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.
The same tailwinds are blowing TEDs across the land (all those cities with new design weeks already have TEDx’s) as well as hybrid D school/B school degree programs (case in point: Parson's Strategic Design and Management master's program, new this fall) "Everything we’re going through now is what happens right before a renaissance," says Patricia Martin, author of Renaissance Generation. "There are hybrids and a cross-pollination that leads to new genres and new categories of business. It’s what happened in Italy after the Dark Ages. People collectively became conscious of and engaged in creativity’s power." To illustrate, she tells of a public painting competition in the 1500s between Michelangelo and Leonardo where the crowd was encouraged to comment on who should win.
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.
Design Week Portland, which starts October 10, was able to come together with only four months of planning, thanks to weekly meetings of event producers from different design disciplines. Organizers Eric Hillerns and Tsilli Pines kept expectations low. "We asked that everyone already doing design events in the city point their efforts toward this one week, to cross-pollinate audiences," says Pines, "and to make our voice loud enough to be heard by people outside the industry." In Columbus, whose inaugural design week started September 29, designer Michael Bongiorno found an almost overwhelming level of support and collaboration when he broached the idea. "The city and the business community bent over backwards to make it happen," he says.
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.
Which is all well and wonderful—and inspiring for attendees and exhilarating for organizers—but do design weeks deliver on their founders’ visions? Do these temporary events effect permanent change? Or would the time, energy, and money be better spent improving design education, incubating small businesses, or on other initiatives that have more proven effects on the economy? "The impact is difficult to measure," says Ben Evans, founder and director of the London Design Festival. "There are tangibles and intangibles." The tangibles include numbers of participants, attendees, and press hits; and revenue from merchandise, food, beverage, and hotel reservations. The intangibles: How much does the festival drive socio-economic change? Does it succeed in rebranding a city?
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.
Caroline Tiger is a Philadelphia-based writer who covers design and culture. Her columns, Making It and Consumed, appear each month in the Philadelphia Inquirer. She blogs at design phan and The Objectorialist, and tweets at @carolinetiger.