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W[h]ither The Conference?

I got off to a critical start in my report from the ICOGRADA design conference, and since then I’ve been holding off in the hopes of finding a possible wholistically happy wrap-up to the experience. What I want is to be able to tell you what a worthwhile conference this was, because ultimately I believe that it is very important for people to come into direct contact with people from other cultures. Designers around the world have so much in common, so much to say to each other, so many diverse experiences to share, and North Americans in particular, tend to live such insular, myopic lives. An international conference like this should be and can be an opportunity to think about things far outside of our own ordinary existences and assumptions. Anything that breaks prescribed boundaries in terms of thought and expression can only have positive effects on creativity.

But I’m struggling here.

The Good

As a whole, I have gathered a sense of internationalism from the experience. I have seen images of African writing systems from Saki Mafundikwa (from Zimbabwe), fascinating examples of culture fusion (or clashes) from Henry Steiner (Austria/US/Hong Kong), and some brilliant work of the designer Esen Karol (from Turkey). And as a collection of international faces and languages and perspectives, it has been a unique experience. But as a conference it has been less than adequate, in that neither I nor anyone else I spoke to has come away with any sense of having been energized, illuminated or inspired. No questions have been answered, or even particularly provoked by any of the talks. I am compelled to take no action of any sort, other than to call down certain individuals whose lack of thinking I felt could not go unnoticed.

The Bad

This conference, more than any other I’ve been to, has suffered from a general lack of coherence in theme and poor delivery on the part of most of the speakers. Many of them ran out of time by a long shot before they could get around to their point. I was left hanging so many times, I have rope burn.

People have told me that Mervyn Kurlansky “knows quite a bit about sustainable design” (or is it social responsibility? I may never know) but never got around to telling us about it; Saki Mafundikwa showed us the aformentioned wonderful images via half a film but for some reason never spoke about what we saw; Omar Vulpinari of Fabrica showed a terrific range of internationally targeted campaigns created to address social issues but failed to make any concise point about it all. I really sat up when Ravi Naidoo, from South Africa, told us about how, after the huge political changes in his country in 1994, in order to address problems of housing, water and other basic needs, they decided to start a design conference. “At last,” I thought, “a concrete story of how design was used to create change.” Yet just as I was poised to hear what happened next, he gave us a broad survey of the types of design and advertising that are currently coming out of South Africa. All very well and good, but what about that conference? Well, in the last few minutes before he ran out of time, we learn that the conference, Design Indaba, had over 15,000 attendees last year (it’s ninth year running) and I’m left thinking, “Wait … what? What??” Was that a typo, or has what must surely be the world’s biggest design conference by far just sprung out of African soil? (Apparently not a typo.) I now know it exists, but have no idea how it came to be so successful, whether it’s sustainable as a conference (that is, whether it makes money or breaks even, or has enough impetus to keep on going), and what, if anything it ever did for those infrastucture problems.

This, coupled with intensely boring or inept delivery on the part of some of the other speakers and more misguided thoughts, made me seriously wonder (in tune with the conference theme) “Why Are We Here?” (Note to conference organizers, be careful what you title your conference, lest things go horribly awry.)

The Good I only heard about

Interestingly, I heard quite a bit of “You should have been here yesterday,” in regards to some of the other events surrounding ICOGRADA’s week-long proceedings in Seattle, but which were not part of the conference. I was told that the “Over the Fence” session on Thursday was a good overview of design around the world (where each presenter was given only 20 minutes).

In particular, I spoke to a number of students who told me, with great enthusiasm, of the student workshops they took part in earlier in the week. I was quite envious of their chance to interact with these international designers, and work together—if only for a short time—on the workshop projects. Additionally, a number of people raved about the work that came out of those workshops, completed by the students in only four days.

Rethinking The Conference

I have never organized a conference (god forbid), but I have spent nearly four years in the bowels of a volunteer organization (the GDC), and have organized several events. I do know a number of people who have organized conferences, so I have some indication and appreciation of what a goddamned nightmare it is. I also know that the projected attendance for this conference was much greater than the actual attendance of about 150.

Given all of this I really began to think “what happened here, and how could it have been avoided?” Without pointing fingers at either the speakers, the organizers, the non-attendees, ICOGRADA or the AIGA Center for Cross Cultural Design (who were in joint partnership on this conference) I began to wonder about the bigger picture of conferences in general. I had a conversation about this with Ross Mills (who was involved in the organization of the 2003 ATypi Conference in Vancouver) on the drive home, and it turned out we had been thinking similar things.

Despite the fact that design is a burgeoning industry, it is still relatively small compared to other professions, and as such has a limited audience. What this means is that you are drawing from a limited pool of attendees, with an even more limited pool of potential speakers (where many speakers are older, older designers are fewer, and good speakers fewer yet). Given the price of registration fees, and the time and travel expenses on top of it, it is perhaps unreasonable to expect more than a couple of hundred people to any small conference. In addition, you run the risk of much repetition of “the same old” speakers or a gamble taken on new speakers who do not yet have good presentation skills.

Given that, at this point, the AIGA satisfies most designers’ needs for The Big One every two years, those wanting to fill the gaps or address topics not covered by those big conferences might consider some alternative models.

Suggested solutions

If you plan on only 200 attendees you must necessarily reduce your costs, and your number of speakers. At this point you are looking immediately at a more intimate environment. That in itself is a draw for attendees, given the opportunity to break down the stage-speaker/audience barriers.

What if it’s not a conference, but a symposium, where a particular issue or problem is the topic, and the desired outcome is some sort of resolution or plan of action? What if the focus of the symposium is discussion between all attendees? Or what if it’s a creativity fest, where people are broken into smaller groups and share ideas and methods? In this model, the pressure is off that speaker to perform alone for an hour or more. The time spent with the speakers is in discussion, more immediate and ultimately more rewarding. (I’m reminded of Design Camp, which Tan, Debbie and I attended two years ago.) Given that the most rewarding aspect of any conference is the meeting and mingling of people, and the after-hours discussions, it’s worth looking into turning the model around and making that the focus of the event.

In addition, conference locations and themes need to be carefully considered. A Victoria, BC conference in 2004, which also vastly overestimated its attendance, suffered badly from following on the heels of the AIGA Vancouver conference. It seems unwise to me that TypeCon is in Boston this year, where the AIGA conference was last year. This Seattle ICOGRADA conference is covering very similar ground as the AIGA Vancouver conference. The fact is that people are unwilling to lay down the time and money for something they think they’ve heard before or to travel to a location they’ve been to recently.

Themes in particular are critical. The more broad and vague the theme, the less conclusive the experience can be. Organizers should consider niche themes to attract specific, targeted sponsorship and attract the interest of people who have not been recently exposed to the given topic.

One of the things that I suspect organizations of being guilty of is something designers continually remind their clients of: and that is to think from a perspective outside of the organization. So for instance, in the case at hand, given that it was the first ICOGRADA conference in the US since 1977, perhaps it would have been a bigger draw to simply introduce the American audience to the work of people from outside their country. Yes, show and tell—but show and tell can have a lot of value when you’re seeing work you’ve never seen before. From the perspective within the organization, this would seem mundane: the ICOGRADA board and members are, after all, already familiar with each other, but what they didn’t take into account was that the Americans are (generally) not.

Had this conference had a smaller focus, smaller goals, a more intimate atmosphere and an environment where the designers were able to talk more directly, ask questions of each others’ challenges, methods and outcomes I have no doubt that it would have been a very successful and inspiring event. And language barriers are much easier to overcome when you’re not on either the giving or on the receiving end of a prepared script.

I would encourage ICOGRADA to seriously reconsider the structure and focus of their conferences, and I would encourage all organizations competing for designers’ attention and dollars to do the same.

Other posts on this conference concern: My first impression, A vitriolic attack, Some helpful advice, and More heaps of derision.

Maintained through our ADV @ UnderConsideration Program
PUBLISHED ON Jul.17.2006 BY marian bantjes
Amber’s comment is:

I agree with many of the points here and have a few things to add.

I agree that seeing the work from different areas of the world and understanding world culture is necessary and important for all designers. But the low attendance seems to show that there is a lack of general interest in the issues and main focus of the conference. Why and what can we do about it? Those of us who attended are interested in these issues, but were left with no course of action. I think this would have been an ideal opportunity for the members of the AIGA XCD board to gather support from designers coming from many places in the U.S. and was not utilized.

I enjoyed those presentations that showed work from many parts of the world … but now what? What resources can designers actually seek out to inform themselves on the global design community and share with their fellow designers? We were not left with many resources such as literature, Web sites, exhibits, groups, etc. to seek out and continue learning.

Obviously one of the things that is great about a conference is the gathering of people and the meeting of new people. Design conferences need to utilize this and stop talking about doing. This should be a time of idea exchange through collaboration on projects and bringing together diverse ideas. We, as an audience, are eager to not only listen and learn, but also to contribute. I was craving the things it seems the student workshop accomplished. As an attendee coming alone halfway across the country, I felt very isolated despite the passing off of business cards and the short tidbits of conversations. Smaller sessions where designers can meet and form these bonds is essential.

Also attendees are looking for those unscripted moments. Many of the presentations could be posted online right now and everyone could read them and see the images and get exactly the same information. The Q&A sessions being somewhat scripted and cut short at the end of the sessions was extremely unfortunate.

There were some important messages though throughout the sessions. I think the person that really explained where design is going as a profession was Esen Karol from Turkey. She said that when everyone is a designer (I think as in everyone has the tools and a more developed visual sensibility), it isn't a bad thing. It won't mean no more work for the professional designer. It will be a liberation. (a liberation! not something to fear!) In the same way that photography freed painting from being solely used to represent reality. This IS defining design on a changing planet, which was the theme of the conference.

As designers, we may or may not have more compassion than others, we may or may not be natural leaders, we may or may not want to be the righthand man of the CEO. But this talk of how designers should be leaders and aren't getting our due respect seems a bit pointless. (Aren't there other professionals sitting somewhere talking about how they should be leaders?) It is not that we SHOULD be leaders and that we need to educate business people to understand our value. It is that we HAVE to be leaders because of the way that the design profession is changing. We are being forced to offer more. This is a given but how can we answer the call?

I know from looking at my notebook that I faithfully opened at the start of each speaker's session that I did not come away with as much as I had hoped. When I try to share what I have learned on this trip with my coworkers, I am afraid that I will not have much to pass on to them. One speaker said something along the lines that you have to create the thing you are seeking when you find it isn't there. And I think that is what may come out of all this.

On Jul.17.2006 at 03:21 AM
Pesky Illustrator’s comment is:

Marian, The most important thing you've written about is honest expectations and scripted unchallenging events. Perhaps the conference planners ought to read them here - and learn from this perspective in the future. Every conference I ever attended, was always about seeking inspiring individual's ideas and surprizes of being blown away by cross cultural brainstorming. Some more than others. Your writings about this event always have that passion for inspiration. Yeah, keep it up....

On Jul.17.2006 at 07:54 AM
Andrew Twigg’s comment is:


The feelings you have are similar to those I've had after attending other design conferences. It's why I'm almost never compelled to attend conferences any more.

Last year I attended DesignInquiry for the first time, and I attended again this year, just a few weeks ago. This is a 'symposium' based on participant-driven content and direction. It's small in scale and unlike larger conferences, there's actually time to engage in meaningful discussion about the topic at hand. As the DesignInquiry website states, "attendees produce work in a collaborative setting, over an intense week of making, talking, cooking, eating and (if there’s time) sleeping."

Attending this kind of event also takes a high level of commitment on the part of everyone attending; this year there weren't paid presenters or keynote speakers, in order to keep the playing field level. The organizers of the event believed that some of the best parts of "normal" conferences happened after-hours in bars, hallways, and over dinner. This event is designed to culivate those kinds of experiences.

I think that other conferences have the potential to learn alot from events such as AIGA Seattle's Design Camp and DesignInquiry. My last "regular" conference was FutureHistory in 2004; the event was largely a disappointment, but the best part was meeting Margo Halverson and Matt Soar, both DesignInquiry people (Margo the coordinator; Matt a presenter/attendee). Otherwise, the main thing of value I took away from the conference was a collection of PDFs of presentations, which were available for free, to the public, after the conference was done.

On Jul.17.2006 at 09:00 AM
Robynne’s comment is:

Hindsight is always 20/20, but it would be interesting to invite those same speakers back and ask them to spend 45 minutes talking about just one company or project that they viewed as groundbreaking or "making a difference". For example, Mervyn Kurlanksy could have spent the his whole lecture discussing the outcome of Sappi's "Ideas that Matter", a worthwhile and innovative program that deserves more publicity and support among designers.

On Jul.17.2006 at 03:09 PM
mark notermann’s comment is:

"Definining Design on a Changing Planet" is a pretty daunting task when it seems few can even agree on what design is. But in our don't-blink-or-you'll-miss-it changing world, one thing remains constant: the need to communicate.

The student workshop reinforced this idea better that I expected. I had lofty (if unclear) ideas about turning the poster into a conceptual piece about the communication process, but our workshop leader (Henk van Assen) had a better, simpler idea: find an audience, and communicate to them.

My group was tasked with designing posters (individually) to advance the message of UN Millenium Goal #6:
Halt and begin to reverse the spread of HIV/AIDS (by 2015);
Halt and begin to reverse the incidence of malaria and other major diseases (by 2015).

Sounds tough, but there really are proven solutions out there. The trick was to find one, and focus on the best message for that audience. We each did research and found different places around the globe to address, and that is when the essence of the workshop took flight: how to engage with an audience you might know very little about.

This spurred productive dialog in the group about what is an appropriate solution, and what is an appropriate way to reach an audience. Design 101--that's right! Go do some more research. In the comfort of the labs and dorms, the clock is ticking down on a poster deadline. Outside, people are dying.

Waiting for the perfect solution is not the answer. It is always easy to dismiss an effort as ineffective because it fails to meet an idealized solution or expectation of one. The essence is to get to work-- take that little step, whatever it is, that puts you on the road to being a part of a solution.

The same can be said of the conference as a whole. Defining design on a changing planet might sound lofty, but by getting together and starting some discussion, a step has been taken for those who came.

I have had the fortune to make acquaintances with others from around the world who share my passion for understanding and communication. We reached a level of discourse not afforded in typical travel experiences, and I never had to leave home.

For me this conference was a bargain, and I'm embarrassed that more young designers from the US (much less Seattle) could not see the value in it.

On Jul.18.2006 at 03:39 AM
mark notermann’s comment is:

(should read as)

For me this conference was a bargain, and I'm embarrassed that more young designers from the US (much less Seattle) could not see the value in attending.

On Jul.18.2006 at 03:43 AM
mary beth’s comment is:

Just linking to the Design Camp entry was worth reading this article. I was rolling! But considering how much you did not participate perhaps it isn't a better solution. Or maybe it is, hang out and discuss, relax or escape; let the attendees decide.

Presentations rarely get to the point and early in my career felt that conferences were just so much ego massage for the speakers. But the themes are compelling and one gets their hope up again.

goodie bags be gone!

On Jul.19.2006 at 07:47 PM
Tan’s comment is:

Hahaha....I'd forgotten about that Design Camp post. Thanks for the relink Marian.

All of the design camps across the country, including the original camp in the Minnesota chapter, were modeled after the International Design Conference in Aspen (IDCA), now known as the Aspen Design Summit. Up until last year, the IDCA was the oldest running design conference in North America — having run consecutively for something like 65 years. I believe it was formed by a circle of famous legends, including Lester Beall and Herbert Bayer. (If you're a designer who doesn't know who they are, for God's sake, look them up.)

The IDCA was as close to a perfect conference format and site as you could get. The conference site was perched on top of a hillside on the back of Aspen, overlooking a mountain lake. The main auditorium was an architectural beauty designed by Bayer himself. The format included speakers, individual workshops, and numerous breakout sessions when attendees could join roundtable chats with speakers. The food was amazing. There were live music and modern dance performances for the interstitial breaks between speakers. In the evenings, there were gatherings for star watching/astronomy lessons, not to mention dinner parties and bbqs throughout Aspen.

When I chaired Seattle's first Design Camp in Leavenworth, I did my best to bring to it what I loved most about IDCA. We came close that first year — it was almost magical.

But alas, the camps since then have strayed a bit as new committees take leadership. And regretfully, the IDCA itself finally ran out of steam, and/or money, and found itself under the shelter of AIGA — who renamed it and stripped it of its history and glory. The perfect conference was gone and forgotten, except by a few lucky ones who had experienced it.

Maybe I'll muster the will to run another Design Camp. Hmmm. Maybe...

Nah...what am I thinking? My wife will kill me.

On Jul.19.2006 at 10:39 PM
ps’s comment is:

i have to agree with tan about the conference in aspen. i was fortunate to go to one a few years before it folded. i don't think there was a goodie bag... there you coudn't beat the location. i think location makes such a difference. i was pondering if i should attend the next gain conference in n.y. but i can't see myself spending 2 days in the hotel conference room there.

On Jul.20.2006 at 10:49 AM
Tan’s comment is:

You should go Peter. I'm going. NY has so much to offer, and besides, the Roosevelt ain't bad.

On Jul.20.2006 at 12:23 PM
Seattle Designer’s comment is:

For me this conference was a bargain, and I'm embarrassed that more young designers from the US (much less Seattle) could not see the value in attending.

Speak for yourself there, Mark. Unfortunately there were probably a few Seattle designers out there who weren't able to attend the ICOGRADA conference for one reason or another, possibly the $575 that professionals had to pay to attend could be viewed as a hindrance. Not everyone gets a training budget, and not everyone has half a grand lying around to spend on conferences. Or maybe they went to a different conference earlier that year. Maybe they even attempted countless times to get involved, to no avail. Maybe their boss wouldn't let them off work, or they just started a new job so it wouldn't be appropriate to ask for $575 right away. Maybe they were on vacation even.

Maybe, next time you should pause at the Preview button when you decide to judge the shameful Seattle designers who weren't able to attend.

On Jul.21.2006 at 01:15 AM
Pesky Illustrator’s comment is:

Thanks for the link to DesignInquiry.net, Andrew. The Holland Fonts by Max Kisman are worth the mention, Clever boy.

On Jul.21.2006 at 10:47 AM
mark notermann’s comment is:

Em>Maybe, next time you should pause at the Preview button when you decide to judge the shameful Seattle designers who weren't able to attend

Of course there are a lot of valid reasons not to go. Giving up a week's pay on top of travel + conference fees and expenses adds up quickly.

My point was about students as opposed to professionals, especially the locals who don't have the travel expenses.

And if you've alrady reached your conference quota for the year, or were on vacation, I hear the violins coming out...

and by the way...why should YOU be ashamed if I'M the one being embarrassed?

On Jul.21.2006 at 02:09 PM
Mark Notermann’s comment is:

I guess that (previous comment) was a terse response that didn't communicate my true sentiment:

My design education has been done on a shoestring. The chance to learn from top international design talent and work with motivated students from around the world represented something few schools can offer at any time or price.

The cost of the entire conference was $350 for students registering early, which barely buys a plane ticket down the coast, a semester of textbooks, or a weekend of Photoshop tips and tricks.

There's the value.

The embarrassment has more to do with Americanism, and our typical lack of concern for life beyond our borders. When others can make the effort to come from South Africa or China, much less Connecticut or Tennessee, it only magnifies the value and opportunity for locals.

It sounds as if you wanted to go but couldn't, and for that I truly am sorry. But I'm sure there were plenty who more easily could have but didn't. They missed the boat.

On Jul.22.2006 at 01:24 AM