Real Discourse

Sometimes seeing the big picture requires stepping away from yourself.

Imagine this. You’re sitting in a room with some of the best thinkers of our time. Provocative speakers introduce ideas that will shape our world now, and into the future. Topics like technology, bioengineering, and global population movements are on the agenda. Now imagine that you, a designer, are drawn into this global dialogue. You like the approach, since humanism is the focus. Your concerns, and indeed your code of ethics, center on human health, safety, and well-being. So how would you take part in such a potentially game-changing conversation? Would you bring your design thinking to the discourse, offering up solutions for a troubled and stressed planet? Or would you choose to talk about your own work, and only vaguely relate it to the topic at hand?

This scenario isn’t imaginary, of course. It’s a real event that took place this past October in Taipei, where more than 3,000 design experts from 46 countries gathered at the Taipei International Convention Center to engage in a rare global dialogue called “Design at the Edges.” The mayor of Taipei City and the country’s minister of economic affairs were in attendance, signaling their commitment to design. Equally inspiring were the mix of attendees; the event drew a number of specialists together. There were interior designers and architects, industrial designers, and graphic designers, not just the usual gathering of a single profession and its relatively narrow viewpoint. This was clearly an enormous opportunity to make connections, which could lead to fruitful, interdisciplinary exchanges. Did this happen?

Well, almost.

Many of the designers assigned to respond to the keynote provocations seemed ill-suited to the task. At times they appeared confused. On the urbanism panel, in a failed attempt to reach for relevance, Fred Gelli, the creative director of Tátil Design de Ideias in Brazil and the designer of the 2016 Rio Olympics logo, ended up talking about biomimicry. And I kept thinking about the lost opportunity to broaden the discussion of how designers can improve the quality of urban life by exploring place, identity, culture, and people—at a time when our cities are plagued by the mind-numbing blandness of something we have come to celebrate as “global.”

And so I wonder: are designers ready to join the important conversations of our time? Or are they condemning themselves to a narrow world of self-reference? I hope not, because we need all the intellect and skill we can muster to solve the complex global and local issues that we are facing.

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