Behind Dubai’s towering skyline, there’s a cluster of buildings rising up out of the sand. Most of them are still under construction. This is d3, the Dubai Design District, an area built to house the studios and offices of the region’s most creative minds.
Proof of those minds is evident in the city’s distinct structures but there are many more designers whose work, albeit smaller in scale than a 50-storey tower, are making equally large contributions to the city’s international reputation. For instance, Aloud Lootah a renowned multidisciplinary Emirati product designer. Or Anjali Srinivasan, an Indian glassblower who leads Dubai’s first and only glassblowing enterprise. These were some of the designers featured at Dubai’s inaugural Design Week in October.
The event is exactly as it sounds, a week dedicated to design of all sorts. An estimated 65 design weeks happen every year globally (even among organizers no one seems to know the exact number). The six directors who lead design weeks in Melbourne, Istanbul, Beijing, Helsinki, Mexico and San Francisco sat on a panel to discuss their respective events. One audience member asked the question that was on my mind since I arrived in d3: What counts as design?
It’s in “every aspect of your life,” said Dawn Zidonis, director of San Francisco’s design week.
Each director spoke to how design is much more than a collection of pretty things that belong in a museum. Design is anything that’s used to solve a human problem. Designers are people who care deeply about the details that determine how people live, whether those details are what you wear, the apps you use daily, the built environment you work in or the special stuff that surrounds you.
Their point only hit home when I visited one of the installations that was part of the week’s major initiative Abwab. Designers from six countries were commissioned to create an installation on games and play in their respective cultures. Seemingly the only limitation was to fit the installation into the pavilions constructed speciallyfor the event and strategically erected throughout d3.
The installation that connected the dots for me was from Jordan, The Untitled Swing Project. Wandering into the pavilion, a set of swings partially obscured by strands of white fabric draped from the ceiling greet you. Once you choose your swing and push off the ground propelling yourself into the air, the show begins. A black-and-white video projects onto the ground in front of you showing flickers of laughing children swinging while a jingle of chimes sound. Every push renews the loop, ambiguously haunting or amusing as you swing on. The inspiration was to re-create the gravity-defying imaginative play we have all experienced as children.
Midair, watching the memory-like video play again and again, the penny dropped. Everything is designed by someone somewhere. Some design is obvious like a swinging installation physically constructed, other designs not so much. The perception you build of yourself and others to guide you through life, for instance, is designed by none other than yourself.
The mark of good design is perhaps one so authentic you forget there even was a designer.