Decoding Design

Around the globe, 'design weeks' boost local economies

Posting in Architecture

From Beijing to Salt Lake City, increasing numbers of cities are following the leads of Milan and London and hosting design weeks. The goal: to encourage growth in their local creative industries.

From the chic European metropolis of London to smaller American cities such as Salt Lake City, so-called “design weeks” are starting to take place nearly every month around the world. Generally speaking, these citywide --or even nationwide-- events are held to help boost local economies and tourism by engaging the public on the topic of design.

The growing list is staggering. Tokyo Design Week just kicked off in late October and will occur through November 6. Salt Lake City’s first Design Week will launch on November 14. Last month, Moscow Design Week, Dutch Design Week, Los Angeles Design Week, Mexico City Design Week, and the United States’ National Design Week took place. In September, Bejing Design Week, the London Design Festival, and the first Paris Design Week were held. Egypt hosted its first Design Week last year; and South Africa holds one annually during the Design Indaba conference and trade show in Cape Town in February.

"In the short, nine-year lifetime of the London Design Festival, we first counted other similar events on one hand,” said Ben Evans, director of the London Design Festival, in a phone interview. “Now there are nearly 100 around the world.”

But during an era of ongoing global financial challenges, it’s easy to wonder how this ever-expanding roster of international design-related events adds to economic growth. Do they create new businesses, beyond just showing off cool new products?

“There has been an explosion in the world’s interest in design. And so cities are using design as means to promote themselves,” Evans said. “Design weeks are a magnet for creative talent. And they attract investments.”

CREATIVE ECONOMIES

An installation of furniture by designer Anthony Hartley at the London Design Festival

“Our partners reported that nearly all of them made sales. We’re talking millions of British pounds worth of sales during the Festival, if not tens of millions,” Evans said.

The London Design Festival is not the only design week event to draw worldwide attention and encourage economic stimulation in its host city. The success of the grand-daddy of all design weeks, Milan Design Week, illustrates what kind of momentum can result. Milan’s citywide event occurs each spring during the Salone Internazionale del Mobile, or the International Furniture Fair, a sprawling trade show with a number of satellite events that has taken place in the stylish Italian city for 50 years.

While it’s hard to come by figures on the number of visitors to all design events held during Milan Design Week, the attendee statistics for the Salone Internazionale del Mobile alone offers an idea of the scale of the event and how it has expanded.

In 2011, for instance, 282,483 total visitors attended the trade show alone, with 177,964 of them non-Italians—suggesting how high the tourist draw may be to Milan Design Week. That’s up from 173,516 total visitors ten years before, with 80,021 of them non-Italians. In the first edition of the fair, half a century ago, only 800 non-Italians attended the event, out of the 11,860 total visitors. These numbers illustrate how Milan Design Week has become an international tourist destination, bumping up hotel, restaurant, and other businesses during its duration.

MAKING DESIGN ACCESSIBLE AND ENGAGING

But beyond the trade show effect, design weeks can demystify the role of designers and encourage young people to join creative industries, ranging from the design side of consumer-goods manufacturing to start-ups that design new technologies. Corporations also sponsor or showcase daring design concepts at design week events to market and publicize their brands. Electronics giant Philips, for instance, presented thought-provoking design concepts for new appliances that rely on bacteria, fungi, and bathroom waste for power at Dutch Design Week this year.

Such strategy appears to be working.

This year, for instance, young designers and established international businesses alike sought to attract the attention of Chinese consumers at Beijing Design Week, although it was intended to have a more cultural than commercial feel, according to Aric Chen, the event's creative director. Participants in Beijing Design Week included the British fast-fashion chain Topshop, which set up a pop-up store, as well as hip Chinese designers such as Naihan Li, whose furniture designs made from wooden shipping crates were on view to the public.

“I've gotten a fair amount of good feedback from companies and designers, both international and Chinese, who benefited business- and media-wise,” said Chen in an e-mail.

In the United States, National Design Week, which is held in conjunction with the National Design Awards, is considered more of a high-profile educational initiative of the Smithsonian Institution’s Cooper Hewitt, National Design Museum in New York than a marketing event. Still, it has the goal of “engaging the general public, and making award-winning designers and their work accessible," said Bill Moggridge, director of the Cooper-Hewitt, in an e-mail.

First launched in 2006, the annual program is meant to offer “an opportunity for innovative thinkers in business and design to network and discuss creative ways each community can be inspired by the other," said Moggridge. Each year, National Design Week includes a Manhattan breakfast hosted by the Cooper-Hewitt for business executives to meet with high-profile designers to discuss how design can affect corporations’ bottom line. At the same time, National Design Week programs also focus on educating teenagers on career opportunities in design. This year, a group of New York City high school students gathered in a conference space to listen—and ask questions—to Project Runway star Tim Gunn about careers in design.

Clearly, design weeks can bring together otherwise disparate demographics to exchange ideas, cross-pollinate concepts, and find future employees and partners. In this way, design weeks could have a lasting impact, beyond encouraging tourism and sales of beautiful furniture and other objects on view.

“EACH DESIGN WEEK IS DIFFERENT”

But not all cities have the rich design histories of London, Milan, or New York, and may not be known as design destinations. Design is still a budding industry in China, for instance. So it’s hard to predict just how effective a design week can be in any setting.

Still, there’s clearly a lot of optimism regarding design weeks, given the number of cities that are hosting or launching such initiatives. The key to success might be for organizers, sponsors, and participants to plan design weeks that showcase and promote the unique creative character of the host city, rather than try to mimic other cities’ strategies with the hope that the same types and numbers of visitors will attend.

"With a few exceptions, like Milan's, design weeks don't exist primarily for those few thousand people who make the international rounds; they're there for the cities they take place in," said Chen.

“Each design week is different, just as every city is different,” he continued. “But if you see design, creativity and innovation as being important to your local economy, then, if the audience is there, a design week is actually a fairly cost-effective way of supporting and nurturing all that.”

Related on SmartPlanet:

Q&A: London Design Festival Director Ben Evans

Mexican designers tap cultural traditions in contemporary works

Philips unveils an elegant 'Microbial Home' concept

Life-size living lego greenhouse

China's young designers merge tradition and innovation

Images: Beijing Design Week street shot: Edward Sanderson/ Flickr; Anthony Hartley furniture: Steve Collins/Flickr

Reena Jana

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor Reena Jana has written for the New York Times, Wired, Harvard Business Review online, Fast Company, Architectural Record, Artforum, Time Out New York, Harper's Bazaar, and GQ. Previously, she was the innovation department editor at BusinessWeek. She holds degrees from Columbia University and Barnard College. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure