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What is the relation between design and a city? How does design function as a visual engine to empower the construction of an urban landscape?


On April 10, 2018, two influential Spanish designers, Xavi Calvo and Álvaro Sobrino, and a well-known cultural journalist Tachy Mora were invited by “City and Design” LivingLab, organized by H2020 project Designscapes and the Econcult of the University of Valencia, to discuss problems, opportunities and challenges for design and designers in the context of urban development in La Marina, the port of Valencia, Spain. More than 50 designers, journalists, cultural managers and other stakeholders joined the discussion.

Valencia is the capital of the autonomous community of Valencia and the third-largest city in Spain after Madrid and Barcelona in Spain. In recent years the city has witnessed a boom of urban regeneration driven by various innovative initiatives based on culture and creativity throughout the city. La Marina is a prime example of this.

La Marina, where the ancient port is located, has gained prominence after hosting The America’s Cup and Formula One, but subsequently deteriorated in the wake of the economic crisis in recent years. Currently, it is facing a major challenge of transforming itself into a new city hub for entrepreneurship and innovation, where design-enabled innovation is finding a key role.

In light of this, La Marina wanted to initiate a sustained discussion of the relation between design and cities that tackled some common problems that go beyond its own situation, including root causes and potential solutions at the city level.



Speakers mentioned multiple problems relating to design according to their personal experience and observation. Some prevalent problems are summed up as follows.

  1. The lack of awareness of design. The issues concerning urban development have been considered by many as something relating to particular groups like economists, architects and politicians. In the policy-making process, the ties binding economic, social and cultural policies to economists, sociologists and cultural managers are too strong to leave enough space for designers to have an impact.
  2. Design is not integrated into the life-cycle and planning processes. Even if designers are involved in some strategic planning process, they are only expected to contribute to a certain phase, in particular relating to graphic design. There is an absence of a comprehensive design-thinking approach.
  3. Good design but bad implementation. Still, in many cases, outputs of high-level design or well-designed projects cannot be implemented because of insufficient budget or the lack of capacity to carry them out.
  4. Poor visualization of the city. In comparison to other Ibero-American cities like Lisbon (Portugal),  Guadalajara (Mexico) and Sao Paulo (Brasil), Valencia is short on its own visual factors that can represent and reflect character and spirit of the city.
  5.  Unfavourable results of participatory design processes.Sometimes, the decision-making process is based exclusively on participatory design of the public, which may lead to some irrational and unfavourable results; the application of design approach in decision-making should be done with great care.
Design and City Living Lab


According to the speakers, the above problems exist partially because there is the lack of forward-minded planning and most decisions are based on short-term interests in urban governance within local government institutions. On the one hand, political elections and limited terms of governance force governments to seek quick results for policies and measures of urban construction, which ignores well-designed strategies that may not produce immediate benefits. On the other hand, there are some political leaders, according to a speaker, who deal with public affairs just like their own business with no consideration of public opinions although the city is public space and city construction requires public involvement.

Second, designers usually are undervalued in Spain. This not only results in limited emphasis placed on the opinion and contribution of designers, but also restricts the willingness and capacity of the designer group to be involved in other sectors beyond design itself. As a result, Spanish designers have by and large played a very limited role in public affairs.

Last but not the least, design culture and education have long been absent in Spanish society. There is no institutional body like the Design Council of UK to promote design nor prestigious design universities and other educational institutions to train a large number of qualified designers in Spain. Compared with other European countries such as UK, Spain has placed design in a secondary position in terms of both professional competence and academic discipline.


Based on the above analysis and diagnosis, the designers provided their solutions in the discussion.

According to them, the most important thing is to strengthen capacity building in the design sector and increase public awareness. Design capability needs transforming from professional designers to the public and society as a whole.

Second, improving design education and cultivating design culture. Public consciousness, attitude and quality of design should be further improved.

Third, related fiscal policies should be reformed to support designers and design-related entrepreneurship. Favourable policies should be carried out to encourage the growth of the designer community.

Lastly, a design-driven city governance and public administration should be prioritised. Authorities should be encouraged to apply design thinking and design approach in the decision-making process of public affairs.

In conclusion, designers are considered to be capable of grasping and understanding the needs and preferences of end users and such design capability is a necessary condition to promote demand-oriented services and innovation. Therefore, design can be a key to improving the current living standard of citizens.

Xavi Calvo is the Co-founder and graphic designer of Estudio Menta in Valencia (Spain). Collaborator in the media, writing articles about design, opinion and reflection (Cultura Plaza, Plaza magazine, Muster, WeblogsSL, Neo2, Yorokobu etc.). He has been a collaborating member of ADCV -Association of Designers of the Valencian Community since 2003, professor and coordinator of the Master’s Degree in Graphic Design and Communication at the CEU-UCH University of Valencia since 2015. He was vice-president and a member of the board of directors of ADCV.

Álvaro Sobrino is a graphic designer, consultant, curator of exhibitions on design and culture. He was awarded the Gràffica 2013 Design Prize and is the former president of the Association of Art Directors and Graphic Designers of the FAD, and editor of the magazine Visual. He is also a member of the board of trustees of the Fundació Comunicació Gràfica (for the creation of the Museu del Disseny) and of the board of trustees of the SIGNES Foundation, as well as of the advisory board of the National Design Prizes. He works actively as the advisor on design issues for public and private organizations.

Tachy Mora is a journalist, consultant, curator and designer. A regular contributor to the national newspaper El País, she has worked in the media Las Noticias, Revista Experimenta and was deputy director of Houzzz España. She is the author of articles and books on design such as “Artesanía y Diseño. Un tándem de éxito” (Manel Foundation, 2009), and with Fundesarte de “Artesanía Española de Vanguardia” (Lunwerg publishing house, 2011).