlighted perfectly in the Dutch Design Week opening video, design has a huge influence on most parts of our lives and therefore also carries a great responsibility. A responsibility towards the humans and other living beings who use, experience or are impacted by design, but also towards Earth, from which the required resources are depleted and returned again.
Starting from a position in which design is increasingly acknowledged to have the impact as mentioned above, ‘if not us, then who?’ doubles down on the responsibility designers have, and also shows the world that the challenge of sustainability is critical and needs to be tackled now. This may all seem kind of grim, but the Dutch Design Week actually takes a positive look at that responsibility as a designer.
Why this article?
In the last 8 years of the Dutch Design Week I’ve been a design student ‘only visiting’, I’ve had a part in producing exhibitions and I’ve exhibited my own work, but never before have I spoken to so many people, in-depth, about how they experienced the DDW and what their takeaway was. I feel a responsibility to share the things I’ve heard and carry the message of ‘if not us, then who‘ as far as I can, because from what I’ve heard the Dutch Design Week has quite an impact.
How do I know its impact?
Different from previous years, this year I was a Design Guide. If you’ve been to the Dutch Design Week, you’ve probably seen flocks of people walking around with headphones on and red keychains with a yellow badge around their necks. Leading that pack, is a Design Guide.
It’s the Design Guide’s responsibility to show their guests around and share in-depth information on relevant designs, besides being a connector between the visitor and the designers exhibiting their work. Very few things seem more riveting to a visitor than hearing the designer share the story behind the design.
But, what is relevant?
The Dutch Design Week, with its 2600 participating designers, has the potential of becoming overwhelming. To make your visit easier, one might ask you what kinds of things interest you, and then send you toward the exhibitions that match your interests. Interestingly, the biggest impact on the positive experiences that my tour-guidees shared with me, was that they learned about designs seemingly irrelevant to their personal or work-related interests. How that positively influences the experience works in two ways, I believe.
Firstly, learning something new and broadening our perspective is something that makes us happy. All our lives we stub our toes, and learn as we go, so we’re very used to learning, which in most cases is very fulfilling. Hearing designers share their stories seems like a very pleasant way of learning something new.
Secondly, it’s the hidden relevance, the ‘oh wow, I love this‘ kind of relevance that makes the experience pleasantly surprising. The mixture of direct relevance to one’s professional- and personal interests, and designs that relate to someone’s deep, internal, maybe even hidden, values. Those kinds of responses are most powerful and will probably be remembered for a long time.
So, what is the impact?
I’ve spoken with designers who launched their product on the Dutch Design Week, people from big corporates, and civil servants from municipalities and provinces, and they all share one thing. They’ve all gone home with a product or story in mind that triggered them to believe they have the choice of doing good.
The choice of doing good
What do I mean by that? This year’s Dutch Design Week showcases buildings that are constructed with the idea of its material being completely reusable after use, materials that are manufactured from plants or ‘garbage’, services that focus on using and sharing what we already have instead of creating more, and products like sustainable paint.
It’s those types of projects that open the visitor’s eyes to the incredible ingenuity humanity has, to deal with the challenges of today and tomorrow. Call me idealistic, but I feel like there was an eye-opening ‘oh wow!’ project for anyone who took the time to listen to and learn about the stories behind the design. I believe those projects and stories instilled in them a certain enthusiasm and feeling of responsibility to make even the slightest change in their decision making. With 355.000 visitors, the potential for positive change is immense.
My eye-opening moments
I too had my eyes opened. Firstly, my conversation with Tove Elfferich about social- and inclusive design, and subsequently learning about Social Label. Their efforts to change the status quo of moving fast and excluding those who lag behind, to creating design that is inclusive throughout the creation process impress me. The eye-opener for me was to see how many people really care and how cool and relevant Social Design is. Social Design is a field of design that deserves every attention it gets and a whole lot more. If you’re part of Social Design, I think you’re pretty cool.
Another project that drew my attention was the aforementioned fairf. It’s the simplicity of the product that gets me. Did you ever think about how the paint on your walls was made? I regret to say that I hadn’t. Fairf opened my eyes to that and for that simple reason, I am grateful for its existence.
Lastly, circularity and the sheer scale it can reach. Using recycled materials for the construction of a building is one thing. Thinking about how the building will be dismantled after its 30–50 year long use is another thing. You know that part I wrote about the human ingenuity? This one did that for me.
The whole experience of sharing stories, getting to know what drives people, and just being at the Dutch Design Week reaffirmed my focus on helping organizations solve their sustainability challenges with a designerly approach, because if not us, then who?
Ultimately it comes down to what each individual took away from the Dutch Design Week, and how that influences their next decision.
Who knows, if we all have one decision that changes towards a sustainable alternative, it may very well have an effect bigger than we might foresee.
What did you take away from the Dutch Design Week?
I am very curious to read if you found your eye-opener and what it made you realize. Did you make a different decision based on your DDW experience? Let me know in the comments or on twitter @purposedesigner
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