TDC 2021: How I learned to stop worrying and design the world I want

Re strategist Ola Olorunnimbe travelled to Brisbane for The Design Conference 2021. Here he shares some of the themes that are shaping the post-pandemic design scene.

By Ola Olorunnimbe, Strategist - Re

Jul 2021

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Perhaps unsurprisingly, The Australian National Dictionary Centre’s word of 2020 was “iso”. The pandemic has not only given us a new set of challenges, but new vocabulary and behaviours too. And with Sydney in the throes of lockdown 2.0, we’re once again all looking for ways to do less doomscrolling, and more socially-distanced connecting. Back in 2020, Matthew Haynes, founder of The Design Conference (TDC), had the unenviable task of not only having to figure that stuff out, but also what it all meant for TDC. 

Thankfully, he worked it out - and then some. Though TDC 2020 ended up not happening, TDC 2021 saw the design industry come together both IRL and virtually, with a packed schedule of talks, panels, and exhibitions. Over three days in sunny Brisbane, myself and a small team of colleagues had the privilege of hearing from some of the brightest and best in Australian design, including two of our own - Sumita Maharaj and G Torto. And while I’d love to just download the entire experience into your heads, matrix style, we haven’t figured that one out yet. Instead, you’ll have to settle for a written summary of three themes I noticed. My hope is that there’s something in here that’ll help you design the world you want. 

1. Prioritise play 

For FutureDeluxe’s Adrian Lawrence, play is non-negotiable. Each employee is allotted a set amount of time every month to go off and explore new techniques, ideas, and tools. It deepens the well from which they draw, and sees them bring fresh thinking to their briefs. 

And while other speakers might not have articulated its importance so explicitly, the idea came up time and again. Personal time spent painting, crafting, and building has a direct influence on the work Garbett co-founders Paul and Danielle make. Artist Kris Andrew Small makes sure to create pieces for himself, just because. And for Catriona Burgess, Head of Frost Place, one of the keys to creative confidence is knowing when to say “no” to a project, to allow you the time and space to do things that give you life. 

In summary, play isn’t a nice-to-have, it’s a mandatory. 

2. Welcome outsiders

Exceptional Alien, The Monkeys’ co-founder Justin Drape’s latest project, is all about knitting the global design community together through insightful interviews with designers all over the world. Yash Murthy, Executive Strategy and Creative Director at AKQA Media, spoke about the opportunities at the confluence of culture, creativity and technology. And almost every speaker at the conference has lived or currently lives in a country they weren’t born in. The common thread here is that encouraging outside perspectives - a blurring of old lines - helps you look at problems from a new angle. 

Finding your own version of this - whether that’s hiring from different talent pools, reading a book that might not be your first choice, or actually changing your physical location - is the first step in designing a new future. 

3. Good is the new cool 

Bob Dylan’s assertion that “the times, they are a-changin’” is as true now as it was when he first sang these words in the 60s. Change is a constant, but what’s clear right now is that the industry is more concerned with being morally good than it’s ever been. The steady realisation that the design industry reflects and affects society, is starting to change what people talk about, the ways in which we operate, and the work we’re making. 

The Welcome To Country that opened the first day set the tone for the rest of the conference in this regard, with many subsequent speakers also choosing to acknowledge country at the start of their talks. There was a refreshing openness around mental health throughout, and much of the work shown looked to drive inclusivity. Studio Chen Chen’s work for Chattii - a dating app for people living with disabilities - was as inspiring as it was beautiful. Carbon Creative labels itself as a social change creative agency, and the work shown by Creative Director Monique Kneepkens certainly delivered against that brief. And our own Sumi and G pulled no punches during a panel discussion on diversity and inclusion in design, provoking thoughtful conversation.  

Trying to be better, kinder, and more inclusive feels less fringe. To borrow from Afdhel Aziz, good is the new cool. 

So there you have it. Three themes from The Design Conference 2021 to help you Totally (Re)Define Culture. If you can, get yourself a ticket for TDC 2022.

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