"Design can bring unconventional solutions to prevailing problems", said Eberhard Van der Laan, kicking off his inaugural speech. Van den Laan is the mayor of Amsterdam, the city that welcomed the second edition of the What Design Can Do! conference, on 10 and 11 May 2012. His speech set the tone for what the two days ahead would bring – inspiring talks, workshops and even music performances – all for the sake of opening a healthy discussion on "The Connecting Forces of Design" – this year's theme. Speakers from all over the world took stage at the beautiful Stadsschouwburg theatre, which was dressed in a yellow and red setting, the bold colours that characterize the conference's graphic communication. The conference brought together professionals from crossover disciplines, in order show the impact of their work, and bringing to a European stage a discussion on social issues that can be tackled by design.
The implications of design as a cultural agent can make designers look around and re-interpreted their cultural and social heritage. This was brought to light in a much applauded presentation by Colombian Esteban Ucrós, who values the graphic self-expression found all over the streets of his home town of Bogotá. For him, these instances of vernacular design are both inspiring and definitely worth preserving. Ucrós, together with a couple of friends, has been gathering — in a platform called Populardelujo — an archive of the graphic material found in the streets of Bogotá. The platform functions as a way to present the mostly unknown street artists that have been spreading their lively graphic language for decades. In a similar vein, Dutch graphic designer Harmen Liemburg presented his work as a reinvention of common imaginary and symbols he finds around him, in every corner of the world — anything from traffic signs to the American flag, using the low-tech medium of screen-printing. His motto is "browse the world and see what's there".
Captivating presentations came from two professionals working directly in the social sector, proving that designing from a comfortable desk, miles away from less privileged areas of the world, is a flawed approach. Architects have to engage locally with the places they are working on, defended Architecture for Humanity's Cameron Sinclair in a lively presentation. "If you build something nice the community will want to take care of it," he said. Taking an uncompromising professional approach to his work in social projects — particularly in disaster areas — and showing an overwhelming amount of built projects, Sinclair pointed out the paramount importance of actually '"building stuff".
Brazilian designer Marcelo Rosenbaum, in another compelling presentation, also demonstrated how working from within the communities can generate positive and lasting outcomes. Rosenbaum makes use of his far-reaching fame as a famous TV-presenter in Brazil to find support for his social work. His project AGT — A Gente Transforma [We Transform], proved successful in its first edition, in the socially complex setting of a favela in São Paulo. By renovating communal areas, and developing a line of products made by favela inhabitants, the AGT project gave the community a much-needed sense of self-esteem and pride. The second edition of AGT was held in Várzea Queimada, a remote place in Northeastern Brazil, where Rosenbaum and his team partnered with local artisans, skilled in working with rubber and fibre, to collaboratively develop a new line of products. The artisans thus gained a renewed sense of pride in their work and a means for generating revenue.
Fashion was also a strong theme throughout the conference, and the different perspectives presented opened the conference's scope. Catarina Mimby, from retail giant H&M, assumed the impossibility to be truly sustainable when selling throwaway fashion, but argued that the impact can be lowered, by using recycled materials, defining a code of conduct and chemicals restrictions list. Fashion designer Suzanne Lee brought her latest experiments on a new fabric made from bacteria that she describes "as the future factory". Fashion in Africa was an issue introduced by Alphadi, a fashion designer from Niger who has been organising the Festival International de la Mode Africaine in the desert of Niger — a way to raise awareness for fashion in Africa and bring peace. The designer believes "beauty can stop a war."
But What Design Can Do! also brought to the stage more familiar names in the design scene, such as Hella Jongerius and Paula Scher. Jongerius referred to the "human touch" she likes to always embed on her designs, whether for big or small clients; and Paula Scher spoke about how graphic design can transform urban spaces, and how pro bono work can lead to more paid work, as it happened with one project for the New York City Parks Department.
Running conversely to the presentations, the breakout sessions were a way for those in the audience to take a break from the talks and have a more hands-on participation. The whole atmosphere of the conference was very positive and provided a fruitful setting for many conversations between speakers during the breaks, ascribing real meaning to the conference's theme of connection. It was interesting to see that most of the projects and ideas presented were actually realized and tested, most of them resulting from years of work and research. A wake-up call for many, What Design Can Do! is set to happen again next year, this time under the theme "Collaboration". The event proved an exciting and critical moment that showcased new ideas, realized thanks to the multitude of opportunities design can offer.