by Alexandra Alexa and John P. Kazior
This year's Core77 Conference, "The Third Wave" took place on Friday, October 4th, and included presentations by a number of designers working in variety of fields, but all asking similar questions through their work, like: How can designers do better? How can our community use our unique skillsets in order to enact real change? Each talk countered and questioned the design community's established processes while challenging how design can uniquely tackle issues relating to sustainability, representation, and not perpetuating frightening sci-fi visions of the future.
All photos by Rebecca Smeyne
Didn't get a chance to take part in this year's conference and wondering what attendees got out of the experience? Here are some of the lessons we took away from talks throughout the day:
Notes on collaboration
Yasaman Sheri set the tone for the rest of the day with her discussion about the importance of "code switching" across disciplines to better design in the increasingly complex and networked systems we find ourselves in. Sheri presented her wide-ranging work—from being one of the first designers working on Microsoft's Hololens to a recent residency at Gingko Bioworks where she created biosensors that can react to certain molecules, toxins, hormones, etc. far more sensitively than existing hardware.
Early prototypes of the Microsoft Hololens
Along the way, she's learned to switch between various "codes"—those embedded in our culture, in nature, in our machines. As her practice has evolved, so too has her desire to build trust through language, exemplified by initiatives like the BioDesign Dictionary that she created to establish a foundation for her work with the scientists at Gingko. "Shared language helps us build trust across boundaries," Sheri explained. "It requires taking the initiative (and having the interest) to learn the other community's language." "There is no consensus on an ethical future because there is no 'one' ethic nor 'one' future," she continued. While it may not be possible to come to a single consensus on one "ethical future," collective decision-making is going to be vital going forward.
John Maeda released the floodgates, so to speak, when he was quoted in Fast Company as saying "in reality, design is not that important." His seemingly dismissive statement launched a series of impassioned responses, even though it lacked context. Maeda used this experience to launch a discussion about the value of public failure and the importance of those who assume the risk of disrupting norms. "Disruptors are an anomaly," Maeda said. Most people don't love change, so if you assume that role you have to be prepared to take the heat. And if (or rather, when) you find yourself experiencing a public failure of your own, Maeda shared his go-to resource for getting out of the funk, this essay on "personal renewal" by John Gardner.
Joe Meersman of Resideo hosted a panel with Marijke Jorritsma of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory and Dean Malmgren of IDEO, exploring the future of data on micro and macro scales. The issue of language and communication across disciplines emerged as a key theme again. As Dean put it, he works as "a data scientist working with other data scientists to learn the language of design" while Marijke has to understand and anticipate the needs of astronauts as she develops user experiences for future missions. When designing UX for highly-trained scientists, one major challenge Marijke pointed out is making sure that the data is not looked at as proprietary. Ultimately, she said we find ourselves in "exciting data times," but Dean was quick to point out they are also "terrifying data times." When designing new experiences, the data we currently have—although there's a lot of it—is not always the right data and language is big part of how that gets framed.
Question the legacy of modern design practices
Through examples like the Lego Braille Bricks, Liz Jackson schooled the audience on spotting "disability dongles" and asked that we always question whether we're "thinking of" or "thinking for" when designing. Design briefs too often seek to fix disabled people. "We're defined as the problem rather than the problem being defined as the problem," Jackson said. In the process, emerging technological schools of thought like transhumanism are actually promoting the erasure of disabled people through design.
Lego Braille bricks commercials are highly visual and therefore clearly not created for blind consumers.
Jackson proposed "design questioning" as an alternative to "design thinking." She referenced the shift from thinking about empathy as inspiration—according to the definition of being "physically moved by works of great human expression"—to it being a way of expressing pity or sympathy. "We've lost the ability to parse between definitions," she said. Nobody is immune from this kind of thinking. Jackson concluded with a rumination on Lewis Miller's flower installation in NYC. She stumbled across a bunch on a curb and was instinctively drawn to pick them up, to save them from being discarded. "Not all things need saving," she realized. "Sometimes they need the right to exist."
Jerome Harris took us on a crash course through the history of modernism in graphic design, from its roots in America originating largely from European modernists being driven out of their countries by the Nazi regime around World War II, to its current status as the default language of printed matter and branding. Modernism has become a default in much of graphic design today. It's familiar grids and alignments have essentially become synonymous with the entire discipline. Modernism "gives design an immediate legitimacy," Harris noted. Rather, Harris urged attendees to consider how technology gives us more opportunities than ever to be expressive. Rather than mining the familiar canon for inspiration, Harris suggested alternate sources that have been left out of the history books. The long lineage of queer and feminist zines for example, show what design can be when it's made with true urgency. "When you have something to say, not just sell," as Harris noted. As modernism continues to define the expression of our tech-driven capitalism, how do we find a new Modernism that is more appropriate for the challenges we face? Harris ended with a simple ask: think about the criteria you use to assess good design and don't stop challenging it.
Rethink how technology can be utilized to enact change
Suma Reddy, Co-founder & COO of Farmshelf
Several founders housed in New Lab presented their company concepts to the Core77 audience and demonstrated very different ways in which technology, machine learning and data can be harnessed to create sweeping change. Atolla skincare founder Meghan Maupin discussed how her company uses machine learning to perfect skincare solutions, which results in a better understanding of one's own skin health and as a result, declining packaging waste in the cosmetic industry. Farmshelf founder Suma Reddy explained to the crowd how she found a way to grow hyper-localized produce in indoor settings with minimal water usage. And finally, Roots Studio Rebecca Hui demonstrated how technology can be used to preserve heritages and cultures' creative products while also ensuring these communities can be properly attributed and paid for their original works.
What have we gotten ourselves into?
In his "participatory talk," Francois Nguyen, creative director at Frog, took the audience through Maslow's famous "hierarchy of needs," with a set of exercises designed to help simulate the fine line between comfort and need. Providing a series of historical vignettes to demonstrate how industry has addressed those needs of ours, Nguyen highlighted the ways in which design has so often led to excess; from the simple paper dixie cup, an object designed to make drinking more hygienic, to the 1 million plastic water bottles consumed every minute, that we've arrived at. In his discussion of the cost of comfort, Nguyen implored us to consider the importance of all the products we create, but also, all that we don't.
How do we reckon with the world comfort has created for us? Susanne DesRoches took us through her 25 year journey from her education and early career in industrial design, to developing sustainability and resilience guidelines for the city of New York. Building from experience as a designer and learning to collaborate with engineers and architects at the Port Authority, DesRoches has been able to apply her unique experiences to helping prepare the city for an uncertain future—for events like sea level rise, precipitation fluctuation, air temperature increase and the multitude of issues climate change will inevitably throw at the city. From DeRoches' own journey we can glean that collaboration and education are a necessity if we are ever to prepare ourselves accordingly.
For designers, finding a place to start when it comes to confronting climate change and other issues in sustainability can be a challenge. Moderated by Leigh Christie of MistyWest, Sandra Moerch, Meagan Durlak, and Brian Ho discussed the ways in which they've addressed the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals through their own work and how they can serve as a starting point for sustainable design practice. Finding goals to connect with, and learning how the different goals can inform each can help individuals and organizations develop more comprehensively sustainable practices going forward.
Design for an uncertain future
Just as designers must acknowledge the social and ecological issues of our time, we can't stop pushing the boundaries of our collective imagination. VR/AR "evangelists," Max Almy and Teri Yarbow of SCAD, demonstrated the many ways that the technology can alter perspective, experience, and ideally generate empathy in the budding medium. With projects like "Oculus VR for Good" and their own project "Radiance" for therapy in Hospice, Almy and Yarbow suggest that the VR/AR frontier can offer possibilities for social impact that we've not had access to before as artists and designers.
Archie Lee Coates, partner at PlayLab INC., has made a career of challenging what is possible. Archie and his cohort at PlayLab INC. set for themselves the mission of creating a public swimming pool, "+Pool," in the East River. Though it has been an endeavor spanning several years with obstacles the whole way through, their vision will finally be realized.
PlayLab and FOOD' s +Pool concept (soon to be a reality)
Providing an impressive carousel of design, publishing, exhibition, fashion, installation, performance, and more, Archie took us on a journey through the dreams of his studio. With the improbable achievement of +Pool, Archie made a compelling case for the collective pursuit of dreams.
In the conference's final presentation, Paola Antonelli, gave us a glimpse at what dreaming in our current ecological crisis might look like. In the exhibition Broken Nature, curated for the Design Triennale in Milan, Antonelli compiled a wide array of designers and artists who are acknowledging climate change and extinction, and imagining the ways we might proceed forward. Through the diverse and multidisciplinary exhibition, Antonelli presents the idea that we cannot escape extinction, but maybe we can decide the manner in which we go out.
Stay tuned for speaker videos in the coming weeks, and learn more about the 2019 Core77 Conference, "The Third Wave" on our conference website