If anything, What Design Can Do! hit bull’s eye by turning the focus towards the refugee problem, without doubt one of the most urgent issues of these days. With more people driven from their homes than ever since World War II – over 50 million according to the official count of UNHCR –, with horrible stories and pictures coming from the Mediterranean and South-East Asian waters, and with refugees making their voices heard with increasing confidence, anyone with a heart senses the feeling that we need to do something, that we need to come into action. Now.

Throughout the two-day programme WDCD presented several examples of contributions the design profession has to offer in response to this immense issue. For a start, clever design can enhance the impact of structures already in place, as Michael Johnson of johnson banks convincingly demonstrated.

Describing his transition from commercial advertising and branding towards a practice that dedicates 85 per cent of its time to design for good, he showed how the laws of the first can be applied to the latter to increase the impact of NGOs and not-for-profits. Good intentions are not sufficient he made clear. ‘One poster can not change the world,’ he said. Instead designers should ‘stop designing and start thinking’ before they start to work. And he underlined the effectiveness of his approach with proof of the impact of johnson banks’ work for charities like the Disasters Emergency Committee (DEC), Acumen and Cystis Fibrosis Trust. Visually adding a sense of urgency to the DEC identity resulted in a 45 percent increase of money received.

Better understanding

Designers, or more in general visual artists, can also do great work for better understanding complex issues like the refugee crisis, as Dutch artist Jan Rothuizen demonstrated. Rothuizen is known for his soft atlases, drawn maps of cities, buildings or other places to which he adds his written observations.

Curious to learn more about the actual life in a typical refugee camp, Rothuizen decided to travel to Iraq to apply his method to Domiz camp, located 60 km from the border with Syria and housing 58.000 Syrian refugees. He travelled together with multimedia journalist Martijn van Tol and photographer Dirk-Jan Visser to document daily life in the camp. The result is the awarded interactive multimedia documentary Refugee Republic. The project helps to raise a much more accurate image of life and the vivid activity within a refugee camp.

Design for relief

Of course, many designers want to use their skills to bring relief as well. The Better Shelter project of IKEA and UNHCR is a good example of what can come from this. IKEA-designer Johan Karlsson, UNHCR’s Chief of Shelter and Settlement Shaun Scales and IKEA Foundation’s Head of Communications Johnathan Spampinato discussed with moderator David Kester the backgrounds of this project.

With UNHCR willing to review its entire approach to emergency shelter, Karlsson and his team had the chance to design a modular, easy to ship emergency structure with a three to four time longer lifespan than a tent. More feeling like a home, the structure not only provides the refugees with safety and security, but also with more privacy and dignity. ‘Better Shelter shows the benefit of starting with a blank sheet instead of only trying to improve what is already there,’ Scales said.

‘We need transient design’

Taking a different approach is a trademark of ‘eternal optimist’ Cameron Sinclair too. With his energetic performance the architect, for the second time on the WDCD stage, again found the audience on the edge of their seats. ‘To create, one must first question everything,’ he told. The right question to ask when working on humanitarian issues, he continued, is: Where is everybody in 30 or 40 years? Fact is that by then 80 per cent of the world’s population might live in conflict regions or fragile states. The amount of people driven from their homes might be doubled by then.

Sinclair’s solution to this development is a shift towards transient or adaptive design. As an example he presented his Re:build system of locally buildable, redeployable structures that also are easy to hack by the people who have to use them. Sinclair and his team of the Department of Small Works just finished a school in Zaatari Refugee Camp in Jordan, using this system. The idea is that the whole thing or parts of it can be moved to the refugee’s country of origin or elsewhere when needed.

‘Who builds matters’

Sinclair stated that ‘designers shouldn’t visit the context they are designing for; they have to live it.’ Both his colleagues Michael Murphy (Mass Design Group) and Diébédo Francis Kéré (Kéré Architects) very much live up to this principle. Both architects stressed the importance of working together with local communities when building hospitals, schools and other buildings – dubbed Lo-Fab (locally fabricated) by Murphy, ‘a kind of slow food movement for buildings.’ Architecture, Murphy said, ‘is also about the process of building and the influence the builders have on it. Working with local builders and materials provides dignity to the people. Who builds matters.’

In his sonorous voice Kéré took the audience past a selection of his works in his native Burkina Faso, explaining how new building methods using local available materials helped to provide work and education and a sense of pride for the local people. And while referring to an artwork he made for an exhibition in the Royal Academy of Arts in London where the public was invited to help in the construction, Kéré delicately showed that the same goes for people in a well-developed world.

Top image: Diébédo Francis Kéré (photo Leo Veger)