"Design can be a force that shapes society" – Interview with Daniel Szalkai

2021. 06. 21. 15:44 Design Világnap

Budapest Design Week opens its one-day pop-up exhibition called Diversity on the occasion of World Industrial Design Day on 29 June. The exhibition at FISE showcases products and collections that aim to promote social sensitivity. To mark the occasion, we interviewed Daniel Szalkai, founder of Perceptual Thinkers, one of the designers taking part in the exhibition.

Please present your collection in a few words.

Drawing on my thesis, I launched my own clothing brand in 2017, which specifically seeks to make a connection between fashion and the extreme behaviours of people with autism. I started to wonder early on whether ideas that reflect the needs of a minority could be an exciting product to be launched on the market. Since 2018, I have been working on ensuring that Perceptual Thinkers collections reflect the fashion tech trend, still in the context of autism and the equality of opportunity. Again, my aim was to bring marginalised social groups closer to the majority, and in the end, after much experimentation, I think I have succeeded in formulating a set of criteria that will provide an entertaining experience for both groups. These values are manifested in the Sensorism unisex bag collection showcased in the exhibition.

What gave you the idea and inspiration to focus on autism?

My brother Bence lives with high-functioning autism, so my whole family is dedicated to making his everyday life easier. Curiously, his generation was the first to receive an autism diagnosis in this country, so understandably there was no infrastructure available for people like him at the time. Conversely, it was my parents' generation that laid the foundations for this, and they are also to thank for the creation of the Miskolc Autism Foundation, which will reach its 30th year of existence next year. Perhaps unsurprisingly, I spent a lot of time here as a child, and my interest in design was clearly driven by the desire to be able to offer something to people with autism. This later led to the launch of Perceptual Thinkers, where we continue to work on programmes and ideas that allow us to authentically represent people with autism.

What are the prospects for the products in terms of market uptake (both in Hungary and abroad)? Which stage of the product development process have you reached?

The market outlook can be approached from two angles. On the one hand, the brand's products have an absolutely good chance of success, as society further west is fully open to social issues and there is already a now grown-up generation that earns an income and looks for inclusive products with a social impact. In addition, fashion tech solutions are on the rise. The other side of the coin is that things always happen a bit differently in Hungary than further west. Here, we can feel the winds of these trends, and there is a solvent segment that is willing to spend on design products, but this is not typical. Moreover, fashion tech remains a relatively unknown concept, so there is still room for improvement. What is certain is that in Hungary the only way to make a mark in this field is with a collection, not with a brand identity focused exclusively on this.

The exhibition also features a prototype of a bag from the collection, for which the technological and research background was developed in teamwork with the help of Vanda Berecz, Eszter Szász, Andor Hofecker and Dr Nóra Kollárovics. So, we have not yet marketed the collection, but we have concrete plans for the near future.

To what extent do you think the bag collection and the work of the brand can sensitize society?

When I started working with the foundation about 10 years ago, I had idealistic ideas. But now I see how much depends on the sustainability of social benefit organisations and the financial support they receive. In addition, breakthroughs can only be achieved if a business or organisation can develop a sufficient media presence. The bag collection is the umpteenth attempt to reach the majority of society, and although I find that there is a very open and sensitive audience in this country, getting a response gets more difficult with the increasing abstraction of the message conveyed by the product and the product itself. Fortunately, the piece on show is simple enough for anyone to relate to, plus it can make music, so its playfulness evokes instinctive feelings in people, and that is where its real strength lies.

What do you think about the social and economic role of design and its role in boosting the economy? How do you participate as a designer?

Again, I can outline two aspects. On the one hand, I have the vision of a missionary regarding design's ability to act as a vehicle for shaping society, educating, sensitizing people and bringing outsider issues into the public discourse. I think that designers have a flexible and exciting professional system, set of values and body of knowledge that are powerful enough to change even consumer habits. By this I mean making people buy high-quality objects made in Hungary. On the other hand, although the situation of design has changed a lot since my graduation and ideas and objects that are useful have really entered the Hungarian public discourse, society is becoming less stratified, which means an increasing trend that only the privileged class has the opportunity to consume design products. In addition, design and luxury have become completely conflated in this country, but fortunately, there is also room for sensitization "shooting up" up alongside the high-end brands. At the same time, I also feel positive about MOME and a series of Hungarian projects proclaiming that it is time to bring design into everyday life, which has as much a place in a community living in deep poverty in Borsod County as it does among addicts, the elderly or even people with disabilities. In my opinion, design is a tool that can provide solutions for groups without means.

So what are the next steps? What are your plans for the collection?

We were able to further shape the collection during the course of the 2020 László Moholy-Nagy Design Scholarship, and then we entered it into startup competitions. These gave us the impetus for the next step in product development, specifically, for the creation of the technological framework for offering the bags to larger or even smaller target groups. We are particularly interested in the reactions of people with autism, with whom we would like to test our collection. We are also looking for different tenders and investment opportunities to raise the financial backing to produce even a small series. This would not yet be based on market presence, but on reaching out to development centres, organisations and schools where we can see how the bags work in practice. In the longer term, we would like to build B2B and B2C channels and we think it is important to be able to offer a good price at the consumer level.

Perceptual Thinkers' bag collection will be on display at a pop-up exhibition at FISE on 29 June, in celebration of World Industrial Design Day.