Jump ropers get air at Art Center's Serious Play conference
Show's over, kids! Design conferences have become exercises in regenerated, wasteful spectacle. A self-described conference junkie shows us how to bring back the magic.
"Have I died?" I swooned, gnawing my way into a third mound of chili cheese French fries. These were not your typical chili cheese fries, mind you. These fries came with a full condiment bar; overflowing, help-yourself buckets of offbeat fry adornment that included three--three!--varieties of mayonnaise. I nodded back at Bruce Nussbaum between large, ungainly forkfuls of cheese sauce swirled with so much ketchup that it had turned pink, too focused on deciding which flavored mayo I'd ladle over my next serving (chipotle or truffle?) to actually pay attention to a word he was saying. What I heard instead was my inner monologue shrieking over the mastication of fried potatoes: "Now this is what I call a design conference."
Art Center's third biennial conference, Serious Play, held this past May, was packed with such sensory overload. There were blinking Google martini glasses and sleek Steelcase seating; rockstar designers and rocket scientists. I made friends with Eames Demetrios. I talked physics with a Mentos-and-Coke fountain-making scientist. When I left I had two grand-slam presentations still ringing in my ears: The adorable John Maeda and a heartfelt Paula Scher.
But even after my fry binge, I found myself riding around Pasadena in a chauffeured Hyundai, clutching a bag overflowing with designed-for-all Target products, feeling oddly...empty.
Aspen Design Summit attendees take a break from high design thinking.
Conferences have been bringing designers together since Walter and Elizabeth Paepcke began luring the likes of Herbert Bayer, Eero Saarinen, George Nelson, Josef Albers, Charles and Ray Eames, and Buckminister Fuller to the International Design Conference in Aspen starting in 1951. In those days, Aspen was the only available fix for conference junkies like me. Lofty aspirations matched the altitude, and this meeting of the design superminds became an enlightened tradition for industry introspection.
But this model, born high in Aspen but widely replicated around the world, is now over 50 years old and as evidenced by the IDCA's own inability to sustain its annual gatherings, it's in desperate need of a reboot. Lately, design conferences have begun to feel less like intellectual retreats and more like conspicuous consumption. Albeit with excellent catering.
Even without the soaring price of hotels and plane tickets to account for, registration fees have entered the realm of the ridiculous. October's Pop!Tech will set you back $3500. TED has ballooned to $6000--if you can get in (I can't speak to the condiment selection there since I haven't made the cut)--and will expand even more with a move to Long Beach in 2009 to try and accommodate a handful more people on its zillion-person waiting list. And still my inbox gets clogged with announcements for a new design/sustainable/eco/social media/innovation/business conference every week. Forget wearing our hearts on our sleeves; as an industry, we've become addicted to wearing our names on laminated badges around our necks.
I don't doubt the value of such person-to-person contact; dare I say conferences are probably the biggest reason I was able to launch my freelance career--I went to four in a single transient month in 2006! But the irony kills me. Today we're able to do so much of the traditional conference legwork on this little screen you're staring at right now--yet I haven't seen any great offers from the design world to improve on the Aspen model.
Majora Carter speaks passionately about the South Bronx at TED
For one, holding a conference is like the "sustainable skyscraper" conundrum. No matter how green you wanna be, you're still executing one of the most environmentally-devastating events known to man. From the EEE-sized carbon footprint generated by hundreds of people jetting to your locale to the amount of spent signage piled around your Dumpsters afterwards, conferences are beyond wasteful. Not even buying offsets on behalf of speakers or the most stringent cocktail hour recycling program can erase the fact that we just can't conduct these events in good faith knowing what we know now.
But recycling in another form is exactly the problem: Most speakers are tapped to appear at so many events and so sapped for content they simply deliver one repeat performance after the next. Live blogging about these speakers becomes as easy as cut-and-pasting the embed code for the YouTube video from their last stop. I don't blame them, really--who has time to prepare a new presentation when you're always going to conferences!--but organizers have also gotten lazy by simply poaching the rosters of other conferences, without considering that their audience might want to see something new.
Conventional convention mode for IDSA at last year's Connecting '07
If you think getting the speakers to the venue is challenging, try getting them to stick around. Face it, the real reason we go to conferences is to meet our heroes. Most attendees freely admit they're there to stalk one or two designers, and a "chance" meeting in front of the urinal might make the whole thing worthwhile. But many presenters, especially those world-class legends, adopt a "speak-and-split" policy so they aren't part of the conference community at all.
Of course, it's not really about the speakers. Conferences are all about building community with your peers and face-to-face interaction: Those hallway moments. Your best job all year could come from whoever you're standing in line with for the chocolate fountain. But when a place like Design Observer's Facebook group has over 3000 members (the number of a large conference) I'd say you could easily make an informed connection with someone who has similar sensibilities without having to haul it to St. Louis for the weekend.
Not that you shouldn't go to St. Louis for the weekend. (Go up the Arch, eat some Ted Drewes Frozen Custard, and bring me back a Cardinals hat.) But especially for an industry that's all about designing experiences, we organizers, speakers and attendees have to start demanding more meaningful conference agendas. Together we can make a difference. And maybe without having to actually get together.
Eight Ideas for Design Conferences
1. Keep it in the 'hood
This year's Dwell on Design conference, held in Los Angeles, tapped a wide range of speakers who mostly lived in the area and then rallied a very SoCal audience. While it was likely a conscious effort on behalf of the planners to keep its footprint small, it worked because they picked a city that was experiencing first-hand some of their major themes and knew that a great portion of their potential audience was in the area. This also allowed a large local community to fully participate without having to pay extra for travel expenses. But if you're planning a national conference and half your attendees are from New York City, why make them leave town? Can't pick one city? Divide a big conference into regional ones. The connections will be more appropriate.
2. Discover new voices
How many times are we going to see the same old speakers plucked from the rosters of Pop!Tech? Look past the headliners and legends and make an effort to christen at least one new star at your conference. Gel (Good Experience Live) does a great job of not only corralling largely unknown speakers but giving them interesting things to do (scavenger hunt through the Metropolitan Museum of Art, anyone?). At last fall's AIGA conference in Denver, a live-action design reality show called Command X was the surprise hit of the event, and not just because of the comic stylings of host Michael Bierut (seriously, has CAA snatched him up yet?). It brought an oasis of fresh faces and vivid personalities to an otherwise tired lineup.
Paul Polak spreads his Out of Poverty gospel at Pop!Tech
3. Do something for a change
We know some design leaders ascend to Davos, Switzerland and solve problems on a large scale at the World Economic Forum. John Thackara's Doors of Perception conferences are one of the few I know of which convene in the third world--assembling in New Delhi, India--so they can see first-hand the problems while exploring solutions. You can even stay home and work on big ideas: Aside from tackling some pretty hefty issues, IDSA's conference Polar Opposites this month has declared brainstorming about bicycles and biking as its key components. Industrial design, mobility and social responsibility--I love it!
4. Use technology more wisely
TED's incredible video presentations on its website have convinced me I can give up my dream of ever having to be the one selected to be in that room. If people outside the technology-entertainment-design fields are emailing me videos of speakers they think are amazing, that tells me those ideas are disseminating at a faster rate than even the most speedblogging fingers of its regular attendees. Forget the once-a-year shmooze-fest--have membership money go towards finding, capturing and broadcasting more speakers like this on a year-round video channel so even more people can be inspired.
5. Only have conferences in Vegas
Okay, it doesn't have to be in Vegas. But it does have to have gambling. Instead of trying to spread the love to every Midwestern city with a convention center, why not only hold conferences in must-see destinations--and let people actually have fun? In the spirit of the sadly now-defunct Design Conference That Just Happens To Be In Park City, AIGA Reno/Tahoe is taking advantage of their location by planning an upcoming networking conference, Elevate, that will instruct attendees to spend exactly half the time on skis (or at apres ski) at nearby resort Heavenly. Detractors would say that the more off-topic distractions, the less likely that attendees will be attending, but I disagree. The conferences I've been to with plenty of extracurricular activities have been the most spirited and exciting, even if people were walking from the craps tables directly into the morning's opening session, still sipping their Beam & Cokes. Plus with gambling there's always the chance of winning back your registration fees.
6. Stop the in-swag-ity
A fascinating expose occurred at this year's South by Southwest Festival, where astute bloggers at both CNET and Hustler of Culture photographed a disturbing sea of gift bags behind the curtain (pay no attention to the bags behind the curtain!). People, this is a conference that's one-third interactive and that bag was filled with the most ridiculous printed crap I've ever seen (in lovely reusable canvas bags--ha!). I often I see these bags tossed, in their entirety, in the trash. Organizers. I beg of you. We know you need sponsor money. How can you make these impressions more meaningful for everyone? At the Art Center conference this year, we could pick and choose the free products we wanted to take on the way out, the first time I'd seen anything like this done. Related: Replace inevitable trade show "altars to swag" with an American Idol-style talent show for sponsors. We swear we won't forget their brand names ever again!
Shining example Command X at AIGA's biennial conference
7. Quit while you're ahead
If you're really hankering to plan some kind of get-together, don't! In all likelihood what you think you need to say can be accomplished in the form of a blog, a film, a book, a social network. If you want to make a big statement about your institution's policies--cancel the conference! Especially if your proposed conference title contains any of these words: eco-, green-, sustainable-, earth-. I'm not going to name names here, but does anyone else appreciate the irony of a press release that touts a "new sustainability conference attended by eco-savvy professionals from all over the world?"
8. Ditch the traditional model
Why should we even have talking heads up there yapping between coffee breaks anyway? "Unconferences," loosely-organized, crowd-sourced and more spontaneous gatherings, have already started to spring up in the web community and need to spread to other industries. Like BarCamp, an interactive meetup that's exactly what it sounds like--people bring sleeping bags, laptops and food to share, as well as a bottom-up sense of organization. A new unconference called BIL (which can stand for whatever B-I-L combination you'd like) will make the trip to Long Beach with TED, the conference it shadows but with a decidedly more "open, self-organizing, emergent, and anarchic" perspective to wannabe TEDs. Take a hint from BIL. Source the crowd. Ban Keynote. Interview each other. Make installations. Surprise us. Please.