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IDSA2002 Review

Steve Portigal

This is my attempt to summarize my experience at the recent IDSA 2002 conference, held in Monterey. There's no way I can write a complete description of all the events, so this will be a completely Steve's-eye version of things. If you want to know and see everything, you shoulda been there. I imagine some of this will only make sense to folks who were there, while other stuff is more broadly interesting. I should also say that I'm not an industrial designer, and I'm brand new to IDSA and have never been to anything of theirs before (save for some local stuff)

I'll also warn that some of my comments may be negative, and that'll just be my opinion based on my experience of this event. It's not a total indictment of that person or group or anything (okay, enough fence sitting?)

It was pretty wild to walk into the Monterey Conference Center despite having been a Bay Area resident for 8 years now, my last time in that building was at the CHI'92 conference (in which I was a student volunteer and supposedly did something so heinous that I was blackballed from attending as a volunteer the next year).

The first thing I attended was the award presentations, a rather long affair that was held on a stage with some fancy design-y chairs for the hosts something post-Aeron with green mesh that was way too hip for me to have even ever seen it before. Bruce Nussbaum of Business Week gave what amounted to the keynote, starting off with "Bruce Nussbaum we're stressed, we're bitter, we're poorer, we're somewhat confused. So now what?" and ending with "People will want cool innovative products to make their life more productive and fun. That's what industrial designers do." I'm not sure I agree with his summary, but okay. In the middle, he mentioned TJ Watson saying "Good design is good business" and went on to try to evolve the "think outside the box" metaphor to suggest how design could respond to the times. I didn't get it and I don't remember what the metaphor deal was.

An award for Design Business Catalyst was presented I don't remember to whom, but it's a new category for products that were winners in the past that went on to be business success stories. Seems like a good emphasis on the value that design brings.

The awards went on for quite a while, with a range of presentation skills (one person read out the winners in a dejected monotone, looking down at their notes, with their hands in their pockets not quite the triumphant moment for those winners, I guess), and oh, the videos. Some were really great, clever, witty, poking fun at the designer, the process, the form factor, etc. Meanwhile others took the concept of "product p0rn" a little too far a heavy metal tractor video; a glamorous telephone with unintelligible words being spoken (about the design? Content of a phone call? Or aural wallpaper?). MasterLock had a great video, showing the classic bullet-through-the-padlock, and then the lock morphed into the new design, seemingly pulling up its trousers. Smart had a great video that was very homegrown, showing people around the studio using the Oxo Good Grips suction cups to lift up tables. Priority Design had a video for their lacrosse gear, showing the design research process in some detail in this case it was a guy trying to get some design work done at his computer while these big macho lacrosse players throw balls at him ("Hey cut that out, guys!"). And Laerdal Medical showed a "head immobilizer" video that began with the words "When spinal cord injury strikes-"

I was happy to see the Visor Edge win an award, since that's a product that I actually do own.

Something called "e-motion" won an award. If you want proof that aspirational lifestyle Internet-type branding has gone too far, this is it. It was a backpack.

There was a section of design exploration awards it wasn't really clear what that means and of course they didn't explain it what criteria does one use to look at an exploration versus a product? Some of these struck me as terrifying, such as a "pediatric sedation device." It'd be great to have an explanation of what it is, why it was done, what is learned, and how it compares to an actual "design."

The Segway folks were there (remember "Ginger" or "IT"?) and came on stage, riding the Segway they were just swooping around in an incredibly stunning fashion it really had to be seen to be believed. Of course, I think it has to be ridden to be believed, and they were indeed offering rides. I did not make it, unfortunately. The gestural language of riding that thing around is interesting it moves in a very cool way, but you do look like a big nerd riding one. I'm not sure if they are dealing with the "normalcy" aspect of their product at all, but I suppose working with professional customers first is a good strategy for that (cf. cell phone adoption).

The level of production was pretty cool, in general. The main room was lit with a giant projected IDSA, in red (and joined by a Business Week logo during the awards). Before sessions they would show excerpts from Monterey Pop on the big screen (I don't know how many people made the connection between the music and the location of the conference, but hey.)

More random things I thought about and noticed:

It's amazing how much of our lives continue to be framed by 9/11. The zeitgeist has moved along, but not completely. I remember that in the first few months, any first meeting would address the situation the first class, first club gathering, first work get-together, whatever it was, they would always acknowledge that before was before and after was after. And this was the first national IDSA event since 9/11, and so it was definitely part of opening speech and the sense of where things have been. And to look at what has happened in 11 months was pretty intense yet the vibe was extremely positive. I was also surprised that the recent corporate scandals were so much part of the scene in casual conversation and in presentations.

I will say that at first I was kind of annoyed at the need for all conferences to establish a theme and then bend every presentation to fit it, like some kind of poor man's Toastmasters, or high school prom. Yet, I will say that after a few days, I began to get a sense of "Collide-o-scope" I'm not sure I could put it into words, it might just as well have been a mental frame for the experience as much as a story I could turn around tell, but anyway- I can say that I think the theme began to reside in the spaces between the presentation(s) content, rather than within the presentations themselves.

In Dan Harden's kick-off speech, he mentioned a huge set of themes and events that are indicators of where things are going (without taking on the ridiculous task of making sense of it all), for example, the creation of a highly-desired suburb called "Orange County" where the homes are typical American, but come complete with Tom Clancy books and Monopoly games, located in Beijing. Dan told us that the world is a weird place; there are strange patterns in the world today and what does it mean?

Some cultural models that were presented by Josephine Green of Philips:

In agricultural times:
religious authority
political authority
women and children

In industrial times, science became the new god:
Political authority
Women and children

The emerging model from their research was a little harder to understand it as a knowledge-based flattened "pie" where the anchors were truth/energy/quantum soup/"the void"

I can't begin to do it justice, I'm afraid.

She suggested the emerging values included:
Empowerment (moving from consumers to citizens)
Belonging (sharing values)
Responsibility (considering others)
Care/preserving nature

The whole thing felt vaguely new age, with stuff about personal, planetary and cosmic energy. Another part of this shift was moving from GDP to QoL (Quality of Life) to MoL (Meaning of Life). It's all rather challenging to see such a huge shift in what we're all about she did the research, so let's give them the credit for that, it just doesn't feel tangible to me, yet. I feel like she's saying the cliché of the SUV, latte guzzling commuter is "dead." She says that it's about "sustainability" but there are very few concrete examples of these trends in her presentation it felt very abstract, perhaps given her short amount of time to cover a lot of material. But then she looks forward and asks what if technology is useless like the renaissance architecture it talks to your soul and spirit, what if we start thinking about technology this way. Start? Isn't this a way people have been exploring hi-tech for a long time? It's nothing new, there have been hi-tech performance artists, conceptual designers, all sorts of stuff in the mainstream for at least 10 years.

San Francisco architect Bruce Tomb gave a somewhat unsatisfying presentation he began by showing some of his work, but never said explicitly what he or his talk was about, so it was rather strange to see a presentation of pieces without knowing why we were looking at it. The bulk of his talk was descriptions of a graffiti war in his neighborhood, as he tried to limit the destructive (and expensive) nature of what was done to his wall. But he presented the experience (something you might imagine ending up in civil court) using a lot of arty lingo. "in my rage I did a series of cuttings to reveal what went before" instead of taking action, he introduced "an event" and whatever happened was interesting, delightful, or wonderful. He documented it, he created artifacts.

Yeah, the photos of the wall evolving were cool, but what is the difference between this and something like which is a website depicting mattresses in the street. Is that art? Is Bruce's thing art? He certainly applies the pretentious clothing of art to it. Check out is that art? If we document something, does it therefore matter?

Jim Couch gave a wild and challenging presentation. After some introductory words appeared on a slideshow, he came out in football shirt, kilt, and tap-cleats. With a painted face like aboriginal Australians. He tapped for quite a while, quite elegantly, while music played. People laughed. But it was disturbing, puzzling. Was this an in-joke (I guess Jim is a well-known character for his pretty out-there presentations) or was I missing something.

He spoke a great deal about design, sort of a hyper-pep-talk, and one of his themes was to break boundaries that other people give you, and to experiment. And he did experiment. So if he was illustrating by example, I'll give him that. It's possible his experiment deliberately failed, to demonstrate the process of trying stuff to see what happens. It's an interesting technique, but I was unclear. Later he exhorted designers to remember that "our mission is to create the future – our mission is to create the status quo, whatever it is – think about how we can change the world – " and I thought that maybe being a designer (or identifying with that label) must be a heavy burden at times. Sometimes, isn't it enough to get the job done (I don't mean mediocrity, but simply doing good work, without these issues over your head).
Jim talked about collisions probably better than anyone, he took powerful words like collide and mutant and came up with positive frames for them, relative to a creative process, and encouraged us to look beyond the surface negative meanings of those words.

But his concrete examples didn't begin to touch the complexity of creativity (instead of trying for short, try for long, instead of glossy, try for matte) it felt trite, given his powerful example of creativity, where Bob Dylan describes his process as like being a fisherman, hoping to catch something that it "out there." It's an interesting discussion, but maybe not where he was going.

In my 15 MB of fame, I appeared in one of the edited summary videos (amazing stuff a combination of the recordings of a video kiosk and a few handheld video cameras, edited into a 2 minute flavor-of-yesterday complete with video effects and music, Rick English is a genius) doing my impression of the Fandango guy ("I'm here to see Mr. Fandango. You've got a wild Fandago loose in the theatre. Rrrrgghhh!!!") from those stupid movie theater ads.

Sarah Kaplan gave a talk on "creative destruction" she cited some work that had studied the Fortune 100 on its 70th anniversary (or something) and looked at how many companies were still on the list. Of the few that were, most of them had shown a growth rate less than the average growth over that time period. So she was separating survival (rare) from growth and survival (even more rare). She mapped HP's growth over time (since they are considered a market leader in the PC industry) versus the PC business in general and HP stayed pretty much within trend. Her point being that innovation, the introduction of something new that changes the way things have been done, is the biggest driver of business growth. Of course there was way more to it than that. She's got a book out on this topic that might be worth tracking down.

She mapped the creative process as starting with divergence, then incubation, and then convergence, and talked about the bed/bath/bus moments where creativity happens (a period of incubation). She quoted quickly John Seely Brown on insight and conversation anyone have this quote it struck me as cool, but I didn't capture it. She wrapped with the notion that creativity and destruction are intimately tied, but they rest on top of the important context of OPERATING it's a three way tension that isn't necessarily explicit in many situations. Business have to stay in business, but to be creative requires destroying things/ideas/beliefs/ and doing that while operating can be a real challenge to organizations.

Doug Field of Segway gave a really great talk about their development process and culture. They created design principles early on, examples of products and supporting statements. They had:

- four-wheeled Harley-Davidson (Dodge Viper)
- oneness between man and horse (Miata)
- bicycle for the mind (the first Mac)

But he didn't explain how they created these statements and built organizational consensus around them.

Other guiding principles included "Man max machine min" they used these to create specs, such as dimensions, and color scheme. They also adopted Asimov's Three Laws of Robotics as guiding principles. But there's also a difference between organizational principles and product principles; these folks are a (so far) one product organization, so maybe they haven't differentiated yet.

When talking about their company, he quoted a Sloan professor who said that innovative environments are high conflict, high respect environment. They encourage failure with their "frog philosophy" you don't know which ideas are princes until after the kiss, and they give a frog award to the most spectacular failure, as judged by peers but the winner has to really have made a full attempt. He sees their staff as either ideation or execution people I don't agree at all actually with his breakdown, it seemed very reductive and limiting, but may be consistent with who they hire for. He said the glamorous world of innovation is often not so glamorous interesting quote but it seems to contradict some of the other points he had made.

My favorite feature of the machine itself was that they have two different gear speeds and each one is an octave apart, so the Segway, in essence, plays music, and of course it's always in tune.

Photographer Camilio Vergara gave a great presentation, mostly showing his photos and telling some stories. I was thrilled to see him, because I only just discovered him and see that he's doing something very well that I've been sort of exploring in my own photography for a few years. He showed photos from his trips to areas of extreme poverty, and how the elements of our society change in response to various pressures. The Michigan theater in Detroit became a parking garage (yet it saved the building from destruction). A day care center in South Central LA that is behind barbed wire, or a library in the Bronx with metal claws on its roof. He showed a barbershop pole that was behind a vandal proof cage, something he calls "microfortification." There were interesting echoes of the evolution of the urban environment that Bruce Tomb has talked about.

He found murals with Jesus on the cross, with ads for Mama's Chicken and The Best Hand-Packed Ice Cream in the mural. A small church in Hammond Indiana with a huge Philo sign covering the facade. Along the fence between the US and Mexico, he showed ads on the Mexican side of the fence, and a mural on the fence that is a memorial to people who had died crossing the border.

David Pescovitz gave a strange presentation about "biomimicry" it was brief and a little light, but most problematic was his attempt to "act" the part of a Victoria-era barker with a script-font PowerPoint presentation and a "behold the wonder" style. Yet if you are going to act, you have to act all the way, or not bother. His hip appearance and poor acting skills just meant he came off as annoying and rude even though you could tell he was playing a role, it was rather off-putting, and it was too bad. I'm a big fan of, and was hoping for better from this part of the conference.

Fitch gave an absolutely horrendous presentation. It's not clear what it was about, they showed a lot of highly produced videos that were just obscene wastes of money that didn't explain anything. One was for something called "Obital" a strange video with a latter-day Asian Max Headroom woman rotating around and making pronouncements. Yikes. Then we get to see the products themselves that were apparently created for the Japanese market by designers who really studied Japanese culture. Through this study they came up with the theme "harmony with nature." Now, what could the budget for that deep study have been? That is a valid principle for Japan, but it's hardly any kind of discovery. To go further, the products themselves were these blobby orbs that looked a little like the Philips futuristic home stuff from 4 years ago (or Karim Rashid's chess set) there was no sense of what the interaction would be, no connection what Japanese products currently look like, or how people want to interact with them. Their sense of form, interface, and usability (despite their claim of "intuitive") is so completely off-base for their target, it was repellent.

They showed a future car concept video interesting that the design and features were inspired by the Playstation game Gran Turismo. He used the phrase "virtual reality" to describe the concept but isn't driving actually in reality itself what is virtual reality perhaps something more real than reality itself? There were some neat features, but the whole process is strange. Real products inherit design features from games which are extensions of real products? Life imitates art imitates life, yadda yadda yadda.

He also threw in words like "cosmos" and "phantasmagoria" without really connecting that to the rest of the talk. I thought Fangoria would be better, actually.

Tucker Viemeister is working with a group to inform the process for creating a WTC memorial. Some of their guiding themes were:

Memorial an open memorial process
Uses a mixed-use future for lower Manhattan looked at the retail, residential, working experiences, etc. before and developed strategies for after
Region relationship between lower Manhattan to the region
Design design excellence for New York City - people, energy, ecology, money, materials
Effective and inclusive planning process
Immediate actions

I won't go into this much, but there was a lot of bashing of architects their process doesn't think of the user, they didn't think to include other designers like Tucker, etc. There is clearly a lot of politics in that group, but it's a bit boring to hear about that stuff, not to mention hearing interdisciplinary territorialism. That wasn't the main content, but it was a flavor of the talk that I was less than enthused by.

Nathan Shedroff and Davis Masten gave an excellent presentation about three different fictitious places (one with no middle class, one with mass personalization, and another with many elements of group identity but no customization) and how various brands played out in those environments (in the first, brands go big visible low end or silent high-end, in the second there is a lot of information in the brand hierarchy to be communicated, and in the third I think many new brands could be created). It was all presented as if real, with fantastic "prototypes" of products, packaging, cityscapes and other manifestations of these theories. It was a well-executed document that really brought these themes to life. For more on this, check out, and there's a white paper (I've downloaded but haven't read it) that I think spells this out in much more detail.

Bill Moggridge from IDEO spoke about collisions, such as the collisions of disciplines mentioning how they hired "T shaped" people with broad skill sets and at least one deep skill. He showed a great interview with the head of the DoCoMo team that developed i-mode (Japanese mobile phone service), and he cited i-mode as a dissolution of the boundaries between product and services – is that true, or is it that they had created a good service, a good product, a good technical infrastructure, a good ad campaign, a good billing structure, a good brand, and so on is that dissolution or integration?

He showed the Muji CD player is the "best selling product they have" which can't possibly be true since they sell shirts, pens, etc. a bit of hyperbole (sorry if this is nitpicky)

Some neat stuff from the Prada store in NYC the change room windows that can turned dark (for changing) to light (for showing your friends), their magic mirror (a time delay video mirror so you can turn and then see what you look like), neat elevator technologies and so on. Some fancy stuff.

Someone from ILM showed some cool Star Wars stuff gave some insight into their development process that explained a lifelong mystery you go to see a Star Wars film and then all these toys/books/games/cards come out with characters with names and details you had never heard of from seeing the movie those complicated back stories are things that they are off creating in their design and effects labs, and integrating those (at a shallow or deep level) into the overall production. But regardless of how the film comes out, there's still a lot of detail about that creature/character/machine/alien that gets marketed later.

I saw part of the presentation from Adbusters. They were much more low-key and easy going relative to the annoying tone of their magazine, I thought. They showed an interesting example a billboard in NYC that says "Declare Independence from Corporate Rule" and has the American flag with the replaced by corporate icons. They wanted to take it down after 9/11, out of courtesy, but they got a lot of requests to keep it up, so they say, and that people felt the debate was good at that time, so they left it up.

I think the billboard is now down, but I saw a magazine yesterday with an adbusters ad showing the building in a photo, so, you can probably find it at

The last section I attended was a relaunch (or launch, I don't know) of a special interest group within IDSA devoted to Design Research. Interesting that even that term meant a lot of things to people and we never really established what it is, really wasn't the place for that. Is it research to inform design? Research about the design process? An academic process? A corporate process? There was a lot of variety in the meeting of who was doing what, but it's a kickoff, and we'll see where it goes. I'm encouraged by the creation of this section, and in general the attitude at IDSA towards user research to inform design. I wasn't sure how I'd be received, basing my expectations on some sense I had of the design world from years ago, but it seems clear that it's part of the work for many designers, and other disciplines that share in the process and the ethic are welcome to join in.

I will say that this was a really great experience, good networking, good social interactions, good conversations, and interesting presentations. As I always say, even ones that aren't good or that you don't agree with can be provocative no point sitting and nodding along for 3 days.

I'd love to see a bit more support for networking a message board where people can post notes to other attendees would be good. There was an attendee list available, but it wasn't widely known that you could get this. The
core77 folks set up a place to check email, and that became a nice little base to run into folks, and that made it more comfortable and homey.

Steve Portigal is a consultant who uses ethnographic research to help his clients discover (and act on) new insights about how their customers work, play, shop, entertain, eat, and live their lives around products and services. He writes FreshMeat, a semi-regular email column about the relationships between business, culture, technology, products, and consumers. Drop him a line at, or read more at