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.
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.
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.
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.
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.