By Aditya Dev Sood
I have been directed to a line that says C.P.L.P. for some reason. Most of the passengers around me are holding Brazilian passports, though a series of flags, mostly unrecognizable to me, are flashing on the LED display. The Comunidades dos Países de Língua Portuguesa, I later learn, is a radically alternative way of cutting up the planet, predicated on Portugal’s colonial heritage and historical experience of the wider world. Along with Portugal, it includes Brazil, Angola, East Timor among other member states, while also acknowledging India (because of Goa) and China (because of Macau) as associate members.
I’m here because my company, the Center for Knowledge Societies, is being showcased as one of seven design firms from around the world at a exhibit called The Pace of Design, curated by Tulga Beyerle. It is part of a design biennale festival called ExperimentaDesign, directed by Guta Moura Guedes. Without the long and pedigreed design traditions of, say, Rotterdam, Berlin or Milan, Lisbon seems a quaint location for a major European design event. But the enthusiasm of the festival’s founder and director, Guta and her dedicated team have made the festival a relaxed yet comprehensive review of what contemporary design is and what it means for the cultures of Europe and the world.
Conferencing starts at a leisurely 11.00 am in the morning, and then only when the event bus arrives or quorum is achieved, whichever is later. The most important talks are scheduled at three in the afternoon, and then they last a professorial hour, rather than the 6 minutes 40 seconds that have become de rigueur in the design world. Openings are scheduled, for ten, eleven, and later in the evening, after a series of other dinners and ceremonial events, and well past midnight we’re still early birds at the nightclub party. In India, we are so used to taking grief from foreign visitors about time and timings, that it is oddly disconcerting to find oneself in the faster lane, shuffling so as to slow down and find the rhythm of one’s hosts, which is languid, fluid, flexible, and calm as the afternoon sun.
The air in Lisbon is gentle, and the sun looks to be taking all afternoon and evening to set, showing the city’s yellow, blue, and pastel-shaded buildings in their best light. In the city center are the municipal buildings in a dirty, almost acid, yellow that could only look poetic in this peacable and becalming light.
Perhaps following the logic of the C.P.L.P., I have been appointed agent provocateur for a panel showcasing South African design talent. Nkhensani Nkosi, one of the speakers, is wearing an elegant black body-wrap that closes with flourishing architectural collar at her neck, which frames her braided Mohawk. She speaks of her past in the theater and the role of the performing arts during the anti-apartheid struggle, but her approach to design is simple: We make people beautiful. Nkosi is a television personality in South Africa, and her label, Stoned Cherrie, channels the imagery of black politics, theater, dance and music from decades past to render a contemporary and hip sensibility to her young African customers.
Next up, Gaby de Abreu is of Portuguese origin, and is overcome with emotion at being back in the mother country. He is the creative director of Switch Design Group, a South African creative agency that won the FIFA World Cup account for 2010. In just a few slides he shows how he came up with the intuitive and powerful imagery that will command attention around the world next year. He starts with the iconic black-and-white photograph of Pele delivering his trademark up-side-down scissor-kick goal. The African continent as a whole is energized by vertical lines of force rising up from that upside-down kick. The imagery makes a permanent association between South Africa, at the foot of Africa as a whole, with the kicking power of football, and it beautifully renders the inclusive message of the games – this is the first World Cup to be played in Africa – to encompass the whole of the continent.
I later talked with Ravi Naidoo, South African design curator of the Design Indaba Festival in Cape Town, about the state of design in his country. While it was clear that design was changing how people around the world perceived South Africa, was design doing anything to change how people actually lived in Africa? What stories could he share with me of designers showing people a better way of living? Naidoo tells me that design is about enthusiasm, and that that is the reigning zeitgeist of South Africa today. From that enthusiasm will come change. Abreu’s pan-African imagery, Nkosi’s contemporary African chic, these had never been possible before, and together with Nathan Reddy’s on-going rebranding of the country design was going to transform the country as an inclusive, multicultural creative society. Images and surfaces are important, because they can transform perceptions and lead to a better way of living.
Naidoo described how the South African economy had grown once the political poison of apartheid was removed in the mid-nineties. He compared that with India’s own growth since liberalization in 1991, and suggested that growth in the design industries was directly linked with the growth in the market as a whole. I found his theory pretty sound, and offered him one better: South Africa and India both represented countries experiencing informationalization under conditions of limited or partial industrialization. And for that reason, the disciplines of design that have flourished in both countries up until now have had more to do with the shaping of images, ideas and perhaps retail experiences than with the design and manufacture of things, they way they might do in places like Italy and China.
China, that great industrial factory to the world, was represented at the conference through the experiences of Michael Young, who has now spent five years working as a designer in Hong Kong. Young is back this autumn to tell young Europeans how to do great work, get rich and become famous by heading East. Young is a loveable rogue of a designer who is effusive in his appreciation for the dynamism, industry and technical craftsmanship of the factories in Shekou that he has worked with. His work is a grab-bag of watches, bicycles, stools and restaurants, all of which do, indeed, showcase the abilities of Chinese factories to create an apparently endless variety of things with which to fill up the living-rooms of our mind. Design is only part of it, Young tells us – to be successful in China you have to seek out the patronage of the rich and well-connected, market effectively, provide brand-consulting advice and even help with distribution so as to better reach European markets. The designer must himself become an entrepreneur, and use his personal brand in order to accelerate the movement of product into the market.
As if in intentional counterpoint to this product-centered and brand-oriented vision of design, the afternoon panel also featured a presentation by IDEO. Leif Huff and Dario Buzzini, senior members of IDEO’s Europe offices, offered a quick history of the company’s iconic achievements before turning to the European work their office has recently handled. IDEO, of course, is famous for being the design firm that Apple commissioned to develop and test the world’s first computer mouse back in 1980, a pedigree that few existing firms can match. The company has since grown to a global strength of 580 people in offices around the world, and has broadened its focus from mainline industrial and engineering design to interaction design, organizational design, experience design. Among the many stories they shared was one about repositioning and redesigning a racing bike as a home and lifestyle accessory for everyday use. This involved not only rethinking the product form and functionalities, but also the retail and online experience of bike purchase and adoption. Designers, in this telling, become invisible to the consumer, though design now permeates the organizational intelligence of a company, defining its positioning, identity and competitive edge.
I cannot but be sympathetic to this vision, for my own company, CKS, operates in much the same way, spending time with users, understanding their needs, articulating those needs as product and service design opportunities, making prototype and concept designs, all of which ultimately serves the business interests of the client. CKS is a small and young Indian David to IDEO’s global Goliath, and we tend to focus more on lower-income and rural users of technology. Nevertheless, we are on the same end of the design industry, and open to seeing interfaces, systems, services, and other intangible relationships and experiences as appropriate objects of design. While most consumers may never know that IDEO or CKS researchers and designers had worked on the objects and systems they use, they may yet passively enjoy the relative simplicity or even pleasure in interaction that the experience might offer. None of this reticence or self-abasement is expected in the world of marquee-name designer furniture. If you have ever seen a Philippe Starck or Konstantin Grcic chair, you will know the thrill of desire and acquisitiveness, mixed with fetishistic wonder at the aura of the thing. The designed object and the personality of the designer will reinforce one another in ways that resemble high concept art.
Konstantin Grcic’s address was the highlight of the lecture series. He was not shy in comparing himself with the masters that had gone before him, Charles and Ray Eames and Marcel Brauer in particular, and yet he came off as humble and self-possessed. In precise and articulate terms, he explained how his studio worked in close coordination with production companies in northern Italy and Switzerland. He described the detailed and iterative design process his firm follows in the design of each new chair, stretching from concept to engineering, to materials to color, to finish, to tooling, to prototyping yet again. His life and work appeared as an ongoing Platonic meditation on the very form of the chair, revisiting the problem from the point of view of different materials, uses, and social contexts. Grcic lives a charmed and successful life, having gained the respect of the design community, while also enjoying substantial commercial success. But Grcic´s practice also depends on an entire ecology of participating players, from the specialized manufacturers of industrial furniture in Europe, to design critics and journalists, and design fairs and festivals like this one, as well as organized retail distribution, as can be found in Europe and the United States. His model of industrial design, conducted in formal and in formal partnership with all these players is not even available to those working in non-industrialized regions of the world.
Alice Rawsthorn, Design Editor of the International Herald Tribune, hosted an Open Talk on the Future of Design, the subject of her own forthcoming book. She identified two characteristic trends that would define the near-future of design, the first being Dematerialization. She identified the iPhone as the harbinger of our future ability to get rid of so much obsolete gadgetery, that could now be housed within the Apple device. Her second trend was design for “the other 90%,” for which she provided case studies from the world of rural development with innovative field solutions that lead, for example, to more frequently washed and cleaner hands. Not discussed in Rawsthorn's panel, was the slippage between 'design' and 'designer,' between anonymous innovation and branded, signed goods, which essentially characterize design for that top 10% that lives in the formal market and in the grip of consumer capitalist messaging. To reorient the focus of design, from elite signals of social status achievement, to means and mechanisms of achieving the larger social good will require a substantial re-architecting of the entire ecology of the design world, which we should not expect to occur either spontaneously or quickly.
Our own work and process is on display at the exhibit, The Pace of Design, which finally opens at midnight. CKS is featured along with Michael Young, Konstantin Grcic, and design firms from other regions of the world, including Brazil, South Africa and the United States. Where other firms have shown as their interim or final artifact a toothbrush, a lamp, a stool, a cycle, we show a large poster of notes and post-its culled from an ideation session we held while the curator Tulga Beyerle visited our New Delhi studio. It is mildly disconcerting to hear my voice amplified and my image occasionally projected into the installation space, along with images from our studio. We had been working on service design concepts for a rural kiosk operation proposed by a large multinational technology firm, but little of that confidential imagery or content could be shown here. Still, our studio looks good in the photographs, and certainly, as I look around at other installations in the room, this is pretty good company to find oneself in.
Guta, the EXD Festival Director, is leading the Mayor of the city of Lisbon and the Minister of Culture over towards us. She introduces me to them as the designer from India whose studio is being showcased in the corner. I’ve been waiting all night, I tell them, to share the story of how my father fought in the Indian Army for the ‘liberation’ of Goa in 1960. Both gentlemen are tickled by this, and the Mayor tells me that his father is from Goa. The Minister of Culture says that it’s been fifty years, and we must move on and build new and deeper relations with India. He describes how China has made strategic use of its membership within the C.P.L.P., through Macau, to make investments into Angola and secure access to the country’s raw materials. And, of course, Brazil benefits from the C.P.L.P. in many ways as well. We all nod, and raise a toast to the coming of the new world order of design: India, China, South Africa, Brazil and Portugal: “The Other 90%!”
Conducted in whatever region of the world, under whatever regime and mode of production, to whatever degree of materiality or ethereality, design now strikes me as an intrinsically human activity, no less so than speech, sociality and art, of which it is only another complementary dimension and aspect. The discourse of design can appear abstruse and self-involved, but the celebration of design, through this festival, is ultimately an homage to our own life's energies, the crafting, crafty hand of our collective species-being, homo faber.