From Iceland — Visionary Thinking For Alternative Futures

Visionary Thinking For Alternative Futures

Published March 21, 2014

Hlín Helga Guðlaugsdóttir on this year’s DesignTalks

Visionary Thinking For Alternative Futures
Larissa Kyzer

Hlín Helga Guðlaugsdóttir on this year’s DesignTalks

A designer, curator and teacher at Konstfack University College of Arts, Crafts and Design in Stockholm, Sweden, Hlín Helga Guðlaugsdóttir is active in design education initiatives around the world, and has led workshops in India, China and Iceland on a variety of topics, such as future thinking and experience design, theme-based course design and applying design methodologies to complicated problems in fields such as healthcare. She also curated this year’s DesignTalks, an all-day panel series which opens DesignMarch and will feature leading international designers, architects and creative professionals. Co-moderating with Stephan Sigrist, the founder of Zurich-based think tank W.I.R.E., Hlín Helga will tackle the day’s theme—“Dealing with Reality”—in conversation with a diverse group of speakers such as Calvin Klein, Robert Wong (the Chief Creative Officer of Google Creative Lab) and Kathryn Firth (the Chief of Design at London Legacy Development Corporation). She took some time this month to talk to Grapevine about this year’s DesignTalks and some of the more pressing challenges of design today.

The subject of this year’s DesignTalks is “Dealing with Reality,” a more practically-oriented theme than say last year’s “The Magic of Creativity.” Do designers today need to contend with more difficult realities than they have in the past?

Designers have always dealt with reality, in one way or the other, but I’m hoping we can explore new ways of doing it by looking through different lenses, discussing design in a larger context and showing the world what can be achieved by design. It’s about new perspectives, collaborations across disciplines, visionary thinking and, ultimately, alternative futures. This whole discussion goes hand in hand with the need for designers to take initiative and redefine their roles. I’m not proposing that designers can (or should try to) fix everything, or that they are today’s superheroes, but they should be “added to the mix” with other disciplines—sitting at the decision-making table when tackling the challenges of today’s broken systems, institutions and even democracies. Whatever the subject, for the best results it’s important that designers are involved from the early stages and not just brought in afterwards to “make it look good,” as has been too common.

What do you think are some of the more complicated realities of design today? Certainly these will vary from one discipline to another, but are there common challenges?

There are different challenges across various design disciplines, but at the same time, there are global and underlying imperatives, such as the need for sustainable solutions, the demand for visionary thinking and designer accountability. It’s not all about social innovation—such as rethinking healthcare or designing for inclusion—but this kind of thinking should be intrinsic to our approach as graphic designers, product designers, and architects, whatever the subject may be. Collaborations and conversations across disciplines and within our communities are crucial.

Then there is reality and “reality.” We do not all perceive reality in the same way, and on top of that, there is also an increasingly blurred area at the intersection of the virtual and the “real.” This fact has led to the emergence of yet another design discipline, which has been dubbed “invisible design.” Invisible design deals with the seamless integration of those two realities. In some ways, I find it liberating as a designer to think in terms of infinite realities, to think in terms of alternative futures. To speculate, imagine, and in some instances, even lie, as is done in the ‘The book of Scotlands. Every Lie Creates a Parallel World. The World in Which it is True.’ This book outlines 156 Scotlands which do not exist, but present a necessary “delirium of visions, realistic and absurd” that serve to contextualise current discussions about “real” Scotland’s independence and future(s).

What are some of the ways in which design can have measurable, practical impacts on fields such as healthcare?

A concrete example would be the Butaro Hospital Project in Rwanda, Africa, administered by the MASS Design Group. Working with the community, MASS built good healthcare facilities at a low cost. They created buildings that promote health and empower not only the staff but also the whole community. They’ve really gone beyond design, because the project has attracted talented individuals to its hospitals. They, in turn, save lives and contribute to the progression of those communities.

This question of metrics is actually a very interesting, complex and urgent one: how should designers and architects prove their worth? How do we measure this? We designers need to get better at working with metrics when working with and in other disciplinary fields, to find ways to measure the truly important things that only the heart can see.

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