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The 2017 Seattle Design Festival explores power

How can design ‘bring about more livability, equity and resilience?’

Two Seattle Design Festival-goers explore an installation in Occidental Park during the 2016 festival.
Courtesy of Design in Public

This weekend, September 9 and 10, a series of interactive installations that reflect on how design affects our lives will pop up in Occidental Park.

It’s part of this year’s Seattle Design Festival, running September 9 through 22. The theme this year is Power—but that wasn’t part of the original plan.

“We usually set the festival theme a year in advance,” said Design in Public program manager Debra Webb. The festival’s initial theme was Chance. But after 2016 presidential election, the organization did a lot of reflection, and came up with a theme that stuck.

“Our board of directors got together and just really reflected on where things are at in our country and city and in our neighborhoods,” explained Webb. “We didn’t feel the theme was relevant and reflected the times. So very quickly we just came up with Power in response to our political and social issues that continue to unravel every single day.”

“It’s a response to the political climate nationally and really wanting the design community to reflect on our changing world, both as individuals and as a community,” said Webb.

As designers make a mark on the physical and social landscape, what are their responsibilities? “Because designers are problem-solvers,” posed Webb, “how can they bring about more livability, equity and resilience?”

Webb says that this year, they saw a record number of proposals compared to previous years—last year, she said, the annual block party had 20 installations. This year, they have 40.

She thinks that’s partially due to the theme. “I think people had a lot to say about it.”

The theme drew projects like Erasure, an installation by artist Cody Volk up at this weekend’s block party which “celebrates the non-manufactured queer identity and asks visitors to consider the identities that they are showing and hiding.” Also at the block party, The People on the Margins, an audio installation by Aiman Batool, “aims to humanize the experiences of the marginalized and encourage coalitions between the powerful and the powerless.”

Webb specifically points to the work of Rania Qawasma-Dana, featured in two panels: Building Bridges, a panel presented by Architecture for Refugees, and Empowering Communities. Qawasama-Dana, says Webb, just started the Seattle chapter of Architecture for Refugees. “She’s created tools, a book, and a tutorial, as well as looking at portable and temporary housing... to welcome Syrian refugees to Seattle.”

“What I’ve tried to do is really just take all the different programs and identify themes that tie it all together,” said Webb. “The overarching theme is really the power of community and designers examining their role and their connection with the public.”

She said the festival is driven by “a citizen-driven design approach and the design community’s desire to really design with community instead of for community.”

As an example, Webb points to Seattle Architecture Foundation’s interactive workshop Class Action: Designing Your School. “There are several local firms that do build our school and they’ve really figured out a new model of citizen-driven and community-engaged design—with, not for—and they’ll be there with youth who have informed their work to lead that workshop.”

When asked, Webb pointed to a couple other programs she’s especially excited for: a two-part design discussion on inclusive design and the ethics of AI from Microsoft, and a discussion on city policy and HALA with Office of Planning and Community Development head Sam Assefa.

The Design Festival has “never been a trade festival,” explains Webb. “The intent has always been grassroots engagement with the design community.”

Design in Public, said Webb, came out of AIA Seattle. “The leadership of AIA really wanted to have a way to engage more with the public and get out of their discipline and interact with people and share what they do.”

“Design’s all around us and I think sometimes people don’t see it or pay attention to it even though it’s all around us,” said Webb.

The Seattle Design Festival runs September 9 through 22 at various venues around Seattle. See the full schedule at

Occidental Square

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