CHANGING THE PERCEPTION OF DESIGN FOR THE GREATER GOOD

When the Danish Design Centre awarded the 16 prizes for the Danish Design Award last month, half of the winners were previously nominated for INDEX: Award. And, more importantly, all the winning designs focus on improving peoples lives – not a new, fancy pepper grinder in sight!

One of our goals at INDEX: Design to Improve Life® has always been to reform the perception of design. Design shouldn’t just be about the aesthetics, but it should also be life-enhancing. And, judging from the selection of the Danish Design Award 2016 winners, we appear to have succeeded. Among the winners were an app to assist the blind, a latrine for disaster areas and a reinterpreted colostomy bag – among many others.

We’re proud of traditional Danish design and will never forget our roots. But, our passion since we established the organisation –about 15 years ago– was to identify and elevate design and designers that address real world problems. Our aim was to establish a new genre of design, while making a positive impact in the world.

INDEX: Design to Improve Life® was founded as an initiative of the Ministry of Business in 2001. The original aim was to create a worldwide design award that would reaffirm, as well as develop Denmark’s credibility as a progressive design nation.

So, how did we do it? We traveled all around the world, we talked and we listened. We met designers, media, CEOs, heads of design and innovation, academics and artists. And everyone, no matter whom we talked to and where we went, pointed to the human potential in design. Not only in reference to traditional products, but also in the design of services, processes and systems.

Through these conversations we established the concept of ‘Design to Improve Life’. Not only because it was –and still is– globally relevant, but because it could also nurture the human and democratic traits that lie deep within the DNA of Danish design. Just look at the Danish cooperative model, our recycling systems or our comprehensive architecture.

We were, in fact, not alone on our quest to encourage more designers to use their creativity for the good of humanity. We sat at the tip of an international wave that was slowly gaining momentum.

But, the road to a new definition of design was still not easy. At the time, the Design Council, who represented the national design industry, saw the new direction as a form of treason against Danish design. As a ‘test’, they engaged INDEX: Design to Improve Life® in a fictitious court case, where we had to justify our ‘Design to Improve Life’ concept. Despite the Design Council’s ‘ruling’ that day –we lost the trial, but won the people’s vote– work has continued. We’ve quietly converted many of the most rigid design traditionalists, and even received an award from the Design Council in 2013.

Today, ‘Design to Improve Life’ is fast climbing its way up the industry’s agenda. It’s now seen as a key focal point for many powerful design bureaus and world-renowned design events. The private sector has also followed suit by realising the considerable commercial potential of life-improving design. Some key local examples include:

  • The Confederation of Danish Industry (“the strong voice of corporate Denmark”) have featured our winners on the front page of their publications
  • The Velux Foundations have invested in Chora Connection
  • Denmark recently held the world’s biggest summit for sustainable fashion design, run by our Design Society partners the Danish Fashion Institute
  • The Carlsberg Foundation now invests for ‘impact’, using triple bottom line with a focus on social returns
  • The Danish Government launched a new innovation strategy clearly driven by our work
  • And the finalists and nominees for the INDEX: Award 2015 are receiving significant attention from investors

So what now? Should we rest on our achievements and be satisfied that we managed to mobilise the design industry to unite aesthetics, impact and relevance? Or should we continue working towards creating more and better design solutions to the world’s greatest challenges? I think the answer is obvious.

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