With the 2011 IDSA International Conference coming up in September, Core77's Allan Chochinov sat down with Clive Roux, CEO of IDSA, and Tad Toulis, Conference Chair, to discuss the meeting, the mission, the members and the mandates of this year's get-together. Stay tuned to Core77 to find out more about this year's international gathering in New Orleans under the banner of Community.
Allan Chochinov, Core77: Let's start with the theme of this year's conference, Community. This seems a good match for its location—New Orleans—but can you describe some of the ways you're planning on dovetailing design with community?
Clive Roux, IDSA: Our goal with the IDSA International Conferences moving forward is to ensure that they reach the level of inspiration the profession (and those interested in design) really need. Last year IDSA ran the theme DIY, chaired by Sohrab Vossoughi of Ziba. DIY was an interesting and important theme that we all saw having an impact on the design profession. The feedback was positive; attendees said they found it inspiring and informative, corporate and consultant designer alike. But DIY represents just one possible direction for the future. In developing the theme for this year we aspired to develop a broader, more encompassing theme. We think that the broad context of Community and how that is enabling changes in the design profession meets the requirements for inspiration as well as relevance for a broader cross section of the design profession.
Tad Toulis, Conference Chair: When Clive approached me about the possibility of chairing this year's conference the thing that intrigued me most was the location; New Orleans is a genuine original. When it came to choosing a theme, I was really looking for a way to draw the locale and the proceedings together. Because let's face it—the conference usually has little, if anything at all, to do with the location.
Design is going through an interesting phase, one where concepts like social entrepreneurship, open systems, micro production and user participation are driving more of the conversation; or at least the evolving edge of the dialog. I wanted to underscore this in the content of the conference because A) it's relevant to the landscape that we're being asked to provide solutions for and B) it's relevant to the locale. To this end, we'll definitely have local groups from New Orleans presenting content. We're also incorporating the locale through workshops—always a challenge to pull off in any significant way at the conference. Teams need to be small, the scope needs to be achievable and frankly, those teams need to do a little prep beforehand. This process is still taking shape but I am hopeful that we'll get there. The final 'final' list is still coming together, but suffice it to say there are a lot of community-initiated programs happening across that city, and not just in the Lower Ninth Ward.AC: Of course, as soon as you're talking about communities, you're bumping right up against service design. I think more and more designers are finding that the artifacts they create want to be part of product-service pairings, as opposed to mass-produced product designs. Will this conference help add texture to that notion?
TT: Great question, and yes. The challenge with curating the International Conference, as Clive mentioned, is identifying an emergent theme that can be brought to life in ways that the majority of attendees will find relevant and, more importantly, actionable. Service design represents a significant opportunity for design professionals. Truth is, it's hard to hold a conversation about design and community without examining the ways in which the needs of the group are being addressed through services and the coordination of design and service. Looking across the submissions and keynotes we have presenters exploring this terrain in a number of ways—through open systems that offer groups of users new ways of generating value, by harnessing the transformative effects that come from revitalizing underused public spaces, via the coordination of needs to facilitate relief in the wake of catastrophe...the list goes on. Our hope is that through the presentations and workshops, attendees will collect their own set of 'starting points' and amass a toolkit of underlying principles and models that they can experiment with as they address these issues in their own work and the markets they serve.
AC: "Designer as problem solver" is always a useful characterization but as we look at truly wicked problems, I'd argue that designers aren't so much problem "solvers" as they are problem negotiators. The complexities of design + community are enormous; what kind of speakers will you have who might address these challenges?
TT: We are indeed "negotiators," which means that in some cases the content and/or material we're working with may not be entirely our own. For this year's conference I've worked hard to find speakers from a diverse range of backgrounds. 'Boring' conferences tend to fail because they give attendees exactly what they expect on the main stage while stuffing the side channels with poorer versions of the same goods. This year we've brought a wide range of thinkers together specifically because the nature of what confronts design is so broad; those of us operating in design spaces need to contemplate a growing range of potential strategies. It's not about design thinking anymore, it's about leveraging good thinking wherever you can find it—be that online, or down the street. The speaker list for NOLA runs the gambit from web-based companies like YouTube and Kickstarter that are learning how to coordinate hundreds of thousands of independent actions, to New Orleans-based social entrepreneurs that are experimenting with business models as they address a range of issues confronting the city. Mixed in we'll have observations from experts like Clay Shirky and Grant McCracken to provide higher level insights on how users (aka consumers) are shifting the conversation through engagement and participation. As we cast this wide net we're also making sure that the diversity of speakers remains relevant to designers. I want to stretch people's thinking, not lose them. To this end we've created day-on-day themes— Attitudes and Behaviors, Methods and Means, and Community as Context—which should help develop the narrative of Community in a way that's manageable and understandable.
AC: A quick question about "design conferences" in general. I know many people are trying to reinvigorate the format, and you've articulated several ways you're going to go at it, but can you talk a little bit about who should attend this conference?
TT: Who should go? Anyone genuinely interested in design and where it's headed: young designers looking to effect change through design; manufacturers seeking new strategies to satisfy evolving consumer preferences; consultants looking to create value within an increasingly networked marketplace; design educators needing case studies for their lesson plans. Simply put, Community has something for everyone. As to who shouldn't go, that's easy. Practitioners that want to hear simple answers to what are fundamentally complex problems.
AC: Any closing thoughts?
CR: New Orleans is an amazing city. Even if you're not interested in Community as a theme, get there. There's no party quite like it! For those who are more serious and perhaps (sadly!) I am one of them—the context of Community in New Orleans is critical. There are few other cities where the power of community has become such a defining issue. Right now we're looking for meaningful projects that groups can contribute to while they're there as a small way of giving back. Of course there's a lot of work that needs to be done; we're hoping to find or create opportunities to put our collective design skills to use for the long-term betterment of the NOLA community. And we hope you'll join us.
TT: Design is undergoing significant social transformation. Whether it's mass organization facilitated through social media, crowd sourced product development or just the increased ease with which consumers can find solutions that meet their individual needs—design is poised to become much more representational of the user's wants. Within this changing landscape the need for a deep professional 'rethink' has never been greater. When all is said and done, I hope attendees will leave New Orleans a bit hung over and more importantly with an informed appreciation for how the dynamics of the group can be harnessed to inform a new class of design solutions; solutions that partner with user needs rather than dictating them.