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What Design Can Do 2014

With ever-growing popularity and recognition the yearly design conference What Design Can Do presents a lineup of established designers and talented young designers. We speak to initiator Richard van der Laken about the fourth edition of this celebration of design. 

By Cassandra Pizzey / 18-04-2014

Design for change always seems to be the top priority during the yearly design conference What Design Can Do. With international speakers from all different design disciplines, the two-day seminar, workshops and networking event will leave you inspired and ready for action. 

This will be the fourth edition of WDCD, can you tell us what changes the conference has gone through since the start?

RvdL: “This edition will be the one that shows that we are here, and here to stay. The previous three were the starting case, now we have to prove that we are worth it.

Building up an international event like this, during the economical crisis proved challenging. But we managed nevertheless. Every edition we picked up new ideas and developed these with small steps into valuable assets of the event. These efforts now result in a conference with a great mix of upcoming new names like Daisy Ginsberg and serious heavyweights like Paul Smith.

Also we developed a film festival and launched a daily blog. And last but not least we have serious, very entertaining and an insightful range of break out sessions during the event in May.”

There are some big players among this year's speakers. How do you go about approaching them and what does it feel like to have them on board?

“The fact that people like Paul Smith, Michael Bierut, Paola Antonelli, Carlo Ratti, Teddy Cruz, Dutch minister of culture Jet Bussemaker and all the others said yes to our invitation fills me with pride of course. It shows that they know What Design Can Do and that they appreciate what we’re trying to achieve. They want to be on our stage and interact with the Dutch audience. I see that as a great sign of approval.

The way we approach them is quite blunt to be honest. Most of the time we just email them with a personal invitation. With some speakers you need to be persistent, others are enthusiastic from the start. With Paul Smith it was slightly different. I did some research on what he liked. He is a fanatic collector, especially when it comes to bike racing. So I sent him a vintage Dutch cycling jersey.

He replied with a hand written note, which was really lovely. After several attempts to get his agenda in sync with ours, he said yes to 8 May. Fantastic!”

Why is it important to have a mix of all the different design disciplines? 

“It sounds like a cliche, but nowadays disciplines are merging more than ever. For that reason it is very important to develop a certain attitude as designer, architect, entrepreneur or company.

With What Design Can Do we try to get all these different people from different countries acting in different disciplines together. Because they share a common ground, a shared attitude.”

Do you pick your speakers especially for their role in social change? What other criteria must they live up to?

“What Design Can Do is about the impact of design. Social change is always dominant in that, but we also want to show how design can help organisations or companies to work better, make more valuable products or services.

In the end this all boils down to social change, because companies are always very dominant in our society. That is also a reason why we invite not only designers, but also entrepreneurs like Chineasy's ShaoLan Hsueh, or a food scientist like the Belgian Bernard Lahousse. They give alternative perspectives on what design can do. And also what it can not do of course.”

Can you tell us a little bit about the role of this year's breakout sessions?

“The speakers on stage are 'sending'. But if we want to exchange ideas, inspire each other, discuss and talk, we need to facilitate that. The break out sessions give speakers the possibility to dive deeper into subject together with the audience and the partners who host these break outs sessions. And that is important, because our partners are key figures in the design landscape. They vary from design companies like VBAT to Rietveld Academy, Tu Delft or the Association of Dutch Designers.” 

There is also a film festival with accompanying lectures this year from 1-8 May can you tell us why this was important to you?

“The movies presented at the film festival give the viewers a great insight in the context in which design is involved in our lives. A lecture is a personal story by one individual. A movie or documentary creates a whole world. It is entertaining, educational and insightful. Everybody should go!” 

What Design Can Do will take place this year on 8 and 9 May at the Stadsschouwburg in Amsterdam. For more information and tickets go to

1. ShaoLan Hsueh
2. Laduma Nxgokolo
3. Nelly Ben Hayoun
4. Michael Bierut
5. Willy Wong