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 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 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.