Over a hundred design fairs and festivals are taking place around the world. We now have more “designweeks" than there are weeks in a year. The omnipresent branding activities that come along resemble an annoying commercial break while watching a good film. With all festivals growing in attendance, we must ask ourselves if that growth is a blessing or a curse?
The 'Queen of the Fairs' lives in Milan; the Salone del Mobile is the most influential design fair. With the most contributing designers, producers, exhibitions and press, the fair functions in the design world as the ‘New Year.’ Product introductions are calibrated to make their launch here, not making the date will lead to an entire year delay in the development of a design.
‘Salone di Marketing’
The fair, with the endless peripheral program, has broadened her appeal immensely, opening a door to the massive marketing and branding industry. Designers readily complain about the overload of commercial activities. Jasper Morrison speaks of "Salone di Marketing,” as he does more and more tiring press and public performances each year. It mimics the annoying commercial break while watching a good film, and as we all know, when there are to many commercial breaks in a film you end up not watching it all.
According to brand-theory, acceptance in design circles is the best start for a broader acceptance over time; hence more brands want to be associated with design. The connection to creativity and design very often has to be brutally forced; three new colors on a 50-year-old percolator being presented as ‘new designs.’ Some brands organize designer parties and extra curricular activities to standout in the scene. Another cunning way to connect with the design world is to give stuff away; copious amounts of drinks, brochures, and eatables are now being handed out at design fairs. As a result I recently sat in an unsolicited whiskey tasting during Design Indaba, in Cape Town. Or in Milan there is always somewhere to get free Gin from a brand that wants to be perceived as the ‘designer-gin.’
Meanwhile the city is literally trampled under foot by the design branding. The marketing efforts are fuelling a temporary gentrification process: areas of the city, that in the past exposed upcoming designers, have built a reputation for being a fashionable locality, and now have transformed into branding zones with many standardised brand-presentations. Displays by telecom providers, car manufacturers, and the food industry are materializing in places where a year before was an innovative design label. Serious curation is needed here to defend a sense of quality. The fair organisers would be advantageous to seek an anti-gentrification policy, as being used in cities like Berlin.
Role of government
Commonly municipalities are firmly involved in the organization of designweeks to support the local creative economy. The economist Richard Florida first showed this economical importance with his publication “the rise of the creative class.” Recently his view that metropolitan regions with a ‘creative class’ exhibit a higher level of economic development is extended by Anthony Townsend’s book “Smart Cities.” Both publications have been very influential for the awareness of local authorities on creativity and are the underlying philosophy for municipal support.
Small and large festivals
Take Reykjavik as an example, for the last seven years they have composed a designweek, as a joint effort between the design community and the local government. The role of such a festival is primarily to empower the local creative scene, to strengthen the vitality of the city, and to learn from each other. By exhibiting their work amongst each other, this type of self-help-group propels the design field forward. During the most recent edition, the President of Iceland, invited the design journalists to emphasise his believe in a creative economy. How much more moral support can you ask for as a creative in Reykjavik?
In larger designweeks, such as the Dutch Design Week, one can see how design presentations migrate towards entertainment. The number of visitors has risen to 215,000, more than the entire population of the city of Eindhoven where it takes place. The general public has become the major stakeholder here. Designers are not presenting here to an industry or professional peers, but rather to a general audience. The success of the week can possibly be evaluated by changes in the designers’ mentality. Perhaps their focus is more and more towards the general public and less facing the professional industry, they do not need industrial manufacturers to see their work. The design-process has now become a dialogue with a general audience, especially in the realms of social design, experience design and conceptual design. For this generation of designers, is the connection to the manufacturing industry no longer the ultimate goal?
There is no doubt that the excessive amount of visitors cannot only be a blessing. Massive general attendance greatly narrows the room for professional and peer criticism that is so intrinsic and vital to the young and ever changing profession that design is. The dilution of design innovation by parasite brand and marketing strategies will have a grave influence on the events future. Festivals could easily drift off and become an interchangeable consumer fair, with a little spice of creativity. Let’s hope it won’t get that far.