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Richard van der Laken in His Own Words

Richard van der Laken has been all over the Dutch media this past week pushing the What Design Can Do conference.  In this op-ed for national newspaper De Volkskrant he argues that designers must take over from managers.  

By Editor / 16-05-2013

Ever since I started organizing What Design Can Do I have been able to talk with people about what design actually is. “Since when is food part of design?” people often ask.  “And what is 'social' design? Isn’t all design social? And does that make architecture design?”

Well, everything is design. Only nature isn’t. Although creationists might disagree. Everything man has touched is in essence design. The clock you wake up to in the morning, the cereal and the bowl it is in … the wooden chair you sit on and the table you sit at … cycle to work, send messages on WhatsApp, it’s all been designed.

From this perspective the entire society we live in is design, and the role of the designer needs to be taken more seriously. Government does, to a certain degree. The previous cabinet made design one of its key sectors for the economy and ever since a range of advisory boards and foundations have been trying to give the sector an impetus.

But what strikes me is that within these organisations a management culture has come into existence in which the voice of the creative is hardly audible. Especially in education we have massive bureaucratic organizations.

ArtEZ has shown us what management culture can lead to. It is an organization with 800 staff members and 3,000 students.  This, by definition, is the antithesis of creative schooling. Now ArtEZ is in crisis and the director has been fired.

The Design Academy Eindhoven almost fell prey to a similar management culture last year, but luckily the lights went on in time and staff, all designers with their own studios, are once again the focus. Now designers are in the lead again with one of their own - Thomas Widdershoven from Thonik – as creative director. That’s how it should be.

A world ruled by designers, might be a bit much to ask for, although I would love to see it become a reality. But let’s at least let designers shape their own sector. There’s enough to think about.  That the merger of the Nederlands Architectuur Instituut with Premsela stichting and the Virtueel Platform is being supported by management consultancy Berenschot is a case in point.

Merging these sectors was a good idea, but the closed culture surrounding the merger does not deserve any awards. Hopefully new director Guus Beumer will soon take some initiatives because the present silence makes us almost forget Het Nieuwe Instituut, which is what the merged organisation is called.

It’s important to note that the creative sector itself has let all this happen and has been disinterested. Now is the time designers, architects, game makers and other creatives should use their influence to make sure we have an institute that can help the sector to move with more force. Beumer would do well to take on advisors from the field, at the same time the field should offer it’s services with more oomph.

If government takes the creative sector seriously, designers should be in the lead. The success of Dutch Design is internationally impressive. But it won’t remain so. If there’s one thing that needs to happen it is organise education on a smaller scale and have it run by designers themselves. We have to realise the international status of the Design Academy is vulnerable. And the concept of Dutch Design urgently needs new content.

There is good reason for some rethinking. The crisis has been here for five years now and has been a wake up call for Dutch designers. Things will never be the way they were. This calls for fundamental questions: Why do I do what I do? What is my contribution? How can I change things in a positive way?

Designers asks themselves these questions. It’s not only about beauty and aesthetics. It’s also about alternatives, pointing out new horizons, contributing to solutions for small and large social issues, and cutting through taboos. Not by talking but by acting. As the late Jan Schaeffer used to say: “One cannot live in bullshit.”  That’s how it is.

The good thing is: designers are doers. It’s in their DNA. For a designer a problem becomes a question, a taboo a challenge. Designers combine conceptual and abstract thinking with idealistic vistas and practical usability.

Everything is design. Maybe that’s why this is the age of  “The Designer”. The era in which designers shape their own sector and then with government, business, consumers, users and the public change society.

My colleagues, and I, are ready.  

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