Designers, architects and industry leaders who spoke at this year’s Business of Design Week Summit made it clear that designing spaces, which are intended for long-term use, should not only speak to time-specific interests and trends, it should speak to the needs and daily lives of the community that it serves.
TEXT: Kate Lok
IMAGES: Courtesy of Hong Kong Design Centre
There are a couple of things that a year of battling the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted: one would be that drastically reducing carbon footprints and, consequently, slowing climate change is in fact possible; and two is bringing urgency for the need to re-evaluate how we experience the world around us. The acute decrease in foreign travel, a heightened sense for hygiene, and the blurring of boundaries between professional and private spaces, have all caused a paradigm shift in our lifestyle.
Business of Design Week (BODW), Asia’s flagship event on design, innovation and brands organised by Hong Kong Design Centre (HKDC), concluded its 2020 edition last week. Its highlight programme—the BODW Summit, held its first-ever hybrid-live edition from 3 to 5 December and featured back-to-back discussions between local and international architects, designers and industry leaders sharing their vision of the future of design. The summit was simulcast live on television and social media, with overseas speakers joining on-stage discussions in real time via Zoom. Guided by the theme “VISION 20/21”, conversations focused on finding clarity in times of uncertainty, an unintentionally well-timed proposition as Hong Kong confronts a fourth wave of COVID-19 cases and re-emergence of stricter social distancing rules.
As the late American designer and architect Charles Eames once said, “recognising the need is the primary condition for design.” A core focus of the discussions at this year’s Summit is on the human value of design. With the rapid shift in our lifestyles brought about by the global health crisis, it’s more important than ever to understand the human perspective—the desires and motivation—behind the creation of products, spaces and services. And to achieve that, Tim Brown, Chair of design and consulting firm IDEO, thinks that there is a need for radical change in the inclusivity of the design process as a whole, ‘‘I’m interested less in the whats of design’s future than I am in the who, and the how. We must also rethink who is designing. Design thinking has done much to spread design and make it available to many more people.”
Designing for Social Impact
In a panel titled “What is Next for Design—Now, Near and Far”, Brown addressed, via Zoom, the importance of communal effort in the design process. “The truth is, much of what we’re being asked to design today is too common. Designing from a viewpoint of natural systems means we appreciate that we can never fully understand the complexity of the system.”
He further explains, “We still assume that design is done by a relatively small group on behalf of users, or consumers. I think that this has to change, especially when we’re designing complex systems, or experiences around health, education, or financial services. We will find ways to design with communities of users. We will design platforms that communities can adapt to, to meet their particular needs.”
Echoing Brown’s sentiment, Patrick Bruce, Founding Director of Hong Kong-based architecture practice The Oval Partnership Ltd, shared his thoughts towards a more egalitarian, inclusive approach to design. He argues that “Design is too important to be left to the professionals, we need to engage the people who ultimately are going to be using, managing and maintaining.” Rather, he points out, “It’s less about the object that comes out of the design process and more about how we put an integrated team together from the grassroots right up to the top to evolve products, systems environments, that are beneficial to society at large.”
Redefining A Sense of Place
The proliferation in the intersecting meaning of spaces, the blurring of lines between designated functions within a space—be that offices morphing into our private spaces, the hybridity of virtual and physical experiences, or the importance of safe, communal spaces—was another hot topic among speakers.
Marcus Fairs, Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Dezeen, spoke remotely in the panel “Design Culture & Creativity for Future Cities” from his London office, sharing an interesting observation he made from months of lockdown. “The picture I’m painting here is not of designers redesigning the city. And not of governments redesigning the city. But of people improvising and redesigning their lives around the restrictions that have been imposed on them.”
Fairs went on to describe the scenarios he observed about the city and how the imposing social restrictions have brought about a new way of living among Londoners. “I was walking back from the office last night and I [saw] every third house, more or less, had a home office set up by the window. A 100 years ago, all of these houses in my neighbourhood, which [are] Victorian, would have sewing machines. Now they’ve become offices and broadcast studios.”
He also elaborated on the importance of the virtual world as an alternative community during times of isolation. “People were craving information. They wanted to know what was going on, but they also wanted entertainment. They also wanted to feel like a part of the community because they were all isolated at home,” said Fairs. “So the information provision aspects of journalism became super, super important. We were a lifeline to people. We were their community. We were their social life when they couldn’t do anything else.”
Furthermore, in light of the overall more eremitic lifestyle and deprivation of freedom, we seem to have turned our attention to all the little things in life—as cliché as it sounds—perhaps as a type of coping mechanism from the challenges forced upon us by the pandemic. The increased sense of awareness for everything that surrounds us allows for greater appreciation of the smaller details often overlooked in the daily hustle of busy city dwellers—like the shape of shadows casted on the walls at a certain time of day, or taking in the morning breeze when you open up the windows in the morning.
“I think the objects that we surround ourselves with have increased importance and I take solace in anything that’s handmade and that shows history and human touch,” noted Suzy Annetta, Editor-in-Chief of Design Anthology, in the same panel. “I think they heighten my sense of enjoyment when I’m using that object. And some days that’s as close as it gets to other human interaction.”
Community-Centred, Empathetic Design
Earlier in the year, when COVID-19 spread globally and became officially recognised by the World Health Organization as a pandemic, designers were quick to churn out creative responses—for example, designers pitching in to make open-sourced face cover designs, companies quickly jumping on the train to manufacture ventilators to support health institutions, and more. The amount of innovation that we saw emerging from the times of crisis was extraordinary, more importantly, this “hacker-ethic” brought out an overwhelming desire for collective altruism present in times that lack interaction.
A panel titled “Creative Placemaking in Asia” emphasised the importance of communication and interaction in finding common ground within a community. “Memory is something that we stress a lot on, and from that memory, we come to understand actually there is a narrative of the city,” pointed out Kevin Siu, Co-founder and Director of architecture studio AaaM Architects. “We try to align that story with how people understand it, in [what we call] a ‘synchronisation of the reactions’. We [used to] always come from a perspective from a designer, but then we soon realize that there is always a variety of feelings, of emotions, and understanding of our city.”
Sarah Mui, Co-founder & Design Director of multidisciplinary urban planning and architecture firm One Bite Design Studio Limited, shared this sense of affinity, even if it sometimes involves a difference of opinion. “I do believe that architecture creates the space, but [it’s the] people who enliven the place.” Citing her firm’s experience in planning public spaces in Hong Kong, including a recent revamp of an outdoor basketball court at a public housing estate in the New Territories, she shared the challenges that can arise from engaging with a diverse community. “Honestly, some people don’t like to talk. Sometimes conflict is good, … and conversation can actually evolve. I think being able to inspire the public or the users is a very important stance in design thinking.”
To densely populated cities such as Hong Kong, where space has always been a luxury commodity, it might be the right time to rethink how we approach urban design. While grounding design culture is still a challenge in this traditionally business-driven city, the rapid shift in human behaviour and lifestyle sparked by the COVID-19 pandemic are blatant reminders of our need to adapt to a new normal, and that putting systems into place is as important, if not more, than the constant drive to innovate and create for the sake of profit. While we should be careful with over-romanticising about the need to restart, or blindly turning a new page, there is perhaps one thing that the past year has made clear—that is, the world is constantly adapting and changing, and so should the practice of design.
About Hong Kong Design Centre Hong Kong Design Centre (HKDC) is a non-governmental organisation, and was founded in 2001 as a strategic partner of the HKSAR Government in establishing Hong Kong as an international centre of design excellence in Asia. The public mission of HKDC is to promote wider and strategic use of design and design thinking to create business value and improve societal well-being, with the aim of advancing Hong Kong as an international design centre in Asia. Learn more at www.hkdesigncentre.org