Imagine this: It is the third week of August 2015 in the midst of a brilliant Pacific Northwest summer. Eight hundred designers have gathered in Seattle; they have come here from countries as distant as Australia, Brazil, India, Senegal and South Korea and from cities as near as Portland and Vancouver. Across the city in numerous pop-up studios, small groups of designers join with select experts to tackle some of the most challenging problems that face us, such as the climate crisis, resource depletion, species extinction, child hunger, unchecked urban migration, our widening societal divide and a rapidly graying planet. As the best design-minds collaborate intensely for four inspiring days, not only do they devise creative solutions, but they also prototype new ways that design will need to be practiced to remain vital and relevant. They work together against the backdrop of a city that has seen its share of explosive growth and precipitous declines tied to industries like logging, aerospace, software and biotech, each cycle making the city more inventive and resilient. At each turn, it is an entrepreneurial frontier-spirit that has endured to carry Seattle to its current stature as a world creative-capital.
Industrial design’s origins lie in the mechanization of production a hundred years ago and the rise of consumer societies. Although the core of design as it is taught and practiced has remained much the same, each year we move away at a dizzying pace from being industrial societies based on manufacturing toward knowledge societies based on information. We now interact with our environments in a hands- and eyes-free manner through touch, voice and gesture. We live in a world that has ambient intelligence powered by billions of sensors, trillions of processors and software embedded in virtually everything that surrounds us. The broad availability of three-dimensional printing allows single products to be manufactured cost effectively, undermining economies of scale and hastening the demise of mass markets. A robotic arm that directly attaches to skeleton, muscles and nerves, allowing a recipient to operate it with her mind, is no longer the stuff of science fiction. More important advances now come through open innovation by small bands of creative people than from the secretive research labs of large corporations. The world’s wealth has been concentrated in the US and Europe for the past several centuries, but Asia is set to become the new center as early as next year. For the first time on planet Earth, there will soon be more old people than young, and more humans will be crammed into a few megacities than spread across numerous small towns. Colossal climate shifts predicted to take centuries are now only decades out, and massive social transformations that took decades to unfold now erupt in months. This is not a time to be bystanders to the tsunami of change shaping our world. This is not a time for design, an endeavor fundamentally tied to the future, to be locked into practices of the past.
This was the subject of passionate discussion among a group of designers gathered for a conference of the Industrial Designers Society of America (IDSA) in Boston two years ago. IDSA is the largest design society in the world and represents professionals in product design, interaction design, human factors, ergonomics, design research, design management, universal design and related design fields around the world. What began as many small conversations on the urgent need to make design relevant evolved into an ambitious project to bring together the talent of the global design-community to bootstrap the reinvention of design as a craft and profession, and I was entrusted to guide this endeavor.
IDSA was founded in 1965, and next April it celebrates a half century of achievement. The capstone event of IDSA’s yearlong 50th anniversary celebration will be the annual International Design Conference that will take place in Seattle in August 2015. This milestone offers the perfect moment to begin the project of reshaping design for the next half century. Seattle, a nexus of the East and West, a garage where the digital world is being created, a place that has long held nature in reverence, and a city in the midst of a renaissance, offers the perfect crucible for the project. Once considered a sleepy town isolated on the Pacific Rim, Seattle is now the cauldron where arts, architecture, creativity, music, digital worlds, biotechnology, maker culture, multiculturalism, entrepreneurial energy and citizen engagement are coming together like few other places anywhere in the world. And it is the same irreverent, energetic frontier-spirit that led to Seattle’s formation that will propel the bold reinvention of design today. The 21st-century design revolution will begin in Seattle. Imagine that.