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#SGID17: They Debated, You Voted. So, Is Disruption a Dirty Word (For Designers)?

Clipboards flew at our first ever #SGID Futures Debate at Singapore Indesign! The audience got as riled up as the debaters, voting with the loudest cheer for…

#SGID17: They Debated, You Voted. So, Is Disruption a Dirty Word (For Designers)?

L-R: Razvan Ghilic-Micu, Hunn Wai, Narelle Yabuka (moderator), Joshua Comaroff, Tan Szue Hann and Derek MacKenzie (Presiding #SGID Ambassador)

The ‘Against’ team! Congratulations to Joshua Comaroff (Design Consultant, Lekker) and Tan Szue Hann (Head of Sustainability, Surbana Jurong), who argued victoriously that disruption is not a dirty word for designers. 

Although the ‘Against’ team won the audience vote, the ‘For’ team – consisting of Hunn Wai (Co-Founder and Creative Director, Lanzavecchia + Wai) and Razvan Ghilic-Micu – were ahead in a live Instagram poll taken during the debate. Both teams battled hard for the honour and for the trophies, which were 3D printed on the day in the lead up to the debate.

Hunn Wai opened the ‘For’ team’s argument, asking, “What makes a word dirty?” It is when it becomes overused and dysfunctional, he suggested. “If an idea has enough value and relevance, it becomes the new normal,” he said. Being uttered so often today, the word ‘disruption’ places an unnecessary loading onto the design venture.

Joshua Comaroff followed up for the ‘Against’ team, asserting that disruption cannot be a dirty word for designers because it is simply part of the designer’s job. But that is not to say that it’s not a dirty word, he said. “I hate the word disruption. When I read about it in some smarmy, faux-scientific study, I have to admit I throw up in my mouth a little. It is a filthy word. But is it a dirty word for designers? That’s the question. I don’t think so.”

‘Disruption’ is the latest in a string of “self-congratulatory buzzwords out of Silicon Valley, like ‘move fast and break things’, ‘pivot’, ‘frothy’, ‘unicorn’, and my favourite, ‘sweat equity’,” said Comaroff. And it has a place in the so-called ‘creative industry’, “in which some firms give you the idea that anyone can design a masterpiece with enough Post-It Notes and Grande Lattes… But the fact is, original thinking is dedicated to changing the way something has been done. The spirit of disruption is something many of us [designers] strive for every day.” 

On the ‘For’ side of the stage, Razvan Ghilic-Micu recalled three inventions – the lift brake, the air conditioner, and steel for construction – that completely transformed our built environment by making the skyscraper possible. The designers of these innovations “weren’t out to disrupt, but to solve problems and innovate,” said Ghilic-Micu. “It is impossible to disrupt design because disruption is always against something fixed. Design is all about imbalance, insecurity, innovation. You cannot disrupt it; you can only fuel it,” he said. “Disruption is not just an empty word; it doesn’t apply to what we do as designers.”

The final round was presented by Tan Szue Hann for the ‘Against’ team. Highlighting how important semantics were to the entire debate, he focused on the meaning of the term ‘dirty’ as something that is disapproved of. Yet, he argued, disruptions such as e-commerce, the iPod, Airbnb and 3D printing quickly become the new norm. They are not considered dirty; they gain our approval.

During the rebuttal section, Comaroff highlighted the need to bear in mind the distinction between business models and design when discussing disruption. Disruption, he said, is the most extreme form of innovation. The teams egged each other on and eventually – perhaps inevitably – a clipboard was thrown across the room. All in good fun!

Presiding #SGID Ambassador Derek MacKenzie (Managing Director, designphase dba) was invited to offer his comments on the proceedings before the audience voted. “From my perspective, when the ‘for’ team started to talk about disruption, I thought they were talking against the topic! As the debate progressed, my understanding was weighted by both sides… They both put up a very interesting and thoughtful debate. The topic was well researched by both sides. The point that struck me the most was that disruption is extreme innovation.” 

Eventually it was over to the audience for the final vote. Two rounds of cheering and applause were needed to determine the winning team. Comaroff and Hann, arguing ‘Against’, were each awarded with a ‘Disruption Cube’ – the 3D-printed trophy produced on site at the #SGID Curated Space during the day by 3D Printing Studios. The trophy was designed by SUTD student Jonathan Ng Ming-En and won our trophy-design competition for Singapore’s architecture and design students. Ng won a voucher from Basheer Graphic Books and a one-year subscription to Cubes magazine.

Photography by Wilson Pang.

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