‘Many design solutions are just illustrations’

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‘The ever-growing expectations placed on design can no longer be fulfilled. We find ourselves in a design bubble, and it’s only a matter of time before it bursts.’ Architect and design critic Lucas Verweij stirred things up in the design world recently with this prediction. ‘With the tailwind currently pushing design, expectations are rising to a level that cannot be sustained for very long,’ he says in a conversation with WDCD.

Verweij presented the first two What Design Can Do conferences. Ever since he published his warning in an article on Dezeen, after it appeared earlier in Dutch on ArchiNed, reactions have poured in — both positive and negative.

‘What struck me was that most criticism came from people on the fringes of the profession, people without any formal design education but who still call themselves designers,’ observes Verweij. ‘Design not a protected title, so anyone can call themselves a designer. And its very tempting. Tell people at a party today that you’re a designer and they think you’re a hero. It’s become a hugely popular profession, which is why everybody wants to be part of it.’

What gave you the idea for this piece?
‘It actually took shape like a Christmas pudding, in the sense that it brings together a number of insights that have struck me over time. For instance, I noted that more and more stylists, artists and process managers, all of whom operate on the fringes of the design profession, have started to refer to themselves as designers. Also, the design profession has started to expand into new disciplines such as service design and social design. Over the past five to ten years, all sorts of fields have attached themselves to design. Nothing wrong with that, but it is the reality.

‘At the same time, we attribute more and more to design, and there is a widely held belief that designers can solve all sorts of problems. All at once, everybody’s betting on creativity and creative innovation, in the assumption that the creativity of western man alone can save us. Expectations have never before been this high. The major social questions of our time fall within scope of design.’

And the design community is coming up with solutions, isn’t it?
‘Sure, but what concerns me are the resulting expectations among the public at large. They are why Daan Roosegaarde’s intention to design for the smog problem in Beijing makes the front page of the Volkskrant, the leading daily in the Netherlands. Many design projects, such as the Mine Kafon, or the Sea Chair made of recycled plastic fished out of the seas, are not real solutions at all but simply illustrations of a problem. That, to me, is the work of illustrators. Which is why I doubt whether we designers can live up to expectations.

So the bubble’s about to burst?
‘It’s just like with the economy. If expectations continue to rise while collateral remains unchanged, the whole thing is bound to collapse sooner or later. If we accept that expectations have continued to rise, even though design expertise has remained unchanged, and despite all the expansion into other fields, then we are indeed dealing with a bubble. One of the reactions to my piece put it succinctly: “Design seems to be biting off more than it can chew”.’

Illustration: Sea Chair by Studio Swine and Kieren Jones

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