Is design still about making things?

‘Designers are starting to operate in a way that’s more important to society as a whole’, says Stephen Burks, industrial designer and founder of studio Readymade Projects.

Stephen Burks

Source: Danny Bright

Stephen Burks

‘It’s not about making a fancy lamp, but finding new ways to connect with people’s lives’.

There’s no doubt that as the world becomes more connected, technology such as 3D printing becomes more prevalent and attitudes towards the place of physical objects in our lives changes, so does the role of the designer.

But what, then, is the future of design? What exemplifies the ‘new wave’ of designers that is emerging? If, indeed, there is one.

It’s a broad and slippery subject, one examined number of designers and critics at the recent Alvar Aalto Design Seminar in Jyväskylä, Finland.

With a distinct focus on product and furniture design – as befitting to the festival’s namesake, Finnish architect, Artek-founder and furniture designer Aalto – it’s interesting to see that the overarching conclusion is that design is moving away from creating ‘stuff’, to creating solutions.

The theme, New Wave, moves the term away from its usual associations with 1950s and 1960s French cinema and asymmetrically-coiffed pop bands into the sphere of design – and a world where, as conference curator Harri Koskinen says, the role of ‘author’ is changing, as design becomes more ‘community-driven’.

Among the speakers is Marko Ahtisaari, current head of Nokia design, who last week announced he would be leaving the brand to pursue other opportunities since the buyout of Nokia’s Devices & Services business by Microsoft.

Marko Ahtisaari

Source: Nokia

Marko Ahtisaari

According to Ahtisaari, product design is very much in a state of flux, as the physical and digital realms become increasingly blurred thanks to devices such as the Berg Little Printer and the Nike fuel band.

How we interact with objects, he says, is very much ‘up for grabs’ – it’s still not clear how designers will ride this ‘new wave’, and where the ‘positive disruptions’ to the discipline are likely to come from.

While such devices are relatively new, Burks draws a definite distinction between the 20th and 21st Century attitudes to objects and design, and as such, the emerging new role of the designer.

In the 21st Century, says Burks, the designer’s role is as collaborator and conduit – as ‘stuff’ becomes less important to people the designer is increasingly someone who finds solutions to problems with less tangible end results than someone who creates physical things.

A design journey, he seems to be saying, is becoming more important than a design product in a world where high rents, little space and less disposable income mean less room for designed ‘things’ than ever before.

‘The things in our life don’t define us any more – our network and our freedom does’, says Burks.

‘We’re moving away from design as an exclusive space – away from Design with a capital “D”’.

In some ways, Burks says, the recession has had a positive impact in forcing the design world to re-evaluate the constant need to create new products: designers are instead forced to find new ways to connect with people.

As such, the ‘new wave’ of designers proposed at the conference are those whose role is based as much in society as in the workshop.

Designer Ineke Hans also believes design is becoming more collaborative – and has to be even more so if it’s to open itself to the new ideas that can drive it forward.

New materials, techniques, social habits and values are forcing design to become more community-driven; and designers have to embrace this new way of working if they are to successfully innovate, she says.

While designers will always create beautiful things, their role is becoming more and more vital in examining solutions to issues like healthcare, the care of the elderly and data visualisation. The skills of the designer – both practical and mental – are proving to be more transferable than ever.

As critic Alice Raswthorn points out, ‘design is on the cusp of a massive change’ as people slowly become more attuned to its potential for positive change.

Alice Rawsthorn

Source: International Herald Tribune

Alice Rawsthorn

She points out how good design impacts every aspect of life – from well-designed signage that stops you getting lost, to easily navigating well-crafted websites, as proved by this year’s Design of the Year winner, the site.

‘Design has been marginalised and misunderstood as “styling” – it’s been typecast as “tricking” us into buying things we don’t need’, she says.

‘Design has been seen as aimed at “spoiled”, privileged consumers, rather than helping people out of bad situations’.

Today, the power of design to change the world is huge. Now, more than ever, designers have to examine their wider role, forging collaborations and taking their skills into new areas.

While public perception of design still may have a way to go before it shifts from a rather dismissive and out-dated view of the profession as all about surface and aesthetics, so must designers embrace the new challenges of becoming more democratic, outward-looking and innovative.

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