Since the mid-20th century, Danish design has cultivated a national brand based on iconic names from Lego and Ecco to the Sydney Opera House. But how have the tenets of design changed with the amount of technology now available to designers? QIUYUN TAN sat down with Nille Juul-Sørensen, a Danish architect and the director of Danish Design Centre, to find out. An advocate of big data, new technology in design, and the man behind the world’s most prominent design award, INDEX: Award, Juul-Sørensen is a groundbreaker and a futurist determined to challenge design norms.
What do you perceive to be the key characteristic of Danish design?
It’s always designed around the human body. When the industrial revolution came [to Denmark], Sweden is [already] an industrialized country, Germany is an industrialized country, and we are still a bunch of poor farmers. That meant if you want a chair, you really thought of it for a long time. It really has to be beautiful, has to last my life, has to be the right material in the right place.
Because of the [Second World] War, we needed hands to do the jobs, so there was no one at home. Everything was changing, so of course, a family needed new furniture, new kitchen appliances, new flats. We just had, by luck, a talent pool of architects and designers who could deliver this new future.
How do you see the impact of the tradition of Danish design on today’s Danish society?
The whole nation was brought up with a very high design profile, and I think if you ask ordinary Danes, they know a lot about design. There has been no education, but it’s part of our DNA that our homes are always nice and tidy. And it’s very minimal. We don’t want flashy things. We like a simple life. Because fashion goes around, so Danish design is now fashionable again—which is good, because it gives a lot of opportunities to young designers.
How would you describe the goals of Danish Design Centre and what are your approaches to reaching them?
The Design Centre was started almost 25 years ago. We had a lot of crafts here, we had a lot of nice chairs being made. Then, designers diverted themselves more and more into doing industrial products.
Around year 2000, this movement came along that design is maybe not about a nice chair, design is a lot more. So INDEX was started to look at design in a broader way. In a way we succeeded, because now all Danish design companies work with social design, system design, tangible design, and services.
When I came in a year and a half ago, I said maybe we should start thinking about design for “the 99 percent of the world.” For so many years, design has been fascinated about design for the 1 percent, which I think is fair enough.
But I think we have problems with planet Earth, and someone has to solve them. I don’t believe in the banks. I don’t believe in the financial suits. I think right now designers have to move in and be the next in the nexus.
Doing that, we need other drivers than nice chairs. So we had three drivers, basically, which is technology, materials, big data. They are the three that, in the next five or maybe 10 years, will drive design and society in a way we need designers.
So, we will have people coming in doing lectures on some wild stuff, artificial intelligence, how can we download the brain in 2050, and how do we design the new human being. It’s really looking at design that has a meaning and a purpose.
How do you think a designer’s mindset is different from someone that specializes in tech?
You can see that in the IT industry [for example], they are doing something where the interfaces are so bad. And you know they could do better, but they just don’t want to go back. But designers would say, “We have to go back, because this is not good enough—good enough is not enough. It has to be operated by normal people, and they have to be intuitive.”
I think Google is really cool because it is so simple. Facebook was very simple in the beginning but now you have your friends out here, your other ones out here; it’s getting so noisy. So how to cut things away and say, “This is exactly what we want”? That phone [the iPhone] is exactly what you want. There’s nothing on that phone that you could take away.
You’ve talked about designers’ intuitions in doing things—that they see patterns from their gut feelings. But one of your foci is big data and technology. Will that make design more predictable and less intuitive?
I think it will never be more predictable. It will be the opposite. To me, before we have big data, it’s like Lego: You can buy Lego yellow, blue, red, and green. So before, you bought a lot of red colors. Now, you get a whole trunk full of different Lego colors, and just dump them off. So designers can go in and see patterns in this.
The intuition and the “stupidness” of a designer is that they start thinking that if I take this data set, and combine it with that data set, could that be fun? And you find out, that’s a whole new business. So it’s about getting these creative people into data, and they can see, “I can do this and that.”
Where do you think inspirations for designers come from, and what drives design?
Designers are basically pissed off by a lot of things. I think that’s what drives you constantly to change things.
A lot of the time, people like bankers, builders, they ask you a question, and I can answer it. But do I answer the wrong question correctly? The problem is that your question is the wrong question.
We were contacted by the Copenhagen Municipality, and they ask us, “Can you help us, because we have so many bikes that it is very dangerous, almost, to drive on the bike lanes?” And I said, “Yes. I can give you a whole conference, and we can design new bike lanes for you. But maybe you should rephrase your question. Because now you’re just looking at bikes, why don’t we look at mobility? If you come in to ask me this question, maybe I will solve your bicycle question by doing something that has nothing to do with bicycles.” That’s what designers are used to. The best designers, best architects actually answer the questions that you are not capable of raising.
When I was visiting the Design Museum of Denmark, I noticed that the design of each age seems to reflect the pace or concerns of that time, like slowness, uncertainty, or sustainability. How do you think Danish design interacts with the society?
We have designs that are mirroring society, but most of the time it’s about the materials or the production technique. Ikea is very popular because you can flat pack it. No designers before that think of, “How many chairs can I fit in a container?” So they look at a container and design the chairs so that they can have more chairs in a container than anybody else, because that will drive the price down, because you have to ship it. All these constraints are actually inspirations for you. That is more than a political thing; it’s more about the means of technology, processing, and—probably, because now you can do laser cut, you can do things you never done before—now you can cut wild patterns. Then you think, “Oh, this is really mirroring that we are in that age. It’s not that design, it’s the industry that is capable of doing this.”
What do you think is the biggest challenge in the design industry now?
Investment in creative ideas. I know in countries if you say it’s design, they will not invest in you. But if you say it’s new technology, that’s another business. In Denmark it’s tough; I think it’s a little bit easier in the States because there are more money and more people who want to gamble. The designer should be aware that they are doing a business, not art. You have to have profit and you have to work hard. No one gets the thing like you walk in the park and you get the idea. Bullshit! All ideas are really, really hard working. You have to get a lot of ideas to survive.
Design often leads the way in envisioning the future, or a utopia. So what would you like to see in your utopia created by design?
I think we succeeded if families with kids have an easier life. From [the time] they get out of bed in the morning, to they go to bed at night, that they have more time to spend with their kids, really quality time. [My vision is that] we will have technology that is designed so well that it gives me more freedom to do what interests me and which is maybe not very productive for the nation, but is very productive for me.
You will probably have an avatar that’s reading 80 percent of your email and answering them for you, because the avatar knows what you will answer.
For me in the future, we can have rockets, we can have robots, we can have avatars, I don’t care, as long I have time to do things that no one told me to do. And I have my freedom to say, I don’t like you, that I have freedom to vote in democracy. That’s a political issue, but I think the rest will be taken care of by design and technology.