Winter 2005

New era

Era 05 World Design Congress

22-28 September 2005
Helsinki, Gothenburg, Oslo and Copenhagen

Delegates registering for Era 05 in the vast lobby of Copenhagen’s Bella Centre were greeted by a series of bold posters promising that: ‘In the new era, design will influence the evolution of society, where the focus will be on quality of life for all, unrestricted by geographic, ethnic or economic boundaries’. And so it was inevitable that the opening session of the World Design Congress would descend into chaos, routed by a chain of highly embarrassing technical problems. As one speaker later in the programme reminded his audience: ‘Hubris is always followed by nemesis.’

The Joint Congress concluded a series of pre-Congress meetings in Helsinki, Gothenburg and Oslo. An international programme presented 120 speakers and a healthy absence of celebs. Sessions concentrated on how design could respond to the changing global scene: the shifting economies and populations; inequalities in health and technology; the effects of multiculturalism.

The introductory text for one session said that: ‘as the world grows more complex, the complexity of being a designer increases correspondingly’. Some were clearly feeling the pressure more than others. Despite the confident claims of the conference posters there was a discernible anxiety: presentations peppered with gloomy demographic forecasts, records of dwindling natural resources and potential future conflicts.

The Icograda session promised to examine the ‘fourth dimension’ – fascinating stuff, especially for those of us previously unaware of the other three dimensions. The opening address by David Berman – Chair of Ethics for the Society of Graphic Designers in Canada – encouraged designers to reject working with clients who were ‘asking them to lie’. Jakob Fenger from Danish artists’ group Superflex talked through some projects that aimed ‘to expose and question economic structures’. One collaboration saw Brazilian guarana berry farmers work with Superflex to develop and market their own drink in response to crippling price-dumping policies of their major buyers.

While there was considerable merit to what Berman and Fenger had to say, by mid-session the ‘fourth dimension’ was looking increasingly slim. Having been reminded of the global context, the prospect of isolated designers ‘doing good’ seemed almost futile.

In contrast the presentation by Terry Irwin offered a far more considered and robust alternative: not so much the recognition of a fourth dimension, but rather the call to paradigm shift. Drawing heavily from her studies in Holistic Science at the Schumacher College in Devon, UK, the former principal designer with MetaDesign San Francisco delivered a passionate and highly convincing demand for graphic designers to step back and rethink the role and definition of design. She called for a rediscovery of principles found within nature, for designers to design ‘for relationship’ and to repair the damage of a Cartesian world view that had emphasised the ‘parts’ instead of the ‘wholes’. Her suggestion that ‘life is co-operative not competitive’ came as a shock of common sense, offering the kind of unified and radical argument lacking elsewhere in the conference. ‘

Sadly the session closed without any real debate. Graphic designers were no doubt itching to know how, if at all, the new paradigm of deep ecology and the move from Euclidean to Fractal systems of design would manifest in typography and layout. Would it acknowledge the hand of technology or retreat to the safety of woodcuts in Photoshop?

The future role of aesthetics emerged again as the dominant theme in a cross-disciplinary session titled ‘For a Better World Press One’. Danish architect Per Feldthaus heralded the arrival of ‘the inter-disciplinary creative man’ who would use ‘artfulness’ to complement the current scientific approach to problem-solving through a radical new recognition of aesthetics. In contrast, the Canadian writer and Massive Change collaborator Jennifer Leonard called for aesthetics to be ‘taken off the table’ to enable the ‘world of design’ to become the ‘design of the world’. Again the opportunity for crucial debate was missed as delegates hurried off for coffee and networking. So it was left to Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek to conclude the session and reflect on how global variance in toilet design proved that designers could never really escape aesthetics. His observation that design is ‘one of the most interesting of the crucial professions today’ seemed more appropriate for the conference poster.

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