Q&A: Hlin Helga Gudlaugsdóttir

The curator of DesignTalks 2014, Hlin Helga Gudlaugsdóttir, discusses 'Dealing with Reality' in our Q&A.

Reykjavik plays host to DesignMarch in a few weeks (27–30 March), opening with a day of DesignTalks by leading international design thinkers. This year's theme 'Dealing with Reality' explores the designer and the architect as a visionary and a strategist, playing on the inter-relationship between realities.

Speakers include: the fashion designer Calvin Klein; Robert Wong, Google Creative Lab; Mikael Schiller, Acne Studios; Kathryn Firth, London Legacy Development Corporation; and Marco Steinberg, former director of strategic design at Helsinki Design Lab.

We caught up with the day's curator Hlin Helga Gudlaugsdóttir, a designer, curator and teacher at Konstfack, University College of Arts, Crafts and Design in Stockholm, Sweden, to find out more about DesignTalks 2014.

How did you become involved with DesignMarch this year as curator of DesignTalks?
Well, I was asked. My transdisciplinary practices may have caught people’s attention perhaps. I’ve been involved in various inter- and trans-disciplinary projects and teaching in Stockholm and around the world over the past years. Perhaps I was a candidate because I’m standing a little bit in the periphery of the Icelandic design scene at the moment. Or maybe I was just the only one who said yes?

'Dealing with Reality', addressing real world challenges in different contexts – how did you chose to focus on that theme?
There's a certain urgency to it; today's reality needs the power of design. The innate ability of the designer to detect opportunities, to invent, to create alternatives, to dream, to be visionaries. I want to empower us to think like that, and not to forget it when we are in fact dealing with – and oftentimes being suppressed by – real world challenges. It's an urgency which I describe as 'we all have to dare to care'; it goes beyond enhancing the lives of people, and into inventing new alternatives, futures that we all want to share. I'd like to echo Alice Rawsthorne, the design critic, when she talks about the need for designers to take initiative, to reinvent their roles themselves and prove their worth in a changed landscape of today’s world. And I'd like to take it even further and stress the designers responsibility to, across disciplines, rethink instead of repair broken systems, institutions, healthcare, governments... the list is long. That we really live up to the fundamental – and more traditional role than we think – of design being agents of change.

What was your process for creating the line-up with such a strong mix of speakers, from the worlds of fashion, technology and strategic design?
My strategy sprung out of today's urgent questions about the new roles of the designer and my search for role models – across the design disciplines. I started with the concept and then went fishing for people. I worked closely with the amazing visionaries at the Iceland Design Centre and our extended network who was willing to help – and in turn use their contacts – and then Iceland did it. Everybody wants to come to our little exotic island…

What can the audience expect from the day? Any unexpected surprises? (I don’t suppose we’ll get any urban rapping this year?)
Well Stephan Sigrist, head of W.I.R.E. and I will be co-moderating the day and we’ve have been practicing some song and dance… The audience should prepare for some brain gymnastics.  And it'll be fun.

The programme is delivered using a variety of approaches: talks, discussions, interviews. Do you have a favoured delivery method?
My favourite is probably a mixed method, right? But I guess you could say I’m a little bit of a fan of good talk shows, laid-back deep interviews. There’s something so inspiring about 'peeking into people's heads and hearts', getting in touch with their more humble sides, seeing other people with one's own heart.

As a designer, which other discipline would you most like to  team up with for a project to drive change in unexpected contexts?
For me, my current constellation is always my favourite one. Right now, I’m working with my fellow designers at HAF Studio, the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology of the Landspitali University Hospital, the non-profit organisation Líf and the Swiss Think Tank W.I.R.E. in Iceland. We’re aiming for creating new visions for a human-centred maternity care in Iceland. Before that I was teaming up with Palliative Care researchers at Ersta Hospice on the topic of the Future of Death.

How do you see collaborations?
Citing my close colleague for years now, Dr Ronald Jones (professor of interdisciplinary studies and many more things), the theory on interdisciplinarity tells us that the further away you place the collaborating disciplines, the more likely you are to get a spectacular invention out of it – and the more likely the collaboration is to fail. We're getting better at this, but I think that a neglected part of creative inter- and trans-disciplinary collaborations are the qualities of the persons involved, in some ways, to look beyond the disciplines and choose the people. For me, it's about chemistry of the people collaborating, but most importantly, their experience and their tacit knowledge.

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Tickets for DesignMarch are now available, with more information available at the festival website.

Photos courtesy of DesignMarch.

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