The Design Week Movement
If a movement can be defined as a moment when people across time zones and borders act simultaneously on the same idea, then the design week movement is verifiable. In the last three years, design festivals and design weeks have mushroomed across the U.S. in cities including Columbus, Portland, Salt Lake City, Kansas City, Baltimore, and Detroit, as well as abroad, in Beijing, Singapore, Moscow, and Paris.
In some ways this isn’t surprising. We’re all coming to recognize design is everywhere—everything we touch has been designed, and every economy is at least partly design-driven and becoming even more so. “A new value is being placed on design as essential to innovation,” says Carol Coletta, director of ArtPlace, “and on the connection between innovation, jobs, and economic growth.” This growing awareness is especially concentrated in cities, where design is being heralded not only as a savior of the economy but as the solution to a multitude of social challenges.
In the swirl of a design festival, it’s easy to feel our own dark age has passed. “There’s a need for comfort in the community when the economy tanks,” says Hilary Jay, executive director of DesignPhiladelphia (October 10-14). “We look to culture for comfort and to collaboration rather than competition.” And there is a whole lot of collaboration going on. Essentially these newer fests are a formalization of the groundswell of activity that was already bubbling up in their host cities.
Matt Clayson, Director of the Detroit Design Festival (September 19-23) calls this current rash of festivals the third wave. London's, founded in 2003, is the mothership. Philadelphia, founded in 2005, and San Francisco, in 2006, were the second wave. Detroit’s venture grew from the Detroit Creative Corridor Center’s design-thinky approach. First they assessed the local design community’s internal needs. “We found there was no program to get design on the top of everyone’s mind on an annual or regular basis,” says Clayson. Detroit designers had no good way of sharing their work with each other, local businesses, or the national and international communities. The DC3 recognized this as an essential part of the design infrastructure they’d set out to grow, and they joined the global design calendar.
Evans tells a story about Belgrade’s Design Week, started in 2005—only five years after the ousting of President Milosevic. “No one in Europe wanted to go there,” he says. There were no design firms, he says, no design schools, no big brands. “But there was a small group of very enthusiastic, hardworking people who put on an event.” At the seventh BDW last June, Wallpaper magazine streamed live from the festival. “It has become the place to be,” says Evans, who still sounds surprised. “They changed the reputation of this place that wasn’t even on the map.” For now, Belgrade may be the only case of a city bootstrapping a design culture on the back of its design week.