From left: Stephen Doyle, Doyle Partners; Paul Bennett, IDEO; Es Devlin, Stage and Costume Designer; Josh Tyrangiel, Bloomberg Businessweek; Michael B. Johnson, Pixar
Credit: Drew Altizer From left: Stephen Doyle, Doyle Partners; Paul Bennett, IDEO; Es Devlin, Stage and Costume Designer; Josh Tyrangiel, Bloomberg Businessweek; Michael B. Johnson, Pixar

Design used to be considered the icing on the cake, declared Bloomberg Businessweek editor Josh Tyrangiel as he kicked off the magazine’s Design 2013 conference at San Francisco’s De Young Museum on Monday. But over the past two years, says Tyrangiel, “There’s been a fundamental change in the way businesses of all kinds view design. For decades, design was thought of almost as an indulgence. But today there are countless examples of designers leading the way.” Tyrangiel says that his hope for the conference was to “change the way participants think about their lives or work.”

Tyrangiel would have us start with four concerns: cities, redesign, information, and imagination. At least, those were the titles for the conference’s four seemingly disconnected yet often overlapping sessions. Architects and landscape architects, graphic designers and software designers, journalists and filmmakers, and others took up these standards in a daylong discussion of their work in design and where they see it going. Those four sessions might have been folded up into two concerns that came up over and over: building community and story telling.

For Thom Mayne, FAIA, the 2013 AIA Gold Medal winner, making cities responsive to current “urban forces” is today’s challenge. “The city is the most compelling problem facing us in the 21st century,” Mayne says. “Cities represent the cumulative nature of our culture, but today the notion of a literal history is completely meaningless. As an architect, design requires a completely new way of thinking that represents contemporary society.” Building cities means building communities. Mayne says that his design for the San Francisco Federal Building—with its distribution of public spaces throughout—is a way of creating “conduits of conversation,” a way to break down barriers. 

Jeanne Gang, FAIA, founder and principal of Chicago’s Studio Gang Architects, touched on community and connectedness in her discussion of Studio Gang’s design for the Arcus Center for Social Justice Leadership in Kalamazoo, Mich., a project that Gang describes as the “first purposefully built social justice center in the country.” Gang says that designers must work with all 7 billion people on the planet in mind. “We need to expand our definition of infrastructure,” she says. “Is it possible for architecture to help make people want to live closer together? Our patterns of urbanization really do matter.” Green infrastructure is also important, Gang says. Her project at Northerly Island in Chicago—converting a former airfield to an ecological preserve—is “highly designed but at the same time wild.” Says Gang, “Wild patches connected with industrial sites are better habitat than suburban lawns. We’re interested in architecture that increases the desirability of compact urban living.”

Janette Sadik-Khan—who, as commissioner of New York City’s Department of Transportation, has some experience with cities—described how her city is transforming streets into vibrant public spaces by creating designated bike and bus lanes as well as pedestrian plazas like the new Times Square. “You can literally paint the city you want to see,” she says, adding that retail activity has increased along protected bike lanes by 50 percent. “Design can tell you—take your business elsewhere or have a vital, active space.” 

Sadik-Khan isn’t alone in seeking top-down design solutions for cities. Stephen Doyle, creative director of Doyle Partners, spoke about wanting to use design to “infiltrate public space” and to engage the public through “enchantment, surprise, and humanity.” Yves Behar, founder of the industrial-design and brand-strategy firm fuseproject and chief creative officer of Jawbone—a wearable personal electronics firm—said that designers are now at the table as business partners. (Jawbone won an Industrial Designers Society of America Design of the Decade Award in 2010.) “Fifteen years ago, CEOs didn’t understand how design would make a difference.” There’s been a sea change in American industry, Behar says, which is “now more about design” than the U.S. market’s counterparts across much of Europe. 

Behar has opened up his own design process to public comment via crowd funding, which generates not just resources but community. But design can spur community IRL, also. Partners & Space co-founder and co-creative director Anthony Sperduti described how he helped J. Crew revitalize its menswear division by buying an old liquor store in Manhattan and making the site a gathering place for clientele, complete with an art-gallery fitting room and copies of  What A Man Should Know lining the shelves. “Brands need to be personal, not corporate, and have a point of view,” Sperduti says.

Part of building a community is designing tools that allow communities to build themselves. Pentagram’s Edward Opara previewed a project in the works, Blopboard, that would allow users to vote on a client’s products or social issues in real time. Glen Cummings, principal at MTWTF, described an interactive “traveling exhibit” on New York’s 7 bus line created by his firm, who worked in collaboration with students from Columbia University. Students traveling the “7 Safari” rode the line and made podcasts about the surrounding natural history viewed from the window—what Cummings calls “mass transit as an ecological experience.” The idea was later copied for Beijing’s 4-line.

“We’ve barely scratched the surface of what we can do,” says Carl Bass, president and CEO of Autodesk, during a conversation with Bloomberg Television’s Cory Johnson. Bass says that designers must maximize the “infinite potential” of computational design: Invention happens all the time, Bass says. But innovation is taking that invention to market in a successful way. “Let people take reasonable risks—hire smarter, more creative, more talented people than you.”