DesignMarch 2017 | DesignTalks

This past Thursday was the official start of DesignMarch, with one of its most popular official events – DesignTalks – held in Reykjavík‘s magnificent Harpa concert hall and conference center.

This year’s theme was “Brut Nature“ – exploring mankind’s connection with nature, that has faded over time and almost been lost, but can hopefully be regained. To try to rebuild this relationship with nature we must try to understand it, get out of this box we have created for ourselves to live in and get back to the basics. And who thinks outside the box? Designers.


“How can we change the world? […] By going back to the source.“

Hlín Helga Guðlaugsdóttir, DesignTalks curator.

Held in Reykjavík‘s Harpa, DesignTalks started bright and early at 8:30 in the morning – the kind of cold and brisk morning that made guests extremely thankful for the free coffee that was made available to us upon arrival.

The first speaker of the day was Iceland‘s minister of education and culture, Kristján Þór Júlíusson, who spoke of the importance of adaptability and sustainability. With a harsh Icelandic accent, he emphasized the relevance of design in all sectors of society and stated that art and design are unjustly overlooked in regards to international relations. He praised the Icelandic Design Centre for its role in strengthening Icelandic design and compared designers to scientists in a laboratory, conducting experiments and solving problems.

Rakel Óttarsdóttir, managing director of information technology at Arion bank, a DesignTalks sponsor, said that “if there‘s an industry in need of redesigning, it‘s the financial industry.“
She talked about the importance of corporate transparency, a subject that was also touched upon quite a bit at last year‘s DesignTalks, and that after the financial crisis there was a trust problem between the financial sector and the public.
In an effort to reconnect with their customers and make their service more accessible “we had to redesign our business,“ and they decided to turn their fundamental work processes completely upside down. With a new approach to teamwork and problem solving they‘ve managed to make their services much more accessible to the customer, for example by simplifying their mortgage loan applications to eliminate unnecessary paperwork and transferring the whole process online.


“Hope is a crop. Design is a seed.“

Paul Bennett, National Geographic.

Paul Bennett, co-moderator of this year‘s DesignTalks, was undeniably my favorite of the day. This has almost nothing to do with the fact that he started his talk by proclaiming that Iceland is his favorite country in the world. He was without a doubt the most energetic, candid and relatable speaker.
He spoke of his time in Congo, stating that all he wanted to do was go to Africa but didn‘t really know where to go. Everyone told him, “Just don‘t go to Congo,“ so of course, he thought, “Well, I‘m going to go to Congo.“

In Congo he got to know the people in a way that was unexpected to him, a choir of children at a village church moved him to tears and he was asked by a local woman to “help us tell a story of hope here.“ He got to work with a small team of people to find out what needed changing, but most of all, what he was capable of changing.
They started with something simple: handwashing. To try to influence the public in a simple yet effective way, this was a good place to start as many diseases spread quickly due to poor hygiene. Paul found a man with a small old-fashioned print press and, together with their team of locals, they made a simple pamphlet about hand washing – complete with a song. It didn‘t take long for the song to become a hit in local schools. “This is what design is today for me: from transcended feeling to transformation in a week,“ Paul said of this experience.

The Powerful Now,“ another project of Pauls, is designed to make people think of age in a different way. “How do we feel about age?“ is the key question of the project and it makes people think about what prejudices they have toward age, both their own and other people‘s, and how this shapes their view of society – who is relevant and who isn‘t,  for example. This really is something fantastic for people to think about and I urge everyone to take a closer look at this project and start thinking about their own feelings about age.


“We have a lot of knowledge that we need to incorporate in our designs.“

Architect Anna María Bogadóttir spoke of the “Added value of architecture,“ a SAMARK exhibition, of wich she is the co-curator, that is meant to demonstrate the importance of architecture in society. Exploring how design can influence service costs and lead to a more sustainable urban structure, Anna hopes the exhibition will “plant a seed of thought and spark a change in thought,“ as well as “lead to future research on [the] added value of architecture.“


“There are more international borders in the world today than there ever were before.“

“Melting Borders“ is a project by architect Marco Ferrari and visual director Elisa Pasqual, co-founders of Studio Folder, that is meant to raise awareness about climate change in a new way.

As technology advances a lot of old data has had to be updated to modern standards and an example of that is maps. Studio Folder realized that segments of Italian borders in the Alps were displaced as they originally followed glacial lines that have now receded due to climate change.

Italian Limes” is an ongoing research project and interactive installation where people can explore this for themselves using maps and printers connected to sensors currently placed on the glaciers. Because of how rapidly the landscape of the Alps is changing, a new law was set in place that the borders are to be re-evaluated every two years.

“The most important thing we realized is that borders are artificial. It‘s just a line.“

Elisa Pasqual.


Designer Brynhildur Pálsdóttir, ceramicist Ólöf Erla and geologist Snæbjörn Guðmundsson told us about their search for Icelandic porcelain. As a relatively “new“ country – we weren‘t around for Pangea – Iceland has a fairly different and less mature geological material composition to the countries places on the large continents. The process of clay formation is a very long one and, with our island still in its pre-teens, Iceland just doesn‘t have what it takes yet. However, because Iceland is placed on a mantle plume and on tectonic plate boundaries, we have a lot of geothermal and volcanic energy and that is apparently a suitable substitute for “geological experience.“

By using three different kinds of clay found in Iceland – Kaolin, silica and granite – the team has experimented with mixing and creating porcelain and other ceramic materials. The experiments are still ongoing and you can follow their progress on their website.


“On spaceship Earth, worms are more important than people.“

Probably the most highly anticipated speaker of the day was Alexander Taylor, industrial designer and innovation consultant at ADIDAS.

He described the whole process of working with ADIDAS and Parley on a project involving the use of plastic found in the ocean. To take the environmentalism aspect even further, Taylor set out to reduce the amount of material and glue used to make the shoe itself, and came up with the innovative approach to develop a knitted shoe, thus eliminating the excessive material layering of conventional shoe production. Using gillnet collected during “Operation Icefish,“ Taylor and his team designed and produced the now famous ADIDAS x Parley shoe.

“It‘s a moment for everyone to be proactive. Now is the time to make a move. We‘re the generation that‘s going to define the future.“

Alexander Taylor.


Christien Meindertsma, an artist and designer from the Netherlands, talked about her collection of projects that could be considered as slightly odd – although very thought provoking.

She has been quite successful in raising awareness about sustainability in very unusual ways. One of her projects was a book, called “Pig 05049” that explores the use of animal products, following a single pig and documenting all the different products developed from its parts. She described it as “a very nerdy, lonely project,“ adding that it was “also very sad because of the meat industry.

Another one of her projects was the “Flax Project,” following the lifespan and use of a flax seed, used in rope production in Holland. She partnered with a farmer to follow the entire process of developing the flax and even ended up buying his entire crop, about ten thousand kilos, to prevent it from being exported to China and out of her reach.

After following the flax from seed to rope, documenting the process along the way, she designed a series of lamps from the rope and a chair from the “lower quality“ part of the flax, which will hopefully be available to purchase shortly.


Discomfort disappears when something becomes a habit.“

Michéle Degen, a designer from Switzerland, introduced to us her creation, Vulva Versa – a vagina mirror – that has the sole purpose of opening a conversation about vaginas and dissolve the taboo that exists around the subject.

Exploring the concept of shame and when and where it comes forth, Michéle worked with a hospital‘s gynecologist to try to understand why women feel discomfort and vulnerability when confronted with almost anything concerning their vaginas.

Vulva Versa is meant to be a tool to normalize the vagina and stop the word from being considered improper or taboo. Michéle says that she has personally seen results from her design already, as a vagina related conversation was sparked between her and members of airport security staff, just the day before as she departed for Iceland .


“If you give people the chance to empathize, they will take it.“

Visual artist and creative director of “Marshmallow Laser Feast,“ Ersin Han Ersin, took us on a journey through the world of virtual reality.

Faced with the fact that people have lost their connection with nature, MLF explored the idea of using technology to rebuild it, thus appealing much more strongly to the average tech-dependant modern person.

In the Eyes of the Animal,“ is a virtual reality project where people can experience what it‘s like to be an animal. MLF developed a comprehensive VR program that combines every available aspect of a particular animal‘s senses – hearing, sight, movement and even smell – by collecting data about its biology and translating it for human perception. The animals they chose were parts of a chosen food-chain, a midge,  a dragonfly, a frog and an owl, which all have a distinctly different view of the world – literally.

[photos: various DesignTalks things]

DesignTalks is such an inspiring event, it‘s very encouraging to see how many people are consciously trying to change the world in such immensely different ways. Design has a key role in humanity‘s learning process – teaching people to look at problems in a different way and to open their eyes to their own capability to impact the big picture.

“Design is not just a craft, but a deeply crafted sense of who we are.“

Paul Bennett.













Photos by Sebastian Ziegler