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AIGA National Conference: Review Part I

For me the conference began as soon as I arrived in Boston. This was Wednesday night, an hour before the Design Legends Gala. Now this particular event was not really part of the conference, since it seemed limited to those that could spare another day away from the office and those who c/would pay another night in a Copley Plaza hotel - given that it was held the night before the opening remarks.

Held at the Fairmont Hotel, it was a striking setting, with roomfuls of beautiful people. Long dresses and dark jackets, flowers and wine ubiquitously. As I walked around catching up with old friends, I realized that this is what belonging to The Country Club must be like. I knew in advance who the attendees where (in a general sense), but once in the room could not feel the diversity, in every level, that makes our community so exceptional and rich. Where was everybody? Oh right, you needed a minimum $350 to attend (and $300 a night and 8 more hours away from work).

As the event unfolded I was in awe at the lack of respect from the attendees towards those who took the stage to welcome us all, to present/receive the Design Leadership awards to/from Gillette and Hallmark- in a scramble of waiters trying to keep the plates coming in very tightly placed tables, friends finding friends, table mix-ups, and general chatter. It wasn’t until the design medalists Bart Crosby , Meredith Davis, and Steff Geissbuhler) were announced, that the design community found it in their hearts to shut up and listen. Shortly after, it was over. And with a peculiar feeling in my stomach with a friend on either arm I walked back to my room and for a long time lay in bed trying to sort the night in my head. In the end, I am disappointed in my disappointment. I wish this could have been shared with more members of my profession, with more members of the AIGA community and with more of my friends and peers.

Thursday didn’t start until later in the afternoon, around 5pm. As we entered the main stage, I was surprised and delighted to see that R. Sikoryak was to be illustrating the sessions live. I am in awe of his energy, wit and his ability to spend so many hours on his feet. Hopefully his work will be available online for all to see, for I am sure that much incredible pages were not shared with the public that should. I am not going to dwell on each presentation, as I know that Armin is sitting across from me on the train back doing exactly that, but I am going to give you my general thoughts and impressions about the entire conference.

John Hockenberry is — and I make this public via Speak Up — my new love. The dynamism that he brings to the stage, the intelligence and mockery, but most of all the sensibility of truth is refreshing and something I search for. If only his stamina could have been better translated to the rest of the conference which I found somewhat disperse and unenthused. Many people complained after Vancouver, stating that the content of the presentations was so broad and “visionary” that it was basically inapplicable to real life. This year, is as wide-ranging, if not more, and harder to pin-point what to anticipate. Design. Mark Pine nailed it when he mentioned how, when we saw the title for the conference he wondered if lawyers titled a conference Law, and accountants Accounting, designers should have the title Design. Why? Well, that is the name of the profession after all, and what better descriptor than that. Maybe to open and undefined subject, which meant there wasn’t a strong connection between each lecture or an umbrella take-away. Was this good? Bad? That I think is a rather personal judgment.

I was not surprised but rather impressed with the ability to stay on schedule every single day. The structure of the conference was almost ideal in my view. I enjoyed the fact that each day started with general sessions that we could all attend, in a room that was very accessible and set up in a way that no matter where you sat, you could see and listen to every detail. With a large screen on each side of the stage, and one half way down the room in the middle of the audience, you couldn’t miss anything, even if you tried. Breaking the 20/20 presentation in groups of three and spreading them throughout the three days provide a respite and refreshing moments that are greatly needed and appreciated. I only wish that one of the rules for this, was that the individuals selected had to speak live, making it more a thing of the moment. Michael B. you made my year.

My one problem was with the 3-5:30 pm slot. It was too much stuff. I would have been happier staying another hour each day and attend three focus sessions rather than two. Having to select one item out of twenty-three is not my ideal situation. Even four, and wait a little longer to drink and party.

On Thursday night we had a small and casual dinner with Tan, Jason, Kenneth, and Gunnar. It was a good way to catch up with friends, and a good introduction to the kind of people we would be “mingling” with the next few days. The design fair and the Living Room were great spaces in which to meet and greet those that share our passion for design. Running into people you met in Vancouver, online friendships now flourishing in real life contact and the every present “networking”. I overheard that the attendee number was 2500 designers. Such a number lays to groundwork for little dissatisfaction in meeting new people, and if you take nothing else with you from Boston, I am sure that a couple new friends are worth the trip.

One thing to cherish from the AIGA roster is the diversity to be found. In professional level, area of expertise, place of work, location, language, origin, interest and personality. Every two years we have the opening to soak in this, to bask in this very interesting and nurturing environment that is so hard to find on a daily basis.

On Friday, Speak Up and Design Observer hosted a party at Lounge 33. More than 200 people showed up and with music and alcohol managed to have a bunch of designers dancing until the wee hours. No schedule, no inhibitions, no reserves.

On Saturday night we all hopped on buses and rode to the Science Museum for the AIGA closing party. Usually I love parties in museums, and I was very excited. And I was not entirely disappointed. After a while, I realized there were actually two parties, and I could choose which one to attend. Indoors, or outdoors. I am still wondering why two parties were really necessary instead of all of us hanging out together, but maybe they were catering to our varying tastes.

And as an interesting sidebar, as we traveled from one party to the other, we discovered that the logo and packaging that Debbie Millman from Sterling Brands developed for Star Wars a few years back was on display in a glass case, in the ground floor of the museum.

But going back to the daily presentations, I have to draw a conclusion. And I am having a bit of a hard time. Bill Strickland was the most moving, one who surely deserves the standing ovation he received, and one who struck a soft spot in me. His is the most memorable presentation that I take home today. I found Ze Frank to be entertaining, the Vignelli’s reading uninspiring, Blechman and Niemann comical, Lupton repetitious, Scher and Karlin dynamic and interesting, Sagmeister good but exhausted, and so forth. But, as I go over the presentations in my mind I find most of them to be good. Not arresting, not terrible, not overly engaging, not deeply insightful, mostly just OK.

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ENTRY DETAILS
ARCHIVE ID 2417 FILED UNDER Critique
PUBLISHED ON Sep.18.2005 BY bryony
WITH 23 COMMENTS
Comments
feelicks sockwl jr’s comment is:

conclusion: moving, entertaining, uninspiring, comical, repetitious, dynamic, interesting, good but exhausted..good. Not arresting, not terrible, not overly engaging, not deeply insightful, mostly just OK.

Can someone further enlighten those of us who didn't get a hall pass to Boston? My experience (or advice) with these events is try not to expect too much... the best moments are best kept to the bar stools.

On Sep.18.2005 at 09:44 PM
Jason Tselentis’s comment is:

the best moments are best kept to the bar stools

How true. I for one, witnessed many a good bar stool moment. How honest and open we can be during times of indulgence.

On Sep.18.2005 at 09:58 PM
William Drenttel’s comment is:

Yes, the bar stool time was especially rewarding. I most enjoyed meeting so many of the contributors and commentors to Speak Up.

The conference was so large that connections to our online community was one way of meeting and talkng on another level.

On Sep.18.2005 at 11:39 PM
Jason Tselentis’s comment is:

?!

On Sep.19.2005 at 12:10 AM
Steven Heller’s comment is:

Its tempting to describe this conference as too big, too vast, too diverse. There were so many people (around 3000), so many events, so many vendors; Damn I've never seen so many chairs (though too few bathrooms). The halls and corridors were huge, and the faux neo-classical surround was out of scale. Oh yeah, the walk from the hotel was marred by an oppressively upscale, globular mall.

But this AIGA DESIGN conference, with its general "DESIGN" theme, was also a valuable critical mass of stuff, the sum of some fantastic (and some lesser) parts.

In judging this conference I had to ask: "What have I taken to the bank?" What kind of profit was made (and I ain't talkin' bout $$). Who have I met? What have I learned? Is there anything that will stick to the bones weeks or months afterward.

I knew it was something of a success because when I returned to NYC I went directly to my school (SVA) and regaled the students who were hanging on Sunday a.m. in our MFA studio with my highlights. And there was lots to recall.

Of course everyone will come away with something different. I, for one, was moved by Bill Strickland (http://www.fastcompany.com/magazine/17/genius.html); by how he uses "good design" to raise the hopes and improve the lives of so many in his inner city Pittsburgh neighborhood by practiting good design - not just theoretical stuff - to improve and elevate their self-worth. I was also inspired by Barney Frank, because I realized (once again) that intelligent, caring, and committed people can be in government (voting does matter). Milton Glaser took the lead in marshalling our consciences about the plight in Africa, and Nicholas Negreponte, who 20 years earlier at the first AIGA conference predicted that we would be all reading our newspapers online, told us how he will build the $100 laptop so that every kid in the world will have access to information and education. (I couldn't make it to any focus sessions other than the ones I was working at), but I heard buzzes wherever I went.

BTW, those comfy chairs in the "living room" were also a nice touch. It was there one could either rest or connect face to face. I guess that's what you all mean by barstools. The living room was like one huge bar. You could just over-hear (be invisible) or interact. I guess it was kinda like zen.

On Sep.19.2005 at 06:29 AM
Tom Dolan’s comment is:

I too was impressed by the organization and gloss, and it's great to meet online friends, even if just briefly and for a handshake. I also agree I think the 'in-between times' could somehow have been more well engineered to encourage discussion and new-friend making. There seemed to be too little time between anything to be able to have a moment to grab somebody by the elbow and say "hi" — so thanks to all who organized drinks and dinners. Perhaps in the end the take-away is just a little injection of energy and adrenaline, from folks like Strickland and Sagmeister and Hockenberry. A little, get off your ass and turn it up a notch. No matter how much we're doing, there's always room to do a bit more, no? For folks toiling in corporate design hell, I can imagine a conference like this is a wonderful breeze of fresh air. For those of us charting our own paths, perhaps a reminder that doing great things is maybe hard, but doable. Keep up the great work Byrony and Armin. How does it feel to be in the club?

On Sep.19.2005 at 10:27 AM
Bryony’s comment is:

There is no doubt in my mind that one of the reasons we are all there is for the conversations that happen outside of the auditorium. The new meetings, the old greetings, and the interesting chatter that develops in a mere couple of minutes.

But we must not forget that we are also for the presentations, which people take time to prepare and research and write and practice to get it just right for you. There is a lot of effort put into every session. Receiving and transforming direction (for content) from AIGA is indispensable, and it is here where I wish a little more continuity could have been achieved.

As a side note, I want to thank all of you who stopped by to say hi to the Speak Up gang. It was great to meet you and look forward to reading you in the future.

On Sep.19.2005 at 10:35 AM
Randy’s comment is:

The best "focused session" I attended was that of Ambassador Richard Swett, titled Leadership and Advocacy through design.

Swett is a trained architect and was the US ambassador to Denmark from 1998 to 2001. He works with and encourages public figures as well as those trained in the design disciplines to use the skills of designers to influence better public policy.

The session was able to maintain an electricity of inspriation while offering enough digestable examples to also seam realistic. I eageraly await a smiling amazon box containting: Leadership by Design: Creating an Architecture of Trust.

On Sep.19.2005 at 11:30 AM
marian bantjes’s comment is:

I guess that's what you all mean by barstools.

Um, no steve, we meant barstools ... like with liquor. (i am teasing you.)

I am still trying to figure out what angle i will be coming from this at, but i do plan to post something at some point. In general i found that friday's lineup was weak, and Saturday's lineup was strong. I too, was very moved by Bill Strickland, and also Milton Glaser. I don't think i was bored for single instant on Saturday. And i brought much home to think about.

I do agree however, that there was too much bigness: the concept of "design" too big to focus, the space too big, the lineup of sessions way too big (and yes, that MALL!). There seemed like a lot of wasted time alternated with a lot of packed time. There were so many sessions i wanted to see but had to miss, and that was the most disappointing part.

And I was very surprised that there was only the one (Saturday wrap up) AIGA organized party. Although Speak Up and Design Observer benefitted from this by holding the most bitchin' party on Friday

—and Bryony modestly under sells it: it was a shoulder-to-shoulder packed, dancing, fondling, happy happy party, with 3 girls performing on soft ball seats by the walls, all barriers down, and extreme peace-loving drunkeness that wafted out into the humid Boston night. Thank you so much Bryony, Armin, Michael and Bill for hosting this.—

I really think the conference-goers need more concentrated party events (even just a dedicated gathering place on every night of the conference) to meet people they're not already hanging with and have real conversations.

More later.

On Sep.19.2005 at 11:56 AM
Javier’s comment is:

It was a treat to have you all come to our city.

The parties and talks in between sessions are always the best.

And I enjoyed the presentations very much.

I have lots in the brain to process - and am bursting with new ideas to implement. Very inspired by the difference we can make as designers in civic life.

I agree with Tom.

Bottom Line: Just get up an do something!

On Sep.19.2005 at 01:59 PM
Keith Damiani’s comment is:

I second (or third...I've lost count) the "get off your ass and turn it up a notch" effect. I think that's one of the greatest benefits of these conferences.

Say what you will about the AIGA, and whether or not a gathering like this is too grand/too simplistic/too focused/too unfocused, but one thing is certain for me: the conference opened my eyes and my mind to new ideas, and to new ways of thinking about old ideas. And the barstool moments (both on actual barstools as well as in hallways and on comfy couches) make me thankful to be part of such a fantastically creative community.

Now I just have to figure out a way to keep the inspiration alive as I buckle down to do real work in the real world again! [Any suggestions?]

On Sep.19.2005 at 02:50 PM
Michael B.’s comment is:

"Just get up and do something."

My favorite — and most design-relevant — moment was during Bill Strickland's talk. Strickland, who has built an empire of effective community organizations in inner-city Pittsburgh through sheer force of will, was a real audience favorite. I had never heard of him before.

Strickland feels strongly that introducing beauty in everyday life is transformative and enobling. He was touring a group of school principals through one of his schools and they admired the potted flowers that decorated the hallways. One of them asked how he managed to get the flowers there. He replied that he simply went to the nursery, got the flowers, and put them there. "It doesn't take a darned task force!" he added.

Many of us spend our time waiting for permission, from clients, from bosses, from whomever, before acting. Designers may not be able to save the world on our own, but we do possess the ability to see the way things could be and to devise a way to bring it to life for our fellow citizens. Every designer I admire — a few of whom were up on the main stage in Boston — seems to be able to just get up and do it.

On Sep.19.2005 at 03:40 PM
Jason Tselentis’s comment is:

Do any of you feel as strongly as I do about getting Strickland involved on a Board level? (Or is there another place his work, accomplishments, and vision could be put to task?)

On Sep.19.2005 at 03:48 PM
Stefan’s comment is:

Jason,

Absolutely. There were six of us (myself included) from the Seattle chapter board. And I'm pretty sure that to a person, Strickland was the conference highlight. I don't have an answer yet as to where he might fit in the National Board, but I know for sure that getting our chapter, and other chapters involved with him and his work (and vice versa) will be one of the initiatives we in Seattle will be talking about, and soon.

PS - thanks to the Speak Up and Design Observer crews for one of the best, and most liver-damaging parties I've been to. It was a real pleasure to meet so many of you in person.

On Sep.19.2005 at 04:42 PM
Katie Repine’s comment is:

I would love to see Strickland at the board level (or some equally relevant position). How can we do this and how can I help? After his talk, I'd gladly lay in the path of an oncoming train if he said it might help the cause. His volition, his ambition, his un-relentless pursuit of lofty ideals was worth the $700 conference fee alone. It reminded me that design can [and should] be about more than distinguishing between inch and apostrophe marks.

And thanks, Speak Up, for hosting a kick-ass party on Friday. It was great to meet some of you, and funny as hell to see so many designers getting down on the dance floor!

On Sep.19.2005 at 04:50 PM
Alan’s comment is:

I too am still processing the experience. It had a kick in the pants effect that I really needed. The task I face now, is to evangelize that feeling to my colleagues and to keep it in the forefront of my thinking.

I was able to take two important things away from the conference, both "big" ideas (so I don't mind at all the broad focus of the program and the speakers). One, I realized that there is a large part of me that I've been neglecting - I've been keeping Design at work and not enough in the rest of my life.

And two, that I have a tremendous opportunity at my place of work to not only reach the financial goals of my organization, but to actually do some good and maybe change the world a little. That may sound funny in that I work for a non-profit cancer research hospital, creating materials that raise money for a worthy cause. What I took from the conference, however, is that we are missing out on the opportunity to spread the notion of compassion and respect to our audience. We've been too focused on the bottom line, and the "ask". My challenge now is to bring more of these qualities into focus in our work, while maintaining the bottom line.

All that and a kickass cocktail party.

Oh, and nice meeting you all!

On Sep.19.2005 at 05:11 PM
danielcarter’s comment is:

Marion said: It was a shoulder-to-shoulder packed, dancing, fondling, happy happy party, with 3 girls performing on soft ball seats by the walls, all barriers down, and extreme peace-loving drunkeness that wafted out into the humid Boston night

How could I have forgotten to attend this party? Was it the hellish humidity? The 6-hour flight-induced head cold? Damn. I've never heard these words mentioned in describing a party full of designers.

On Sep.19.2005 at 05:25 PM
Bryony’s comment is:

Strickland in the board:

I think his involvement and invaluable input to an organization such as the AIGA is crucial, it might be too much to have him be a member of the board. How about an advisory board? Compromised by luminary individuals that are both inspiring and activists in their areas, that can benefit while also giving within a partnership?

On Sep.20.2005 at 08:31 AM
Christopher Simmons’s comment is:

There's no question that Bill Strickland was the highlight of the conference. I had the privilege of hearing him speak a couple of months ago at the AIGA national leadership retreat. Then, as at the conference, the audience wept.

Afterward a long, single file line formed as, one by one, we advanced to express our support of his cause. In San Francisco we've already begun discussions about how we can involve AIGA SF with his baycat facility. As Bill pointed out, everywhere they have a facility planned, an AIGA chapter already exists. I think the most effective thing we can do now is to support Bill's efforts on the ground.

On Sep.20.2005 at 11:01 AM
Dom’s comment is:

I so agree with that, Christopher. Think of the opportunity for designers to show up at these places and do presentations on graphic design and show their work to these kids! I'm sure there will be a flood of kids wanting to get involved in graphic design. I think it's such a great thing.

But hey, why wait? We can already get involved in the lives of inner-city children by doing this. All we have to do is find-or rather, make the time, and go and ask to present to our local schools on a career day. We're doing that here in Phoenix now, this is our second time doing this, this year, and the students LOVE it. I think it's great that we can support the great work that Bill has already done, but we can do plenty of things to make a difference before he sets up shop. I think it's all a matter of being willing and able.

Dom

On Sep.20.2005 at 11:18 AM
Bryony’s comment is:

We all agree that we can’t make everyone happy, that we can’t please every attendee. Something to note, after a couple of days, is the comparison between the conference in Vancouver (reviews I, II, III, IV, and V) and the one in Boston. It seems we are much happier with the outcome this time around.

On Sep.21.2005 at 08:49 AM
Shahla’s comment is:

I gather your party was better, Bryony, but with having to go through a lobby/exhibition area to get to a second ‘outside’ party and your puzzlement over why there were 2, this may have been a different experience for those who may have missed the information about it.

How were the two locations publicized?

I'd wear a black beret if it kept me warm in an outside party (future location: AIGA 2007) and it ‘said’ something about me as a designer. I kid you —wearing a name tag is hard enough. Tell us, if you will, your opinion of who wore the best threads (describe fabric, color, et cetera) at the gala.

On Sep.21.2005 at 06:13 PM
Bryony’s comment is:

that's the thing. They weren't really publicized.

On Sep.22.2005 at 01:22 PM