One of the major components of DesignMarch is DesignTalks—a packed day of lectures and seminars held at Harpa, where leading design professionals from around the world share their projects, methods, thoughts and ideas. Each year comes with a theme, and 2015 will be based around the idea of “play,” which is reflected through a schedule of speakers famous for their various forward-thinking processes, experimental methods, omni-disciplinary practices and good old-fashioned punk attitude.
“I think play is a fascinating phenomena,” smiles Hlín Helga Guðlaugsdóttir, curator of the DesignTalks programme. “It’s hugely important but often overlooked somehow. Research shows that there is a clear relationship between the playful mindset and creativity, imagination and innovation. I think it might be good for us in the creative industries to remember that a little bit more often and to actively adopt this kind of mindset. I’m not saying everyone should be playing all the time, but I do think we could all benefit from playing a little bit more.”
To illustrate the theme, the programme of DesignTalks brings together a group from across the creative disciplines, each of whom who address their chosen field with a sense of brave creativity that’s brought them not just acclaim, but a certain sheen of cool, too.
“They’re high-profile people in different stages of their careers,” says Hlín, “and they come from all areas of design—architecture, fashion, music branding, theatre… they touch on really varied subjects but they all have a certain flair that binds them together.”
Playing can be harder than you’d think
It’s one thing for a painter to come into the studio and address the blank canvas in a different way than they did the day before. But for those involved in the technical, drawn-out processes that constitute designing, say, a new type of building or car, I wonder if playfulness comes less easily, or even becomes counter-intuitive.
“Yes, definitely,” says Hlín, “we designers have a lot of limitations around us. We often end up being problem solvers, and that’s very limiting in terms of imagining the full range of possibilities available to us. But there are methods and even tools specifically for incorporating play into what we do. I, speaking personally, think we in design may all need to be a little bit more visionary.”
Hlín’s point of view is persuasive, and resonates not only what’s most appealing and entertaining to those looking at design from an outside perspective, but also with what’s going on within the industry. “Design has been reinventing itself for a while, but particularly over the past five years,” Hlín explains. “Everyone is looking for new ways of doing things, the challenges of incorporating sustainability, and new roles for designers and design. In a way, it’s been like going back to the sources. The ways we want to talk about design now go all the way back, perhaps, to after the last World War, when we had architects drafting up huge plans and schemes for all sorts of things. So there’s something interesting happening, there’s something in the air.”
The mother of invention
Iceland is a young nation in many ways—from the cultural and industrial developments of the last few decades, to its freshly appeared swathes of volcanic land. It’s also somewhat isolated, as an island perched out in middle of the North Atlantic, and whilst awareness of this little country is famously on a somewhat meteoric trajectory, Iceland is in many ways still a developing nation.
This breeds a certain DIY mentality—for example, if people want to hear live reggae music in Reykjavík, they’ll have to form a reggae band. It’s a proactive attitude that pervades many aspects of Icelandic culture, including design.
“Our design history is short,” says Hlín, “so if you look into product design in Iceland you’ll see quite a lot of experiments. And it’s not for the sake of it—it’s out of necessity. We have a phrase here that translates to something like, ‘Scarcity teaches the naked woman to spin,’ meaning that when you don’t have anything, you have to figure out how to get it or make it yourself. Product design here has been a lot like that—we don’t have the industry and support mechanisms that many other countries have. We’re so small! And we just don’t have the same natural resources—hardly any wood, for example—just little bits of this and that.”
The younger generation of Icelanders doesn’t let the expense of import taxes or the scarcity of local materials hold them back, rather turning it into a strength. “It’s certainly a really rich flora we have have here, even despite these obstacles,” smiles Hlín. “It’s interesting to people, and I think it links to our theme of play—there’s a certain type of open-minded experimentation that happens here quite naturally—a bit humorous, a bit strange, odd and quirky. That’s present in a lot of Icelandic culture, and design is no exception.”
Thus, while DesignTalks aim to offers Icelanders some fresh ideas, the event also presents an opportunity for visitors to be inspired by the local scene, and lets people from other disciplines tap into some cutting-edge design thinking. “We believe that design has something to share with all of us, rather than just talking to itself,” finishes Hlín. “It’s an undertone in the DesignTalks that we’ve tried to find people who also have relevance for a larger audience and across many disciplines. These ideas and processes are things we can all learn from.”
Introducing the speakers
“Anthony Dunne is head of the interaction design programme design at RCA and a partner in Dunne & Raby. He’s particularly interesting in this context of play, as in playing with ideas and being radical about ways of thinking about the now, through the future. They propose that we create future scenarios so that we can have discussion here in the present. I think it’s a very interesting approach, and one that has gained momentum over the last years. They’ve really established these field of speculative design. It’s interesting to bring in people who are offering something new in the evolution of design, but also something that could benefit society at large. Projecting the best, worst, craziest things that could happen, so we can decide what we don’t want, and decide what we do want through that. It helps us decide what we want and need. He is a pioneer in that sort of thinking, and has a relevance across disciplines—he talks about things that concern us all.”
“Jessica is a partner at Sagmeister & Walsh, a famous design studio in New York. She’s been working for some really heavy-duty clients, yet maintains a sense of freedom and freshness in her work. I think that’s very cool—she’s actually partially the inspiration behind our theme. She’s quite young but she’s gained a lot of awards and attention, partially because she has this fearless, almost provocative, radical way of approaching things. She’s really fresh. She’s going to talk explicitly about some examples of play in the work, as a method for creation—whether it’s problem solving or innovation. There’s a touching point there between a lot of fields, again—the mindset, and the approach.”
“Walter is mainly a fashion designer, but he’s an interesting ‘player’ across many fields. He might not necessarily use that term himself—when I told him the theme he was like, ‘What does that mean?’ He’s a real rebel, and he’ll be interesting for everyone—fashion, theatre, advertising, participating in think tanks, working with musicians, illustrating books—he was one of the Antwerp Six, so he’s come through with a lot of very cool international figures who inspire each other back and forth. He’s an inspiration for many top names in the fashion industry. He’s also a bit of a trickster, you know? I think he’ll be hugely inspiring—this rebellious, playful voice. A creative spirit.”
“Marti is Spanish, a pioneer in many many things and very playful. He pushes and questions everything that he’s ever had to do with. He’s kind of a product designer that hates products—it’s probably why he calls himself an ex-designer. He was maybe the first designer to work with food as a material, and has inspired a whole generation of food designers. He worked with shoemakers Camper for almost a decade, and created the concepts for their first flagship stores around the world. It was very new and refreshing at that time, with slogans like, ‘If you don’t need it, don’t buy it.’ So he was really one of the first ones to embrace the challenges of sustainability. He’s kept his voice and his way of rebelling or revolting against things, but at the same time really been appreciated and worked with some really big companies—he shows that you can be true to your ideals and still design a lot of great stuff. A great mind.”
“Julien is known for not taking the conventional route. He started out with Rem Koolhaas, which is very big in the industry, and founded PLOT with Danish architect Bjarke Ingels. He has this really beautiful and interesting ways of speaking about performative architecture and design as story. He talks very well about his approach as an architect and a designer. Film people or storytellers might find it very interesting how that translates into his work.”
Fun fact! The typeface used for the headlines in this fancy DesignMarch pullout is called Landnáma. It was created by Guðmundur Ingi Úlfarsson & Mads Freund Brunse (AKA GUNMAD) of Or Type, Iceland’s first and only type foundry. Be sure to go check out their newly launched website www.ortype.is for an interactive experience with the rest of their type specimens.
A correction: this article was credited to Magnus Sveinn Helgason in our current print issue. It was written by John Rogers.