It seems many people are asking this question.

And it is remarkable how many offer a similar response. At least it was remarkable that the participants of a debate on the definition of design that recently took place in Chengdu all showed a consensus in thought, although their approaches were quite different. Emily Campbell who is rewriting the account of design for the 250-year-old Royal Society of the Arts raised the question: “Instead of making beautiful resources, can design help people be resourceful, not to solve the problem but to teach people how to solve it themselves?” “Do not finish the job but show people how to do it,” she said. Adrian Blackwell, connected to the John Daniels Faculty of Architecture at the University of Toronto, stated that design is always unknown, an uncertain creation, an open space in which people can produce new ideas. He focused on architecture that engages the virtual, providing unprogrammed space for appropriation and creation.

design is anything anywhere

My statement was that design today can be anything anywhere. Design does not only solve problems, it can also offer different perspectives. Design can open new horizons and offer unexpected possibilities. The capacity of design does not only express itself through products, graphics or garments but also through tools, services, scenarios, new business models and other ways of benefitting society. Design can find a role in any aspect of daily life. Design is organizing life and can be invisible. But this does not mean that there is no design at all. The challenge for design is to create high quality frameworks in which people can act.

a designer is not a social worker

The Chinese architect Hsieh Ying-Chun showed how he worked in earthquake disaster areas in China and Taiwan together with local communities to rebuild their villages. Through the use of local materials, low-cost building strategies and appropriate technologies, as well as the design of new, open structural systems, peasant farmers are able to participate in their own modern homebuilding projects. He proved that a socially conscious architect or designer is not the same as a social designer which could easily be called a social worker if there is no professional input.

design is a framework

I showed Open House, a one day event we did in collaboration with Diller Scofidio + Renfro in the New York suburb of Levittown. The goal of this project was to show a model for reviving boring and financially troubled suburbs by helping people to discover their inner service provider and set up a business in their home. One of the homeowners, a school teacher who has been unemployed for a couple of years, set up a ‘’school’’ to teach the community how to create digital photo albums and other hobbies. I mentioned that in this project the teacher was more important than the benches that were created by the architects. But still, the architects gave the framework for the woman to teach. And the project as such, gave a framework. Without this framework the woman teaching how to make photo albums would not have been doing it. And, as part of the framework, the next step could be to create new plans for suburban houses that show a new balance between public and private space, and to bring more density to the suburbs.

design is new collaborations

Design today is also new collaborations. Design can change the way people interact with products, and with each other. Design can connect people. Design is crowdsourcing. Designers are involving other members of the community to brainstorm on ideas or collaborate on projects – and this is helping designers redefine and expand their notion of what they do, and why they do it. We are seeing the entire supply and consumption chain being reconsidered and opened up to new collaborations.

redesigning the profession

Redesigning the profession is what all the participants in the debate, coming for all parts of the world, wanted to do. Of course this was no coincidence because we were all invited by the curator Ou Ning. How we are all thinking on the same line was demonstrated in Ou Ning’s exhibition of the Bishan project he did in a rural area of China. Again, together with the inhabitants and with respect for the vernacular already there. One of the fashion designers did not design anything but only showed the beauty of the garments of the village people.

During my stay in China I visited the artist Ai Wei Wei in his Beijing studio. He is the co-curator of the Gwanju Design Biennale which has been advocated as an attempt to redefine today with “Design is Design is Not Design” as the slogan. According to Ai Wei Wei, the act of design is to destroy itself. “To throw off the old body, that is the soul of design.” While he was talking his cat had nestled on our bag. When he noticed this he said: “Ask the bag designer what is the best way to customize a cat”. The designer may design what he wants but it is the user who decides how to use the design. Design today is not only designing for people but designing for people with people. Everywhere in the world, in whatever circumstances and whatever system people live in, they are creating their own way. And that’s inspiring.

Yes, design should continuously redesign itself. That was also my message at the conference. Society, culture and economy influences design, but design also influences society, culture and economy. The design challenge for the coming years is to explore new levels of design – considering not only what is to be designed, but also how, for what purpose and in which context. The world is always changing and design has to react and act. And we should not forget that design will keep on changing. The way design is today is not the way it could or should be tomorrow.