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Design Weeks: Hybrid is the new normal

19 January 2021

Even with turbulent 2020 behind us, we still have to admit that there is a great deal of uncertainty in the new year. However, there is still plenty to look forward to in 2021. The current pandemic has made it crystal clear that changes to the system are inevitable. We need radical ideas and solutions for the many urgent, social issues at play more than ever. The World Design Weeks Network recognises this as well.

For the 34 design weeks that make up the World Design Weeks' Network (WDWN), it is no surprise that designers can play a leading role in coming up with the solutions for social issues. But the stage for new ideas is subject to change, a fact that 2020 has made us acutely aware of. What lessons have we learned? What knowledge will we carry with us into the future? Several members of the WDWN have joined us to look back on recent history as well as to look forward towards what is to come.

The pandemic showed us that a crisis, through adaptation to new conditions, can trigger positive initiatives

'In March 2020 it seemed that the pandemic would isolate us, completely paralysing our lives. However, it turned out that by engaging technology and our creativity, we are able to be together and to create together fully digital Gdynia Design Days. It showed us that a crisis, through adaptation to new conditions, can trigger positive initiatives', Paulina Kisiel, director Gdynia Design Days.

Rhubarb Custard by iheartblob
© Vienna Design Week

Flexible and resilient

The WDWN is an international collaboration between design weeks. Together they dedicate themselves to increasing the impact of design by creating relevant connections at an international level. Once a year, the members gather during the Salone in Milan. That was not the case in 2020. Design weeks across the globe had to abruptly toss out their plans and a colossal number of events were pushed back. What had seemed impossible in 2019 became a reality in 2020: everyone 'went digital'. Despite the many challenges that came with that, resilience and inventiveness came out on top time and time again. It wasn't long before everyone had become flexible enough to adapt accordingly, finding ways to continue contributing to that essential design stage in the process.

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Redefining design festivals

Once everything had changed, many new opportunities appeared. While a visit to a design festival 'in the past' had taken at least three days, it was now possible to experience what was happening in design on the other side of the world from the comfort of your living room. This gave design weeks the means to provide their participants and followers with a large international stage. And these newfound tools were put to the test extensively: from video conferences and virtual tours to 3D exhibition modules. For the first time, the WDWN had the opportunity to present as a whole. Nine WDWN members succeeded in showcasing programme elements from their own design week on Dutch Design Week's virtual platform. Under the collective title of World Design Weeks United, people were able to virtually explore international design weeks and in turn, learn about talented designers from Barcelona, Seoul, Helsinki, Gdynia, Reykjavik, Manchester, Vienna, Nairobi, Los Angeles and Mexico City.

It was wonderful to be able to give the international design community the opportunity to gain insight into the Icelandic design scene.

© Kevin Pages

Thorey Einars, director of DesignMarch says: 'DesignMarch participated at DDW through WDW United. It proved to be a unique opportunity for both DesignMarch and Icelandic designers to showcase projects. It was wonderful to be able to give the international design community the opportunity to gain insight into the Icelandic design scene. It was a pleasure to participate.' 

Physical presence can't be replaced

The digital options initially appeared to be the perfect solution. However, it quickly became evident that not everything could be replaced by a screen. Sangyeon Cho, director of the Seoul Design Festival: 'I believe that this time, DDW has served as a barometer that shows how designers from different countries can communicate over the internet and receive unique inspiration. I couldn't satisfy all of the five senses that humans have through online means, but I think it reminded me of the importance of seeing design works and missing normal society.' In the absence of in-person events, we realised en masse that it was impossible to live without 'real' contact. Of course, everyone has appreciated the options that were discovered. And we are all happy that we were still able to do 'something'. However, the common denominator is also that we all learned a lot. It has to be done better in the future. The lack of in-person interaction only made its necessity even more glaring.

The value of chance

Isabel Roig, president of WDWN and director of Barcelona Design Week told us why: 'A design week is not only an event, it’s a community. It’s an informal network to share content and experiences and to elevate the conversation about what design is. A digital event mostly works for a part of our audience: the design professional. What we miss with digital is the interaction with the general public, the citizens of Barcelona, whom we also want to involve in the power and meaning of design.'

Martijn Paulen, director of Dutch Design Week added the following: 'Design weeks are a kind of laboratory for creators and thinkers, prototypes and innovations. Sure, the digital world has made many new things possible. But one thing can never be replaced: the value of personal contact. How often do you find yourself inspired by something you weren't particularly looking for while visiting an event? Or maybe you've had a conversation with someone that led to new insights? The power and magic of a design week is how they create the conditions needed for serendipity — how they give chance the room to flourish. That's only possible during an in-person event'.

© Design Week Seoul

A newly discovered creative sector

It seems as if one cannot do without the other. The physical element is crucial for the unexpected, the inspiration and the celebration. With their potentially large reach, digital resources provide design weeks with the opportunity to remain relevant throughout the year. After all, digital content does not need to be streamed live and can be accessed indefinitely. 2020 taught us that being flexible about the use of digital formats was crucial for us to survive. Everyone is looking forward to bringing the physical component back into the mix in 2021. In this way, the crisis also gave us something positive: a newly discovered creative sector where people can interact digitally — more easily and more frequently — and where there is room for high-quality, in-person meetings. Hybrid is the new normal.