Better x Design, the student-run research center at Brown University and the Rhode Island School of Design in Providence, Rhode Island, is hosting its second annual “A Better World by Design” conference on the two campuses next weekend (Oct 2-4). Jan Chipchase, principal engineer at the Nokia Research Center, heads an impressive slate of 18 speakers known internationally for their ground-breaking use of design and architecture for social entrepreneurship and green innovation.
“Today’s students, no matter their academic concentration, are recognizing their unlimited potential to use integrative design methods to make the world a better place,” explains Willem Van Lancker, RISD ’10 Graphic Design, one of the conference’s chief organizers.
What’s interesting about the RISD/Brown conference is that it reflects a larger global trend, both on the academic level and in all design professions. Not too long ago the design discussion was all about branding, brand differentiation, using design to elevate a brand above the “noise” in the marketplace. Design was focused on the physical “shape” of objects, albeit a brochure, a building, a chair or wayfinding system. The success of a design was evaluated on beauty, functionality and impact on the bottom line. These are still important considerations, but what is entering the dialog now is the role that design can, and must, play in solving some of the world’s most urgent problems. Design is not exempt from responsibility. It is not simply the final finishing touch before a product is released into the marketplace. Now the online digital tools exist to allow designers to work collaboratively and simultaneously with engineers, scientists, manufacturers, suppliers and others no matter where they are based in the world. Now the principles of sustainability and cradle-to-cradle planning have been standardized enough to eliminate excuses for not factoring them into every design.
It’s reassuring to note that the next generation of designers is looking beyond design as an aesthetic discipline to seeing it as a vehicle for social change. When asked why design students should care, why not simply focus on branding and designing cool consumer products, Van Lancker, speaking on behalf of the RISD/Brown conference organizers, responded, “…because we are moving into an era of responsibility and openness. I don’t think any of this is mutually exclusive anymore. By broadening the scope and breaking down the compartmentalization of ideas like branding and advertising, and welcoming concepts of integration, collaboration and synthesis into their work, designers are opening the door to getting involved with and serving an even bigger community. Students today have the opportunity to be role models with our ‘why not’ attitude and a passion that we can actually make a difference in the world while we are still in school. Any serious student today should keep issues of environmental and social design in mind — after all, it is our future.”