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Words and photos by Anja Groten

Designers are not only problem solvers; they can also observe and comment. Take the two-week Next City masterclass in Beijing for example. The organizing was done by a research team from MVRDV’s The Why Factory. And the participants were students from five Dutch design schools—ArtEZ Arnhem Academy, Design Academy Eindhoven, Sandberg Institute and TU Delft. The brief: locate urban problems, and solve them with quick-step visions of future city living.



During the masterclass, it became clear to many designers they weren’t necessarily in a position to design. Nor were they in a position to be active utopian do-gooders. During this masterclass, designers were in the position of observers. After such a short masterclass, designing for Beijingers seemed awkward. Instead, students absorbed as many sights and sounds as possible. And they were inspired by informal and spontaneous design on every corner, whether in the small Hutong alleys or the dystopic landscapes of Tang Jia Ling.

Design may have seemed unnecessary in this context, but the research and observations were valuable for any design practice. Sometimes, design is for another day.



Anja Groten is a designer based in Amsterdam.


To see more of Anja’s Design For Another Day shots,
get our printed launch issue at:

‘The Future’s So Bright, I Gotta Wear Shades’
Sandberg Institute design events
8–10 July 2011, Opening 8 July 2011, 20.00
Vondelbunker, Amsterdam



  • Thought by A. Walker — 2011/06/20 @ 15:37

    Problem solving is the bedrock of design. Designers feel they are in a position to change society, whatever that means. Change towards what? This is never explained. Although there are loose canons of: change towards more “radical” looks, like with rebel brands; change towards a more “beautiful” and “stylish” life, like with fashionable brands; change towards “ease of use”, like with user-friendly products. And the list goes on.

    The designer as a social changer has a long history. The trouble with problem solving, again, is that the problems are never well-defined, the solutions not always successful, and the designer’s agenda never clear. What is the problem? Global warming. The solution? Let’s make another “save the planet” poster; let’s chop down trees, dirty water, use toxic inks just to make another “social design” poster. There are even “social design” design schools who grant degrees to students who take part in such needless processes.

    This quote by Colin Davies and Monika Parrinder is priceless: “Much contemporary design has taken on the role of cultural beautician or plastic surgeon, providing a global parlour plied with consumer goods, manicured with good intentions; all plucked from a repository of modernist thinking. It’s like 1980s Alessi with a social conscience.” I’m pretty sure Slavoj Žižek called this “cultural capitalism”: business with a smile, like with Starbucks “good coffee karma.”

    But this is not limited to big firms or big clients, the kinds of design context which “indie” designes like to wave their fists at. Just look at the Chaumont graphic design festival. Here we see “design taking on the role of cultural beautician or plastic surgeon, providing an underground parlour plied with indie consumer posters, manicured with political intentions; all plucked from the repository of post-modernist thinking. It’s like 1990s Colours magazine with more illustration, hand-writing, trash and internet graphics.”

  • Thought by C. Liu — 2011/06/13 @ 18:23

    In China, there are no problems to be solved by designers. The Communist Party has all the solutions. And those are central governing, mass manufacturing and cultural capitalism. Every consumption comes with a communist-capitalist smile.

    We all know what Dutch designes are doing in China; they are not exploring and absorbing and observing. They, and their schools, are pawns in an international business relation that wants to see more economic exchange between the countries. What China was doing previously, was rearing its manufacturing industry for export. Now they also want to rear their service industry, which includes design, science, research and development. And what a better way than to under-fund masterclasses like these.

  • Thought by Martin Hart — 2011/06/13 @ 07:50

    Implicit in the notion of designers creating commentary, is that the commentary is a solution to a problem. If certain social issues don’t get enough air time, designers can raise awareness. But so can artists, by making films. Or politicians, by developing campaigns. Every field of practice has this problem-solving conundrum.

    The assumption that “social commentary is not a solution” comes from the assumption that commentary is not productive; whether utopic or dystopic, it does not offer a productive alternative to the current status quo. It may be valuable or thought provoking, but not productive.

    Design as commentary becomes difficult because design is an applied art: applied to specific contexts, with a specific reader, user or audience. When exactly is commentary applied? Hardly ever. If it were, it would become policy or planning. Designers may observe and comment, but by doing so, often engage in a practice other than design.

  • Thought by Bart — 2011/06/12 @ 22:05

    “Designers are not only problem solvers; they can also observe and comment”. I’m gonna be a bit harsh because it is quite visible as an opening statement; I’m not sure this is very coherent. Designers need to observe before solving problems, then their solution will ultimately be their commentary. But I do understand here that there wasn’t much of solution; perhaps there wasn’t really a problem to be found in the first place?

    Other than that I’d be very interested in reading more on this experience of China from the eyes of the designer.

That New Design Smell
Issue n° 0
Michèle Champagne
Web Concept & Design
Lennart Bruger
Co-conspirators include
Daniel van der Velden / Metahaven
and Gert Dumbar
Glorious contributions by
Cedric Flazinski,
Anja Groten, Femke Herregraven
and Jason Mortlock