The social impact of design: Richard van der Laken talks about how design can help

Richard van der Laken is designer and organizer of the international conference ‘What Design Can Do’. We talked beauty, climate change and how design makes the world go ‘round.

IMPRINT: What is design for you?

Richard: Everything. Everything is designed. The whole inhabited world is shaped. The only thing that isn’t designed is nature, except if you believe in creationism, then even nature is designed. As soon as people are part of the equation, things are designed. So you cannot underestimate its power because it’s omnipresent.

Then again, this is not how it is viewed. I started What Design Can Do together with Pepijn Zurburg to show that design is more than aesthetics. Dutch design is known all over the world, I think this country recognizes the importance of design and the role it plays in our society. But still, it’s mostly seen as beautiful stuff. And there is nothing wrong with that, I’m a designer myself and I know it’s nice to surround yourself with beautiful stuff. It adds value. But design is more than just beautiful stuff, it can also be an engine for social change.

Everything is designed. The only thing that isn’t designed is nature, except if you believe in creationism, then even nature is designed.”

IMPRINT: So do you want to go beyond the aesthetic?

R: No, it’s both. What has been bugging Pepijn and myself for years is that people often see it as an approach to beautifying things. That is a part of design, but it’s so much more. That is what we want to show with What Design Can Do; design is more than a beautiful vase, a funky font or a cool poster.



IMPRINT: You studied at the Hogeschool voor de Kunsten in Utrecht and the Sandberg Institute in Amsterdam. Did you always want to be a designer?

R: No, when I was younger I wanted to be a writer, but I think it’s not a big leap from writing to graphic design. It is the only design discipline that is very spoken. Whether it’s slogans, statements, or stories, it’s always written. I did my internship at Anthon Beeke, a praised designer who did a lot of work in the public domain. He taught me that prettiness isn’t the highest goal for a graphic designer. He focused on how his design influenced the streetscape.

IMPRINT: Your job used to be limited to be this two-dimensional design that was part of the urban landscape, something people would see on their way to work. Now, this landscape changed into this three-dimensional, ever-present setting that we carry in our pockets. Did it change your work as a designer?

R: Absolutely. I was educated as a graphic designer in this transition time between the old and the new. The computer was introduced while I was at the academy. But I was schooled very analogically. This means I’m not a digital native. In a way, the craft of graphic designed disappeared because of the introduction of the computer, because the graphic industry is almost completely gone. I’m very glad I got a taste of both worlds. When I talk about my work, I always talk about visual communication, but even that term doesn’t cover it anymore.



IMPRINT: How did What Design Can Do come out of this?

R: Well, that’s more about a state of mind. It doesn’t matter if you are a fashion designer or an architect, it’s about the way you experience the world and your role in this world. And I think that Pepijn and I were always socially conscious. So we started a quest to find other designers who had the same drive or ideas about ways to incorporate this sense of responsibility in their work. It turned out, there were a lot of designers who had this same desire. Somehow we pressed a button.

IMPRINT: Was it something that sprung from your own needs or something that was in the air?

R: A little bit of both. Besides, this was in 2011, it was the middle of the financial crisis and Pepijn and I didn’t have a lot of clients. So we created a new project, just to keep ourselves busy. We thought it was kind of crazy that a country as the Netherlands, known for its design, didn’t have a big design conference. And we, as designers, instantly had ideas about how this should be shaped; it shouldn’t be about chairs and tables, but about the social issues you come across as a designer. And apparently, this was something colleagues from within the creative sector were really craving for.



IMPRINT: Last year a lot of critics claimed you bit off more you can chew with the theme of the conference; the refugee problem in Europa. This year the theme of the conference is climate change. An even bigger theme.

R: Last year we received some critique that we as designers would not be able to ‘solve the refugee problem’. No, of course not. That was never the intention. But ignoring this social problem is not an option either. It’s something a lot of people are dealing with right now and even more, people are wondering what they can do to help. So, we made this the central theme of the conference and we organized a challenge; a design competition where we asked the design community to think about the refugee crisis and how design can help. We got over 600 submissions. So, no, we are not going to solve this problem, but we might be able to contribute to a solution.

And this year we are going to do the same thing. The conference is the start of the Climate Action Challenge. We’re going to do this in the same manner as last year, together with organizations from the field we will write briefings targeting specific areas within climate change: awareness, adaptation, and mitigation. We’re asking designers to contribute by targeting specific problems within this larger scheme of things and, in this way, help create a better world.

IMPRINT: One of the speakers of this year’s conference is the Brazilian chef Rodrigo Oliveira. The mayor of Mexico City, Marcelo Ebrard will also take the stage. These are not the typical orators for an event about climate change.

R: We don’t want to give people a story they’ve already heard. We want to show different perspectives on the same problem. We don’t invite just architects, designers or design critics. People like Marcelo Ebrard can give us a new perspective on how to deal with pollution in a metropolis, and how the creative industry can help reduce this. The same goes for Rodrigo Oliveira. Within the food industry the debate about climate change and the way it influences our food production is going on for years. Hence, it is very interesting to hear chefs talk about their challenges and adaption methods to deal with this problem.



IMPRINT: Is the connection between design and climate change easily made?

R: Look at the last Dutch Design Awards. The big winner was Christien Meindertsma, who created a chair out of flax. A lot of Dutch designers are viewing the whole chain of production instead of just creating a nice piece. She created a fiber from flax, totally renewable and recyclable, which is her biggest innovation. Then she created a chair that is made from one piece, so there is no waste. It is a small example, but it shows how designers are already incorporation these themes in their work.

“… we will always need designers to translate technological innovation to palpable products and functioning services.”

IMPRINT: Does it help that designers are not part of the established order that is dealing with climate change on a daily basis?

R: Well, I think everyone is dealing with climate change, even if you’re not part of an NGO or governmental organization. Nevertheless, I think it helps that designers can view this from the outside and have a strong ‘do’ mentality. You can talk forever but eventually, you need to make something. Visually. Tangible. Right now, everyone is talking about innovation and technology. But, we will always need designers to translate technological innovation or innovative technique into palpable products and functioning services. Eventually, it needs to become something, whether it’s an app or a water glass. I see it as our role, as What Design Can Do, to show the relevance of design and how it can be used as a tool to tackle social challenges.


Words Anne Dirks

Photography Laila Cohen


WDCD Live Amsterdam




Geef een reactie

Het e-mailadres wordt niet gepubliceerd. Verplichte velden zijn gemarkeerd met *