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by Steve Portigal

Held at the California College of Arts and Crafts (CCAC) in San Francisco, July 18-20, Spark was a well-attended gathering of groovily groomed designers.

The conference's purpose was to address how designers can to bring their ideas to market (with a focus on modern design).

The day was moderated by David Brown of Arroyo Partners (and former president of Art Center). He made a great host; his rumpled, casual style made the presenters the stars, while he was a constant voice of reason and order throughout the day.

The keynote was Ray Anderson, founder of Interface (the flooring folks) who spoke in frightening detail about the environment (as well as nuclear waste, hunger, unemployment, and AIDS). Ray had his wakeup call a few years ago when he read Paul Hawken's "The Ecology of Commerce," and has been working to transform his company's impact on the planet ever since. Disappointingly, he provided few details about any implemented solutions, instead blowing us away with the overwhelming facts about the doom that awaits us. This seemed to really impact the audience, but I felt like it was nothing particularly new.

Carl Magnusson from Knoll was charming and informative. He described the process of getting a product to market--starting from the point at which the product had been defined, but not designed). He drew a big circle on a board, and began slicing it up, moving clockwise, describing what was happening in each slice, what the challenges were, what the negotiations were, and so on. He managed to squeeze in about a dozen asides--richly detailed analyses of the process.

In other presentations, we heard about the history, design process, and philosophy at IKEA; the history and relationship with outside designers at Herman Miller (with a nice focus on the design credo of George Nelson, including such provocative statements as "Design is a moral issue."); innovative new products at Maharam (a contract textiles firm), as well as their history; the approach to design at Pottery Barn; mistakes made at Kartell Furniture and Heller (housewares and design); the "Advanced Innovation Team" at Nike; Sandy Chilewich's personal journey from shoes to hosiery to baskets to floor coverings (and her balance between doing design and running a business); Don Chadwick's history of the Aeron chair; IDEO's work on the Prada store, design at Serralunga (outdoor furniture); and the many challenges that the folks at Umbra have dealt with in their voyage from startup to established designer and marketer of household products.

Alan Heller showed some interesting failed products, such as a cool slanty wastebasket made for playing crumpled-paper basketball. (He knew it would fail when he came into the office to find the cleaning staff had leaned it against the wall so that it would stand straight.) He was fatalistic at the end though--"You may have the greatest product, and the best distribution, but sometimes you never know"--so that was a bit disheartening.

Nike showed a new suit they had developed based on extensive performance research with athletes. They actually had a guy packed into one of these things on stage while Ben Watson illustrated the design features (seams in the back, a range of materials with different coefficients of friction depending on their placement). It was a very nice way to help us see their process from research through design.

There was troubling inconsistency in how the presenters tackled the conference's question of how to get design to market. Many simply presented an inventory of their stuff, including a history of their organization: "Here's our trade show booth. Here's our collateral. Here's our space. Here's our logo. Here's an old logo." This was interesting, but it didn't go far enough towards answering the question. It did give you a picture of the organization, but there was no synthesis, no learning, and no idea of what we, the audience, might go do next.

Others presented case studies focused around a certain product, project, or division. For most, these were simply linear narratives about what happened, or a declaration of what makes them successful. These success stories, while a bit too slick to be fully believable (hey, we know that design projects and organizations are messy, slow, political and the rest), were inspiring, but still missing the piece about what we, the audience, could do.

A few presenters highlighted challenges they had faced, and how they dealt with them. This gave the audience real insight into how they solved their particular problems, and by implication how we might do so ourselves.

But what was missing was the next step...to really try and teach us something. Few rules-of-thumb or guiding principles, or anything for us to take away. Most spoke about themselves, their departments, their histories, and didn't make that outward leap to turning their experiences into lessons that we could use. This is the biggest opportunity for the Spark organizers to improve on for future events.

Being There

Spark:03 was oversold. Once registration closed, they decided to sell more tickets. Who can blame them? If you're starting something new (and this was a brand new venture between CCAC, Dwell magazine, Design Within Reach) and there's great interest, why not capture as much of that as you can?

But for us, this meant there wasn't enough space in the main area. Many were in a separate lecture hall with a video feed. The room was dark and we couldn't see who was there with us. We couldn't participate in questions. Eventually we all stopped clapping after the presentations as the experience shifted from live theater to television.

The space challenges also meant a real crush for workshop signups and people spent their breaks in a very intense queue.

These logistical issues created a sense of isolation from the content, and from our fellow conferees, severely limiting the event's power to get people doing more than absorbing data (talking, thinking, meeting and networking). I found those aspects of Spark to be quite disappointing. To boot, having the registration packets available upon arrival would have helped keep our focus on why we were there, rather than having to put energy into the logistics.

The conference home page is http://www.dwr.com/spark.cfm

Steve Portigal is a Bay Area ethnographic researcher who studies customer behavior and customer culture to develop new product strategies for his clients. Check out http://www.portigal.com.

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