IN THE NOW-ONLY-NEWISH “normal” that is the pandemic of 2020, innovative outlets for connection and creativity have become as vital to our overall well-being as a face mask — with just as many personalized, expressive forms. Thankfully, the Seattle Design Festival — celebrating its 10th anniversary this year — is built on innovation, connection, creativity, expression and — now, especially — adaptability.
Over the past decade, the festival has drawn together a diverse crowd of participants (30,000+ a year) — designers, of course, but also the public, and city officials, and businesspeople — to celebrate design in Seattle, and to consider its impact.
Going Virtual for the 10th Anniversary
What: Seattle Design Festival.
When: Aug. 15-23.
More information: This year’s festival is all-virtual; check designinpublic.org/about-sdf-faq for the lineup, or email email@example.com.
As the pandemic intensified, the festival team at AIA Seattle’s Design in Public adapted early, canceling traditional celebratory get-togethers; pulling together virtual programs, installations, exhibitions and experiences; and tweaking this year’s theme, “About Time,” to encompass not just design in Seattle, but also design in a time of global crisis.
Adapters never quit (the revamped festival runs Aug. 15-23).
We talked with Lisa Richmond, executive director of AIA Seattle and founder of the festival, about its history, its 2020 format and the role of design in our anything-but-normal world (and whatever comes next).
Q: What is your history with architecture, AIA Seattle and the Seattle Design Festival?
A: I’ve been director of AIA Seattle since 2006, taking the job after a yearlong fellowship at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design. I am not an architect, but I’ve worked in the built environment for more than two decades, with a particular passion for community engagement and environmental stewardship. Within six months of joining AIA, I started dreaming about a design festival in our city, inspired by the few examples of such events at the time, mostly happening in Europe. As founding director, I drew on visionary leadership from our AIA members to launch the first festival in 2011.
Seattle has such a unique culture of design: highly collaborative, innovative and multidisciplinary. The quality of design happening in this city — architecture and landscape, user experience and gaming, outdoor gear and apparel, materials and products — made this a perfect place to launch a festival that embraced the full spectrum of design. Seattle’s history of strong community participation and focus on inclusion led us naturally to an event that was uniquely community-driven and engaging.
Q: How has the festival evolved and adapted over the years — whether through theme or format?
A: The festival is entirely a product of the people that are involved in it. It is planned by a core group of dedicated volunteers, many of them emerging designers, and their passions and interests have injected the festival with a clear focus on issues of social justice and environmental responsibility.
Q: Can you please list and briefly explain some of the yearly themes?
A: Our themes serve as high-level prompts to inspire design responses from our community. Over time, they have evolved to respond to timely issues facing our city. “Design in Motion” examined mobility, movement and transit at a time of major investment in transportation infrastructure. “Design in Health” convened public-health experts, researches and designers to consider the health impacts of design decisions such as the location of a building’s stairs, walkability of our neighborhoods, and accessibility of public places and parks. Several recent themes — “Design for Equity,” “Power” and “Design Change” — have used design to illuminate social inequities and prototype solutions for challenges like homelessness and inclusion. Last year’s theme, “Balance,” highlighted the need to balance the needs of people and the planet.
Q: Given the goals of the festival, what are some of its most valuable accomplishments/contributions over the years?
A: The Seattle Design Festival seeks to unleash the designer in everyone, to illuminate Seattle’s challenges and inspire action. Each year, the festival demonstrates the relevance of design thinking, empowers communities to leverage design and promotes a culture of collaboration. SDF is unique among architecture and design festivals worldwide in its laser focus on community engagement and codesign, seeking not just to inform but to empower communities to shape this place we call home.
Q: How does each of these constituencies — designers, community members, experts, city officials and business leaders — participate in and contribute to the festival, and to Seattle’s built environment in general?
A: The festival is entirely community-generated, comprising programmatic responses to our annual design prompt or theme. Each year, we release a call for proposals, and our community responds with experiences, events, exhibits and installations that address it. On average, we have over 100 program partners a year, including not only designers and their firms, but also community groups, nonprofit organizations, government partners and students. Our mission is to unleash the design-thinker in everyone. Some of the best programs come out of partnerships between designers and community groups, creating lasting relationships that live on past the festival and spark change in our city moving forward. We believe that design is for everyone and that inclusive codesign practices and partnerships are essential to shaping an equitable Seattle.
Q: How would you describe Seattle’s architectural aesthetic and community?
A: Seattle’s design community is uniquely collaborative and generous. Our focus is more on making life better for the human beings that design serves, and sustaining our incredible natural environment, and less on feeding egos and building “starchitects.” The Seattle Design Festival is all about genuine and honest collaboration across disciplines and backgrounds, and I’m not sure it could exist in the same way in any other city.
Q: To what degree is the public engaged with design in Seattle, and how does that manifest?
A: Every one of us is engaged with design every day, even if we don’t realize it. Design impacts whether we feel safe in our neighborhood, how we choose to get to work, how hard or easy it is for us to access stores and churches and schools. Well-designed buildings and places and products and experiences uplift us, and they also make our lives easier and more productive. While design is operating in our lives every day, many of us don’t have the tools or opportunity to participate in design processes or influence design outcomes. The Seattle Design Festival seeks to change that.
Q: This year, how have you adapted the concept behind the “About Time” theme, and the format of the festival itself?
A: Like everyone else, we are adapting and changing quickly to make the most of our new normal. For the festival, that means most experiences will live in virtual rather than physical space. We are treating this as a design problem: How can we creatively and genuinely inspire collaboration in virtual space to illuminate Seattle’s challenges and imagine design solutions? Ideas being explored include drive-by exhibits, design scavenger hunts, photo contests, online hackathons, film and video, intimate Zoom salons and large lecture events. A key part of the festival this year will be an ideas competition, exploring how we might redesign our places and experiences in response to COVID. One great opportunity this new format offers is connection with other design festivals around the globe. We are actively working with festivals in West Coast cities to jointly craft and share programming and ideas, and our Design Jams are already attracting participation from designers from other parts of the country.
Q: How might this global public health crisis change architectural perspectives? What’s likely to become more or less important than it used to be?
A: Right now, architects are talking about the very practical impacts of the pandemic: Do offices need more space between desks or glass partitions? Do event spaces and stores need redesign to allow greater social distancing? How can we provide sanitation facilities for people living with homelessness? These are very real and immediate problems to solve in our built environment. But at a higher level, this crisis is giving architects — and the rest of us — pause to ponder bigger questions arising in our society: How can architecture address the grave inequities that have become painfully visible in our society? How can buildings become more resilient to future crises, such as climate change?