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Copyright © 2004
Core77, Inc.

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April 2004

Art Center Design Conference -- A Report from the Gallery
By Ian White

Art Center College of Design hosted the first of a biennial conference series at the school's new south campus last month, with an all-star lineup and an enthusiastic crowd. The event's theme, "Stories from the Source: Design Excursions Out of the Ordinary," sought to capture design as the essential medium in which stories are told. Tales of failure, innovation, social change, past inspiration and future vision were all elements in the storytelling.

Photo: Isabella Berengut

The conference served as the inaugural event for the college's new facility. Originally opened as the Southern California Cooperative Wind Tunnel—a joint venture of five aerospace companies—the 19,000 square foot facility served as a dramatic backdrop for the new South Campus.

Below is a roundup of some of the presentations—not fully comprehensive, but conferences are intense and unrelenting, and we had to take the occassional break!

Conference Program Chair Chee Pearlman sought to position the conference with a coherent theme of exploration and understanding. She tied together loose ends, talking about seemingly simple things such as innovation in the shopping bag (paper producers feeling threatened by plastic bag manufacturers; the introduction of the paper shopping bag with handles), and the oft-cited invention of 3M's Post-It Notes, a true serendipitous invention—"when accidents turn into big successes."

Photos: Federico Zingnani

Keynote speaker David Baltimore, who currently serves as President of the California Institute of Technology, spoke of his groundbreaking research as a metaphor for design. The Nobel Prize winner (37 years old at the time) spoke of principles of self-organization in biology—"evolution is a continuous adaptation;" "gravity is not a force, but a deformation of space and time"—giving us pause to think more closely about the link between natural organisms and design.

Next up was magician, actor, author and radio host Ricky Jay, who spoke about sleight-of-hand as "the handmaiden of surprise;" where the misdirection of attention is key to fooling a willing audience. By directing attention to what one wants to see, it is possible to divert attention from trickery. Jay proceeded to show off his expansive intellect by (more or less) simultaneously putting a chess board Knight through every position without once looking at the board, whilst reciting soliloquies from A Midsummer's Night Dream, bellowing old blues ballads and reciting cube roots. Impressive and entertaining.

Photo: Federico Zingnani

Day two began with moderator and NBC Dateline correspondent John Hockenberry, noting that stories serve to put facts and ideas in perspective and context. Subsequent talks that morning echoed this theme: First up was General Motors design chief Bob Lutz. Although he was trained as a marketer and not a designer, it is clear that Lutz's passion for automobile design has served to guide his instincts. In a somewhat controversial view, he feels computers have a "limited surface language," making the case for increased emphasis on model making to visualize form factors and styling. Putting design on the high alter, Lutz felt that "design is the last great differentiator," citing the decreasing importance of quality studies by industry tracker JD Power. His argument was predicated on the fact that safety and performance have more or less reached a threshold. (Some of this is mandated by regulatory fiat—minimum headlight height, crash test standards-according to Lutz.)

Mark Breitenberg, Chair of Liberal Arts & Sciences at Art Center, spoke of the link between the liberal arts and design. Breitenberg's argument made five key points. Narratives are interactive (citing how readers re-write stories according to their own interests): Despite attempts to position Tommy Hilfiger brand as a predominately white, preppy brand, urban hip-hop culture appropriated this brand for itself. Consumers can and will re-brand themselves; Narratives are experiential: Meaning creates experience based on forms of action; Objects tell stories: Materials and media are all part of how narratives are delivered; Conditions of memory: Events are better remembered in the context of stories; and Narratives are inspirational: We collectively seek happiness...consumers want to increase the quality of their lives.

Newsweek Executive Editor Dorothy Kalins spoke of the editorial redesign of the weekly publication, and James Sanders acted as a stand-in for documentarian Ric Burns. The two are collaborating on an upcoming four-part documentary on Los Angeles.

Creating some controversy, architect Greg Lynn took issue with Bob Lutz's notion of CAD tools. Lynn believes that "the computer makes us all amateurs"—referring to software learning curves. Furthering the point, he believes there must be a desire for technology to be adapted, and that experts must see the potential of these tools. Lynn then positioned the role of technology in design in a very fundamental way: digital design lets architects use calculus. As the mathematics of curvature, vast new possibilities of design are opened.

Photo: Isabella Berengut

Entrepreneur and inventor James Dyson took us on a journey through the carpet care industry. As both an engineer and average user, Dyson found that his vacuum continually clogged and lost suction. So he did something about it. By applying his industrial design skills, he was able to fundamentally redesign a household appliance to create a powerful, efficient, aesthetically pleasing, high-priced and market share-leading vacuum company. Dyson was fascinating in his storytelling, sharing Hoover's ipso facto desire to buy his technology and shelve it forever, Dyson's counter-intuitive product design (make a clear vacuum so you can see dirt getting whisked away), his desire to rework the patent system, and the development of a new washing machine that uses cylinders spinning in opposite directions.

Design impresario Richard Saul Wurman was his usual self-deprecating self, reciting ten of his failures ("I'm fat, was fired as a dean, etc...") that together have helped him understand the nature of failure. He cited his personal god as the God of Understanding. He drew the distinction between learning (remembering what you are interested in) and education (learning of what you are not interested in). He spoke of his experience in developing the hugely successful Access guides, and the challenges of creating a product "by a user for another user""people don't drive cross-country alphabetically"—convincing a publisher that people would pay for something designed around questions, not specifications. Wurman's current efforts involve helping us to understand ourselves and to look at our bodies-health, wellness and the health care system.

Finding Nemo writer and director Andrew Stanton shared Pixar Animation Studios' notion of storytelling, equating it to the recounting of jokes. In the case of Nemo, casting voice talent to match visuals proved challenging. He also noted that many elements—the role of a background score, or the degree of realism (an ocean rendering was deemed "too realistic")—can influence how stories are told and perceived.

Eiko Ishioka shared a conversation with conference Program Director Chee Pearlman. Tracking her thirty-plus year career, Ishoka has worked across many fields with a critical design element. Quiet and unassuming, she spoke of her inspiration and desire to defy definition by not working in any one particular field. Her work is as varied as graphic design, costume design (Cirque de Solei's Varekai, The Cell, 2002 Winter Olympics), set production (M. Butterfly, Bram Stoker's Dracula), and music videos (Bjork).

Photo: Isabella Berengut

On Saturday, Polymath and MIT dropout Bran Ferren showed up with the MaxiMog (his tripped-out-on-steroids SUV), but instead shared his thoughts on hiring at Applied Minds, the company he founded with fellow Disney Imagineering alum Danny Hillis. According to Ferren, his screening process was developed to understand the human thought process: Because "creativity is either bought or rented in Corporate America," there is a strong need to channel creative talent. While showing off his unique collection of job interview screening tools (portal from Soyuz spacecraft, World War II enigma decoding machine, American-made rocket thrusters, and others) Ferren opined that a new reality television show, "You're Hired!" would make a welcome addition to the genre.

Dutch designer Hella Jongerius talked about her juxtaposition of materials and contexts, which seek to provide traditional familiarity in completely new contexts. This was evidenced by her series of ceramicware that combines shards of broken pottery enmeshed into contemporary pieces.

Funny Garbage's Peter Girardi's obsession with "crap culture" pointed to the merits of Low Culture. In the eyes of Girardi, kibble—"inconsequential junk that builds up as we live our lives, a physical manifestation of entropy intruding into the human condition"—is a critical element. This could have resulted from his collection of old cereal boxes, Jay Ward (the creator of Rocky and Bullwinkle, Capt'n Crunch, Quisp, etc...) ephemera, or anything else from growing up in the 1970s.

Inventor Dean Kamen (of the Segway Human Transporter) was introduced by moderator John Hockenberry with the question "What's the real deal with Dean Kamen?" His answer was inspiring, and resonated with the attendees. Kamen's pet project, FIRST, (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) is a nationwide competition for high school students to develop teamwork, problem solving and technical skills. Begun 10 years ago with 28 teams, the competition now includes 800 teams and 20,000 students who will vie for the robotics crown in April 2004 at the Atlanta Olympic Stadium.

Metropolis Editor-in-Chief Susan Szenasy delivered a blistering rebuke of consumption. A couple of her complaints: Bob Lutz's "frightening" talk positioned design "as a sales tool to manipulate consumers." (True, Lutz didn't mention one word about fuel efficiency in his remarks.) She also saw "crimes of modern architects against humanity." Unfortunately, there wasn't much analysis or prescription for change, leaving the audience a bit in the air.

Photo: Steven Heller

Bruce Mau of the eponymous design studio talked about his academic collaboration with George Brown College of Toronto. The program aims to get "off the university grid," providing students a project-based model of learning.

Art Center's Graduate Media Program is a one of few research-centered design programs that focus on applied ethnographic techniques. The program's chair, Brenda Laurel, shared several student projects, one of which had the student give US Congressional testimony relative to the low-vision and homeless populations. Another, Seams, sought to raise awareness about the garment industry through an experimental fashion collection.

Before Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon became popular, Duncan Watts was researching social networks. His work on Small World Systems culminated in Six Degrees: The Science of a Connected Age. In his talk, Watts proclaimed to be ignorant around design issues (you should have seen his text-laden PowerPoint presentation!), but postulated how the role of influence flows across groups. According to Watts, "nobody is that influential. We are all equally clueless; no one knows anything," but that within the context of social groups, decisions become interdependent as we rely on others. Who we rely on is a much deeper line of inquiry. We thought about copycat design-related products like the iMac, hip-cut jeans and Hush Puppy shoes, and concluded that as some leaders emerged, different social networks followed their lead, leading to mass adoption and trends.

New Yorker cover artist and poet Maria Kalman led a humorous session focusing on a project designing a children's book about the retired New York fireboat John Jay Harvey, called into action in the wake of 9/11. She shared that the task of developing a book to show young minds the inflicted terror and the public's response was challenging, but she felt that children had a right to understand and grieve (albeit in their own way), rather than be sheltered from the tragedy. She feels that her work "should have a pragmatic absurdity and humoristic humanism." Kalman then stated that "the less said the better, unless you have more to say."

For a self-proclaimed Luddite, Frank Gehry does a fine job of embracing technology at his firm, saying it allows him to make things precise in a way he has never seen. (This theme again ran in contrast to GM's Bob Lutz assertion that CAD tools limit human capabilities.) Gehry spoke of the architecture profession being overprotected, overshadowed and marginalized by the construction industry. He commented on the "Bilbao Effect," of every community wanting a hugely successful architectural statement. The reality, according to Gehry, is that it took several years for key stakeholders to embrace the design.

All in all, the conference was a wonderful event that brought together many leaders from the design community. More idea-rich than a three-day Photoshop camp, and 1/4th the price of the TED Conference, Art Center plans to make this conference a biannual event.

Ian White is the founder of Urban Mapping LLC. You can visit him at

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