“This congress is in exactly the right place at the right time,” said former Icograda president Rob Peters of Manitoba, as we walked through the CAFA gate this morning. “The epicenter of design is Eastern. What is being passed from the West to the East is design. They [the Chinese] are integrating it and will make it sustainable. We will end up learning from them.”
Right now, many of them are still eager to learn from us, and they packed Michael Rock’s morning session. Rock, partner at 2×4 in New York and professor of design at Yale, talked about the screen as cultural entity: how screens are depicted on TV and in films, the human in relation to the screen, and how we manipulate the windows and data on our own screens. He was joined on a panel by European and Chinese design professors. Very quickly, globalization became the theme. “The right solution to the problem is exactly the same no matter where you are,” said Edo Smitshuigzen of the Netherlands, explaining that a water bottle needs to be comfortable in one’s hand whether you are Dutch or Chinese. Rock disagreed, stating that too-diligent problem-solving can lead to bigger problems, like the way too-efficient harpoons decimated the whales. “The water bottle is a perfect example of the bigger problem,” I added from the audience, referring to the sea of blue-labeled bottles in the hall. “Is the only solution a plastic bottle sold by the Coca-Cola company? What if design students here develop a better delivery system for clean, fresh water? How and where can they sell it?” The students may have been seeing for the first time how respectful disagreement can lead to creative solutions.
After lunch, I attended the sessions of two designers I’d met at my first Icograda event, São Paolo Design Week in 2004. Ronald Shakespear of Argentina celebrated the 50th anniversary Diseño Shakespear with a video with a tango soundtrack and images of the colorful, clear signage that’s changed the landscape of Buenos Aires. “Strong signs are essential,” he emphasized. “Make it predictable. You must know where you will find the next sign and what it is telling you.” Kiko Farkas of Brazil educated the audience with a visual history of Brazil as a multicultural society (pictured at bottom). His refreshingly accessible presentation—no academic jargon or obscure references—gave the audience a real role model of what it means to be a designer: “Take two simple things that already exist and put them together in a new way.” He showed how he transforms images of birds, leaves, keys, and flowers into brilliant posters for the São Paulo symphony and other clients—geometric patterns undulating, morphing, becoming poetry and music on paper. “We play with everything that crosses our way,” he said.
As the day came to an end, Yoon Ho Seob of Korea showed how he gave up a job as creative director at an agency with big industrial clients to find happiness as a professor and artist doing self-directed environmental projects in a messy studio. “Now instead of Helvetica, I use handwriting,” he said. At the closing panel, the students in the audience showed how much they connected with Professor Seob. “Don’t be afraid to ask questions,” urged the moderator, David Grossman of Israel. And for the first time, they weren’t. Students stood up, took the mike, and asked questions. Long, thoughtful questions. A sea change in Chinese design education! Everyone who spoke at this conference commented on “Big Changes in China.” I have seen firsthand how Beijing has transformed itself in less than ten years: from hutongs to high-rises, from uniform zip-up jackets to individualistic outfits, from bicycles to cars. But seeing the students at this conference transformed in three days from polite listeners to curious participants, each with his or her own voice—wow. If “Xin,” the Icograda World Design Congress accomplished only this, it would be a great accomplishment.
The education conference begins tomorrow at CAFA, and many Congress presenters will be off to see the Great Wall and the Forbidden City. I’ll be spending the rest of the week in a smaller hotel among locals in the residential neighborhood where my son, advertising manager of one of China’s large Internet companies, and his girlfriend live. I’ll walk around, meet people, take pictures, buy vegetables, cook an American dinner for them (hmm, what should I make?) and they’ll cook a Chinese dinner for me. Wó bú yào zôu.