While you may be familiar with the London Design Festival or the Salone Internazionale del Mobile in Milan, you might not be aware that there are close to 200 design weeks around the globe and the numbers are seemingly growing. This month, Icsid contacted Doreen Toutikian the Director of MENA Design Research Center – the non-profit organisation that initiated Beirut Design Week in 2012 and Emilio Cabrero, Director General of Design Week Mexico to discuss how they get the word out about design and how they are successfully getting their local communities more engaged in their events.

Q: Tell us a bit more about your design week. How long has it been running? Who organises it?

Doreen Toutikian (DT): Beirut Design Week was first initiated in 2012 by MENA Design Research Center, a Lebanese non-profit organisation that focuses on the role of design in society, education and business. I am currently the Director of MENA DRC, which I founded alongside my business partner, Maya Karanouh. Our backgrounds are in design research and communication design, as well as branding.

Beirut Design Week is done in collaboration with international embassies, organisations, and universities in Lebanon. The main purposes of the event are to create a sustainable platform for designers and architects in Lebanon and the Middle East, instigate debate on cultural issues relating to design, introduce new trends through international guest speakers, develop skills through workshops, and help young entrepreneurs enter the regional design market. We believe that Beirut is the creative hub in the Middle East North African (hence, MENA) region and therefore we create awareness about the value of design within our creative economy.

Emilio Cabrero (EC): Design Week Mexico (DWM) is an organisation whose primary objective is to establish a platform to promote creativity and design as values that contribute to social, economic and cultural development within the Mexican community. We also look to portray the dedication of Mexican design from materials to methods, to express the passion for mixing innovation, as well as high quality handmade traditional craft in a modern way as a key part of our local/global philosophy. DWM brings together a perfect blend of well-established and up-and-coming talent from designers, architects, artists and artisans’ studios by gathering their ideas on design that are profoundly shaped by its origins and enhanced by its role in the present day.

The first edition of Design Week Mexico was held on the third week of October in 2009, and has continued to be held at that time for the last four years, with plans of the same for 2014. October has become the month of design, with several universities and cultural activities synching their activities with Design Week Mexico.

Design Week Mexico is organised by a group of professionals who have been both pioneers, and today, veterans in the design and architecture communities: myself, Marco Coello, Andrea Cesarman and Jaime Hernández.

Q: Does an event like a design week make design more accessible to citizens? How so? 

DT: We defy the notion that design is only a luxury by showing all sides of this up-and-coming field. For example, much of our workshops teach methods of design for social impact, this is especially useful for the NGOs in the country. We also organise tours in the underprivileged parts of Beirut where craftsmanship is a vital form of sustainability and allow young designers to meet and interact with the real makers of our everyday objects. Moreover, unlike traditional fairs, we create a map of all the designer studios and even spaces so that citizens can go and explore all these gems that are otherwise hidden. We also make sure to have an event for everybody, even people who are not generally into design; such events include food design workshops, entrepreneurship training, and creativity skills for kids.

EC: Design always corresponds to the equation of solving a problem. That’s when and where the designer draws inspiration, finds a solution and discusses what materials and techniques are appropriate to find or create the answer. I think we can all relate to problem solving and design thinking. Through DWM’s events, people can draw inspiration for new problem solving techniques to apply in their own lives and professions.

Q: A lot of design weeks and design festivals host free events to draw in the public, why is it important for non-designers to participate?

DT: It is absolutely important to make these events openly available as well as to be inviting and intriguing to non-designers because design is in everything; it is the essence in what people refer to as ‘quality of life’. Its main reason for existence is to look at the world, see what can be improved, and find an efficient, feasible and sustainable solution. This applies to all systems and procedures. Moreover, we find that lately non-designers who run various businesses are seeing the value of design. It might start with something as basic as branding but then eventually, as design management becomes an integral part of planning, the return on investment can be outstanding.

EC: Design encompasses all the senses. Design is not linear, it always responds to individual reasoning. The design process where designers and non-designers interact is always tightly intertwined. Together they find a common solution that solves the aesthetic as well as functional needs. Non-designers are always part of design, and if not actively giving feedback, they are always in the designer’s mind.

Q: Does making design more accessible of larger benefit to the designer or to the user?

DT: I think this is clearly a mutually beneficial relationship. As design starts to let go of its elite niche and enter ‘the real world’, opportunities spark on both the designers’ and the users’ side. In terms of creative economies and multidisciplinary collaborations, this has been quite evident. We once hosted a panel discussion on Open Design, which was meant to be a wake up call for designers who remain in their bubble. When we say ‘open’ or ‘make more accessible’ we are basically sharing all the knowledge that designers have monopolised for the past decades and providing this to anybody from any field with the opportunity to take it and create new meaning, merging his/her disciplinary expertise with that of design. Nowadays you get tech geeks, designers, and political scientists working together to create innovative solutions, and this is exactly what we need. Naturally, they are learning from each other, as the users are benefitting from the outcome of their collaboration. It’s a win-win situation.

EC: Both. Design always provides a dramatic line between the visual and functional. Sometimes it can be predictive or narrative, but its power always comes from the life that objects are given. An object, a home, are always cultural reflections of the inhabitants or users. Designers do their best to create a beautiful, functional solution; the user brings it to life. One cannot exist without the other.

Q: What are the key take-backs for anyone attending a design week?

DT: For Beirut Design Week, it is quite unique and still very special – considering that we have only had two so far. Most participants, especially young designers, feel a strong sense of opportunity and inspiration during the week. They also get to meet others who share their enthusiasm for design; which makes it a great networking platform. Attending a workshop is also very effective because the participants actually get to take back a new skill they would have learned. Some others take up the chance to look into internships and jobs with the international guests or local designers. And finally, for us Lebanese citizens, we learn to appreciate such events because they do not happen often, and amidst all the political turmoil we face, it is a good break of positivity and hope for us all.

EC: It hinges on the question of how open-minded are you? You can take-back anything and everything that happens at DWM. From new friendships to important networking connections, knowledge, ideas and inspiration from the exhibits, conferences and pavilions. But most importantly, and what DWM was born for, the desire to create and express you innermost self to the world.

You can find out more about Beirut Design Week and Design Week Mexico on their websites.

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