Can design really make life better? A chat with Jurgen Bey

Jurgen Bey & Rianne Makkink of Makkink & Bey Studio

“I can’t imagine anything worse than sending a group of designers out in a boat with a mission. They would probably end up just asking questions.” Jurgen Bey, designer and director of the Sandberg Institute, Amsterdam.

When did you say this?

It was in Milan, during a discussion about social design. I understand that it is a harsh statement, especially if it is taken out of context.

And what was the context?

Social design. I appreciate the fact that designers want to be increasingly involved in these sort of issues and the engagement that honestly feel. Yet often the actual ideas and concepts that they put on the table as results of such engagement have more in common with styling exercises than anything else. To be blunt: if there was a disaster somewhere and designers were asked to sort things out, they might actually end up tearing up something that works to replace it and make it look better to provide an enhanced experience. Which is not relevant in that particular situation.

Yet surely – also considering the fact that you are one of the most estimated professors and teachers of design (he taught at the Design Academy in Eindhoven, at the Royal College of Art in London and he is now the Director of the Sandberg Institute in Amsterdam) – you are not suggesting to designers not to deal with social issues…

Not at all. When I said that sentence, I certainly did not mean to push people away from social engagement. It was merely a catchy way to illustrate the need for design to deal more with contexts, to move away from a focus on objects and to experiment on systems and processes. It is wonderful that design wants to be dealing with social issues and potentially it could achieve a great deal. But we need to think differently, more pragmatically and contextually, focussing on the bigger picture.

Is design moving in this direction?

I think it is. For decades, designers worked to make better things. Now, I have the feeling that many of them are more interested in creating better processes to make those things. It’s a major shift. Making better things entails a focus on materials and aesthetics: and this is true for both industrially manufactured products and for hand-made ones (an approach that designers started already in the 1980s and that now is flourishing with the young generations). Working on better processes, on the contrary, means envisaging innovative machines, new ways of doing and producing things. Paying attention to these issues is key: I believe that here lies the key to truly renovate the way we live. We now have the technological means to conjure up ideas so that industries can stay small (or be very big yet somewhat fragmented and present on the territory) and still be profitable, come back into our cities, work on smaller scale productions to be distributed locally, with a great advantage to people’s lifestyles, to the environment and also to the quality of the purchases themselves: the one-to-one relationship between who makes and who buys will be once again possible. I am convinced that this is the industry of the future and many designers are actually working in this direction: enjoying the pleasure of the machine, its intelligence, its capacity to move us one little step forward towards this vision, rather than the beauty of the object that it is able to churn out. It is not by creating more things that design can improve the future but by thinking up processes to shake the very essence of the system


About Laura Traldi

I am a journalist at D la Repubblica. I also have a blog about #design that sometimes makes people talk. Visit
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