What Design Can Do: Desiging Human Nature

TED originally started out as a conference about the latest developments for Technology, Education and Design. Nowadays, it has got to a much wider range with multiple as the many personal touching stories at the last TEDxAmsterdam conference proved. But we still want to bring you the latest innovations! We went to check out new developments in design at one of the biggest design conferences in the world:What Design Can Do? Today, we present our first event report in a series of 4!

What Design Can Do

Design values, not objects
‘Everything is design’, says Richard van der Laken, the founder of What Design Can Do. ‘Step out of bed in the morning, check the time on the clock, sit down at a wooden table to eat your breakfast cereal from a blue or white bowl, then bike to work and send messages via Whatsapp. It’s all been designed. But that doesn’t mean that design is just about fancy products. More than ever, design is about social processes, habits, emotions: human nature.’

Van der Laken’s words were underlined by David Kester, a renowned publisher of close to 200 illustrated books a year and council member of the Royal College of Art. Kester opened the third edition of What Design Can Do: “We need to be in a state of constant design, because of the complex issues we face.” Complex issues like the care for the elderly which needs huge improvements in the nearby future to be able to handle this new and bigger group. In a clear and simple way Kester showed what design can mean for hospitals. “Hospitals need not just to be kept clean, they need to be easy to clean. A commode of 200 working parts that can only be cleaned in full by a toothbrush, a process that takes 5 hours, just doesn’t cut it anymore.” So Kester designed a commode of 12 simple working parts, which can easily be whipped clean in a couple of minutes.

This is what he calls “design as the necessary link between creativity – the generation of ideas – and innovation – turning ideas into value.” According to him, designers should think less in products and instead read the manifesto of Alain de Botton about ten virtues for the modern age. Design according to Kester is resilience, being strong and staying strong in tough times. We stay strong by adapting and we adapt by designing and exploring.

Education which teaches ‘Yes, I can!’
Kiran Sethi, founder of Design for Change, also emphasizes the importance of social design. She asked: ‘Can we design human nature? Can design influence mindsets? And if design can influence mindsets, can mindsets create habits, which in turn can change a culture?’ Sethi founded a new educational system, the Riverside school where the focus is not just on teaching academic skills but on a human-centred, practical curriculum to get the students excited about ethics, excellence and engagement and teaches them to be pro-active and emphatic human beings. As the four pillars of the Riverside school state, education is about feeling, imagination, doing and sharing. From this approach, Sethi created theDesign for a Change Challenge, which asks children to imagine and carry out solutions for problems that bother them. Sethi argues that we need to create an approach to education that teaches children not to be helpless but that teaches children the confidence that change is possible. “There are no challenges. Just get up and do it.”

WDCD Kiran Sethi by Leo Veger

Kiran Sethi. Foto: Leo Veger

Soften social barries
What design can do is engage empathy, said Indian architect Rahul Mehrotra in his presentation at the second day of WDCD. But how to create empathy for another in a society that is so hierarchically divided as the Indian society? Mehrotra presented how a simple design idea of creating a ‘green wall’ of plants as outside facade for an office building can soften social boundaries. Located in CyberCity,Hyderabad, this corporate building employs the idea of a double skin as a visually dynamic facade, as well as a screen that humidifies the air entering the building – to create evaporative cooling for the interiors.

More importantly, because of the green wall, the company now employs 20 gardeners who maintain the façade and can access it through a system of catwalks on all five levels. Being able to work freely throughout the building, friendly nods are being exchanged between the gardeners and the office employees, from the cleaning lady to the CEO. To connect two very segregated groups – both socially and economically-  through design thus can also lower the social threshold created by class differences, which is inevitable in corporate organizations in India. And thus, such “small” design applications can have huge cultural impact.  But, as Mehrotra emphasizes, make sure you always need to know the context and community you’re designing for. “Design can also be arrogant, make sure you’re not”.

Stay tuned, tomorrow the next edition of this event report is due. It’s titled: What Design Can Do: The Food system, hungry for design’ and it’s about how Marije Vogelzang and Carolyne Steel tackle one of the most important social systems: food.

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