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Design that brings change: Interview with Ingrid van der Wacht

Written by:
Bartłomiej Jankowski
Ingrid van der Wacht

Is the future going to be perfect? And why is designing the future is a task for all of us? These are the topics we talked about with Ingrid van der Wacht, a facilitator and communication specialist who has been working for the Dutch Design Foundation (organizer of Dutch Design Week) for years, and a juror in this year's make me! contest organized by Łódź Design Festival.

Bartłomiej Jankowski: The context of our conversation is Łódź Design Festival. The motto of this year’s edition is “Future Perfect”. As the organizers of the festival said, we are going to try to predict what our future may look like. How do you imagine the future? Are you more pessimistic or optimistic in this regard?

Ingrid van der Wacht: The “Future Perfect”… What is perfect of course? I don’t think I believe in perfectionism. The liveliness and beauty in things comes from what is not perfect. That’s my personal opinion. Well, everything in life is subject to ageing, usage… It becomes more beautiful, whereas it’s maybe not really perfect anymore.

So how do I imagine the future? I would like to imagine a flourishing future for every one of us, meaning that I hope we all can come together and step up for our own wishes and needs and also really think about each other and achieve things together. Maybe if you have a different opinion, other political preferences – as long as it doesn’t hurt other people – I think that it should be possible. Some people are more conservative, some people are more avantgarde, but I think the future should be something we create together. When we can really create together, and that’s the most complex thing, then I am optimistic – because then I can imagine that together we can achieve the changes that are needed these days. We need to really combat the climate crisis, some people are saying even we’re almost having climate war. We need to peacefully stand together as inhabitants of the planet.

In general, we need to find solutions for current problems that are very often connected to climate change, to inequality you might say. When we work on that – it will of course go step by step – but we also need some drastic actions. Then I’m positive.

If we think of the future as a common project, then what role do design and designers have to play?

I believe that design can play a very good role because I believe in collaborative design. So creating together the solutions so there’s more ownership also by different people – so people in government, people in business, researchers, people in general understanding design, using design, thinking at the end. I think design can play an excellent role there. We really have capabilities to bring people together, to create the circumstances to enhance conversations and imagination. Conversations are very important when it comes to co-creation. Design can also prototype the future, prototype the possible solutions, thus facilitating these collaborative creation processes.

Do you think designers should take for example social responsibility, climate responsibility? What about designing simply beautiful objects without thinking about the traces they leave behind? You think it's unethical these days?

That’s not good indeed not to think about the trace. I think the basic principle is: I’m going to make something, I’m going to use a good material, to reuse something. A designer should also think of what people can do when they are no longer using it. As a designer you have a big influence – in designing for circularity, or keeping things forever. You can really design a positive impact. But of course in my opinion is not it is not unethical to make beautiful objects. Beauty is also what people need. When you design, you can also make beautiful, artistic, more frivolous things. But they should be made wisely, in a sustainable way, so that circularity is possible. Designers and producers can make concepts, products or systems that can be kept for longer or put to another place. That’s also important. Designers such as Kiki van Eijk & Joost van Bleiswijk who make beautiful products for interiors. As they are made with high quality materials in a labour intensive way, they are expensive, but you will keep them for a entire lifetime or you can give them to your children. I think people need beauty. But I would say it’s just one of the pillars – so it’s beauty, sustainability and inclusivity. Design should also be inclusive.

Do you think that we could talk about some general changes that have happened in recent years in design and design industry? I mean the way we think about design, we practice design…

I think that people are more aware in general that we have a role to play. But I think the awareness is not widely disseminated. Designers that graduate nowadays are all really parting from the principles – is it sustainable, is it circular, am I solving a problem, am I contributing to the sustainable development goals? For many Dutch designers that I know it’s very important, it’s really one of the starting points. In the Netherlands it’s a very important principle. Not important enough yet, I think. When you look at the food sector for instance. There are many designers nowadays that work on food design and one of the things they’re focusing on is how you can you reuse side streams in food processing, how you can design sustainable packaging or another way of offering food in retail. They also look into animal wellbeing. Designers are very conscious about the role they can play. I think many of them are also practicing social and environmental responsibility.

Designers who are now entering the labor market have grown up in times when the climate crisis has been one of the dominant topics in the public discourse. Do you think this is a generational change?

Of course we have already known for quite a long time that change is needed. In 2021, Dutch Design Week’s theme was „Greater numbers” from the report of the Club of Rome that already wrote in 1972, so over 50 years ago, “The Limits to growth”. They were really warning: “we cannot go on”. And since that time you could say that growth of consumption and our material needs (or you could maybe say material wishes) have only increased. Now we’re really getting to the point of no return. It’s very urgent that we need to change things and of course some political measures have already been agreed upon, but now they also need to be implemented. I think that’s normal that more people are looking much more into it and this generation, more than the previous ones – that should have done the same you might say, but they haven’t. I don’t know, maybe they have been blinded by the capitalistic light.

What in your opinion defines a good design nowadays? What are the qualities a good project should have?

It should bring a positive impact, let’s say, so also maybe make people more conscious that they should reduce consumption or maybe that they can reuse or regenerate things. I think that’s what design should be about nowadays. It should also be conscious of the limited resources that we have on the planet. It’s all about sustainability and circularity. The challenges in building industry are immense, in fashion they are immense, in food industry they are immense… It’s more like rethinking the whole system in many ways. There are a lot of challenges to be answered, automotive design for instance. We are sometimes worried about the economy but it’s also true that it can bring new economic opportunities, all these new solutions, products. Here I can mention a project of social designer Fides Lapidaire that I really like. It’s called “Shit Sandwich”. Fides created a food truck in which she was selling sandwiches, but you could also use the integrated bathroom. She wanted to protest against the fact that we flush away urine and feces which are really important nutrients for our soil and in the meanwhile somewhere on the planet we’re digging for phosphates to have artificial fertilizers. Fides is also discussing this “harvesting” of nutrients with building industry, architects, governments to have new, or modernized solutions implemented in housing projects.

You will be part of the jury during this year's edition of make me! contest for young designers organized by Łódź Design Festival. You also have many years of experience as a judge. Do you feel the responsibility?

I’m not a designer myself. Of course I have a lot of experience in the field of design and knowledge about what’s going on. From this point of view I think I can make certain judgements. I think always as a judge you will have a certain subjectivity. It’s very difficult to be completely objective I think. For me it is important to have a kind of framework of criteria and I think this framework is also supported by many people that are thinking about how we can achieve green transition. So this framework helps me to see whether I can really think this project really serves a purpose in these days and also whether it’s really well designed - it is appealing, it’s functional etc. Of course I feel the responsibility too. It’s also very important how designers present the project, if they can explain the idea behind the project. For me it’s also important to know that someone can really play a good role in the world as a designer - that they have the right knowledge, the right set of skills and also the right views on things.

What tips would you give to designers who are taking their first steps in their professional career or are searching for their own design path?

There are designers who want to start their own studio, there are designers who want to work for companies. I think you should know what suits you best. I think when you have for example a graduation project and you put a lot of energy into it, it’s good to show it somewhere, to get feedback from the audience and experts. I think that’s a good way also to start your career. I recommend taking part in graduation shows for example, also contests give you an opportunity to get professional feedback from the outside world. It’s really helpful and can also make you think critically about what you make. When you take part in a contest, you have to be able to motivate it, check out if you respond to the criteria of the competition. So my advice first of all is just “to go outside with your project”. I’m very curious about this year’s make me! contest. I really look forward to seeing the most impactful, unique and outstanding projects.

The make me! international design competition organized by the Łódź Design Festival is one of the most pioneering events in Europe created for designers who take their first steps in professional careers. Applications for the 16th edition of the competition can be sent only until March 22, 2023. The winners will be presented during the final ceremony at this year's Łódź Design Festival. The prize pool is PLN 50,000!

You can find the application form, competition criteria and jury composition at https://lodzdesign.com/makeme/ 

Łódź Design Festival 2023 was created with the participation of the Łódź Events Center and the City of Łódź.

By Naser Nader Ibrahim

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