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Some years ago our school, and Dutch design in general, were in a difficult situation. The discipline suffered from a lack of focus.  Its need of a story, its hunger for a clearer definition had turned into an issue.

For twenty odd years we had been conquering the world of visual culture, but a new crop of designers felt something was missing. People like Massoud Hassani, for example, hit the stage, but was misunderstood and very often criticized. This new generation were motivated by global problems, but not in a one-dimensional way.  All the critics wanted to know, however, was whether these design proposals were realistic or not. So the question seems to be: are we realistic? But I think the question should be: what is the virtue of being realistic?

This summer I started reading one of the most important European novels – The Man Without Qualities by Robert Musil.

In this book Musil is questioning reality. His point is that next to a sense of reality, we should also consider a sense of possibility. Or, to coin a phrase, next to realism we should embrace possibilism. That is why the main character is ‘the man without qualities’. He is fluid in his properties and so personifies a sense of possibilities.

I see a similarity with design here. Has design become a discipline without qualities?  Or at least a discipline without enough clearly defined properties? And if so, shouldn’t this fluidity be seen as a positive?  Something we should be embracing? 

In the beginning all seemed simple and clear. Design as a taught discipline started in this school in the 50s as industrial design. Designers made products for industry that could be mass-produced and distributed to a growing middle class.

From the nineties on designers started to boldly enter turf that had formally been reserved for artists. They were pioneering into the world of limited editions and installations in galleries and museums. Dutch design was born - conceptual, lo- tech and full of irony.  It was seen as a critique on consumer society.

But then the World Trade Center collapsed under circumstances that created a totally different world. And we have been confronted with crisis after crisis ever since - geo-political, environmental and economic.

It’s no wonder that our students broadened their horizons to look at the larger world.

So our discipline might be called three pronged, a trio of focuses with a triple billed background.  Today all three remain relevant. Designers relate to production techniques, be they industrial, biological or craft. Designers navigate on cultural values and institutions. And designers want to be socially relevant. 

This three pronged focus creates a fluidity that makes us feel as if we lack a clear vision. But I would argue that this fluidity is quintessential. We are, as Musil would point out, in need of a sense of the possible. Next to the real possible, we are open to the possible real. Fiction, poetry, and beauty help us to explore possibilities that go beyond pragmatic solutions to real-world issues. That is the value and relevance our attitude brings.

And that is exactly what we see in this academy – an artistic and optimistic embrace of possible scenarios that can truly create a different type of world.

Look at Olivier van Herpt, for example, arguably the stand-out designer of the just-opened show at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam – “Dream Out Loud”.  I see him as a designer that ideally represents why design is so exciting right now.

Olivier combines three roles. He is an engineer, a programmer and a ceramist. He doesn’t focus on one, clearly defined aspect and might, therefore, be considered a man without qualities. But it his combination of roles that makes him even more relevant.

He innovated a 3d printer, worked with programming, and developed an inspired visual language – a triptych of projects that show how design can be innovative, visionary and beautiful.

So, in design we are entering an era of possibilism, and in education we are too.

Young people today are tech-literate, they have grown up interacting with information technology and they bring that literacy with them to school. Teachers bring other knowledge and experience. The result is a non-hierarchical collaboration where together students and teachers discover and shape a new world, a possible world.

In this world – for example - guns can be loaded with tears, as Master student Yi-Fei Chen showed us. Her gun is not a lethal weapon, but a poetic one. The gun is loaded with her tears, tears that freeze when they drop from her eyes and it’s the ice pellets that form the bullets. At her graduation she pointed the tear gun at department head, Jan Boelen. The process took time to prepare, to load, to pump.  Jan became visibly uncomfortable with having a gun pointed at him.  Chen maintained her rhythm.  And fired. The tear hit him and melted.  It was a project that questions and even radicalizes the relationship between teacher and student. A form of social design that opens up so many new possibilities.

So as design is getting a new story, so is design education. Making both design and our school relevant in a new and profound way.

This is my last opening of an academic year at this school. I see a positive future for our students and for our school. I want to thank each and all for the great time I have had here, and for the collaborative effort we made to advance in design, education and society.

I wish you all the best of luck.

And with these words I open the academic year.

Published: 07-Sep-2016 12:05
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