The years of the competition-driven, unpurchased idea-giving, and endless anticipation for the phone to ring deserves to be a page in history.
It often seems that for the last decade, tech firms have done a better job of advocating for design than more traditional design disciplines of architecture, landscape and graphic design. Large companies like Apple and smaller start-ups like Fitbit have distinguished themselves and succeeded by keeping design at the core of their business model. Wells Riley, a business writer and consultant, advocates for the hand-in-hand relationship of design and entrepreneurship. His sleek infographic-filled website discusses how design is more than a logo or website—“it’s a state of mind. It’s an approach to a problem. It’s how you’re going to kick your competitor’s ass”. If the business sector has fully embraced the power of design thinking, it should open up doors for the design field to join the conversation and learn from the creative financing and market networking of the twenty-first century start-up.
Scale/Scope, a symposium at PennDesign, brought together a diverse group of designers who are all attempting to expand the scope of their design practice. Collectively, they have come to call themselves “proactive practitioners,” often proposing projects rather than solely responding to clients. Presenters shared work on a variety of scales that collectively begin to reimagine design culture and explore this generative term. Here are some of the ideas that came out of the event.
The proactive practitioner comes in all shapes and sizes. From small, young, two-person practices to giant firms like West 8 and Gensler, many are focused on bringing social and ecological issues to the forefront of their projects. In this setting, the designers argue, social impact and ecological justice are legitimate benchmarks for design, presenting an opportunity for architects who strive to create better communities and ecological consciousness through ethical, rather than purely market-driven work. The proactive practice stems from an interest in issue-based design that may not have a direct client base to foot the bill.
Heavy Trash, an anonymous design group, built a staircase over the locked gate of a public park. This project shows how suggestive design can call attention to the problems of our built environment. Image via gray_matter(s).
Proactive projects work on many scales. Many of the projects shown at the conference were small, one-off, guerilla-style projects that land into the public realm to highlight contradiction, spur conversation, and respond to the climate. These projects typically represent a way for young designers to speak, as much as they provide meaningful change for communities or users. Many are creative, lean and strategic. Examples include the highly regarded Park-ing Day Parklet by Rebar in the Bay, and lesser known projects like the PPlanter by Hyphae Design Lab. The PPlanter is a response to the health and public facility condition, or lack thereof, in the impoverished Tenderloin area. This public toilet module, filtered and made private by large plastic planters and bamboo shoots, intendeds to be deployed on streets with no public facilities. Rebar and Hyphae Design Lab designed not just small installation projects but polemics. With Park-ing Day, Rebar took a guerrilla installation project—a modest deployment of public space utilizing a clever legal loophole—and found ways to scale it. Rebar recognized the opportunity to extend the conversation around their hijacked parking spot into a global initiative. For them, the answer was not to invest in the isolated event, but build a larger network that extended through a relational icon, the omnipresent parking spot.