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Ready, aim, fire!

If you haven’t read my first entry from the ICOGRADA conference, you should start there.

I feel slightly guilty starting off on a critical note. It should be noted that I am a guest of this conference (i.e. I didn’t pay to attend), and I’m not exactly going to make myself popular with this, but I’ve decided to take the advice of the first speaker of the day, Darrel Rhea (of Cheskin), and “put [my]self in harm’s way.”

And it is with a certain relish that I take that particular advice, because Mr. Rhea said something else worth quoting in his extensively self-congratulatory sermon proselytizing the Power of the Designer. In the context of explaining why business leaders want the views of designers, he said it is “because designers have more empathy and compassion than other people.”


He said it twice, actually.
And after the first time he said it, he said, “And if you don’t have it you’re a fine artist.

Yes. (Finally, the difference beween a designer and an artist, revealed.)

The premise is that business people, who—like fine artists—are in need of more empathy and compassion, look to designers for that rare trait because it allows designers to more easily understand customers, and therefor more easily target their needs.

So not only are designers these incredibly powerful, influencial beings, “contributing in the boardrooms of business leaders” [blah blah blah], they are also possessed of divine qualities that can be used to—not to put too fine a point on it—sell more product. Hallelluja! Praise the Designer.

Well, tell it to those empathetic designers still racking up the compassionate comments over at Design Observer in the past couple of days.

Quite frankly, I’m not sure if I’ve ever seen a bigger piece of crap fall out of someone’s mouth at a conference. It’s insulting in its complete and utter falsity, and blatantly idiotic. That it comes from a business preacher striding up and down the stage under the delusional influence of a nonexistent claptrack would be laughable were it not for the apparent complete absorption by many members of the audience.

Which brings me to my second piece of advice for the day, this time to conference presenters everywhere: Think before you Speak. By all means, put yourself in harm’s way, but be prepared to get your head blown off.

Darrel Rhea’s talk gave me an idea for a much longer, and more contemplative post than this, though it will take a while for me to get my thoughts together on it. Coming sometime soon to a weblog near you.

Other posts on this conference concern: My first impression, Rethinking the conference, as a concept, Some helpful advice, and More derision.

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ENTRY DETAILS
ARCHIVE ID 2742 FILED UNDER Critique
PUBLISHED ON Jul.15.2006 BY marian bantjes
WITH COMMENTS
Comments
felixxx’s comment is:

"Explosive" Darrel Rhea has quite a history of "putting himself in harms way". I've been hearing about him since pee wee baseball:

When you're sliding into 1st
and you feel your undies burst

it's Darrel Rhea, cha cha cha
Darrel Rhea, cha cha cha

Sorry.

On Jul.15.2006 at 11:09 AM
Robynne’s comment is:

Well put Marian, I heard it too. The students sitting next to me were not impressed either (proof that our education system is doing something right!). I walked out of the auditorium totally blown away that someone so mind numbing was invited to lecture in the first place.

On Jul.15.2006 at 11:11 AM
James John Malcolm (AkaXakA)’s comment is:

As both a designer and a business-guy - I'm flabbergasted.

Good job putting him on his spot.

On Jul.15.2006 at 05:22 PM
Randy J. Hunt’s comment is:

Darrel's presentation

He's a well-trained public speaker but pretty much tripped up the stairs on the way to the stage. Darrel started his presentation with the condescending comment about the Power Point presentations of other speakers and that he'd be using none. (The visual component of 60% of the presenters at the conference are deserving of harsh criticism, but to deliver this message before the audience had even seen them, and as the key note speaker...not the way to build a possitive impression of yourself.)

How do you empower a group of people and charge them to action? You motivate them, you make them feel strong, you build up their confidence. I think, no I hope this is what Darrel Rhea was trying to do. Either way, it fails miserably. For one of two reasons:


  • If someone actually buys into Darrel's self-rightseous immense capacity for compassion, they've set the stange for themselves to fail at compassion at all. Compassion begins, if in no other way, with suspending one's own assumptions. If that assumption is in your ability to be compassionate, well then, your situation is as messy as these sentences.

  • More importantly, designer self-elevation in this "superiority" perspective is preposterous as, Marion points out.

The general gist of Rhea's talk isn't anything new. Many people are constantly singing the same "design has an opportunity" song. It's the one with the chorus that says "seat at the table, get your, seat at the table." I have to say, I like the song. The problem is, the songwriters want everyone to sing it, not everyone likes the same tunes, and not everyone has a good singing voice.

What good point he does make is that there are other disciplines (marketing, pr, advertising, etc) that are discovering what it is that design does and seem better perpared to be a partner with clients on the top level at implementing that. If anything, we need to prepare ourselves, as well as possible, to remain the sources of advice in the area we're expert at. That has nothing to do with being more compassionate, we just need to be aware of the forces working around us.

On Jul.16.2006 at 12:15 PM
marian bantjes’s comment is:

The condescending comments were thick, involving snide remarks about people who "draw", and the implication that anyone who uses their hands or "artistic" talents at all, does so while off in a corner, afraid to talk to other people.

And while many people may enjoy, appreciate or completely buy into the "Seat at the table" song, I failed to see what it had to do with the theme of the conference ... especially as the first speaker, who should be the one who sets the stage for what's to come.

Judging by that stage setting, I would have expected a conference focussed on how to use current trends ("sustainability" being one of those trends) to leverage business success. The entire story about his son's obsession with Patagonia as a brand underscored this. Had I attended a conference with that as the theme, I would have found his talk only smarmy rather than misguided and offensive.

On Jul.16.2006 at 02:13 PM
Gunnar Swanson’s comment is:

I’ll buy into “empathy” but not “compassion.” Good designers do have particularly strong empathy but not in the sense of sentimentality, emotionality, or even an ethical stance. A very important design skill is the ability to leave your position and see the world as someone else would. (The classic user-centered design slogan is that the one thing you know about your user is that she is not you.)

Unfortunately, empathy is not a well-distributed design talent. It certainly is not demonstrated in much of the aforementioned Design Observer discussion. If tribalism, self-righteousness, the inability to address a logical argument, and poor reading comprehension were important skills for good design, you’d find plenty of evidence that the discussion there is a demonstration of them.

On Jul.16.2006 at 02:17 PM
Tselentis’s comment is:

"The condescending comments were thick, involving snide remarks about people who "draw"..."


HHHmmm... sounds like a similar discussion that's brewing here.

On Jul.16.2006 at 04:29 PM
Brenda’s comment is:

OK - question? Why is it condescending to differentiate between 'drawing' and 'designing'? Marion - you describe yourself as a 'former' designer so I'm not sure why the slight seems to have been so deeply felt.

Do I buy Darrell's argument completely? No. Do I think it was one worth putting in front of this audience? Yes. On both sides of this topic, you can't be truly challenged until someone tests your assumptions. Given the conversations going on in the lobby of Meany Hall over the last few days - and here - it seems the keynote delivered on one goal. To get people talking.

I do wonder what we are afraid of in his thesis. That designers will be co-opted into the antics of the corporate boardroom and thereby lose our empathy and compassion? Or that corporate America will co-opt design as a business process and render us voiceless? Personally, given the plethora of reality-TV design shows, I'm more afraid of the latter.

Yes, the the argument that the boardroom is looking to the design studio for its moral compass seems facile when its framed as a sidebar in a Patagonia catalogue, but its the same argument that Sara Little Turnbull has been making for decades and she received a standing ovation from the same audience in Seattle.

So is it the argument we're not buying? Or the packaging? Is it that, in the zillion channel universe stuffed with infomercials and reality TV, when someone takes the stage at a conference as a polished presenter we want to run because we know we're being 'sold'?

I'll ponder this on the plane back to Montreal.

On Jul.16.2006 at 07:14 PM
marian bantjes’s comment is:

Just so people know, Brenda is one of the organizers of the conference, and the person who generously allowed me free access (well, contra, actually), so she may be understandably annoyed by my negative review.

But Brenda, I welcome you to Speak Up, and I will answer your questions one by one.

Why is it condescending to differentiate between 'drawing' and 'designing'?

He didn't differentiate, he merely made jabs. I have a lot to say about this as a whole, and am planning an in-depth post about it. But in general, whether I am a designer or ex-designer I take great offense to the implication that those who make images in whatever form, are somehow retarded (i.e. incapable of strategic thinking, or communicating on a business level). Mr Rhea made a distiction between those who are happy to sit in a corner drawing or cross-hatching (and given that no one really knows how to cross hatch I do take this as a metaphor), and those who sell ideas. I find that deeply insulting, and I think every designer who prides themselves on their ability to use their visual skills to communicate should as well.

Do I think it was one worth putting in front of this audience? Yes. On both sides of this topic, you can't be truly challenged until someone tests your assumptions.

There are no sides to this topic, as I see it. I am not advocating that designers should not "sit at the boardroom table." The fact is, as you pointed out yourself, we have heard it all before. This is not news. But what speakers keep neglecting to tell designers are some concrete, first-hand examples of what they did when they got there. The feeling after this talk, as evidenced by the first question from the audience, is the same as the feelings after the 2003 AIGA conference in Vancouver, which despite being infinitely more inspiring, left the same thoughts of, "Bruce Mau tells me I'm a God and I can change the world, but I don't really know what to do except spec recycled paper for my Doggie Day Care client."

Conference attendees are sick to death of being preached at. Darrel Rhea's talk was a TV evangelist sermon. He told us we were empowered (those of us who don't spend all our time making images), he told us we are part of an elite core of valuable individuals that the business industry is just dying to get their hands on, and that we have these unique powers. He failed to give any concrete examples of how HE has used these extraordinary powers in a real-world situation. Further, he insulted our intelligence and every other profession in the world by telling us we are as a group more caring than other people. That's bullshit and that's insulting.

Furthermore, I was under the impression that the conference had some kind of a focus on "sustainability," whatever that means in this context, and "globalization". I said it above, I'll say it again, as the first speaker out of the gate I got a completely different message from his topic, and I'm not the only one.

Given the conversations going on in the lobby of Meany Hall over the last few days - and here - it seems the keynote delivered on one goal. To get people talking.

Yes, it did do that.

I do wonder what we are afraid of in his thesis.

I'm not afraid of anything in his so-called thesis, particularly as I'm not sure what it is: that designers are powerful? That we can use our skills to help businesses profit? That we should advocate these mysterious sustainable practices because it's good for business (ours and our clients)? That strategy and talk is better than production and communication? That the success of companies like Patagonia is somehow due to designers, and further that they should be emulated? That everyone's a designer?

That designers will be co-opted into the antics of the corporate boardroom and thereby lose our empathy and compassion?

Puhleez.

Or that corporate America will co-opt design as a business process and render us voiceless? Personally, given the plethora of reality-TV design shows, I'm more afraid of the latter.

I'm sorry Brenda, I just simply don't understand what you're saying.

its the same argument that Sara Little Turnbull has been making for decades and she received a standing ovation from the same audience in Seattle.

She recieved a standing ovation for a lifetime of achievement in design, and for just being a goddamned brilliant little fireball. Plus the adorable pink hat.

Is it that, in the zillion channel universe stuffed with infomercials and reality TV, when someone takes the stage at a conference as a polished presenter we want to run because we know we're being 'sold'?

Yes please, no more infomercials at design conferences. No infomercials and no sermons, but a little reality would be most welcome indeed.

I will soon be posting more on my thoughts on the conference as a whole, and I assure you I will make it as constructive as possible. I did feel a certain amount of guilt after posting "Ready, aim, fire" for perhaps being too mean, or focussing too heavily on this negative aspect. But ultimately I think this kind of bullshit should be called. We're too smart to be preached at, too smart to be lied to, and hopefully too smart to take everything someone says at face value. When a presentation is "polished" it is still necessary to examine what exactly is being polished, and in this case I found it to be a big, shiny turd.

On Jul.16.2006 at 08:26 PM
Brenda ’s comment is:

Oh Marion, I'm not even close to annoyed so don't apologise! As for examples of what we can do with these mysterious powers, here's a personal list of links...

1. Case studies of designers making a difference with their seat at the table: http://betterbydesign.org.nz/

2. Favorite project presented by a speaker - designing different futures with kids: http://www.inneractproject.org/

3. Posters developed by the students who took part in the workshop at the beginning of the week: http://art.washington.edu/icograda/

I'm sure a brief whirl around Google would reveal more, but those are the ones that stick with me as I cool my heels in JFK.

On Jul.17.2006 at 06:38 PM
Josh’s comment is:

Marian - You say so many insightful things and reveal so many relevant points that relate to the profession as a whole so often, i can't keep up.

I think its quite difficult to comment on a place i have never been to nor with my similar disdain for expensive, mostly pointless conferences. So i'll leave that to the attendees to discuss the finer points

Your opinions reflect my own for the most part and I wouldn't want any different voice speaking for me.

And my "design has an opportunity song" is Hey Ya! by Outkast. A fantastic song(but not the most creative)on a great record.

That was my Felixx moment.

On Jul.17.2006 at 07:28 PM
cat’s comment is:

Marian, an interesting take on the Icograda conference (I've read some but not all of what you've written). I'll check around to see what others have to say on the matter.

Brenda, I hope your flight back was uneventful. Especially after working on a large conference.

cat

On Jul.18.2006 at 06:32 AM
bootchec’s comment is:

This subject is very important for both sides involved(artists and designers). Of course there are differences and there are similiarities. But beeing offended is not the point. The point is to make the difference which is quite obvious, make it so it is obvious as well that noone (or even better everyone) will be offended. Rhea made a big mistake but please don't make mistakes yourself. Although I agree with you Marian but Rhea did good speaking about that. Unfortunatelly he failed solving this 'puzzle' as he thought it may be.

On Jul.18.2006 at 12:45 PM