There was an incendiary moment at the preview of the Designs of The Time festival last week. A clash of ideologies, you could say.
Last Tuesday, at the Design Council’s headquarters on London’s Bow Street, the scene was set for an armchair question and answer discussion between Dott 07 programme director John Thackara and Design Council chief executive David Kester.
Kester opened proceedings with a sweeping introduction to the North East design festival and its germination three or four years ago. Dott 07 was initiated, he explained, in response to the simple question, ‘who designs your life?’ For 2007, the festival will seek to depict what life could be like in an imaginary, sustainable North East of the future.
Thackara is well known for trying to shake things up from the grass roots, an approach he developed at Doors of Perception. With Dott 07, he transposes this by pitching local communities, schools and organisations together with designers during more than four months of events, exhibitions and local community projects. Thackara has big ambitions for the initiative and takes as his starting point the issues – health, school, travel, tourism, energy and food – rather than limiting himself with the constraints of what is ‘practical’, ‘necessary’ or ‘achievable’. ‘We simply don’t know what some of the results will be,’ he says.
It’s a bold move. By producing projects like Low Carb Lane – where residents of a Northumberland backstreet strive to reduce their energy consumption by 60 per cent – the organisers hope to draw attention to what some see as design’s hottest potential. This, if you hadn’t heard, is the broader power of design thinking to reorganise social structures, solve organisational problems, wire up and reconnect people and business in new ways, and make life a whole lot better from the diverse social and economic output that results. It variously masquerades as co-design, experience design and service design, and, all things being equal, it is hard to challenge its intuitiveness. Except that ‘ceteris paribus’ conditions, as economist John Maynard Keynes would say, never prevail. Yes, there is a big down side.
If the critical problems of sustainability stem from over-production, reasoned Thackara, then designers need to stop creating ‘stuff’. The challenge is it to transfer their skills – the processes, the tools, the design thinking – into solving organisational problems. It’s a bit like the old British shipyards. They were great while they lasted but were bound to close when the service economy took off. And that’s when the fireworks started to explode.
Sitting in a red armchair with the Royal Opera House framed behind him, Thackara let fly. ‘Design is dead, long live design,’ he asserted to the great and the good of design. Bang.
A bemused Jim Dawton, wearing his Pearson Matthews hat, stood up to lead the reaction. ‘Aren’t we being a little too apologetic?’ he pronounced from the front row. And then, from the back of the class, before the microphone could be whisked back, up jumps James Woudhuysen, pumped up like Robert De Niro, igniting a whirlygig of his own.
‘I’m afraid I’m one of those lumbering traditionalists who believes in making stuff,’ he countered, launching into a finely nuanced thesis of why the design and production of material goods is necessary and beneficial to humanity.
After the initial crossfire, their conversation finished civilly and even with a little consensus, over a bowl of post-talk peanuts.
But that won’t be the end of it. The debate on design’s future is about to be staged. And whether or not Thackara runs Dott 09 – and he hasn’t been asked yet – it’s not a debate that is likely to go away.
DESIGNS OF THE TIME
• Dott 07 is a year-long series of community projects, events and exhibitions, exploring life in a sustainable, imaginary North East of the future
• Community projects include Urban Farming, Low Carb Lane, Design and Sexual Health, Move Me, OurNewSchool, Eco Design Challenge, Alzheimer 100 and New Work
• Events include Picture House, Dott 07 summer camp, Our Cyborg Futures, Design Event, Dott 07 Festival and Intersections
• For more information, visit www.dott07.com