What Can Design Do? It’s Time for Designers to Make an Impact on the Planet and the Design Industry

Discover the themes of the conference Design Matters 24, taking place in Copenhagen & Online on Oct 23-24-25, 2024

As tradition goes, every year in January, the Design Matters team meets with some of the designers who gave a talk at the previous edition of Design Matters to discuss the hottest and most relevant topics in the design industry. This group of international designers forms a Committee, which is the one ultimately responsible for deciding the topics of the next Design Matters conference.

In 2024, the Committee workshop was hosted online, so that designers located in different geographical areas and time zones could join and give their input. 11 designers participated: Andrés Clúa, Casey Hudetz, Lena Hammes, Michelle Chin, Mick Champayne, Rebekka Valdmanis Mørken, Rasmus Sanko, Setor Zilevu, Sophie Tahran, John Teo, and Zeynep Akay. Anamaria Dorgo, who hosted a networking session at Design Matters 23, ran the workshop.

Some of the topics covered in the workshop included: 

  • Hot topics and design trends emerging in 2024
  • How the role of the designer is changing with emerging technologies like AI
  • How design can be used to fix environmental issues
  • What skills designers should have to stay competitive
  • How to measure and prove that design is impactful in business terms

Based on the most discussed topics that emerged in the workshop, the Design Matters team put together a description of the themes, which the Committee later reviewed and provided feedback on. Find the description of each theme below.

Give a scrap

One man’s trash is another man’s treasure. From giving a new life to old trends to rediscovering pixels, remixing AI-generated compositions and embracing the resurgence of maximalism, reusing will be all in for 2024. 

Revisiting old trends, Gen Z will embrace the Eclectic Grandpa style, choosing retro streetwear, chic cardigans and customized clothing, bringing eccentric and expressive elements to their wardrobes. Maximalism will come back in full force in furniture and interior design, for a potpourri of styles that clash.

But how about the digital realm? A new wave of maximalism will bring colorful composition-heavy designs, rich in details, with many actions happening at the same time, and where all the space on the canvas is filled, leaving no white space. If thrifted Y2K finds are making a comeback, pixels and dots are finding their way back into digital platforms and typography too. Dot display design powerfully blends retro and modern, allowing a futuristic look or a vintage vibe, depending on how it’s used. Y2K trends also send us back to the early web era when the first websites had ultra simple, low-res graphics. This rediscovery of pixels manifests itself in the integration of high res graphics with 8-bit pixel-style elements, allowing to combine today’s trends with styles popular decades ago. We also live in an era where AI can recreate popular styles instantly, while also embracing unconventional color palettes and shapes, which makes AI an ally in the creative and digital recycling process. 

This theme will look into digital design trends like maximalism, but also non-digital design disciplines – like architecture, furniture, spatial design, engineering, biology – and non visual design – such as sound, haptics, LLM. For the sake of reusing, recycling, and upcycling, this theme will look at all those disciplines and digital products that are helping things find a new life. It’s time to give a scrap!

What makes a designer… a designer?

We’re living in a time filled with scientific discoveries and the invention of new technologies. But we’re also living in a time filled with uncertainty; our world is destabilized by global conflicts, pressed by the urge to stop and fix climate change, and flooded by AIs that are allies for creativity and workflow optimization but also a threat to our jobs. And our society is showing all the inequalities brought by late-stage Capitalism. All this is reflected in the design industry too. 

We designers are being prompted to reflect on and rethink what our jobs and careers should look like. What are the possible career progressions for designers? Does everyone need to become a manager? What’s it like to move from individual contributor to manager? What opportunities are there for individual contributors?

With so much unpredictability in the industry, what roles and responsibilities should designers take on? How can designers continue to inspire and avoid burnout? With education becoming more accessible and career paths less rigid, are there any anti-academic pathways into design? With new tools such as AI becoming available, what skills will be in demand? And with the recent democratization of tools and support of AI, who can claim to be a designer and what should the role of a designer be?

For some, digital design has reached a plateau where everything looks or behaves the same, and where design has lost its uniqueness and human touch. So, are designers catering instead of innovating? How can a designer stand out in a commoditized landscape? In the age of AI assistance in brainstorming, concept creation, and generation of multiple design variations, are designers becoming curators? If not, how can designers celebrate the variety of skills they carry and show the impact they make in so many fields?

Although designers may often be disregarded these days, they definitely have value and leave a lasting impact in shaping the world of tomorrow.  This theme aims to dig deep into what makes a designer…a designer, exploring the various shapes a design role can take, designers’ new roles, responsibilities, and the inspiration they can draw from classical disciplines – such as artisanal craft, physical design, and architecture. Designers have the power to show the breadth of impact they can make in so many fields. Things are changing, but change begets opportunity. 

Expressing the value of design

Design can be found everywhere in life, and it truly has the power to change an individual’s reality. Be it deciding to buy something after passing by an eye-catching billboard that uses the right words, fonts, and colors, or successfully purchasing a flight in only a few clicks, everyone, every day, is exposed to the power design provides in all of its variations. 

But because its presence is so ingrained into the products we use every day, oftentimes businesses don’t stop to reflect on the impact – big and small – that design has. So, how can we prove that design matters? How can we communicate the value of design in business terms? How can we, designers, measure and prove the impact of design in the companies we work for? 

The recent democratization of design, the constant emerging of new technologies, and the impact of AI on the design processes have made the designer’s job faster, more varied, and even easier. This has pushed many companies to believe that design can be done without designers or that design is not as needed as it used to be, leading to redundancies and reorgs. But can companies really be profitable without design? Designers are being forced to stay relevant by expanding their skill set beyond their area of expertise and are also being pressured to demonstrate how investing in design is profitable. 

We’re also seeing that the industry is changing, as managers are being asked to push pixels again (giving them less time to mentor and strategize), experienced ICs are being asked to focus more on visual design (giving them less time to focus on other aspects of design), and junior designers can’t get into the industry at all (making the industry miss out on new talent and perspectives). This change, paired with a potential downgrading of design teams, can lead to a lack of long-term strategy, and therefore profitability for the companies – showing that design can be and is valuable, if impact is measured and proven correctly. 

This theme will explore the ways in which design can be impactful and profitable, the ways in which design can stay relevant and designers focussed, and ultimately how to measure and demonstrate the value of design to a business’ bottom line.

There is no planet B

According to some predictions, people will embrace a slower and more mindful life. Consumers will be more conscious about the decisions they make; they’ll pay more attention to how things are produced, to how much the products they buy impact the planet and the people who make them, and where the money they spend is going. We have already seen an increase in companies donating to specific causes, in labels that state, for instance, how much CO2 is being saved by buying that product (think of food packaging), and in consumers boycotting products and companies that are working unethically. 

We, designers, too are being asked to be responsible for what we design; in particular, for the effects the products we design can have on the people and the planet – be it addiction, misinformation, instigation of violence, pollution, or CO2 emissions. Are we aware of the weight of the Internet and its invisible carbon footprint? Think of all the data centers in the world, and all the servers we are using to store the thousands of photos of videos we have on our Cloud, for example. Technology is progressing fast, and this is allowing us to do things we could never dream of before, but are we really designing for our planet? Are we just chasing after the next technology or are we actually helping our planet? With this knowledge, what action can we take?

These questions prompt us to think about not only the digital products we create, but also physical objects, transport, and urban planning. What new materials and tech are being used for a more sustainable world? How does urban planning or industrial design nudge users to live healthier (or worse) lives? As complex technologies are becoming available to more people, how can spatial design and spatial Uis be deployed?

Following a trend where people are learning to “slow down”, we’re also seeing more designers using their skills to engage on a more local level, contributing with design thinking to city planning, events, etc, to support community building. Living in a Capitalist world, how can we reconcile making things for the world while also finding personal value in it? What does design after Capitalism look like?

This theme will look into all the tangible ways in which design can truly support the planet, its people, creatures and ecosystems, exploring what responsibilities, materials, and technologies designers can use to create a sustainable and an ethical future – with practical examples, case studies, and more. 

Get your ticket

In 2024 Design Matters turns 10! Celebrate and take part in this special 3-day event, which will take place both online and in Copenhagen, on October 23-24-25, 2024. 
If you join with your team you can get a Group Discount, and if you belong to a minority you can get a DEI Discount (we do not store personal information about the attendees). Read more about the discounts and get your ticket here.

Discover all the design events and conferences by Design Matters! Seize the opportunity to learn from an amazing cast of international designers in a series of events - in June in Tokyo & Online, and in October in Copenhagen & Online.

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