The first Seattle Design Festival, called "Beneath the Surface," is occurring at a powerful time. These 10 days (Sept. 16-25), with over 30 events, many of them free, will illuminate the extraordinary breadth and role design plays in framing our place in the world. The issues of climate change, resource consumption, social equity, economic diversity, civic life, and ecological resilience are central to the health of this region, and the world. Design is central to each.
Design may be defined as the rigorous intentional effort of framing a question, pursuing a strategy, and integrating the rational and intuitive to find a solution. This considered problem solving touches much of our lives and should inform larger issues. Trans-disciplinary thinking, yet humble problem-solving, and the integration of the functional and poetic — these are at the heart of "design."
The Pacific Northwest — located on the edge of the Pacific Rim and with an extraordinary sense of place and immediate access to the world’s broad array ideas and information — is a powerful design force. Our deep roots in engineering, the sciences, arts, and environmentalism, plus the broad economic diversity in a mature urban context, create a hotbed for innovation and creativity.
Think about and early example: the still relevant and timely Gas Works Park, known for its early bioremediation using biosolids and retention of an industrial site at the heart of a city. Consider the wildly innovative arts community with institutions such as Pilchuck, remarkable venues such as On the Boards, and the first 1% for Art program in the country. Or recall the Ivar’s Dances with Clams, Back to Clam Future, and Ivar's Chariots of Clams advertising of the 1980s. Those ads reflect the unique humor and identity of the Northwest and are now on YouTube. Design is serious and fun.
The vitality and economic health of cities depend on attracting the innovative, curious, and creative. Couple this with a strong design tradition growing out of the rich, powerful Northwest regional character and you get design that works and a force supporting a vibrant economy.
Another expression of this vitality is Northwest architecture. One legacy of is Paul Kirk, whose work influenced local and national architects in the creation of humane modernist architecture profoundly related to place. Sustainable architecture in the Northwest — evident in the use of daylight, provision of shelter and indoor-outdoor living — has been alive and well for decades. The Northwest has provided national leadership in the area of storm water integration with rapid adoption of alternative means such as the Swale on Yale, cleaning and revealing the water from the western slope of Capitol Hill.
Design festivals and the celebration of design are not new, just as design as an economic force is not new. The Dutch have used design as an export product and to revitalize industrial cities such as Eindhoven. The Japanese and Italian identities are inextricably linked with design. What is new is the situation here in the Northwest, poised to make design a critical regional and national resource.
"Beneath the Surface" gives us all a window through which to see this complex resource and the ways design touches our lives. Take an evening or two and go to events that have no apparent relationship and see how they shape your view. Seek out the pop-up. See how they cross-pollinate and transform your thinking. "Beneath the Surface" focuses on the rich circumstance, the broad role of design, and the great opportunity.
If you go: The Seattle Design Festival consists of tours, exhibits, speakers, films, and family events at various locations from Sept. 16-25; many events are free and some require advanced reservations. A complete calendar is on the website.
The author is one of the honorary co-chairs of the Seattle Design Festival. —Ed.