On December 2nd of this year, Design Society will open its doors for the first time. While we’re continuing to work hard in London finalizing the preparation for the V&A gallery, our colleagues in Shenzhen are working with equal zest on the inaugural exhibition for the Main Hall, called Minding the Digital. In this guest post, senior curator at Design Society, Carrie Chan, discusses her experience with putting together such an ambitious show, which looks at the pervasiveness of digital design in contemporary society, and the possibilities it offers.
Creating Design Society’s First Show
In late 2015, before Design Society had its official name, I joined the pioneering project as their first curator. It has been an adventure to create the institution’s debut show Minding the Digital in response to its social mission and the developments taking place in contemporary Chinese society.
As a new major design institution, Design Society believes in the power of design to shape daily lives, prompt societal change, as well as spur innovation. From the start, our stance has been to avoid showing design as an isolated discipline, nor produce shows which are purely monographic in nature. To foster dialogue between Design Society and the public, our exhibitions demand a perspective which will be highly relevant for people in China and abroad.
The architectural quality of the exhibition hall at Design Society also inspired our curatorial thoughts. The monumental and atmospheric Main Gallery is a perfect site for reflecting and imagining what the future holds for our daily lives, rather than an archaeology of design history. The 1,200m2 space, with its single beam of natural light in the centre, is a stage for an immersive, responsive and participatory experience.
With these key ideas mapped out, we were able to identify a forward-looking topic that was urgent to discuss for Shenzhen, the broader design community and contemporary Chinese society. Based on these cornerstones, we asked ourselves a few questions: What forms of design are driving revolutionary changes in our lives in China? What are the powerful creative forces coming from China influencing the world right now? What will these forces mean for our future?
These questions were the starting point for our curatorial journey, and has led us to create the show Minding the Digital , which taps into the multiple digital possibilities which design can deliver for the future.
A few years ago, the Internet had become a buzz word in social, commercial, and political terms in China. Fueled by the popularity of 4G networks and mobile phones, China was gaining an international reputation for applying technologies to all aspects of daily life. Screens, QR codes, social media platforms, and other apps are undeniably the design interfaces which are shaping every corner of society. In 2015, Premier Li Keqiang announced the national Internet Plus policy to integrate new technologies with modern manufacturing and industries. Every aspect of the design industry – from creation and production, to sales has been shaken up by these policies. And this is just the tip of the iceberg. There is much more change that we can anticipate from the millions of investment going into researching technology in design – from artificial intelligence, robots, self-driving cars, smart homes to the Internet of Things – by Chinese companies in global markets.
The more powerful technology becomes, the more inseparable and obsessed we become with its expediency, speed, and wonder. Faced with this indispensable shift, the curatorial team thinks it is important for the show to inspire people to rethink the trajectories of our digital future rather than simply celebrate its economic merits. It is worth thinking how design can still cater to core human values, such as our connection to people, the environment and heritage. The show should be a site for reflection.
Browsing through the news, creatives worldwide are also reflecting on this duality of technology. Apple’s former Senior Vice-President of Design, Jonathan Ive, has criticized our over-reliance on digital tools and the loss of ability to make things. Achim Menges – a leading computational design scholar at Stuggart University – thinks that computation is more than just an architectural style or tool. But rather, it presents new ways as to how we can use algorithms to explore the material world, to connect with traditional culture, and address sustainability.
We also inquired with creative minds in China on how they perceive the digital shift. We found similar reflections on the topic. In key cities like Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Hong Kong, we conducted interviews and focus groups with cutting-edge leaders and the younger generation working in design studios and institutions. Fu Zhiyong, Associate Professor at Tsinghua University’s Art and Design Academy, confessed that they felt a strong responsibility to widen the application of digital tools to inspire social innovation. We heard Kevin Lau, the co-founder of MakerFaire Shenzhen, express his concern over the surplus of digital products in the market, without substantiated human needs. He questioned whether the off-screen making activities should give us a balance in the tech age. A design director at a major digital company even expressed to us that they were concerned about China’s obsession with screen interfaces and thinking about ways to help people connect with offline realities through hardware devices.
These singular thoughts gathered in our research journey helped us consolidate Minding the Digital, which inspires people to meander through the creative possibilities of the digital future and navigate between technology-oriented and human-oriented approaches. As the audience experiences how digitalization changes the way we make, connect and participate, they are also led to reflect on how design mediates between technology and human values.
Featuring over 50 local and international practices, Minding the Digital is organized into three keys themes: Digital Encounter, Digital Interactions and Digital Participation. Highlighting the role of people in the digital, we deliberately worked on a public participation strategy that unfolds step by step. It starts with an engagement with everyday design objects and interactive interfaces, and moves to active participatory opportunities with sites for making, reading, and reflection. This progression will also symbolise the expanding scope of design in changing our aesthetics, experiences and systems in the digital age. Echoing the open spirit of the digital era, the audience will be invited to contribute their vision of the digital future as the show closes.