Dispatch from TYPO Berlin 2017: What is the role of creativity in our global future?

As the world struggles to cope with profound issues around equality, poverty, and climate, speakers at TYPO Berlin opened the conference with a simple but crucial challenge: Can creativity help tackle these problems?

"What if we did more with less?" This was the central theme of a talk given by Jonathan Ford, Founding Partner & Chief Creative Officer of Pearlfisher. His presentation focused on creative thinkers who are innovating low-tech solutions to fundamental problems in impoverished communities.

His talk detailed the work of Haller, an organization dedicated to finding scalable, sustainable solutions for communities lacking access to water or easily arable land. Projects focus on simple ideas that use "rubbish" such as plastic crates and other materials to harness nature and allow communities to grow food and gain access to clean water.

Ford noted that designers, including himself, are often designing what ultimately amounts to "rubbish." In our disposable society, much of what is created gets thrown out, meaning all the energy—all the creativity—put forth by the design community ends up in landfills or, as Ford discovered personally, drifting along the ocean's currents.

Grim as that sounded, Ford reminded the audience that the opposite could be true as well: Designers and brands have the power to move society toward a more sustainable, socially responsible mindset.

Designers and brands have the power to move society toward a more sustainable, socially responsible mindset.

What if it wasn't cool to throw away your smartphone every year and upgrade to the newest model? What if instead of touting newness, brands invested in products and marketing that championed reuse? What if "cool" meant owning something for years? We associate this mindset with high-end, artisanal products, but rarely with consumer goods.

One example of a different approach is I'mperfect, a project that sells, rather than throws out, the "imperfect" products that roll off its assembly line—mugs with an off-center logo, for example. Ford discussed how these flaws are the brand, that those inconsistencies make the product unique, give it personality, and create an emotional connection with consumers who embrace concepts of imperfection and reuse.

What if it wasn't cool to throw away your smartphone every year and upgrade to the newest model?

Speaker Lutz Engelke, founder and CEO of TRIAD Berlin, continued this thread, asking, "How can creativity become a part the global transformation?"

Creativity, he said, often contributes to escapism. Think of all the TV and films produced by our best and brightest creative minds. Then consider the endless stream of products, all designed, packaged, and marketed to grab our interest and inspire us to purchase.

But how do we balance this with our values? Creatives, Engelke argued, are capable of pushing ideas beyond escapism and toward something bigger. We can take a mundane request and ask ourselves, how can we use this to spread a message, advance an idea, or innovate a more sustainable solution? "How can we use 1% of our creativity to re-design a this world in a better way?" Engelke asked as he closed his presentation.

How can we use 1% of our creativity to re-design a this world in a better way?

Each of these talks expanded on this year's theme of wanderlust. We live in an increasingly open world, and both designers and brands must consider their place in it and the role they play in shaping communities around the globe.

Opening speaker Susanne Keobl described her experiences as a reporter working in some of the world's most dangerous and impoverished areas. She said it transformed not only her understanding of other cultures, but her feelings about her native Germany. "Why do people go to these places?" she wondered. The answer, she argued, is that we are compelled to seek an understanding of how other people live. It puts our own lives and work into context, and empowers us to bring change in whatever way we can.

For creatives, that perspective leads to responsibility. The challenge issued at TYPO was for designers, brands, typographers, and marketers—anyone involved in the creative process—to think beyond the project and find ways to make each day's work contribute to something larger.