On Wednesday I spent the day at EDIT. I toured the main floor exhibit “Prosperity for All” (curated by Bruce Mau) and the diverse installations that surrounded it, such as the “Letters to the Mayor/The Developer” (a Storefront for Art + Architecture initiative presented in Toronto by Partisans Architecture). I climbed to the second floor and explored displays at the north end collected under the Shelter/Cities theme titled “The Green and the Grey” (curated by Carlo Ratti), and at the south end I explored displays loosely grouped as “Nourish” and anchored by Ikea’s Kitchen Food Lab. On the fourth floor I enjoyed the “Educate” collection (curated by Kentaro Wong) and the series of projects assembled under the theme “Care” (curated by Julielynn Wong). I spent the last part of the day on the sixth floor where, in a rare brush with fame, I relished a chance discussion with the very approachable Odile Decq prior to her keynote lecture at 6:00. (That will be the subject of my next post!) It was a full day, and I quickly began to regret my voluntary mandate of using the single experience to formulate a critical review of the entire EDIT festival.
Thankfully, it was a rainy, mid-week day, so I didn’t have to contend with crowds of jostling visitors. The space was sprawling and the content was ambitious. I definitely support the goals of the project. For almost a decade I have been teaching Interdisciplinary Practices to Interior Design and Industrial Design degree students, using an approach that balances case study investigation and hands-on testing. Much of my academic career has been spent coming to terms with Design Thinking and its widespread literature, including an expansion into the field of Design Studies (link here). EDIT introduces important ideas. I am glad that the Design Exchange took it on.
The problem – and opportunity – with this viewing experience was a weak hierarchy in emphasis and messaging. Too many design stories are emphasised at the expense of the larger message.
An easy example to use for critical review is EDIT’s signature exhibition “Prosperity for All” on the main floor. The exhibit sets the tone for the entire festival project. It showcases a key curatorial concept: the seventeen Goals for Sustainable Development (SDG) as outlined by the United Nations Development Program (UNDP). As one of the most resolved of all five exhibitions at EDIT, it has a simple organizing concept. It juxtaposes Paolo Pellegrin’s super-sized, gritty photographs of global conflicts, in black and white, with billboard-scaled colour posters describing forward-thinking design projects. An underlying theme among these projects is the way they appear to break down disciplinary silos and conventional barriers between design practices. It is clear that shared ethical values have propelled the design team to do things differently. Using the UNDP content as a thematic mainstay is a very good idea. Despite the reminder of these goals wrapped around columns at ceiling height, however, the mainstay message gets overlooked.
It might not have been overlooked if the curatorial question had been HOW rather than WHAT: how the design idea made a difference rather than what was the design result; how to communicate these exciting design case studies rather than what to show. This is a collection of great ideas exhibited in text and object. The burden of communicating these ideas is initially placed on an our visual consumption of an object in the foreground—3D models or prototypes such as a clever card game used to shake up inherited notions, a symbolic tent for refugees made of cast-off life jackets, an exquisite architectural model, or charismatic seating made using traditional methods—that may or may not be up to the scrutiny. Behind each object is text and image content in the form of a strong and imposing graphical display. Avenues of recto/verso poster layout contribute to making the room feel like an exploded book. There is a lot to take in. Visitors need better support in discovering how to sift through this important content.
The exhibition’s layout could have helped in this regard. The main clue to the curatorial concept – an introductory video about the UNDP goals – was easy to miss at the entrance to the space. Ambient urbanites are increasingly immune to the lure of environmental video unless corralled into a space and forced to stop and watch. Knowing this makes it tricky to depend on time-based didactic material in an ideas-based exhibition. Rather than have EDIT visitors rush past this important introduction as they ascend the entrance ramp and quickly turn left, the exhibition design needed to interrupt the visitor’s movement. Much of the aimlessness and disguised confusion that I observed in “Prosperity” may have been avoided with more attention to a proper introduction of the project’s goals. Without this important sequencing and scaffolding of knowledge, the dazzle of spectacular and theatrical effects in the displays take on a disproportionate appeal. And this result continued on subsequent floors of EDIT.
As a 21st century educator, I notice that my students are increasingly distracted by too much content. I have come to see my job as assisting them to develop values and filters for their learning rather than delivering more and more content. The tools I use increasingly need to transcend text and image to consider context, audience and method. As I see it, the project of learning must be carefully sequenced and scaffolded, and is itself a fascinating design problem. The project of communicating ideas in an exhibition is similar. At EDIT there are so many worthy projects to explore. Strong graphics compete with spotlighted objects and we quickly forget the reason for pulling them all together. The real star of EDIT are UNDP’s goals. These goals are design problems and design opportunities.
How are these projects and their designers and co-designers shifting the emphasis from product to process? How are ethical values providing a guiding light for doing things differently? How can we all take that message to heart and use it to transform our lives? All of the answers are here at EDIT. The amazing insight that placed UNDP’s Goals at the conceptual centre of EDIT need to be better emphasized in the festival’s staging and messaging.