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An Amateur Critic’s Perspective of Beirut Design Week 2015

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Special Feature
I am not an expert on design. As a copywriter in an advertising agency, I work with designers on a daily basis. Most days, I still feel like a bona fide fool. So when the opportunity to go to Beirut Design Week 2015 (BDW15) came along, I got curious. I didn’t know what to expect: A whole lot of tedious talks on graphic design? Maybe a bunch of fashion designers parading their work on an impromptu catwalk? What exactly would my first experience at Beirut Design Week entail? I knew I was attending a conference on design but I wasn’t sure of anything else. Perhaps I would learn something? Truth be told, I learned a whole lot.

Full disclosure: what first caught my attention about the BDW15 Conference was the fact that it was being held in CinemaCity in Beirut Souks. Being a film buff myself, I wondered if the familiar setting would provide a comfort zone while igniting a little bit of passion in the process. Sadly, CinemaCity’s signature qualities didn’t even make an appearance. The theaters are iconic for their trippy and colourful visuals that fill up the gigantic screens on the lobby ceilings. However, those screens were unjustly turned off throughout the entire conference, effectively robbing the setting of its design flourishes, and more importantly… its identity.

After making small talk with some familiar faces – I should mention that I’m an introvert, and networking doesn’t come easy to me – the conference was off to an awkward start after our host stated that we had begun late because we had been given extra time to “socialize,” in-line with the year’s theme, Social Beings. I honestly found this excuse hard to swallow knowing the Lebanese and their penchant for being reliably, and fashionably, unpunctual no matter the occasion.

The conference’s first lecturer, Johannes Torpe, creative director of Bang & Olufsen, wasn’t too well-received thanks to his “overconfident” demeanor and for using the talk as a platform to thoroughly plug his company’s entire product-line. As his lecture came to a close, the person behind me uttered – somewhat-loudly: “we learned nothing, this is unacceptable.” I wasn’t really bothered by Johannes. He had charisma, he wasn’t boring, and he mentioned several points that captivated me: “Designers should never let go of their designs no matter what”. I guess intriguing insights can come when you least expect it!

Speaking of thoughts that left an impact, Niko Koronis, a design professor at Domus Academy, urged designers to produce “complete experiences” instead of interfaces alone in his talk. To clarify this notion, he claimed that we love the iPhone not just because it’s easy to use, but because it’s an “incomplete object”, one that users make complete by downloading applications and customizing it to our liking. Thus consumers end up forging an emotional attachment to the product. Seeing as how we’ve crafted intricate love affairs with our phones that pretty much surpass the actual relationships in our lives, I found his thoughts to be pretty profound and relevant.

Being a critic myself – I review films and restaurants by night; Hala Abdul Malak’s talk about the importance of design criticism resonated with me deeply. A design critic, curator and educator at Parsons The New School of Design in New York, Hala claimed that responsible criticism is not inherently negative, and that it must always tie into a larger context. I often overlook the bigger picture when writing my own reviews, so this was a worthwhile tip to hear and remember. Hala then set my heart aflutter when she eloquently stated that “even the harshest critic can be useful”, and it’s then I realized that my snarky ways can serve a purpose when properly utilized. In addition, Hala urged designers to help social causes – the Syrian refugees in Lebanon for example, and to reclaim our cultural symbols – citing the Hilal on the Mac as a gross misrepresentation of an Arabic icon. The ending to her talk was also a quotable stunner: “Dear design, I love you, but love is blind”. Ha!

BDW15 was also home to a number of incredible innovations that just about blew my mind. Ross Atkin, a designer from London, tackled technology and the elderly by showcasing a number of game-changing designs. One of these designs is Sight-line, a fantastic set-up that helps senior citizens navigate construction sites on the streets, and another system, Responsive Street Furniture, gives the elderly precious extra time while crossing streets before traffic light changes. I kept picturing my lovable Teta in every one of these situations, and I practically felt like quitting my job right then and there and dedicating every ounce of my time to ensuring Atkin’s designs would take over the world. After all, aren’t all our Tetas a tad too neglected in this cold, harsh world?

Tom Beiling, who runs the “Social Innovation” cluster at the Design Research Lab Berlin, demonstrated The Mobile Lorm Glove for the deaf and blind which offers communication via digital and social media platforms, successfully embodying his empowering motto: “Design is one of the reasons people are excluded… let’s include them.” Finally, Razan Al Saleh, an MFA candidate at Temple University, showcased her prized creation: The Timebox: a trail of stereoscopes across Beirut that allow passersby to experience the same street a century back in 3D. Unfortunately, we couldn’t watch her video due to technical difficulties. Still, I absolutely cannot wait to see and experience Razan’s immersive walkthrough through Beirut.

Sadly, many technical hiccups were remarkably prevalent throughout the conference. Not a single lecturer managed to survive unscathed, with videos refusing to play and a dodgy mechanism that prevented slides from running smoothly. It soon felt like the theme of the event was less “Social Beings” and more “Next slide please!” In addition, holding the conference inside a movie theatre with no cellular or Internet service didn’t prove to be the most practical idea, as we were unfortunately cut off from our social media fixes and the chance to post our thoughts in real time. But perhaps that was the point? That we were purposely being deprived of Tweeting our frustrations? I guess it was a genius idea after all! Ultimately, there were no distractions and constant fiddling with our mobiles; the lecturers had our absolute undivided attention.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention meeting one particularly fascinating personality: Danah Abdullah, founder and editor of London-based magazine Kalimat. Her behind-the-scenes anecdotes were amusing and her lecture was even more powerful (“If you have an opinion, don’t apologize for it, just be prepared to defend it.“) Sadly, Danah was the victim of typical Lebanese chaos as a predictable 12 pm electricity cut temporarily brought her presentation to a halt. Thankfully, Danah wittily replaced the “next slide please” catchphrase with a hilarious waving gesture that kept me smiling between her deeply analytic thoughts on design imperialism, the privatization of design schools, and the compelling notion that well-intentioned designers are “never challenged when doing good in the field.” Plus, as she so amusingly told me before going on stage, Danah chooses to wear “flashy” jackets whenever she has to make a speech. Why? If people get bored by the content of her talks, she can still entertain them with her colourful attire! Major win!

After the conference, I also managed to drop by several exhibitions; chief among them was the Dutch Design Exhibition comprising two floors of eye-catching installations. Here I was drawn to several objected curated by Krux Amsterdan, a design collective launched three years ago that blends designers from various “disciplines”. The workspace’s co-founder Dajo Bodisco showed me the layout of the gorgeous, and highly collaborative, open space, while stressing the initiative’s three main elements: “discipline, quality and motivation.” Finally, he enthusiastically confirmed the sustainability and eco-friendly nature of the materials used. With our needlessly wasteful ways, this is certainly a vital element that we in Lebanon could learn a great deal from.

Suffice to say, my experience at Beirut Design Week 2015 was an enlightening one. Maybe we have a long way to go, but it was undoubtedly amazing to witness different parts of the city adopt a common goal. As I attempted to brave this whole new world, I often felt like John Snow (for all you non-TV watchers, John Snow of Game of Thrones fame “knows nothing”.). As a whole, Beirut Design Week managed to make design a whole lot less intimidating for me (and I imagine for a whole lot of people as well). I was introduced to so many creative forces achieving remarkable things on a global scale. In fact, I soon came to realize that I was stuck in a rut; I had allowed myself to settle in a comfort zone, one of the most dangerous places on Earth. I’m not exactly sure how I’m going to climb out of it, but today, I am at least aware that it’s what I have to do. For someone who began this week knowing nothing, that’s something right?

*This piece was published as part of the Critical Writing on Design Workshop by Hala A. Malak for Beirut Design Week 2015.

5 comments

  1. Thanks for so eloquently illuminating what Beirut Design Week was all about and the insights you gleaned from attending the conference. I feel like more could have been done to enlighten the public as to its aims–I found myself limping from one exhibit to the other, not quite comprehending the purpose behind them. At any rate, Beirut is blessed to be making headway in arts and culture appreciation.

  2. Thanks for commenting Danielle. Yes it was the conference that was the truly illuminating part. I can imagine being just as lost if I were jumping from one exhibition to the next. But like you said, progress! 🙂

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