Though the design industry has progressed into territory far beyond the creation of attractive objects, designers in Lebanon still struggle with misconceptions about their sector. When you mention design, often the first things that come to the minds of non-designers are the heavily-beaded dresses of Elie Saab, or ads for sparkling bijoux lining the Dora highway. Some people may think of stand-out towers in Downtown Beirut, or unusual pieces of furniture they’ve seen at trendy boutiques. There might be others who remember that graphic design was a major at their university, or know of a person who designs websites for a living.
These are all design in its most obvious forms. But as the sector moves into the future and more design disciplines emerge, defining the term “design” is becoming increasingly difficult. What ties all design disciplines together is a focus on creativity and innovation. Design is becoming less about end results and more about the processes that get you there. It’s not that outcomes don’t matter, but functionality is far more important than physical form. Ghassan Salameh, designer and creative director of Beirut Design Week (BDW), says we need to stop thinking about design as only products: “[People] think of design as only furniture and luxury. It doesn’t really need to be about objects, it could be systems or other things,” he explains.
The term “design thinking” has become a buzzword of late, but the idea is one that’s driving many sectors, including business, technology, entertainment, and social change. Design thinking applies a step by step guide that is, at its heart, user-centered. Key features of design thinking include a lot of experimentation and subsequent back-and-forths with future end-users, placing the latter squarely within the design process. Dima Boulad, a designer and head of entrepreneurial programs at MENA Design Research Center (MENA DRC), says, “The role of design is very linked to understanding problems by listening and observing. It’s seeing an opportunity to design something better, seeing that there’s a gap here or there, and then designing for it.” That ultimately means defining exactly what that problem is, then taking a step back to reframe and challenge assumptions. “A lot of the time you think there is a problem in one place but really you’re not looking at the right problem,” she says.
This kind of awareness of design is necessary in Lebanon. The local design community is increasingly working on reframing the concept of design for both experts and the general public. Not only does a better grasp of design mean more sectors can reap its benefits, but, as Boulad explains, it also saves time for designers already working this way. “It’s part of my duty as a designer to help people understand what they can do using design. At the beginning of meetings with clients [in Lebanon]I have to [waste time]pitching what design can do,” she says, adding that this step isn’t necessary in countries where there is a greater awareness of the wider applications for design.
Designers themselves need to be more aware of international best practices and innovations, with industry events trying to bring that knowledge to local designers. MENA DRC’s flagship event BDW has for years now been importing design ideas and shaping dialogue. Its 2018 edition, held in May under the theme “Design in the City,” looked at ways design can help communities. One of the topics addressed in a round-table was governance, or how design could help the public sector cater to residents’ needs, positioning the Lebanese government and municipalities as places in which designers should be more involved. Another round table discussed ways of designing a more inclusive city (for refugees and other arriving communities). Using problem-solving to better living conditions is underutilized as a way to employ design in Lebanon. Events like these empower people to think about challenges and how to solve them through co-creation and design, says Boulad.
This year, BDW purposely encouraged collaborations, not just among designers but also between designers and other sectors, trying to bring in a wider range of participants. The design of the event itself involved decentralizing from its previous hub, KED in Karantina, to have more events in different spaces around the city.
Another event, Beirut Design Fair, which is due to hold its second edition in September, is also approaching its own design more strategically by introducing a lifestyle lounge rather than a (typically Lebanese) VIP lounge, with more spaces for attendees to engage. One of the region’s largest industry events, Downtown Design in Dubai, is similarly planning for its upcoming November fair to be a more dynamic and enjoyable space, under the theme of Livable Cities, a significant topic in Dubai’s context. Fair Director Rue Kothari says, “The design of our fair is key to creating atmosphere, to retaining our audience, and [to]creating the perfect environment for our participating brands to do business.” This year, that event “addresses how to build healthy, happy communities with strong urban planning, innovation, and technology,” she says, which includes a focus on material innovation and, like BDW, creative collaboration.
Additionally, UXB, Lebanon’s first global User Experience (UX) event, was held at the American University of Beirut. Over two days, international designers and digital experts gave hands-on workshops and talks to students, designers, entrepreneurs, and agencies on the latest trends in design and user experience, an increasingly relevant design field worldwide and locally.
Doing things the design thinking way means designers need to know how to design with a specific context in mind. But designing solutions for specific situations and groups requires a true understanding of needs, which takes time to research. In fact, design thinking is long-term thinking—not exactly a strength in Lebanon, a country where problems abound and quick fixes have become a means to survive. Design outcomes need to be thought through long term, and designing effective programs, spaces, products, campaigns, and initiatives requires follow up, not just implementation. Boulad explains that, in general, not enough people are willing to invest in long-term, sustainable solutions. “It entails taking a lot of time researching [before]getting to the actual work,” she says. Many Lebanese companies want fast, cheap results, rather than well-designed strategies that take more time to develop. The latter ultimately work better and thus save time and money in the long run, but many still don’t see this value, perhaps because, in Lebanon, time is money, and the economy isn’t conducive to long-term investment.