Q&A: This Designer Is Driving the Creative Community to Solve the World’s Problems

A conversation with Richard Van Der Laken

The founder of What Design Can Do on why design can change the world.
Getty Images

AMSTERDAM, Netherlands—When Richard Van Der Laken first had the idea to start the “What Design Can Do” conference seven years ago, he wanted to find a way for designers to come together and change the perception around design. He felt that designers were looked at as people who created pretty, exclusive things for the few who had the means to afford it, but what Van Der Laken really wanted to do was show how design could really make a difference in the world.

He founded his own design agency here in Amsterdam with partner Pepijn Zurburg in 1995, called De Designpolitie, but in 2010 decided to start What Design Can Do with a few other members of the creative community. Over the years the conference has grown as it is now held twice a year, once in Amsterdam and once in Sao Paolo. While last year’s conference focused on the growing refugee crisis, Van Der Laken and his team landed on climate change as its next course of action.

Adweek sat down with Van Der Laken at Amsterdam’s annual What Design Can Do conference to talk about what good design looks like, what young creatives should know and why climate change should be top of mind for the creative community.

Adweek: Why did you start What Can Design Do seven years ago and what was the mission of the conference at that time?

Richard Van Der Laken: I’m a designer myself, a graphic designer. Seven years ago I started What Design Can Do from the perspective that here in the Netherlands design is such a part of Dutch culture–it’s such a crucial part in our country. The government has been pushing design and creativity at large for decades, but still we as designers have the feeling that design is often perceived as something nice or exclusive. That’s very often important because we want to surround ourselves with beautiful stuff but as graphic designers we also feel there is so much more. Design is so much more than just a beautiful chair or a nice poster. It can help addressing all kinds of societal issues. It is part of society so it is also part of the discussion around all of these topics. We felt the best way to do that is to bring people together so we started a conference here in the Netherlands where we do not focus on Dutch design or Dutch designers but we bring the whole creative community on a global scale here not to discuss nice chairs but to discuss topics that are at hand.

Nowadays you see that engagement, addressing all kinds of societal issues is more on the agenda of many organizations, companies, government, citizens, consumers. So in that sense I think it was the right moment to start.

Why focus on climate change for 2017?
We have been addressing all kinds of societal issues for the last seven years. Last year we focused on one of the biggest crises we had, here in Europe, and that was the refugee crisis. That stirred up all kinds of reactions. We also launched a challenge around refugees, so we invited designers and creatives worldwide to come up with ideas and proposals, alternative for this crisis. We got a lot of reactions—over 600 people came up with proposals from 70 countries and we did that together with the Ikea Foundation. Because it was such a success we continued a discussion with the Ikea Foundation and together decided if you want to take the next step then we should focus on climate change because it’s so omnipresent. Here in the Netherlands there is organization that is responsible for the implementation of the Paris Agreement. We just had elections and climate change wasn’t a topic of discussion at all. So in fact it’s also a great moment to ring the bell and put it on the agenda and say if these guys aren’t going to do it then we are going to do it.

How do you go about changing the stigma around designer as people who only creates beautiful things?
As always, first you have to create awareness. Creating awareness can only happen if you show best practices and make people aware that this is what design can actually do. Look around at some projects and design agencies and look at the affect they can have on people, behavior, the environment, whatever. We always have to continue to do that, but with What Design Can Do we have been doing it now with this event, our website, publications, etc. We also have to redeem the promises that are in the title [of this conference]. If you say What Design Can Do you also have to show that in a way. For us that was also a reason to start this challenge idea because suddenly you make it real and tangible. People come up with ideas and you can quite literally show, well, this is what design can do.

Last year you asked people to help solve the refugee crisis. What are some ideas people had that you think are really promising and illustrate the power of design?
There’s one project by an Iranian lady living and working in Milan. She came up with a project that’s called AGRIShelter. It’s temporary housing based on working with haystacks. It’s cheap, it’s easy to get, it’s light. She made a very simple construction that you can use to build temporary housing on empty places in cities. She started together with the University in Milan, prototyping this concept, and now she is in contact with the Municipality of Milan because they are really interested. If this prototype is successful then the Municipality of Milan wants to use it in several locations in the city of Milan. That I think is a starting point because this is a really good example of design that is easy to upscale because of course you could replicate it in the Netherlands, the U.S. or wherever.

Something completely different is Reframe Refugees, which is a concept of a photo agency run by refugees. Images in the media are dominated by professional photographers who shoot pictures of refugees, but everyone has a mobile phone, even refugees. They take a lot of photos with their iPhones. The idea is to make a platform where refugees can upload these images and the media can buy them. That’s still in a very conceptual phase. What they are now facing is how are we really going to make it happen, how are we going to reach out to refugees because they are on the run. Are they willing and able to upload and share these images? But at the core it’s a very interesting idea.

Do you believe that the work you’re doing and the ideas that people come up with through these challenges really have the power to solve some of the biggest problems the world faces?
We are just a very small piece of the pie but yes, of course, I have a genuine feeling that we can make a contribution. The whole core of design or creativity at large is that designers and creatives are always people who do not see problems, but see challenges or opportunities. It’s a core attitude. It’s in your veins. You want to make things and make things tangible. Everyone is always about ideas, which is important, but you also must be able to translate that into real products and real services. In that sense I think the role of designers is always extremely important because you always need it.

Any idea or piece of communication you’ve seen recently that’s been really inspiring to you?
One of our speakers Naresh Ramchandani from firm Pentagram and he did a whole communication piece called Do The Green Thing. It’s all about awareness. Then there’s a Dutch designer called Christien Meindertsma. She developed a completely sustainable material called flax and she made a flax chair. She developed this material made from grass and she ale designed a chair that is made out of one piece of this material so there is no waste at all.

What advice would you give to a young creative or designer that wants to make a difference?
I can imagine on big topics like the refugee challenge or climate change people feel powerless. With What Design Can Do and the challenges we develop I hope that we give a platform and channel for people to unleash that creativity so you are not powerless anymore. My advice is join us and the challenges we launch, but there are also other organizations that do that. You can have your own practice and do this work at your own company but also step in and work on one of these challenges that are floating around in cyberspace.

What makes a great idea, an idea that can help change the world for the better?
To be specific on the Climate Action Challenge I think it’s really important that when you talk about climate change you don’t make it too big. It’s really important to make it small. Think small, act big. Many solutions are also local so for example if you, together with your neighbors put solar panels on your room, suddenly you are independent from your energy supplier. That gives you power. We hope people focus on local solutions.