Decoding Design

Q&A: London Design Festival director Ben Evans

Q&A: London Design Festival director Ben Evans

Posting in Architecture

Ben Evans, director of the London Design Festival, talks about the economic influence that creative industries have on cities and nations -- and why it's important to nurture young design talent.

Ben Evans, director of the London Design Festival

Ben Evans is the director of the London Design Festival, an annual nine-day happening each fall that claims to have "the world's biggest audience for a design event, with visitors from over 50 countries recorded.” As the director of such an organization, Evans witnesses the latest international design trends--and debates--long before the general public does.

In late October, Evans' office released the data on this year's London Design Festival, which took place from September 17-25. The 2011 edition had 312 events and drew more than 350,000 attendees, making it the largest in its 9-year history. He recently shared with SmartPlanet his latest observations and opinions on the present state and future of the design industry, including its impact on national economies in the U.K. and around the world. Here are excerpts from our phone conversation.

What would you say is the most striking new design trend you've witnessed lately?

Design in the past has had a history of short-term-ism. Designers and companies have been deliberately designing products that don't last very long. There is more of a backlash against that.

There is more of a widespread desire for objects that are designed to have a longer life. Related to that, there has been a huge growth in new materials. For the London Design Festival, we've done a number of projects, for which we ask leading architects or designers to play with a material and push its boundaries, to think about it in a new way. It's rich territory. There is such a range of available materials and what's happening in material R and D is very exciting. It is a key dynamic in design at the moment.

You have some strong opinions on the relationship between design and education, and how it's very important to make design education affordable in the U.K.--and around the world.

I was at a design-world dinner in Chicago a couple of years ago. I'd say 90% of the guests were Americans. They were all complaining, asking "where is the new American talent?" The problem it seemed, they said, was that design schools weren't teaching people in the right way. They were being taught to be good at idea presentation, but not so good at idea generation. if that's true, it is an explanation why american design scene is not as good as in the past.

I think that design schools are the feeder of talent, and if that link isn't strong, a nation's talent pool won't be strong.

In the U.K., we're going through a restructuring of the cost of higher education. Payment may become almost completely the whole responsibility of the student. Fees will go up to 9,000 British pounds. There will be an impact on the quality of British design and the London design economy.

You see, London is a magnet for the world's top design students, who become the world's top designers. Industrial designer Ron Arad came to be educated in London, and then stayed. Architect Zaha Hadid came and stayed. If that great international talent stopped coming because school is too expensive, then it's a problem.

What I'm trying to say is that we--cities, countries, schools--have got to look after this young talent.

During a time of worldwide economic challenges, the London Design Festival is growing--the number of events rose 25% this year from last. Is this indicative of larger market trends related to the power of design that the U.K. and other nations should be paying attention to?

As many people are aware, there's been a mini revolution in the last decade, and consumers are much more knowledgeable about design. They can read about it easily in national, mainstream press and media. That exposure is  helping to educate numerous members of the general public who are now more willing to make brave decisions about design than they used to be.

They are also realizing that design touches everyone a hundreds or thousand times a day. You only notice design when it's really good or bad. But there is not a business or activity that doesn't use design in some way. In that sense, design is an easy entry point for many different sectors to interact with each other and forge new dialogues.

That's how we frame our activities at the London Design Festival. We know design is a good frame in which to be porous. So we bring in interesting stuff from different realms, from the science, business, and education communities. We feel anyone can talk to anyone through design activities.

But I have to admit that this is possible in London because we have a mature design sector in London. There is a statistic that one out of every six new jobs in London is in the creative sector. So design is a key driver of our city's economy. There have also been studies that show that 6-7% of the U.K.'s gross domestic product is in the creative industries. In the U.S., it's about 3%. In London and in the U.K., there are a lot of people who make a living out of design. So it's important to support the future of design here. The future success of the city...and the country...is dependent on these industries.

Related on SmartPlanet:

Architect Zaha Hadid wins second consecutive Stirling Prize

Life-size living lego greenhouse

Image: London Design Festival

Share this

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