Opinion: more and more design weeks take place around the world each year, but as brands flock in to woo designers, these are in danger of losing sight of their purpose, warns Lucas Verweij.
This year, over a hundred design fairs and festivals will take place around the world. We now have more "design weeks" than there are weeks in a year. Attendance is apparently growing – there is an endless appetite for more. But as an industry, we must ask ourselves if this growth is a blessing or a curse.
The "Queen of the Fairs" lives in Milan: the Salone del Mobile is still, inarguably, the most influential design fair. With the most contributing designers, producers, exhibitions and press, the fair functions in the design world as the start of the new year.
Product introductions are calibrated to make their launch here – not making the date will often lead to an entire year delay in the development of a design.
Over the year, a huge peripheral program has sprung up around the fair, with satellite exhibitions, talks, and experimental design showcases. This has broadened her appeal immensely, and also opened the door to the massive marketing and branding industry – with no consistent rule of control about brand presence.
Designers readily complain about the overload of commercial activity. Jasper Morrison speaks of "Salone del Marketing" as he's encouraged to do more and more for the press and a growing number of public appearances each year. The intrusion of branding and marketing, selling personalities over design, has become like an annoying commercial break that interrupts a good film. When there are too many commercial breaks in a film you end up not watching it all.
According to brand theory, acceptance by the design community is the best start for a broader acceptance over time, hence more brands want to be associated with design. But the connection to creativity and design is often forced – three new colours on a 50-year-old percolator being presented as "new designs". Sometimes this just feels brutal.
Brands organise designer parties and extra curricular activities to stand out in the scene. This is not exclusive to Milan, but it is amplified at big design weeks.
Another cunning way to connect with the design world is to give stuff away. Copious numbers of drinks, brochures, and eatables are now handed out at design fairs. As a result, I recently sat in an unsolicited whiskey tasting during Design Indaba, in Cape Town. In Milan there is always somewhere to get free booze from a brand that wants to be perceived as the "designer" gin or vodka.
The host city is literally trampled under foot. All of the marketing efforts that surround the design festivals create an oddly temporary gentrification process. In Milan, areas of the city that in the past provided exhibition space for upcoming designers have built a reputation for being fashionable. This has seen them transformed into branding zones packed with standardised brand presentations.
Displays by telecom providers, car manufacturers, and the food industry are materialising in spaces that, a year before, were occupied by innovative design studios. Serious curation is needed here to defend a sense of quality. An anti-gentrification policy, as being used in cities like Berlin, could be usefully implemented by fair organisers.
Local governments also have a vested interest in protecting design weeks from becoming too brand orientated. Usually, municipalities are directly involved in the organisation of design weeks to support the local creative economy.
The economist Richard Florida first demonstrated the economical importance of this group with his publication The Rise of the Creative Class. His argument that metropolitan regions with a "creative class" exhibit a higher level of economic development has recently been developed further by Anthony Townsend’s book Smart Cities. Both publications have been very influential among local authorities, adding fuel to the argument for municipal support of creativity.
Take Reykjavik as an example. For the last seven years the city's DesignMarch festival has been run as a joint effort between the design community and the local government. The role of such a festival is primarily to empower the local creative scene, to strengthen the vitality of the city, and to learn from each other. By encouraging designers to mingle and exhibit their work with each other, this type of self-help group propels the design field forward. During the most recent edition, the president of Iceland invited design journalists and members of the public into his own house to emphasise his support for the local design industry. How much more moral support can you ask for as a creative in Reykjavik?
Meanwhile, at larger events like Dutch Design Week in Eindhoven, design presentations are migrating towards entertainment. The general public has become the major stakeholder here – the number of visitors has risen to 215,000, more than the entire population of the city it takes place in. Designers are not presenting to an industry or to professional peers, but rather to a general audience.
It's hard to tell whether this has happened because the designers that show there have a different mentality – showing work that is intended to spark a wider dialogue beyond the object – or that it has started attracting a certain kind of designer and project because of the demographic.
But if a fair becomes about the public rather than the industry, it seems to stop attracting manufacturers and, in turn, designers stop trying to appeal to them. In short, they stop creating anything commercial and instead focus on social design, experience design and conceptual design. For this generation of designers, is the connection to the manufacturing industry no longer the ultimate goal?
The other side of this is a lack of peer criticism. Instead, projects become increasingly judged by social media shares and likes, by blog posts and public popularity – like a Mail Online headline.
But professional criticism is vital to the young and ever-changing profession that design is. Similarly, the dilution of design innovation by parasite brand and marketing strategies will have a grave influence on the events of the future. Festivals could easily drift off and become interchangeable consumer fairs, with a little spice of creativity. Let’s hope it won't get that far.
Lucas Verweij has been teaching at schools of design and architecture around Europe for over 20 years. He was director of a master's programme in architecture and initiated a masters course in design. He is currently professor at the Kunsthochschile Weißensee and teaches master's students at Design Academy Eindhoven. He has initiated and moderated various seminars devoted to designing design education.