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10 Ways to Improve Your Design Practice

July 29, 2015

“Leadership is the capacity to translate vision into reality,” said American scholar Warren Bennis. His insightful statement was clearly demonstrated by the impact design leaders at this year’s What Design Can Do! (WDCD) conference. Over the course of two days, over 800 people converged on Amsterdam’s Stadsschouwburg theater to participate in the fifth annual event celebrating the impact of design on today’s most pressing issues. Nearly 20 practitioners – ranging from architects and graphic designers to chefs and researchers – presented their methods, theories, and projects to create positive social change.

Impact Design Hub captured ten of the best statements from leading practitioners during WDCD, who not only have a profound vision for the future but are working daily to make these visions a reality. We hope these inspire you to approach your design practice from a fresh perspective.


“You should not be bound to a particular type of design.”
Paul Hekkert

Professor of form theory and head of the Industrial Design Department at TU Delft, Paul Hekkert conducts research on the ways products impact human experience and behavior. Evaluating experiences from a ‘cross-sensory’ lens, Hekkert encouraged designers to not bind themselves to a particular type of design. Rather, designers should seek to maximize human wellbeing through creating appropriate solutions that combine science, knowledge and a modest degree of design.

WDCD quotes-02

“Stop designing and start thinking.”
Michael Johnson

Branding and identity designer Michael Johnson of London-based johnson banks has transformed his practice over the past ten years to serve ‘third sector’ clients (nonprofits, charities and social enterprises.) In his bold WDCD presentation, Johnson–who formerly designed record labels, magazines and fashion labels–proclaimed that “one poster cannot change the world” and urged designers to “stop designing and start thinking.” His small, 10-person firm designs for clients under the guise that the “point is not to be beautiful, but important” in order to make a significant impact.

WDCD quotes-03

“The nose helps you to understand things beyond what you would expect to understand.”
Sissel Tolaas

Norwegian artist, researcher and olfactory expert Sissel Tolaas gave an exhilarating presentation to the WDCD audience on a sense far too ignored in the design world: smell. Walking through funny and surprising exhibitions on city and bodily smells – including a version of her own body-scented soap used in China – Tolaas made the case for incorporating smell into design, especially given that smells stick in people’s memories for one year while visuals only remain for a third of that time.

WDCD quotes-04

“Ask not what a building is, but what it does.”
Michael Murphy

MASS Design’s co-founder Michael Murphy delivered an inspiring presentation on their approach to designing healthy buildings through “Lo-Fab” (i.e. locally fabricated) construction methods. With projects in Rwanda, Haiti, and now the US, MASS consistently takes a human-centered design approach down to the last detail, thinking through not only how the building will function for occupants but also how it contributes to the wellbeing and economic situation of the community surrounding it.

WDCD quotes-05

“Design can change your point of view – one poster can create a memory.”
Alejandro Magallanes

Countering Michael Johnson’s remark that “one poster cannot change the world,” Mexican graphic designer Alejandro Magallanes proved to the audience that graphic design can “change the world” one perspective at a time. Working primarily with social and cultural organizations, Magallanes creates provocative hand-drawn and written posters to illuminate issues involving women, minorities and children that leave strong and lasting visual impacts. His simple graphic “No Más Sangre” (No More Blood), designed in response to victims of Mexico’s war on organized crime, spread like wildfire and was used extensively in marches and campaigns to raise awareness and advocate for peace throughout the country.

WDCD quotes-06

“Sometimes you have to create a model to explain an idea.”
Diébédo Francis Kéré

German-trained Burkinabe architect Diébédo Francis Kéré of Kéré Architecture understands the need to use a variety of communication methods when designing with a range of clients. Working in both his native Burkina Faso and in Europe, Kéré shared the story of a project where building a model of a barrel arch–and then standing and jumping on top of it–transformed the understanding of local masons onthe strength and viability of the structure. Sometimes visual proof is what you need to demonstrate a new concept.

WDCD quotes-07

“Every object tells a story.”
Campana Brothers

Blurring the boundaries between design, art and ordinary products, Brazilian furniture designers Fernando and Humberto Campana aim to tell stories on current developments occurring in their native country with each object they design. The Campana brothers maintain a small, unassuming studio where they are able to develop designs by hand with discarded materials like carpet, broken plastic chairs, and stuffed toys. Although much of their furniture is priced for high-end clientele, they set a precedent for highlighting issues of waste, consumerism, and mass-production through design.

WDCD quotes-08

“People solve what we weren’t able to fix in the studio.”
Johan Karlsson

For nearly ten years Johan Karlsson, Head of Business Development for Better Shelter, has been working on the design and development of flat-pack shelters for refugees and humanitarian organizations. Partnered with UNHCR and the IKEA Foundation, Better Shelter tested their shelter design in the field before deploying the first 10,000 earlier this year. During their field test in an Ethiopian refugee camp, Karlsson and his team observed people making changes and improvisations to the shelter that they had yet to figure out in the studio. By building in time for in-field testing, they were able to learn from the people who would live in the shelters and improve the designs for the actual deployment.

WDCD quotes-09

“If you’re not willing to live in the shelter that you’re designing, you are not an architect.”
Cameron Sinclair

Making his second appearance on the WDCD stage, self-described eternal optimist Cameron Sinclair boldly proclaimed a new four-part agenda for designing for impact: 1] plan for nomadic communities; 2] design for impermanence; 3] build for adaptation; and 4] scale via a sharing economy. Central to these points was Sinclair’s statement on the willingness of architects to live in the places they design, which can easily translate to all scales of design. If it’s not something you would use or occupy, then don’t expect others to.

WDCD quotes-10

“We want to work for clients who are smarter than us so we learn something. And we want to work for nice people.”
Stefan Sagmeister

Closing WDCD 2015 was the renowned graphic designer and happiness researcher Stefan Sagmeister of New York-based Sagmeister & Walsh. Drawing on years of research into what makes people happy, Sagmeister showed how he has incorporated his learnings into daily life. For work, his team at Sagmeister & Walsh purposefully work with kind hearted clients that bring a high level of intellect to the table, which in turn makes him and his team happy to be at work. A pretty simple equation!

What’s your favorite quote? Which one can you easily implement in your practice? Tell us in the comments below!

The Pathways to Practice series continues next week with an interview with Biolite’s team on building a business in both the Global North and Global South. Subscribe to our weekly newsletter to have it sent straight to your inbox!

Image sources: Leo Veger for What Design Can Do!, R Cox for Better Shelter

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