Arts Review Festival

What Is Design Week?

Everything is design, design is everything, and Portland is a microcosm.

Design Week Portland is neither a week nor is it design. Actually, it is more than that. The provocative event spans a full nine days while exploring design solutions to broad political-economic issues. It is a convention by and for designers, on the one hand, a multi-disciplinary festival on the other, and a lecture series at its core. Were the whole thing in a convention center with trade show and product demonstrations, then I’d be utterly bored by it. No, it was born from a very innocent idea and a decentralized organization. It is an event of many folds and layers, grappling with concepts and topics. It is the brain of design incarnate.

Perhaps you’re looking for a narrative about the history. Well, I can provide that directly through festival director Tsilli Pines. Here is a brief interview outlining the whole thing.

I have noticed a number of things being called “something something week” or whatever. It seems to be a fad — burger week, beer week, etc. This may be why it remained background noise for me: I’m not all about design. I think Design Week Portland as an event, offers quite a bit more depth than, lets say, burger week does to burgers. But now smack dab in the middle of its fourth annual program, I’ve finally given DWP some attention, and I like what’s happening.

DWP HQ is a pop-up in Pioneer Square, and it is a complete expression of what this festival is all about. If you haven’t yet gone, let me explain.

Upon arrival, you may be dazzled by the open face geodesic domes and weird lumber trees representing Portland’s neighborhoods, spread out according to the grid our collective consciousness resides within. You walk into the big dome and a volunteer points out five broad topics: Education, Equity, Housing, Employment, Transportation. You grab a ticket with an open text field under the topic(s) you’re concerned with. You fill in one side with a problem relating to that topic, then on the other side you note what you can do about it. If the issue correlates to a neighborhood, you put it on that tree. If not, you take it downtown. But before doing that, the ticket is digitized through a slot on this rustic wooden box. Each entry becomes testimony that will be digested and delivered to Portland City Council later on.

Design Week Portland Headquarters Installation. Photo by Arthur Hitchcock.
Design Week Portland Headquarters Installation. Photo by Arthur Hitchcock.

The process happens so smoothly, you don’t even realize you’re experimenting with democratic infrastructure. It is designed to be attractive, inexpensive, and engaging. It demonstrates that design isn’t just the superficial aspect of the products you buy, or the fading fashions of “the one percent,” it is the thing that stops you from participating in democracy, adopting new technology, or allows you to relax in public urban space.

These are some of the issues that were discussed at the opening weekend events inside Revolution Hall. I made it to the first talk, last Friday afternoon.

Four Talks from the Main Stage

“What are the animals telling us?” or “The Internet of Beings” by anthropologist and Intel executive Genevieve Bell discussed the evolution of the “internet of things” from its roots in animal tracking devices — basically lightweight radios attached to animals under study. The talk intersected privacy issues and behavioral assumptions associated with cultural attitudes. Billions of devices tracking our lives within the internet reveals an internet of beings within the data. Behavioral patterns are observed in part by how we are altered from use of the device.

“What do we lose when it’s easy to use?” or “In Defense of Inefficiency” by Andy Pressman concerns the wide spectrum of user experience (UX). He points out government websites as an example of horrendous UX in a context where you need the absolute best. For the average person to participate in government, UX should be a priority for its websites. Meanwhile, the least socially fruitful clickbait sites have truly annoying UX, yielding garbage content and synthetic ad revenue, yet those systems are so accessible, you can sleepwalk through it. He wants to craft the experience for every scenario, according to strategies for levels of accessibility. Not everything should be accessible nor beautiful. Along his thought process, you get a primer on the history of web design.

On Saturday afternoon, I made it back for another two talks.

“Why does the factory dictate the product?” or “FutureProofed: Building a Company Worth a Damn” by Crystal Beasley more directly correlated to her startup apparel company, but its digression dealt with the whole issue surrounding the redefinition of industry in the technological revolution. She started with the claim that Uber is a taxi company, not a tech company. Like Uber, her apparel brand Qcut solves an industrial limitation. She is tailoring hundreds of unique pant sizes for women using new technology. It is along these lines that all sectors of industry have a unique chance to evolve. For historic reference, she points out the electric era, when all brands advertised their new tech. Now that everything is online, we can drop the hype.

“Who has the right to the city?” or “Design, Justice, and Public Space” by historian Reiko Hillyer stands out as my favorite, and she was the highest quality speaker. She provided a history of design via city planning focusing on the reorganization and disenfranchisement of communities. Freeways and road systems carved into historic neighborhoods of Paris and New York in the twentieth century, for example, but the trend can be observed throughout civilization. In fact, some of the most archaic practices of the past are being repeated today, like city governments giving away public space to private ownership, i.e. massive corporations, and removing benches from homeless populated parks. Hillyer also offers examples of inclusive design, offering a path back to an equal world where public space is for public good.

Hillyer explains the "para-site" design that produces a livable bubble attached to wasted heat ventilation. Photo by Arthur Hitchcock.
Hillyer explains the “paraSITE” design that produces a livable bubble attached to wasted heat ventilation. Photo by Arthur Hitchcock.

These main stage events have become the epicenter of DWP, making it a real conference. This year offered a major leap in its scale. Public access is priced to fit the corporate demographic ($395). But it buys you a ticket into a series of talks that challenge corporate culture. It must be therapeutic for that scene. The good news is that each of the featured talks will be released on video as a monthly blog, free to the public.

The remainder of DWP is what makes it a festival. Talks and design-related exhibits are scattered all over the city with numerous free things of high quality. Even free food and drink is a good bet.

Design Week, as a whole, is widely inclusive and multidisciplinary. Maybe the entire point of this article was to convince the staff to come up with an equally inclusive name. Design World Pandemonium! You don’t have to change the acronym.

But for everyone else, keep it on your radar, go to Pioneer Square, express yourself, grab a program, and hopefully find something that makes this your own Design Week.

Sean Ongley

By Sean Ongley

Co-Founder of THRU Media. A background in non-profit, music, and radio preceded my ambitions here. Now, I aspire to produce new media and publish independent journalism at this site and beyond.

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