A design conference for India, and beyond

India now has a second major design conference, the India Design Forum, where the changing role of the designer and their part in tackling the major issues facing the world led discussions in New Delhi

Before and after shot of the propsed effects of a project to clean up New Delhi’s nullah canals by Morphogenesis

India now has a second major design conference, the India Design Forum, where the changing role of the designer and their part in tackling the major issues facing the world led discussions in New Delhi.

CR has been fortunate enough to attend the excellent Kyoorius Design Yatra in recent years. Now India has another major design conference, the India Design Forum which ran from March 9 to 10 in New Delhi.

After an opening presentation by government urban development minister Kamal Nath in which he underlined the sheer scale of the problems facing India as it rushes toward urbanisation and urged designers to help solve them, Paola Antonelli, senior curator at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, opened the event. Her talk focussed on the new opportunities open to designers and the way that debate on the role of the designer has spread from academia into practice. Design, she said, is about so much more than objects. It’s about life.

As someone who has sat through more conference presentations of pointless shiny objects for Swarovski or Alessi that I care to remember, all I can say is ‘Amen to that’.

Antonelli talked about how designers are moving from ‘problem solvers’ to ‘problem finders’, being active, writing their own briefs in response to issues discovered through research. She showed a variety of projects featuring design addressing social issues, many of which had appeared in MoMA’s recent Talk To Me show, including Berg’s BBC Dimensions website (above) which allows users to map the area affected by events such as Pakistan’s floods onto their own neighbourhood in order to bring home the scale of such disasters and the Prayer Companion, a Goldsmiths project (shown below) that allows the nuns of the Poor Clare Sisters in York to keep up to date on world events without having to break their vows of enclosure.

It was a very fitting and inspiring way to start the conference, a challenge to later speakers to live up to an ideal and offer relevant inspiration to the audience of Indian designers and students.

Seed Media founder Adam Bly was up next, reinforcing the idea that designers have a major role to play in helping solve the major issues of today. Seed’s focus is in data visualisation (as shown on its visualizing.org site), predominantly in relation to examining scientific data and using visualisation tools to uncover trends or correlations. He claimed that design is vital in connecting science to society, communicating what the issues are in easily digestible form, finding the insights in data.

He also talked about the value of making processes visible in order to understand how, for example, ideas spread and cited the evaluations done on social media activity during the Arab Spring.

IDF was relatively light on star designer presenters, the only ‘big’ name being product designer Karim Rashid, and all the better for that. Instead, other than a few too many swanky hotels, the majority of presentations focussed on issues around urbanisation – probably the major concern for India today. Highlights were Manit Rastogi of Morphogenesis presenting a proposal to use Delhi’s ancient system of canals (nullahs) to both clean the Yamuna river and provide a new, clean transport network for the city (more here)

and Nigerian architect Kunlé Adeyemi‘s proposal for a floating school for Makoko, the Lagos slum where most residents live in houses that stand on piles driven into the water.

So many design conferences are a procession of seductive projects for big money clients. The IDF’s two well-curated days largely, but not exclusively, focussed on other avenues for creativity. The engine of India’s development is its booming economy – design and advertising have a major role to play in that and the wealth they help generate is vital in funding social change. But IDF also reminded us that designers and creative people in general, should they so choose, can also play a vital role in tackling the problems that development brings.


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