Design Indaba Talks 3If there was one thread that ran through the presentations at last week’s Design Indaba, it was that of human-centric design. The designer as rock star was definitely downplayed, and almost every speaker brought their A-game as far as making the world a better place, was concerned. We’ve pulled together a few highlights of those presentations that heralded this new wave of philanthropic designer…

On the opening day of the conference, Paloma Strelitz and James Binning, two members of Assemble, the architecture collective that won the 2015 Turner Prize, shared some examples of their community-minded work. What they do comes as close to urban activism as it does to architecture and involves designers, artists and members of the public.

Design Indaba Talks 1The duo said they only wanted to work on projects that supported the following activities: They were systematised, handmade, pragmatic, playful, generous and open-ended.

As they talked through some of their recent projects, including The Cineroleum, Folly For A Flyover and their Turner Prize winning work in Granby Four Streets, Liverpool, the audience were reminded of the way in which Assemble are able to bring the manmade closer to the man. The urban environment becomes a playground and a place of public participation and pride. Creativity and collective action leads to change and in their world formal design takes a back seat when it’s about creating social infrastructure.

Philosopher architect Sou Fujimoto“Our projects are small scale and local but address bigger questions about what it means to inhabit a city. Our aim is to give residents tools to inform how they would like to live,” they said.

Christian Benimana, an architect and programme manager for MASS Design Group in Rwanda, said that before starting any project a designer had to decide what his mission was and an architect had to learn to think beyond the building.

Benimana believes that every architecture project should have a transcendant idea: how can a hospital’s building better heal its patients, how can a school’s structure help the students learn.

Design Indaba Talks 2After their work on the Butaro Hospital in Northern Rwanda, the designers at MASS realised that the architecture of a place can have a profound effect on the users. The hospital provided a dignified space for the patients to heal and seeing its effect made the architects at MASS determined to have same positive impact with all of their work.

Architecture graduate Clara Mar Hernández López from Spain shared some of her graduate work, including on the restoration of certain buildings. She is a passionate recycler of buildings and preaches creating something special out of their ordinary that already exists – not rebuilding it.

Philosopher architect Sou Fujimoto from Japan believes that an architect should not define spaces by their functions: but should instead allow the user to shape their own experience. Fujimoto shared some of his otherworldly body of work, including a toilet with glass walls so the user can appreciate the garden outside, his cloud-like Serpentine Pavilion, and a new project called Mille Arbres in Paris.

Vera de Pont pop up coatInnovative designers Maxwell Mutanda and Safia Qureshi from Studio [D] Tale named their talk “Breaking the Echo Chamber”. They shared stories of how as designers and city-dwellers we all have to learn to be custodians of our cities and find innovative solutions to problems. In their work they have given structure to the informal transport systems in Harare, Zimbabwe and have launched a campaign to reduce paper cup waste in London with their new sharing design, Cup Club.

One of our favourites was Vera de Pont, a Dutch fashion designer who is studying a master’s in future fashion. She shared a project where she created a cutout or pop up coat that the buyer could buy and then cut out at home without need for sewing. She believes that one day fashion could be downloadable and open source, and where designers become facilitators that guide the customer.

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