Before I moved to the U.S. from Beirut to study at SVA, and long before I went from intern-to-designer here at Eye on Design, my very first task as a very fresh young intern at Amsterdam graphic design agency De Designpolitie was spiral-binding a stack of bright yellow pages printed with red typography that screamed, “What Design Can Do!” The answers (or the search for answers, at least) were inside, along with highlights from the second edition of WDCD, an initiative that aims to shed light on socially conscious, multidisciplinary design initiatives.

Over the past eight years since then, WDCD has evolved into an acclaimed global platform with annual conferences held in Amsterdam, São Paulo, and soon, Mexico City for its upcoming 2019 edition. In anticipation of this next iteration, I caught up with WDCD’s co-founder (and my ex-boss) Richard Van Der Laken to talk about the potential of design conferences to affect change, their limitations, the viability of design challenges, and about what design really can and cannot do.

Van Der Laken is also part of Gorilla, an ongoing joint project with Lesley Moore, Herman van Bostelen, and Pepijn Zurburg, his partner and co-founder of De Designpolitie. Gorilla comments on current affairs through a weekly visual column published in Dutch independent news magazine De Groene Amsterdammer. For more than three years, it has been published daily on the cover of the Netherlands’s national newspaper De Volkskrant.

Downloadable research packs for the Clean Energy Challenge, designed by De Designpolitie with data visualizations and background info provided by STBY

We met in 2012, right after the second annual What Design Can Do conference. You recently wrapped up the eighth edition. Can you tell us about how WDCD first came to life?

Even though the creative scene in The Netherlands is well developed, design is often seen as something trivial that happens at the end of a whole chain of events. For us, design is an essential tool that transforms people, experiences, and societies. That was the starting point of WDCD. We didn’t want to talk about beautiful chairs and funky typefaces; we wanted to talk about design as an agent of change.

It’s not just talks, though. What’s the thinking behind all the breakout sessions, workshops, and design challenges that you also hold?

In WDCD, the conference events are a sort of anchor point, a base to share information and updates, while the design challenges are more about actively seeking solutions and testing the limits of design.

WDCD started with a lot of inspiration that evolved into activation. What I mean is, after a lot of talking and sharing ideas at conferences, you have to walk the talk and actively look for solutions to the problems you’re addressing. A first step was the Refugee Design Challenge in 2016. We picked a complex societal issue, researched it, defined areas where design can actually make a difference, and asked our international community to come up with proposals.

We also publish books and a blog with all kinds of recaps and in-depth articles on the topics that we address. I think that’s the strength of WDCD: It’s not a single-minded moment once a year, but a continuum where we constantly reflect on the issues that we address.

Climate Action Challenge, winning project

That said, the Refugee Design Challenge was criticized for trivializing a major crisis by suggesting that a design competition is capable of finding solutions for an issue that is socio-economic and political at heart.

What design can do, and what it cannot do, is, of course, a viable and real discussion, and I’m glad it’s being debated. We can always sit on our hands and do nothing, but for us, this is not an option. We never said that design will solve the crisis, but I’m convinced that it can be part of the many possible solutions. We had 631 proposals from 70 different countries, which brings positivity and awareness to an otherwise cynical narrative.

We weren’t naive and knew that we were touching on a complex issue, so we didn’t do it alone. We closely collaborated with STBY, a research agency based in Amsterdam and in London, and partnered up with the UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, which informed us that the best way for us to tackle this issue is by focusing on circles of urban refugees. So, we came up with different briefings that emphasized the integration of refugees in their cities of arrival, highlighting specific interventions where designers can chime in.

The winners are still in the process of turning their proposals into concrete projects. They got monetary support and guidance from experts. I think over the period of two or three years we’ll hopefully be able to see an outcome.

We didn’t want to talk about beautiful chairs and funky typefaces; we wanted to talk about design as an agent of change.

From its early editions, WDCD was distinguished by having a diverse and international selection of speakers. What’s your process for curating content and selecting participants?

In order to be able to address and better understand heavy complex issues, we need inspiration and knowledge from around the globe. We invite people from all over the world to share their ideas and projects, which gives new and diverse perspectives. It’s important to keep in mind that things aren’t always about how we perceive them in the West.

For the Clean Energy Challenge, for instance, we focus on five specific metropolitan areas: Amsterdam, Mexico City, Sao Paulo, Nairobi, and Delhi. So we try to turn a global issue into a very local one by focusing on five cities with their own specific challenges.

The creative industry is becoming more and more saturated with big design events. Do you think conferences are an effective medium?

Maybe the model of a conference isn’t the most innovative one. It’s not our mission to organize events. At the end of the day, conferences are only a tool. We use them to bring people together (with all the clichés that come with) because I do think that it’s very important for people to meet face-to-face. But it’s difficult to see these conference as a viable business model.

Both Gorilla and WDCD are self-initiated design projects that tackle major timely political and social problems—the first as an outlet for your personal reactions, and the second as a more open and collaborative operation. How does this contrast relate to your creative process?

With Gorilla, we are standing on the sidelines and commenting on what’s happening in the world, whereas with WDCD, we’re trying to make things happen in the world. For us, it’s a nice balance that’s necessary for our creative process.

With WDCD, we tend to get wrapped up with the logistics of traveling and big-picture planning. The contrast with a small-scale project like Gorilla is of course extremely important because it allows us to stay connected to the drive of design; it’s a good exercise where we have to think fast, get creative and meet a weekly deadline.

You say that “design is always political.” How does this inform the commercial work you do at De Designpolitie? Does it influence the type of clients and projects you take on as a design agency? Do you ever have to make compromises?

In everything you do, you’re always making decisions. Decisions that are driven by culture and politics. Decisions related to your beliefs and stands. I think the work that we do is in that sense always political. My partner and I always have an opinion and a discussion about the clients that we work for and the projects we take on. Graphic design is a service-oriented profession, which means we need to be careful because we don’t own the content that we’re communicating.

That’s also a reason to start a self-initiated project like WDCD: If we make a mistake, it’s our mistake; if we talk bullshit, it’s our bullshit.