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AIGA National Conference: Review Part II

There is no easy way to review — in a fell, all-encompassing swoop — a conference as large as this year’s AIGA National Conference in Boston, so I will take the liberty of reviewing it in small, non-sequential bursts of things that caught my attention or that I can remember. Some critical, some encouraging, some petty. As I write this review I realize that perhaps I should take notes so that I can relay them, but I don’t absorb information well when I take notes, so the reviews of specific talks will be more impressions than summaries.

Overall

The Theme / Well, there was no theme to the conference really. In the accompanying program to the conference, Ric Grefé states “After years of clever titles, we realized that the real theme for this profession, always, is simply ‘Design’.” While a clearly defined theme does not a good conference make, I found that having no theme at all, also, does not a good conference make. The “Design” umbrella allowed for a variety of presentations of course but at the same time, given the generality and large scope of some of the presentations, the conference might as well have been themed “Conference”. But I digress, theme or no theme, the conference was, after all, about design.

The Venue / The Hynes Convention Center was an excellent venue: big, accessible, plenty of restrooms and plenty of natural light. Cold as hell in some rooms though. With a shopping mall attached there was plenty of food and places to buy emergency sweaters as needed — a tad surreal at times though. Good pick.

The Logisitics / Handling 2,000+ designers is no easy feat and conference organizers — Dorothy Dunn, Michele Staneck, and more as well as the volunteers — did an above-and-beyond amazing effort at ensuring a pleasant experience for every single attendee. Many, many thanks to all those who made the conference possible.

The Identity / Since I first saw the conference identity I disliked it. Designed by Corey McPherson Nash I found it obvious, literal and far from engaging. Like the theme, the visual identity of the conference is not a crucial element that will determine its success, however, this is a design conference, an opportunity to design for designers — despite all the caveats that that concept extracts from designers. If there is a platform and situation where excellence in design execution and craft is of extreme importance and value — and where it will be appreciated as well as scrutinized — it’s this one and while a perceived level of attention was given to the graphics and language, I feel it failed, at every level, to embody anything closely resembling the design profession, a design sensibility or a design execution. The identity had a livelier execution, on screen, in the speaker introductions but by Friday afternoon it had already grown tired, repetitive and expected. So, a challenge: In two years, I hope to see a visual identity for the conference that is exciting, intriguing and meaningful.

On Stage / Given that we spent so much time staring at the front of the giant room it was pleasant to see the stage having a life of its own. The stage design, by Agoos D-Zines, was a confident and understated structure that supported a second-story “cage” where the Alloy Orchestra, with their perfect-mood percussions, played throughout the conference and illustrator R. Sikoryak interpreted the main sessions through his improvised, up-to-the-second illustrations — these will later be available for viewing on the conference’s web site.

John Hockenberry / Truly a masterful master of ceremonies. Thank you John, for enriching the conference with your energy, humor and commentary.

Design Fair / Some excellent-looking sponsor booths (Mohawk, Adobe, Veer to name a few) livened the ever-popular design fair. This may sound weird coming from Speak Up but it’s important: Many thanks to the sponsors who provide financial and in-kind support to make the conference possible. Your contributions never go unnoticed.

The Attendees / The best part of the conference is, as always, meeting new people, greeting old friends and sharing the experience with people who care about design.

The Blogging of the Conference / Perhaps the biggest change in this year’s conference is the amount of people blogging the conference. (Remember two years ago? Yup, all us, all the time; we are very happy to see so many people excited and writing about the conference). Jason Kottke, the official blogger for the AIGA conference, provided constantly updated and rigorously linked commentary as the conference happened. Unbeige, stayed on top of everything as well, typing ferociously on their laptop. Other notable AIGA blogging at: peterme.com, Stefan Hayden, Open the Window, Three Minds @ Organic, Reverse Innovation… heck, even Portfolio Center Dean, Hank Richardson, is blogging. And, not exactly a blog, but you can see what attendees saw through Flickr.

20/20 / A conference tradition where 20 designers have one minute to make a good impression on the attendees was, this time, spread throughout the conference, between presentations. At times a good distraction, it became a slightly diluted version of a full night of the 20 presentations in a row. The undisputed winner: Michael Bierut, wearing a stately suit and tie, asked the full audience to rise for the singing of the design anthem and proceeded to sing a cappella (to the tune of the American anthem) a witty lyrical anthem — hopefully, a transcript (or better yet, an MP3) will be available.

The Speak Up-Design Observer Party / Held in a dimly-lit, tightly-spaced lounge, over 200 friends of the blogs showed up to have a frickingly good time staying up until 2:00 am dancing… Yes, designers… Dancing. Imagine the craziness. Many thanks to all who attended and made this a legendary party.

Thursday

Murray Moss / In his presentation, Ten (or so) objects I really liked today, and why, he presented ten ideas (exemplified by various objects) that drive him. Ranging from expensive to very, very expensive, the objects, as told by Moss, reflected a deeper engagement with the world that may sometimes be hard to appreciate by the majority of the population that can’t afford these luxurious items. [A few of the points can be found at Three Minds]

Lella and Massimo Vignelli / Basically, you can buy and read the book, Vignelli from A to Z — not yet available.

Friday

Barney Frank / Congressman Frank and John Hockenberry’s exchange about the possibility of the government being able to prevent tragedies like 9/11 and Katrina proved a high point of the conference.

DJ Spooky / I am not sure what I expected… But the presentation was exactly what a DJ would present to designers, some very cool-looking videos and some simple analogies between design and music. A strong advocate of design, however, Spooky understands the communicative power of design and typography. Also, you can buy his book, Rhythm Science and see what it’s all about.

Blogs (Focused Session) / Along with Michael Bierut of Design Observer, Jason Kottke of Kottke.org and Jen Beckman of Personism, Steve Heller probed us to answer good questions, including “What is the difference between a Design Observer post and a Speak Up post?” where I fumbled and eventually evaded the question. A good crowd provided good energy for the panel.

Cristoph Niemann and Nicholas Blechman (Focused Session) / Two of the leading illustrators shared their experience of working with art directors and the nuisances and nuances of the very fragile relationship between illustrator and art director. Scott Stowell provided additional commentary from exotic locations.

Saturday

Ben Karlin (of The Daily Show) and Paula Scher / This presentation stood out like a not-so-sore thumb. Discussed was the making of America (The Book) in a very entertaining and insightful presentation led by the dynamic of Paula (designer) and Ben (client) that clearly reflected the good working relationship they built after working in this mammoth (and funny!) book. It was refreshing to hear both parties speak openly about the things that they were not happy with in the final product.

Ze Frank / For a good time call Ze. Seriously. In his funny — yet painfully inquisitive — way Ze spoke about his “involvement” with the Department of Homeland Security and then deconstructed airplane safety cards. Equally amusing was Hockenberry’s question to Ze, and I paraphrase, “What is the purpose of this research and presentation other than bringing attention to yourself?”

Bill Strickland / Perhaps the best presentation of the conference, at least for me. Bill Strickland, through passion, commitment and the simple idea that if you give people the tools to make amazing things they will, started the Manchester Craftsmen’s Guild and built the Bidwell Training Center, and has touched the lives of many. Strickland’s talk was a reminder of the very basic principle that we are all human and that we should all strive to make each of our lives better, in any way we can. His deserved standing ovation proved that kindness, openness and caring can move mountains. And designers.

“Design Connoisseurship: The Museum as Archive” (Focused Session) / In this panel, moderated by Steve Heller, Paola Antonelli, Barbara Bloemink, Kari Horowicz and Cathy Leff, discussed their process for selecting graphic design pieces to their collections. Interestingly, a big concern for them is the files… yes, the files. Will the work, if provided as a digital file, whether it be Illustrator, Photoshop or Quark really poses a problem in regards to how will these files will upgrade and how they would need someone on staff to maintain them. For us designers, upgradeability is not a concern, we just do it, to survive client demands, it’s no big deal. Museums go to great lengths in preserving paintings and drawings, why would they not do the same for digital files? In other news: MoMA is looking, intensely, to upgrade their graphic design collection, they have built a committee to define what is worthy of inclusion. Should be interesting to see the collection develop.

Mark Pine / An astronomy advocate, Pine — insightful and energetic — showed images of how the earth is seen from above and what we see from the earth. A good head-scratcher and teaser but not enough for deep considerations about design practice… However, “Are we alone?” kept me up at night.

Stefan Sagmeister / In an uncharacteristic passive presentation, Sagmeister talked about happiness in design. Never quite committing to the subject, he spoke about projects, from other people as well as his own, that made him happy and showed more of his word installations from his list of meaningful sentences (“everything i do always comes back to me”, “trying to look good limits my life”, “having guts always works out for me”, etc.). Showing the side effects of jet lag, having flown in from Lisbon that same day, Sagmeister’s presentation was, unfortunately, not the bang we all needed prior to going home.

Final Thoughts / The conference was a great experience, they always are. As Heller wrote in Bryony’s presentation, it is the sum of the parts that make for the experience. While some of the main-stage presentations lacked a certain oomph, as a big picture set of talks they somehow managed to capture the essence and importance of design considerations in the larger context of culture, politics and business. The focused sessions were too many making the audiences in the rooms rather small, which tends to bring down the energy of the presenters — less, more intensely selected sessions would be welcome. It’s understandable: You can’t please all the people all the time with a limited roster, but this may have stretched the aphorism a tad too thin. I enjoyed myself immensely and I come back with lessons learned and opinions to share.

Once again: Thank you to each and every person who made this conference possible.

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ENTRY DETAILS
ARCHIVE ID 2419 FILED UNDER Critique
PUBLISHED ON Sep.18.2005 BY Armin
WITH 18 COMMENTS
Comments
Armin’s comment is:

A nice photo of our panel…

On Sep.19.2005 at 06:20 PM
Andrew Twigg’s comment is:

Armin & Bryony -

What of "Stop Being Sheep Vol. 2"? Was it released at the conference?

Wish I could have been there... wish I hadn't missed the party.

On Sep.19.2005 at 06:25 PM
Armin’s comment is:

Andrew,

Stop Being Sheep — volumes two and three — will be available this week! (You get a free copy, since you are a quotee, though).

On Sep.19.2005 at 06:30 PM
Domonic Patrick’s comment is:

The conference, in my opinion, was a mixed bag.

The fact that is was my very first design conference might have been why I guess I was expecting it to be so much more than it was. I was a bit disappointed by Friday's “Design, and Civic Leadership” - where was the “Design” part? Maybe I missed it. Although I did take away a few little nuggets of insight, such as “encourage your young people to get involved, not give up on the government and the system”, I felt like maybe this was more an opportunity for Mr. Frank to talk about politics, which, in my opinion didn't offer a lot of relevant design information -- I can watch politics on CSPAN, why would I need to come across the nation to do that? Talk to me about how Design played a part in some political ________. Again, correct me if I missed something.

I thought Ellen's type presentation was cute, but not very educational. I was hoping I would have learned some neat stuff about typography -- it was somewhat redundant, but cute nonetheless. The focused sessions I went to on Friday were cram-packed with information -- too much to actually take in, and digest, personally. I went to “The Grass Is Always Greener” session, which was packed full of good info, but that was part of the problem, it was PACKED full of good info. Too much to digest for me - and taking notes was kind of not an option with the slides moving so quickly. They did give some good resources and a handout though, and I felt bad that people kept coming in and out of that damn room! But what I got out of it was very helpful - just a bit intense.

Moira Cullen's “A Seat At The Table” presentation was also PACKED full of good info, but again, too fast to take notes, and too much info to comprehend for me, and, no handout - I'll probably be looking for her book, though. She's definitely on to something : )

DJ Spooky was extremely energetic and dynamic in his presentation. No reading off a page - just a good presenter - and I loved the video with the guy's face and images and words coming out of his mouth w/ his face spliting apart! A beautiful fusion of word and image.

There was some really good cut/paste/scan animations which worked well. They were very strange.

Love Mr. Bierut's AIGA anthem. That was a refreshing piece.

I have to say, my most favorite part of the entire conference was Mr. Strickland -- absolutely inspiring. I'm sure that there were so many good seeds planted in our minds and hearts through that man that we'll never fully see the end of his work. That man is a walking blessing. And so down to earth, too!

Ze Frank was definitely the most hillarious! He had the whole place laughing.

My second favorite was Saturday's session about Charles and Ray Eames and their process - it was rich and digestable and memorable - AND - their granddaughter was the one giving the presentation, who offered great insight on how they lived - she mentioned that they believed very strongly in a “host, guest” relationship, always making sure that their design was the accomodating “host” and always remembering to treat the “guest” with great care and respect. There was also a great interview with Mr. Eames and Madam Amic titled What Is Design?

Overall, I really enjoyed the experience and it was also my first trip to the east coast, and Boston was really great (too bad it's so expensive). I agree that doing something is good, but at the same time, maybe two years from now, we'll do something great. I will definitely continue to attend the AIGA conference because making connections, meeting new friends and being inspired is totally worth the trip, as well as being inspired by the diversity and culture of each new city that hosts it.

Dom

On Sep.20.2005 at 02:13 AM
DesignMaven’s comment is:

Jesus Christ, how could you post that Ghastly Photo of your Distinguished Panel. (Kidding Tom)

We need to see who you are.

Photoshop Color Corrected.

What is Michael Bierut reaching for? More Pastries.

DM

L-R Steve Heller, Armin Vit, Jason Kottke, Jen Beckman, and Michael Bierut.

On Sep.20.2005 at 01:06 PM
Nathan Philpot’s comment is:

This was my first AIGA conference, so I didn't know what to expect. When I first arrived and registered I recieved my tote bag, name tag, and program booklet and immediately started planning every minute of my time to get the most out of the conference. When the first general session began in the exhibit hall with John Hockenberry I started to wonder, "Was I at a design conference or a Democratic convention?" There seemed to me to be to much political bashing. I enjoyed the speakers that talked about design and the diversity of their definition of design, or the speakers like Bill Strickland who just gave a moving presentation on how design can change people, not how a political party can change people.

I believe as designers we should of course be aware of the world in which we live and current issues. But it seemed to me anytime anything Anti-Bush was said the Exhibit Hall erupted.

But all that aside I thought the conference was most excellent. Like I said I didn't know what to expect and am pleased that it focused on Designers as thinkers and changers of the world.

On Sep.20.2005 at 02:33 PM
Aaron’s comment is:

Thank you all for your coverage of this event, it has been a great read.

For those of you that attended the HOW conference as well, which would you choose if you had to pick one? I have yet to work at a company willing to fork over the dough for some good natured "back slapping" and may just pay my own way next year.

Regarding all of this blog talk...

I frequent the sites of all of the blog panel participants and stumbled upon a usefull site (via a blog) for skimming headlines of these sites and more (thanks to RSS). Start

Check it out and play around with it, add this url, Design Observer, Unbeige, etc. Unfortunately it doesn't seem to work on Safari (what do you expect from Microsoft) but works fine in Firefox. You can drag around windows, expand columns...it's sweet.

On Sep.20.2005 at 02:52 PM
I TX NY’s comment is:

a Democratic convention?" ... too much political bashing.

Nathan,

Do you really think Hockenberry- an entrenched, passionate journalist (and persuasive iconoclast) is going to spend 100% of his effort hosting design without culture? He probably donates his svs! Of course its going to be biased! Perhaps the corporate filtered How conference provides more of a message to your liking? Part of being a passionate designer is being engaged in dialogue with the public. That always includes politics!

enjoy austin- great city (best one there in TX)

— Ex TX NYer

On Sep.20.2005 at 03:58 PM
Rachel’s comment is:

I agree. Although the conference wasn't as bad as a HOW Conference... it was probably the most uneventful of all AIGA design conferences I have attended as of yet. The main stage presentations were OK, about half were interesting to me (Sagmeister seemed too jet-lagged to speak with the vigor we're used to). And the focused sessions were not written about correctly in the catalogs, so there were many of us who came out of sessions early feeling mislead by the descriptions.

The lack of a strong and intriguing theme would've perhaps motivated some interest in the speakers themselves.

New Orleans - Jamabalaya. Great theme, a mix of speakers, ideas, presentations.

Las Vegas - Cult and Culture. All things cult-ish and alternative culture. Perfect location for the theme.

Washington D.C. - Voice. What better place to have this conference and discuss the importance of design soon after 9/11?

Vancouver - The Power of Design. (I didn't attend).

Boston - Design. Hmmm. Well, there's always 2007.

P.S. What happened to all the paper company-sponsored parties, suites, and promotions that used to accompany the jovial mood of the event? Mohawk used to have their own hotel suite open for three days with open bar, food and annual reports; Weyerhauser once reserved a restaurant for two days to feed hungry designers; and I remember a McCoy party that conflicted with other parties. Shrinking budgets?

On Sep.20.2005 at 06:15 PM
Clare’s comment is:

I had an awesome time at the conference. awesome. It was my first time at one, and it is now followed by my first post.

The few days surpassed all expectations, from the student symposium, and the opening comments with the illustrator and the band, Hockenberry, Juan Enriquez... I was so wonderfully overwhelmed, and I wasn't let down until the end of the party at the museum. I guess it had to end some time though.

I thought it was well worth my month's rent, and I'm very, very happy that I decided to go.

The 33 party was wicked awesome, thank you!

On Sep.20.2005 at 09:22 PM
Armin’s comment is:

Aaron,

HOW and AIGA are two very different conferences. They each have an offering which they are very good at fulfilling. Neither of which have more or less back slapping than the other one. Both serve to celebrate the craft and influence of design. HOW, as its name implies, will gove you more in terms of how to do things, how to find inspiration, how to manage a business, how to print this or that. AIGA will rarely give you bullet points of things you can do and implement the next day, they seed ideas and challenges that take a few days, weeks or years to grow. This is a simplification of both conferences, but they are both equally valuable. The attendees to HOW and AIGA are also very different.

> Shrinking budgets?

I remember someone mentioning at AIGA in Vancouver that the sponsors were either asked or were suggested or they suggested it themselves that they would bring less promos on site so as not to waste paper and resources. That would perhaps explain the lack of annual reports milling around. And I really doubt a three-day long open bar is a sustainable idea for anyone these days. We could barely hold an open bar for an hour at our party.

On Sep.20.2005 at 10:01 PM
jamie javier’s comment is:

For me the most profound statement that I cannot get out of my mind were the opening remarks of Bill Grant at the Student Symposium.

Are you a designer or a Professional Designer

This simple opening statement allowed me to reflect on a lot of things while I was in Boston. Being a young designer in the mid west and not very happy with the work I do at my job (for example I have spent yesterday and this morning “designing in WORD” what the F—) — I was glad to get that breath of fresh air that there is a real meaning to what we do.

Over all I have to agree with everyone - there was the good and the bad of the conference as far as the speakers were concerned, im not sure what satellite photos had to do with anything other than look make the world look cool in pride colors.

Being a Living Room attendee, I have to say- I prefer the couches to the convention center chairs. My suggestion is to have a VIP/box seating area at the next one- where the couches are in the main room and there are waiters bring us drinks- may be we can get Lazy Boy to sponsor?

The Speak Up party this year was CRAZY. I was lucky to attend the one in Vancouver and it was one of my favorite events of last time. I guess that shows you how much this site has grown in the past two years.

Im glad i went to boston it reminded me that there are designers out there who care- and are passionate at what they do- not design in word.

jme

On Sep.21.2005 at 01:18 PM
Tony Fletcher’s comment is:

I was disappointed as I left Boston. I sat through the presentations waiting for some mention Rick Tharp. Surely National has something planned I thought: a video clip, eulogy from a peer, a simple photo. After Marc English's performance, I was sure that would surely spark someone at the National level to say "Oh yeah! perhaps a more formal announcement is in order."

I voiced my dissapointment to some of my fellow designers at the end of the conference. Older folks, like me, were shocked that the entire conference passed with no fitting tribute to what everybody would consider a "design great." The younger designers asked,"Who is Rick Tharp?" That made me sad. Sad that AIGA missed a perfect opportunity to educate a generation of designers to the work and life of a great designer. And in the end, isn't that what this group is all about?

In all fairness the San Francisco chapter (with the Western Art Directors Cub) has established a scholarship in his name. But where was AIGA National?

On Sep.21.2005 at 04:09 PM
Rob Bynder’s comment is:

I have to take credit for that photo of the panel. And I'll additionally take credit for the poor quality of it. It was uploaded at 3:30 am after partying all night at the Speak Up/Design Observer party. I had neither the inclination nor the coordination to deal with Photoshop at that moment. Thanks for the retouching job, DesignMaven. I think you truly captured the spirit of the yellow cap on Jason's soda.

On Sep.21.2005 at 04:14 PM
Armin’s comment is:

Like Tony, I had been waiting for a mention of Mr. Tharp's passing. I am not sure if every conference would require a moment of remembrance for those that passed, but the contribution to the profession and the legacy of Mr. Tharp, in my opinion, deserved acknowledgment at the conference. Nonetheless, he is well remembered.

On Sep.21.2005 at 05:06 PM
cchs’s comment is:

Not commemorating Mr. Tharp was an oversight, as far as I know. The national office contacted us immediately upon hearing the rumors of his passing. Things were murky then, and we resolved to wait until all the facts were in. I'd actually put the responsibility back on our San Francisco chapter. We just didn't think ahead to the conference as an opportunity to recognize his contribution. I wish we had.

On Sep.21.2005 at 05:46 PM
Monique’s comment is:

I thought overall it was inspiring, especially the good work of those such as MIT's Media lab, Project M and the Rural Project, Bill Strictland, Nicholas Negroponte and so on. There was an amazing display of design at work.

My 2 personal highlight were:

a) When DJ Spooky said "thank-you aiga"

pronouncing AIGA as one word "ei-ga"

Take that, you pretentious designers!

b) Walking past David Carson in the Mall (I can't believe he even attended, looking for more inspiration I guess) As soon as he noticed my badge he covered his name. Would someone please tell him YOU'RE NOT A ROCKSTAR! and if he we're he'd be the equivalent of O-Town. Thank God we have genuine people like Stephan Sagmeister.

It was a blast!

On Sep.30.2005 at 02:13 PM