There are few places oozing tradition like Oxford’s Randolph Hotel. During the TEDGlobal conference you would pass the restaurant where tea sandwiches are served on ornate étagères and enter a thickly carpeted room full of shelves filled with the works of progressive thinkers. The local bookshop had set up a satellite store for the event. Right there against the wall, a futuristic gadget was on display in a fancy jewel case. It looked like a military-grade USB stick made of brushed metal. A friendly gentleman from Boston explained that this was the Genome Key, made by his company, Knome. For a handsome fee, they would decipher your complete genome and deliver it on this small stick. Your biological present stored for a “gentech” future.
The Genome Key had all the markings of a great design object: the metallic sheen, the shiny box, the futuristic lines. But it wasn’t the look that made the Genome Key such a great example of intriguing design. It was the system surrounding and supporting this storage device; the aesthetic allure was just an afterthought. The Genome Key can record one’s complete genome, not just the part that is usable today. This avoids making it a soon-to-be-obsolete technology. Also, all of your genetic data is exclusively stored on this device only, so customers don’t have to worry that their most intimate information will be hacked from an institution’s database. The Genome Key, albeit far from a mass consumer product, embodied the new role of design that had become evident during the TED talks.
It has always been hard to explain what effect TED has on global trends. Each conference can be something like a high-voltage engine that gives ideas a velocity that propels them into the public mind with the impact of a Tesla Roadster on the shoulder of a clogged freeway. People take notice. Revolutionary ideas about design might not have originated at TED, but they did get the necessary exposure to gain further thrust.
Seismic shifts in thinking never happen as suddenly as an earthquake. The first tremors can be felt years or even decades before. As usual, a few threads materialized at this year’s TEDGlobal conference under the topic “The Substance of Things Not Seen.” None exemplified the essence of TED better than the paradigmatic shift in thinking about design.
This change of perspective might not be perceived as such a seismic shift in the design world itself, a world that has never been monolithic. Still, ask most people about design, and they will tell you that it belongs in the realm of aesthetics. And who could blame them for having this perception? Even basic texts, from Martin Heidegger to Walter Benjamin to Theodor Adorno, say the same thing: Art and design will change how the world looks, not how the world is.
There are exceptions. In 1980, at the "Forum Design"“ exhibition in the Austrian city of Linz, the Swiss art historian and sociologist Lucius Burckhart introduced his essay “Design is Invisible.” He didn’t accept design as an art form. He explained how design can only function if put in the context of a real-life situation. A city. An intersection. A workplace. Burckhart wasn’t just ahead of his time. He embodied the zeitgeist of the day. In 1980, design had just started to make inroads into general society. Chain stores such as IKEA and Habitat introduced design to the suburban home. Later, magazines such as Wallpaper turned the refined knowledge of design experts into mass-market values, just as Julia Child transformed the elitist art of French cooking into an everyday skill.
What design seemed to never lose, despite its populist efforts — from Bauhaus to Design Within Reach — was the stigma of being either a luxury or a means of seduction by industries trying to sell electronic gadgets or housewares. Marx’s essay on commodity fetishism kept the public’s perception of design hostage. This ideological struggle is as apparent as ever in the fight over the future of New York’s Ground Zero between the architects Daniel Libeskind and David Childs. Libeskind had an artistic vision with symbolist grandeur. Childs just wanted to make the site a working part of the city.
What had been a contradiction in New York has become a new way of thinking that unites two formerly antagonistic ways of viewing design. What has emerged at TED conferences through the years is a vision of design that does not limit itself to the parameters of form and function. Design has become the engine of innovation, giving mere ideas shape and substance. It has evolved into the highest form of communication, turning ideas into solutions. In fact, giving the TED Prize to the architect Cameron Sinclair in 2006 was a milestone event. Here was a young man with a vision of creating a network for open-source architecture to solve problems in emergency situations such as disasters and wars.
The work Sinclair has done with Architecture for Humanity has eased the suffering of thousands in the areas affected by the Indian Ocean tsunami, in the hurricane zone of Katrina, and in refugee centers around the world. He still embodies what many of this year’s TEDGlobal speakers put forth in Oxford. Ross Lovegrove defined his design as inspired by evolution. Janine Benyus discussed biomimicry, a theory of design in which man-made objects imitate the lessons of nature. Mathieu Lehanneur told us he had been designing this way without ever having heard about Benyus’ concepts.
Design has become a way of finding solutions. Aesthetics is just a part of this process. Maybe in a few decades we will look back at TEDGlobal and remember that shiny stick next to the bookshelves. For future generations, the Genome Key might very well become for the genetic age what the Walkman was for today’s digital age: the forefather of a revolution of omnipresent information permeating every part of our lives.
The “D” in TED stands for design, but you would be hard-pressed to find anyone who would tell you that TED is a design conference. Yet design was very present at TEDGlobal, a broad range of disciplines — interaction, product, service, systems, industrial, graphics — were in evidence. So too were design’s frequent bedfellows: innovation, architecture, and technology. Many attendees will have found a comforting familiarity with some of the presentations from the big-name designers. If your idea of a designer is a self-styled auteur or a sometime mystic who muse on their own creative processes, you could get this at TED. But what was it about the design ideas at TEDGlobal that made them “worth spreading?”
“To be blunt, design has never been terribly well integrated into the TED program and sometimes feels like a non sequitur,” says journalist Chee Pearlman, who is the former editor-in-chief of I.D. Magazine and a TED regular. “But that’s not entirely the fault of the TED curators. It’s because the rigors of giving a truly satisfying 18 minute talk are foreign and challenging for a designer used to languidly clicking through a portfolio. The days when Frank Gehry could get up on stage and reluctantly mumble about his work are long over. TED presentations are built on a narrative arc that few designers are comfortable with.”
So is it just that designers aren’t skilled on the inspirational TED stage? This can’t be universally true. Pearlman points to graphic designer Stefan Sagmeister and architect Bjarke Ingels as good examples. “Both pulled back the curtain on their process, both showed vulnerability and failure, both revealed surprises,” she says. “They reached in deep to tell us a story, and of course were able to show the heroism of hard work paying off.”
For some, the real design ideas at TEDGlobal were found in the interstices. Marc Koska from SafePoint showed a syringe that couldn't be reused. It was a nifty piece of equipment, but what was more impressive was the total design of the service and system around it: The syringe requires almost no changes to existing factories and dies, meaning that it can be manufactured almost immediately and distributed through existing supply lines. Then there’s Josh Silver, who has been working for years to refine his design for affordable, adjustable eyeglasses. He may be an atomic physicist, but he’s prototyping and iterating on the level of the best design firms.
For others, these quick glimpses of the future of design were not enough. Interaction designer Aza Raskin had three minutes to demonstrate Ubiquity, Mozilla’s experiment into connecting the Web with language (software developer Tom Armitage described it as “a remarkable glimpse into one future for Human-Computer-Interaction”). It was pure interaction design, but the thing he didn't have space to explain — perhaps because of time, perhaps because of TED’s “tell don’t sell” dictate — was that this is real stuff. It works in your computer now, if you want, and comes from the biggest browser maker that isn't Microsoft, an open-source company that has a user experience lead. This is what design looks like in 2009. Unfortunately, it wasn’t given much space to breathe.
It would be easy to use the design talks at TED to rehash debates about the nature and value of design. Should we be celebrating individual creativity at the risk of valorizing ego? Should we focus more on collaboration and co-creation or does this diminish designers’ power and effect? If we set design in contra-distinction to art, to architecture, to invention, are we claiming too much for design, or too little?
But TED isn’t the place for internecine feuds. The many people who engage with TED online are, for the most part, not interested in pondering what design is as much as they are in finding out what design can do. Yes, a few of us are intrigued about taking TEDGlobal speaker Stephen Fry’s point about the difference between quiddity (the substance of a thing, literally its “whatness”) and haecceity (pronounced hack-se-ity, which describes “thisness” — the aspects of a thing that make it this particular thing) and applying that to our conceptions of design. But only a few of us. On the comment boards of TED.com people are more interested in Michael Pritchard’s nanotech water filter and the debates it has engendered. They’re debates about design, but they’re also debates about innovation, licensing, research and development in NGOs, water and sanitation systems, military product development, international aid, education, politics, change, and life. Design at TED could do a lot worse.