Global Design Forum misses the mark

September 28th, 2012  |  Published in News and events  |  2 Comments

The Global Design Forum, held on 18 September in London, was billed as “one day to set the global agenda for design”. It fell well short of this lofty ambition. It was about design, yes, but it wasn’t particularly global and it certainly wasn’t a forum.

The agenda setting was hampered by the too tight agenda of the conference itself. Not enough time was dedicated to discussion or debate. The stars were trotted out, but they failed to shine. Not for any shortcomings in their presentations (although we’ll forgive one audience member that had to be roused from a wall-rattling snore in the afternoon session), but due to poor briefing and curation. The potential for provocative conversation was there — but nobody was allowed or even encouraged to enter the ring. The audience was presented with a string of talks that contained nuggets of good content, but were disconnected from one another and the wider programme. Overall, this rendered the GDF no better than the average design conference. Inspiring? A bit. Thought provoking? Somewhat. Missed opportunities? Numerous.

Imagine if we’d been able to have Anders Byriel square off against Charles Leadbeater, author of We Think. The CEO of Kvadrat, with his assertion that business should be entrusted with the creation of culture because it is not hampered by democracy, would have provided a good counterargument to ol’ Crowdsource Charlie’s claim that people must not allow the geeks of Silicon Valley to dictate their futures. Imagine if Astro Teller, Google’s galactic thinker, who urged that making things 10 times better is easier than making them 10 percent better, had had the opportunity to directly debate Mat Hunter, Chief Design Officer of the UK Design Council, the champion of incremental innovation.

Imagine the intellectual bust-up we’d have witnessed if “we are only limited by our imaginations” product design supremo Richard Seymour had met “a milligram here and a milligram there really adds up” John Thackara, an environmentally conscious design advocate, in a face-to-face in a well-lit alley. These, and others, would have been the conversations to launch a real debate about the future of design.

Instead, we got personalities instead of issues. Certainly, I was inspired by the boundary blurring of Anab Jain of Superflux, an Anglo-Indian collaborative design practice, who illuminated the growing world of hackerspaces. And also by Thomas Heatherwick, designer of the 2012 Olympic cauldron, whose energy and intensity was counterbalanced by his deep belief and humility. Kudos as well to Yves Behar of fuseproject, who prefaced his piece by saying he was not going to talk about his work.

But we were a long way from Alberto Alessi’s citation of Oswald Spengler, German philosopher and author of The Decline of the West, urging us… “to make as meaningful as possible this life that has been bestowed upon us; to live in such a way that we may be proud of ourselves; to act in such a way that some part of

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us lives on.” That kind of action takes the collective courage to engage with one another and test our beliefs in an open forum that

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nurtures, but doesn’t overwhelm us, with debate.

Perhaps next year’s GDF can consciously create the necessary conditions for meaningful dialogue. It certainly must do so to if it wishes to remain relevant and not just run-of-the-mill.

Richard Eisermann, Innovation, design and business strategist



  1. Nico Macdonald says:

    September 28th, 2012at 12:39 pm(#)

    My contribution to the debate (and I was one of the few able to speaker from the floor in the limited time) was to observe that while design thinking had been originated by designers it has now been taken over by management consultants and other people in professional services, partly because it was a loose concept that was able to be adopted by others. I noted that speakers such as Tom Dixon were not able to properly interpret the data they presented. And Charles Leadbeater’s forecasting was so impressionistic he considered it could be done by talking to his 12-year-old-son.

    In a context in which many designers find it so difficult to grapple with other domains I asked the speakers what’s one thing designers needed to do, or do better, to ‘step up to the plate’ and be taken seriously in the boardroom.

    The best answers I received were from Kathryn Firth, Chief of Design at the London Legacy Development Corporation, who talked about creating a path to vision, and Sarah Wyse, Head of Marketing Strategy for Coutts who suggested designers try to uncover the creativity of management (and, implicitly, the board). But the lack of insight overall was palpable.

  2. Philip Slade says:

    October 26th, 2012at 3:13 pm(#)

    Bit late on this, but the point about Designs ambition to be on the board is crucial. Way back from student days onward, design struggles with the concept of corporate life. If post digital has taught us anything it is; fund raising and share swops can be epically powerful when harnessed with belief and a unique idea for change. Design cannot work in isolation without the innovations in finance or a clear understanding of how to tell its story – and of course the costs of telling that story. Worth noting for all the free PR it gets. Apple spent $933m on advertising last year, up from $691m the year before

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