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.
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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.