What’s worse than a design conference where all the speakers simply click through a portfolio of their work? A design conference that only talks about design. Designers don’t live in a bubble—so why do so many design conferences feel trapped in one? Last week’s TYPO conference in Berlin definitely went “Beyond Design,” as it promised. As its name suggests, the conference has traditionally focused on all things type, and while this was still an important part of the program, the talks this year also looked to less obviously design-y areas.
This is largely due to Berlin’s new “Süpergrüpe” (“Supergroup”) of design stars: Mirko Borsche, Johannes Eler, Lars Harmsen, Sarah Illenberger, Eike König, Mario Lombardo, and Erik Spiekermann, who came together to curate one of the stages at TYPO. Called “Strictly No Design,” the line-up included speakers you’d never expect to hear from at a design conference, including musicians, writers, and perfumers. The talks rarely delved directly into design. Instead, it was up to audience members to make the connection and draw their own conclusions.
Consequently, this format inspired a lot of questions: are designers tired of the kind of navel-gazing talk that pervades the average design conference? Do we simply see too much portfolio work and other visual communication online and expect big ticket events like this to expose us to other areas, to break us out of our bubble. Yes, designers look beyond design in their daily work, but when it comes to the industry-wide conversation, TYPO made a very strong case for looking far afield. The conference format not only reflects the increasingly open and free-wheeling interdisciplinary process of creating, but it’s frankly just more fun.
Here are some of the ways designers are looking well beyond their core practice with projects that test the boundaries of what design is and what else we can do with it.
Sarah Illingberger looks at: flowers
The innovative Berlin-based 3D illustrator Sarah Illingberger invited florist Ruby Barber to discuss the artistry of bouquets and flower arranging, which, like communication design, is all about composition and balance. Barber discussed the ephemeral nature of her work, and the strangely liberating fact that her flowers fade, whither, and die. She’s learned that to keep her work fresh, sometimes it’s best to let something go and move onto the next.
Jonathan Barnbrook looks at: politics
According to typographer, activist, and graphic designer Jonathan Barnbrook, design is always political, because by being a designer you’re agreeing to be part of the market economy.
At TYPO, Barnbrook spoke about his iconic work with David Bowie, including the cover for Black Star, as well as the duty of graphic designers to “make the world a more beautiful place,” whether by creating beautiful work or by enhancing people’s lives through a political agenda.
Brosmind look at: childhood memories
For the two illustrators (and brothers) behind Brosmind, watching old family videos, playing with Legos, and battling each other in video games during lunch breaks (and on conference stages) is what energizes their unique practice. Whenever they’re stuck, they just ask themselves, what would we have done age eight?
Johannes Erler looks at: ambient electronic German music
What does design agency ErlerSkibbeTönsmann founder Johannes Erler do when he’s stuck on a commission? He closes his eyes and listens—specifically to the minimal soundscapes of Berlin-based Nils Frahm. Listening to the way he combines melody and rhythm suggests ways Erler can use graphic design to create an emotion response.
Mr Bingo looks at: rap videos
If you want to make your design Kickstarter go viral, should you load up the page with images of the beautiful final product, relishing in close-ups of paper type, ink, and binding? Definitely not, according to Mr Bingo, an illustrator known for his rude and humorous doodles and sketches. He made a rap video instead—proof that there is hope for the form after all.
Field looks at: dancing + skateboarding vids
Growing up with “MTV, skateboarding, and watching reruns of Grease” has been the driving visual force behind audio-visual design studio Field and its experiments in generative design for clients like Nike, Adidas, and AOL. “Standard forms of design didn’t seem to fit in in this world of motion,” said founders Vera-Maria Glahn and Marcus Wendt.