What Design Can Do: Dream big, dream better

TED originally started out as a conference about the latest developments for Technology, Education and Design. Nowadays, it has got a much wider range as the many personal touching stories at the last TEDxAmsterdam conference proved. But we still want to bring you the latest innovations! And what better place to check out new developments in design than at one of the biggest design conferences in the world: What Design Can Do? Today, my report is about the biggest and boldest design projects that were presented during the event.

What Design Can Do

Pragmatism and idealism: a natural fit
“The current crisis means that bankers, butchers and builders have started to think in totally different ways. The same goes for designers”, says Richard van der Laken, the man who initiated What Design Can Do in an interview with designblog Fontanel. “I think everybody – whether you’re a banker, butcher, mailman or designer- is experiencing that something has changed because of the crisis. The crisis brought a lot of distress but also has given us new consciousness. People ask: ‘Why do I do the things I do? What is my contribution to society, what is my place in the world?’ Those are the questions designers are also working with.”

For many young designers, pragmatism and idealism fit together perfectly naturally and thus, an important mission of What Design Can Do is the call they do upon the (inter)national designworld: “You’ve got the skills, you’ve got the talent, you’ve got access to means of communication, you’re working closely with all kinds of companies, so what are you bringing to the table?” Well, What Design Can Docertainly presented plenty examples of design projects which brought a whole lot to the table and wowed the audience with their bold thinking and positive messages for the future.

You don’t have to explain good design
One of the most up-tempo, funny and engaging presentations of What Design Can Do was the one of designduo Hellicar and Lewis. Combining artistic sensibility, design know-how and a penchant for surprise they create interactive visual experiences. Their range is wide, from a multi-projection fashion show to a Twitter-responsive sculpture in Tate Modern to branding projects for Intel or Coca Cola in collaboration with the popular band Maroon 5. What’s remarkable about their work is that they decided to make open source strategies the core of their business: “If someone just wants an old project, they can take it –steal it!”, Lewis said to Creative Review. “Go right ahead – I want to work on new things. Creativity = variety for me”.

But although their vision on design is truly inspirational, the true power of Hellicar and Lewis lies in their work. Take the installation Night Lights of 2009 where the Auckland Ferry Building was turned in a huge interactive playground by creating an installation that went beyond mere projection and allowed viewers to become performers by taking their body movements and amplifying them five floors tall. The pure joy and spontaneity it caused, letting people play and forget about their social roles makes the value of the work self-explaining. “Good design”, according to Hellicar and Lewis, “is design where you don’t have to explain why it’s interesting.”

Guns turned into musical instruments
Presented by What Design Can Do as ‘The Art of Healing Society’ and tipped by The Huffington Post as one of the ’10 International Artists to Watch in 2013’, Pedro Reyes had some big promises to fulfill.  And he certainly lived up to the expectations. The first thing to notice about Reyes’ work is that it is about creating a deeper understanding of abstract societal problems where many people have to deal with.Sanatorium for example is a utopian ‘temporary clinic’ that offers treatments for urban illnesses such as stress, loneliness and hyper-stimulations. The only way for visitors to experience the project is to sign up as patients and undergo treatment in a playful way.

But Reyes’ most impressive projects are his projects about raising awareness for gun violence. In Palas por Pistolas (2008) he melted down 1527 revolvers, shotguns and machine guns to make shovels which were then used to plant 1527 trees. In 2012 he turned 6700 ‘agents of death into instruments of life’ –  as he created 50 musical instruments from guitars to flutes and drums from guns that before were used to kill people, hereby balancing perfectly on the fine line between honoring the sad and terrible past and turning it into hope and new possibilities for the future.

A 3D printed canal house
New possibilities for the future were also explored by DUS architects. This Dutch architect bureau plans in the end of this year to have started at the 3D-printing of a whole Amsterdam canal house. The printer that will make this possible – the Kamermaker, is an eleven-and-a-half foot custom 3D printer, that will print walls from shredded plastic bottles, bioplastics and potato starch, building the house bit by bit from the ground up. Once completed, the 3D printed canal house will serve as a hub for 3D printed architecture research and serve as an educational space. The canal house is currently in the race against projects from Softkill Design and Universe Architecture to become the world’s first 3D printed building, but even if it loses, it surely means a big win as excellent example of where some thinking outside the box can lead to.

DUS architects - 3D printed canal house

DUS architects – 3D printed canal house

If you can’t open it, you don’t own it
Sometimes though, thinking outside the box isn’t enough. Sometimes you have to create a whole different box. This is what Fairphone has shown. Started out in 2010 as an awareness project about conflict minerals in electronics and the wars that the sourcing of these minerals is fuelling in the DR Congo, by now it is ready to offer the world a real clean and fair phone. With – at the moment of writing this blog –  their goal of 5000 pre-sale customers  is reached, it seems that the world will soon be enriched by a phone that opens up the supply chain by making the process of making a phone completely transparent. Because, according to Fairphones founder Bas van Abel “Only if you can open up things, you really own them. So buy a phone, and start a movement!”

Further Reading:

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