Walking down and enjoying the many colorful murals of the lively Boulevard Saint Laurent, I couldn’t imagine a better city than Montreal to host the inaugural World Design Summit. The entire trip was serendipitous, playing host to several happy coincidences. Montreal, the UNESCO City of Design, was also celebrating its 375th birthday that year.
The World Design Summit was ambitious in its aims, involving six disciplines of design: architecture, landscape architecture, urban planning, graphic design, interior design and industrial design. It aspired to bring professionals, government officials and business leaders from all over the world to bring down their barriers and unite towards the common goal of how to use design to make a better future. The climax of the event was the signing of the Montreal Design Declaration which outlines concrete steps for designers to use as a resource for their own planning.
In this journal entry, I reflect on my favourite talks of the summit and my reflections about the philosophy of design as framed by Henk Oosterling’s Dasein as Design. The aforementioned work asks what is the use of design today?
“Daily life is thoroughly designed. For designers, this statement is as flattering as it is problematic. It is flattering because it reflects design’s smashing success. It is problematic because designers’ role as innovators seems to be played out. They are disappearing as mediators in the networked society. When everyone is a designer and Dasein has become 100 percent design, the designer is everywhere and nowhere.”
The role of design has changed dramatically over the past two centuries. Endless debates about the overlap of design with art and the social responsibility of designers have occurred. Dasein, as being-in-the-world is transforming as being-in-the-media. The media society is the new space in which we act, where Dasein is becoming design. Dasein is when we make decisions about form in order to liberate ourselves from the randomness of life. In other words, Dasein is making order out of chaos, which is the act of designing. Oosterling calls for a new form of design to emerge, relational design, which focuses more on relationships and responsibilities versus the individual.
First we shape the cities, then the cities shape us
Oosterling’s relational design ideology can be seen being manifested more and more in the fields of urban planning and architecture. It could be seen most strongly in my personal favorite talk of the whole summit delivered by Jan Gehl, the Danish architect. During his talk, he was self-effacing and humorous despite the magnitude of his accomplishments. He compared his approach to design as more “street level” than “bird’s eye view”.
According to him, other cities are still stuck in the modernist view, where gigantic skyscrapers and roads built for cars are the main priority. In the 1960s, modernism was the dominant paradigm for planning. The focus was on spaces. The city plan scale was well organized but the people scale was completely neglected. Modernism said goodbye to human scale and hello to “carinvasion”.
The Death and Life of Great American Cities, a book by Jane Jacobs, had inspired him the most. Jacobs writes “Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody.” With this philosophy, Gehl wanted to bridge the big gap between the social sciences and architecture by observing urban life for 40 years. His efforts have generated a framework for design involving 3 layers: Protection, Comfort and Enjoyment.
He also said that the 21st century requires a new paradigm which calls for a lively, liveable, healthy and sustainable city. One of the biggest problems we currently face is obesity caused by our “sitting problem”. To solve this, he designed urban interventions that transformed his home city, Copenhagen, into a more pedestrian and biking friendly environment. According to public life surveys carried out, Copenhagen was the most liveable city in 2013 (dethroned by Melbourne later on).
In contrast to Jan Gehl who discussed cities in a human level, Pedro Ortiz looked at the bigger picture. Ortiz has a lot of experience with cities, one of his previous positions includes being the deputy mayor of Madrid. He argues that the uncontrolled growth of urban areas is due to the face that we only have urban knowledge which deals with a 1:5000 scale. The metropolitan scale of 1:50000, which is ten times bigger, calls for a new approach.
He compares the multidimensional framework of urban areas, which includes the physical, economic, social and institutional infrastructures, to DNA. The DNA of the metropolis is different from that of cities. Therefore, metropolitan design is the emerging discipline that is responding to this urban explosive growth. He shared with us the concept of Urban Acupuncture where a specific point in the metro-matrix map is strategically handled. He also gave us the egg metaphor for the metropolis: it’s not always scrambled, it can be poached, or served sunny side up, or as a croque monsieur.
I like to look at the two different approaches of Gehl and Ortiz, not as in opposition but as two complementary processes that can both work together as even more people move to cities. 54% of the world’s population currently lives in urban areas and is expected to increase to 66% by 2050 as estimated by the United Nations.
Dirk Sijmons, after being presented with the Jellicoe Award for landscape architecture, humbly showcased his life’s work, one of which is developing the farms of the Netherlands. You may have recently seen an article on the National Geographic about the “tiny country feeding the world”. That is thanks to him and his team, who he graciously credits in movie style, further emphasizing the importance of collaboration in design.
He also showed a visualization of the North Sea, which is projected to provide most of Europe’s energy needs in the future. Unfortunately, there was not enough time for him to present more of his books. He ended with a wonderful quote from the person whom his award is named after:
“The world is moving into a phase when landscape design may well be recognized as the most comprehensive of the arts. Man creates around him an environment that is a projection into nature of his abstract ideas. It is only in the present century that the collective landscape has emerged as a social necessity. We are promoting a landscape art on a scale never conceived of in history”
Designing on a World-Scale as Gesamtkunstwerk
Speaking of designing for unprecedented scales, is designing the entire world the ultimate gesamtkunstwerk? The German word can be roughly translated as a total work of art. “After all, the loftiest thing design is capable of doing is creating a new world,” according to Oosterling. My next favourite speaker, Alex McDowell, presented his design process of world building through storytelling. Through his beautiful animated slides, McDowell illustrated how fictional futures can shape reality. I had just written an essay for school on how reality is mimicking fiction (post coming soon) so this talk was rather timely.
It’s poetic how I go back full circle to my first love, film, which is the reason that I became a designer in the first place. McDowell designed the sets and props of Minority Report, whose images are frequently used in tech conference slides. The blue tinged view of the future has indeed influenced many user interface designers online.
However, aside from mere aesthetics, his presentation detailed the entire process of thinking about the actual world as it existed in the movie. He says, “Storytelling is the way in which we make sense of the world around us. The design of a holistic and detailed world allows multiple stories to emerge, logically and organically, driven by the rules of the world.” He shared his framework for world building here:
He imagines a world, not existing in a vacuum but within a certain context. He creates them as holistic systems with their own politics and culture. These frameworks are used by students in his World Building class at USC where projects like an augmented reality whale and Rilao, an island that combines Rio and Los Angeles, have been developed.
His storytelling narrative branches out to collaboration. McDowell also said that “New systems transform our narratives from an author-directed control of the viewer’s gaze into a collaboration between the designers of the world, its inhabitants, and the human lens.” This again echoes Oosterling’s thesis of design as relational (work of designer, team, crew, actors) versus individualistic (the tyrant director). Interdisciplinary experiments can endure far longer than the totalitarian project as gesamtkunstwerk.
Designing for Meaning
“People are tired of innovation, and they’re waiting for meaningful objects. Things you get attached to.”
Although I learned a lot from the previous keynotes, the talk that emotionally affected me the most did not come from any of the trendy virtual or augmented reality presentations, but from one of the smaller breakout sessions. Amir Berbic’s recreation of his father’s brand design for their Serbian refugee camp almost made me cry. It was a history lesson that I feel still resonates in today’s world. And it showcased great classic design work that stands the test of time.
It made me think that the greatest stories need not be epic or grand. It can just be as simple as a touching monument of a son to his father. I thought that it was a lovely way to preserve a memory. The preservation of memories had also come up in the only workshop that I had attended. The title of the workshop, “Designing Communications for Collective City Building”, caught my eye because it was related to my current field and one that I wanted to learn more about.
The moderators, Vicki Long and Kerala Woods, run a website and podcast called DesiredLines which connects stories between various city-builders. The workshop itself was an exercise of relational design. Our first activity was to write our city and what we were curious about it on a card. The tables in the room had a theme assigned to them. We then placed our cards on the theme table where it belonged. Then we we sat with the tables whose theme we were the most familiar with.
It was highly productive since there was somebody who asked about farmers markets and they were able to get good tips from another attendee. My question “where to meet locals in Salzburg” was answered by a salsa teacher. It was funny because my Latino classmates have been trying to get me to go to a salsa night in Salzburg.
I myself tried to answer one of the more difficult questions of “how do we view the memories in a city.” I described my personal experience of Montreal where I had noticed that there were Cite Memoire video projections all over the city. I thought it was a good use of technology, despite a travel buddy telling me she thought it was cheesy.
Unless you were particularly extroverted, it was quite difficult to talk to people at the actual conference. The afterparties were much more conducive for making connections. They were held at a stylish hidden bar, La Voute, French for “the vault”, inside a historic bank building. I came there with two architects and Luisa Ji, who ran a civic innovation startup. We walked past Montreal’s famous plaza, where one of the architects pointed out the four different architectural styles of that square.
Luisa and I were both interested in the communication of data. I told her that I was interested in artificial intelligence and she advised me to look up Element AI who I ended up meeting later. After the conference, when I was looking for a particular bag at Boulevard Saint Laurent, a familiar face popped up and called my name. It was Vicki! Was it by coincidence or design? There must be something in the way this city was arranged, for the two of us to choose our free day to go to the same place.
On Luisa’s advice, I had written to Jean-Philippe, the lead designer of Element AI to have a coffee with him. I asked him what were the most important skills a designer should have in the age of AI. I expected him to say something like learning how the algorithms worked but to my surprise, he told me “humility and empathy.” Perhaps that is the way forward for the design discipline.
Will Design fix the problems that Design caused?
“But must design save the world? Clearly, the very idea implies an arrogance equalled only in the banking sphere. One discipline cannot save the world.”
Meeting other similar minded people like Vicki, Luisa and Jean-Philippe, made me feel quite optimistic about the success of the World Design Declaration that was signed. Good design facilitates meaningful experiences to be shared by people. Design is evolving as something more than just the enjoyment of certain individuals such as its creator.
Ego will destroy a designer. Those who design for their own whims and selfish aesthetic purposes are destined for the past. You can spot a designer who thinks like this if they idolize Howard Roark, the hero of the polarizing Ayn Rand novel, The Fountainhead. Roark is an architect who believes in individualist values above everything else. He thinks that all other architects are conformists and that his talent is misunderstood by society. A major event in the novel is when he blows up a building because the owners strayed from his original design. This assumes that a work is the creation of only one person, however, this completely disregards the other people involved in the process of the construction of the building.
Disaster can happen when designers think that their vision is the only one to be followed and when they don’t listen to consultants or team members. For example, Frank Gehry, a world-renowned architect, designed the Peter B. Lewis building at a business school in Cleveland. Although the structure itself was widely considered to be iconic and inspiring, it was far from perfect. The year that it opened, there was a record snowfall. The sloping shapes of the roof allowed giant stalactites of ice to form on its edges which was a danger to students. Barriers were erected so that students wouldn’t walk near hazardous areas of the building.¹
Aside from the problems of the exterior, the building also lacked an auditorium. Its biggest room could only hold a maximum of 60. Students also complained about the building’s asymmetry which could lead to students getting lost and stressed in their first weeks of class.²
New collaborative forms of design are rising such as geodesign, one emerging discipline that my Spatial Analysis professor told me about. Geodesign is a systematic process of measuring, modeling, interpreting, designing, evaluating, and making decisions for the design of built and natural environments. The design framework that Carl Steinitz proposes³ can be molded and applied to serve other design disciplines such as designing network architectures or the whole internet itself. This is the new paradigm for how we will build a gesamtkunstwerk.
Oosterling concludes, “Relational design gives us then the opportunity to go beyond hyperconsumerism and individualism. What will design become in the twenty-first century? Design, which like art finds itself at a loss thanks to its smashing success, faces the task this century of developing itself as a living discourse. Relational design is the overture to a creative lifestyle whose cornerstones will be ecopolitical sustainability and geopolitical responsibility… The transformation of that throwaway culture into an ecopolitical design culture seems to me to be a precondition if people are to continue to live together.”
The notion of “good design for a better world” is not new. This politico-aesthetic discourse was elaborated in pre-WW2 magazines like Wendingen and De Stijl⁴. However, the acceleration of technological advances has made the stakes even higher. It is not surprising that designers are becoming more political as Fast Company has predicted. The World Design Summit is not alone this year in tackling the question of how design can save the world. The What Design Can Do conference is also joined by the Design Commons in Helsinki and the EDIT festival in Toronto. Hopefully, there will be even more in the future.
Design can save the world but not by itself. Designers aren’t dictators, rather they are mediators. We must be open-minded enough to work together not only with other professionals beyond our field but with everyone in the world. As Don Norman says “we are all designers” and design is relational by definition.
1. Capps, K. (2013). “When Buildings Attack” New Yorker. Accessed from http://nymag.com/news/intelligencer/buildings-attack-2013-9/
2. Litt, S. (2012). “Now 10 years old, the Peter B. Lewis Building is quietly transforming business education at CWRU” Cleveland Blog. Accessed from http://blog.cleveland.com/architecture/2012/11/the_10-year_old_peter_b_lewis.html
3. Wheeler, C. (2012). “A Conversation with Carl Steinitz” ArcWatch: GIS News, Views, and Insights. Accessed from http://www.esri.com/news/arcwatch/0412/a-conversation-with-carl-steinitz.html
4. Fairs, M. (2017). “Can designers save the world?” Dezeen. Accessed from https://www.dezeen.com/2017/10/02/marcus-fairs-dutch-design-week-opinion-good-design-bad-world/