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Core-dispatch from San Francisco

Some comments and observations on the Crave Conference in San Francisco (9/27/00)

Conceived and produced by the powerhouses of product, business, and strategy (IDEO, tompeterscompany, and Siegelgale), it should have been like the gods passing their divine wisdom down to the heathens; the promise of nothing less than full disclosure of all the secrets on how to design products that people will crave. Maybe the expectations were too high. At their best, design conferences inform, instruct, and inspire. At the end of the day, you should feel fully charged. So why did I leave with such an empty feeling?

First of all, there was a lot of preaching to the choir: missionaries exhorting the value of design. However, most of the audience consisted of principals from design or strategy companies, experts in their own right.

Tom Peters, the keynote speaker, opened up the conference with his typical ebullient, energized, and passionate style. The staccato message was peppered with quotable one-liners but lacking contextual relevance. "Distinct or Extinct: all designs are the samet" was a central theme. But go to any store it seems like we're soaked with a proliferation of products unprecedented in choice and variety. If anything, there is too much diversity. "Take risks" was another message. That's an easy one for designers because they usually have no financial stake in their client and they get paid whether their design succeeds or fails. There is such a thing as irresponsibility masquerading as "risk taking." How about something like: "think and act as though you were the CEO"?

The sound bites and one-liners floundered In Search of Context. Tom Peters failed to consider the makeup of his audience. His message on the value of design, delivered with missionary zeal, was a message aimed at MBA's. By the way, where is attracting and keeping the best people in all this? It's as if tompeterscompany is this juggernaut book-generating machine whose sole mission is to obsolete last year's message in order to sell this year's book. It's like, "forget about all that stuff I told you last year; I didn't know what I was talking about. This is the book you really need."

Jerry Hirschberg is probably the most visible and articulate spokesperson for the value of design. The message is so compelling, his book, The Creative Priority, so readable: if only the results matched the philosophy. Nissan is a company in search of a brand. Despite Hirschberg's semi-celebrity garnered from the Nissan ads, it's almost like it's Nissan's desperate attempt to recover some kind of identity. Here's a free clue: Take a risk, bring back the Z!

Jim Jannard, founder and CEO of Oakley talks the talk and walks the walk. Everything from their facility to their products screams with one coherent voice. Since Oakley, the world of eyewear will never be the same. I just have one question? With all that mad scientist R&D stuff going on, why have my $120 Razor frames broken twice for no apparent reason.

David Kelley was given an introduction from Tom Peters that was really not so much an introduction as it was a deification. The introduction itself proved to be a hard act to follow. The A/V glitches certainly didn't help and the content was seemingly aimed at a high school level with an unsatisfying lack of depth. For an audience hungry for red meat, he served up tofu, e.g., the famous Nightline "shopping cart" problem statement was set up but without any explanation as to how the IDEO solution solved the problem nor any of the presumably interesting, behind the scenes stories. I believe one of the reasons that ABC sold so many IDEO / Nightline videos was because of viewer's craving for process and hands-on information.

A common occurrence throughout the presentations was the persistent and annoying problems with the A/V system. Virtually no one escaped unscathed. Slides advanced by verbal command apparently were directed to a hearing impaired operator and the slides that did queue up were washed out, falling out of their mounts, or fuzzy. Electronic projections fared only slightly better. Tim Sanders of Yahoo had his presentation fail completely half way through and he had to finish from memory. Luckily, he handled the gaff with great aplomb.

There was a lot to pack in a single day and, somewhat predictably, the last (and probably the most anticipated and most interesting) event got dropped. This was to be a panel discussion with Kenneth Cooke, David Kelley, Tom Peters, Robyn Waters and Andrew Zolli.

My mother always taught me never to criticize something unless I had an alternate solution. OK, mom here goes: For the next Crave conference I would like to hear straight talk from the gods. I don't want to hear the glossed over executive summary version. I want the nuts-and-bolts-behind-the-scenes stories about what it took to pull this stuff off. Stories like Brock Yates tells in Critical Path, the inside story on the second generation Chrysler minivan development. And since we often learn more from mistakes than successes, I would like to hear from somebody big enough to talk about colossal failures and what they learned from them.

Here are the top ten presenters I'd like to see at the next Crave conference. OK, I know they're expensive. So pick five:

-Tom Gale, How design resurrected a major corporation. Include the Mintzberg moment where Tom Gale and Bob Lutz override Chrysler's research recommendation to axe the cab-forward platform...

-Peter Schwartz, Author of the Art of the Long View. President of Global Business Network, predicting the future using scenario planning...

-Johnathon Ive, Designer of the iMac, et al

-Joe Sedelmaier, Creative director of some of the best TV commercials ever made

-Jay Mays, Volkswagen Beetle designer

-Paul Saffo, Institute for the Future

-David Kelley, With the rest of the story about the shopping cart

-Jerry Hirschberg, Knowing what I know now, what I would have done differently

-David Liddle, Of Interval Research, $100M down the tubes...what went wrong

-Scott Adams, Creator of Dilbert, because designers take themselves way too seriously...

-For a panel discussion, how about taking Hirschberg's "creative abrasion" or polar opposites theory to populate the panel and stir things up. For example we could have Harmet Esslinger vs., wait...sorry, I seem to have run out of time here. Why don't you fill in the rest of the list...

Reporting by: jay wilson

To respond directly to the writer:

To submit your own core-e-spondence:

Here's some imaging of the presenters and participant getting to know themselves and others, during the day and after the conference, on the Sony Metreon deck and at the Yerba Buena Center.

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