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Living by Design; Designing with Life

Gianfranco Zaccai, co-founder of the international design consultancy Continuum and the 2001 IDSA National Conference chair, outdid himself to define its overall theme: "Designing Your Life." With his own history of designing across cultural boundaries and leading the research and development of such intricate projects as the Metaform Personal Hygiene System, Mr. Zaccai knows firsthand that designers must apply an appreciation of all aspects of life to create a design complete in its functionality, as well as appealing in its form. He put together three jam-packed days that satisfied our sensibilities, saving us from the vacuum that sucks up all too many industry-specific events. Drawing from his own vast background, he treated attendees to an array of specialists, from filmmakers and furniture designers to amputee Olympians and robot creators, from all over the world. Everything underscored the message that we must entertain input from many different perspectives to create successfully: from the viewpoints of all different genders, ages, abilities, cultures and creative disciplines.

Thus, the opening presenter, film producer, director, and naturalist Godfrey Reggio, was a striking choice. Not only did the showing of his film "Anima Mundi" wake us from the FIDSA recognition ceremony, but opened our eyes to a world of expressions, movements and life beyond the technological walls we seem to have built around our lives. The film illustrated Reggio's message that, as we design, we must know and understand our environment completely (even to the point of "becoming our environment"), while stressing the urgency to cherish the natural world before allowing technological advances to blot its inherent beauty. Of course, Reggio uses some sweet camera technology to do just the opposite: his strong lenses and artistic touch ( set to a haunting soundtrack composed by Phillip Glass ) let us look deep into the eyes of a hundred different endangered species, as they seem to whisper straight to our souls. Later, we run with gazelles and cheetahs and swim an amniotic journey with feti and other small, multi-celled organisms, while our minds race with the possibilities of all that their freedom represents.

The full force of this keynote choice and message doesn't really hit us until the next day, when we meet Aimee Mullins, the double leg amputee who holds world records in running. When she contacted Van Phillips to design her new running legs, he immediately latched onto an obvious, but heretofore unexamined, inspiration: the speedy cheetah's hind legs. She tells us about her old wooden peg legs, encased in pink plastic ( that kept her overly buoyant in swimming pools ), then puts on one of her newer, hi-tech, metal calves, ( as seen on the cover of ID magazine ), -- in between, we're drooling as she crosses and uncrosses her own, very this-abled, luscious gams -- and we realize, so concisely and clearly, how important it is to get the design process right on out of the old box.

A couple of ace designers from SCAD - Savannah College of Art and Design: have been putting theories like these to work with prime effect. Chris Waruousek walked around with his "portfolio in a box" strapped right to his back. The innovative case not only holds all his work securely but unfolds to a table with display stand. Eric Thoreson, who unrolled his huge renderings for Core, talked about how he uses natural forms in his designs, like his sea urchin-like, remote-control vaccuum cleaner: "In my design process I'm always taking inspiration from Nature, 'cause that stuff's been around forever, if it's still here, you know it works."

Colin Angle blew away our knock 'em sock 'em robot ideals with two samples of his iRobot firm's recent work: presenting one as the "doll" and the other the "doctor." These two robots were presented specifically for those parents in our midst: the doll robot looks, feels and gets wiped more like a real baby for your toddler, than any crying, peeing baby doll we've ever seen. Theirs actually creates facial expressions to show emotions and other feelings. On an aside, he pointed out the difficulty of designing for a client: after all their work to create a realistic and wide range of human emotions for the baby robot, they're told "Hasbro dolls don't get scared or angry," and they must eliminate these facial expressions. The "doctor" robot, designed to be operated remotely via web interface, conceivably by a doctor in the office to examine a sick and unable-to-travel patient at home. The interface allows the controller to see what the robot sees, and move it around to see just what s/he wants. Not only for doctoring or "playing doctor," the uses for this 'bot boggle the brain!

A major highlight from the front of multi-cultural design considerations, was the slide-show / talk given by Humberto and Fernando Capana, furniture designers and brothers from Sao Paulo, Brazil. They focused on the many varied inspirations for their different styled furniture and objects. With a refreshingly witty and engaging presentation, they hammered in the point: never turn off your designer's eye. Their slides showed the real life items that inspired some of their pieces, like the friendly cow's head or the thin stick fence around a field and how these turn into coveted items of furniture. Many of their designing influences are seen daily in the people and places around their home.

Early Friday morning some of us were able to witness another side of the open-mindedness of the conference organizers when the stage was given over to a student design contingent from Syracuse University (more than one conference leader's alma mater). Their presentation "Your Life is Toast" conveyed a basic theme through an odd vehicle: We're all just slices of toast without much time to choose how we'll burn up. Since Industrial Design makes the toaster that transforms the plain slice of bread to toast, the extended metaphor means that Industrial Designers have the most direct impact on everyone's life. The "Toast" group showed an engaging video demonstration, a visual pun on how we live our lives as toast, showing two different individuals going through their daily routines. This highlighted the idea that, although we're made of the same basic materials (flour, wheat, etc.) we lead dramatically different lifestyles. A toast toasting in a toaster captivated the audience of hundreds for about 100 seconds, while ostensibly contemplating what we can do with our lives. Apparently, they've been getting plenty toasted up in Syracuse.

M'Rithaa Kanampiu Mugendi, of the Design Society of Kenya, International Architects, Designers, Planners for Social Responsibility and Village Hope Care International; all in Nairobi, Africa; helped us put our own biases in perspective. M'Rithaal's unique view from an emerging cultural economy, truly shows the value of a professional practice of industrial design, in ways that the Euro-American model can barely consider.

Pierre-Yves Panis, of Moen, Inc., and Dr. Conny Bakker, of Info-Eco in The Netherlands, continued in this vein, giving us details of design practices throughout the world, particularly green technological advances in Europe. In between, a visual treat from Lou Jones, the prolific photographer, reminded of the need to utilize other fine arts, no matter where or what you're designing.

Later, during afternoon seminars, Dr. Bakker, and Philip White, of Fiori Product Development, continued an exploration on eco-design srategies collaboratively with the attandees. Their findings would please the environmentalists. That such attention is being given to these topics shows us again the growing importance of such green planning.

When Dr. Kenneth Chung, president of Korea Institute of Design Promotion, took the stage, he showed his relentless journey through Korea's design world, bringing what he learned here in the States ( at, that's right, Syracuse University ) into a formerly closed system. Now, as Seoul prepares to host the biannual Conference of the International Council of Societies of Industrial Design, his plan for design dominance continues toward fruition.

Ralph Caplan, communication design consultant, spoke on how simple designs, that avoid drastic changes to previous models, can still engage our need for innovation, without sacrificing that with which we are already comfortable. In other words, be careful when you start to consider the diversity of perspectives, don't lose sight of what already works!

Yet another valuable presentation, Uncle Sam Wants Universal Design, dealt with Product Development & Universal Design and new federal standards for designing electronic and information technology, including hardware, multimedia, software and web sites; so that all, regardless of ability are able to use these advances equally. Some experts in this area: Lorraine Justice, of the Georgia Institute of Technology, Jim Kendall, of Insight Product Development, and Jim Mueller, of J.L. Mueller.

Mark Pine and Michael Wiklund, of the American Institutes for Research, Jack Harkins, of Roche Harkins Design, and Stephen Wilcox, of Design Science, demonstrated a great technique for collecting new perspectives to help grow a design, through user-centered research and brainstorming with the clients themselves ( they're not just getting in the way ). Their participatory design method called "Police Sketch Artist Technique" is a relatively easily implemented way to elicit the useful ideas that your clients have but harness them in ways that can be utilized by your design team. Just set them up with a sketch artist, much like the mugging victim on the T.V. cop show is, and forget about the usual suspects!

Thursday night got attendees out into the Boston streets: working design studios, like Altitude, Design Continuum, Eleven, Fitch, Herbst LaZar Bell, IDEO, Manta, Octane, Product Genesis, and Ziba, opened their doors for tours, drinks and a few laughs. Then, the Vessel-sponsored Release1 show presented a delightful and disturbing exhibit, lasting late into the evening. Confidentiality disclosure agreements forbid us from publishing what we saw on the studio tours, but check out our coverage of the Release1 show.

Day 2 of the conference had many options. Most attractive was the offsite "Detour" trip to the MIT Media Lab and the Lowell National Park. Unfortunately, Core wasn't aware that "tickets required" meant "purchased weeks in advance" and missed out on that little field trip. However, we're still convinced that they're doing great work over at the Institute of Technology and that this country's National Park system is one of our most prized pieces of infrastructure, especially at Lowell, which features the history of the Industrial ( there ya go ) Revolution.

However, we weren't alone and the presentations at the hotel were well worth remaining behind. Andy Diaz Hope of Moto Development inspired the audience with his own experiences, from mechanical engineer and industrial designer to organizing and managing multidisciplinary teams (of up to 15 technologists) for Moto, a full service technology design consultancy.

Back to a theme of appreciation for all kinds of fine-artists, Gisela Stromeyer presented some fairly eclectic theories. The New York architect whose background as a member of a tentmaking family and dancer has influenced her designs for building such as NY's JFK airport terminals and Museum of Modern Art, uses sweeping fabrics that texturally and visually enhance a building's spaces in dramatic ways.

Brett Lovelady, the president of Astro Studios, summed up his philosophy of design as centering on the importance of accepting, researching and understanding multi-cultural diversity. "Culture is key," he said, as he went on to stress user-centered research as the way to successfully sell what you craft and create.

From other disciplinary concerns, came Rick Bennett, the award winning design educator from the University of New South Wales, Australia, who expounded on the entirely unique reality offered by the World Wide Web. Of course, we agree completely, since, hey look where you are now. Kent Mikalsen, art director at Kleiser-Walczak Animation, offered similar views from the world of computer imaging in feature films like "X-men." An appreciation of the technicalities involved in designing special effect motions lends to the designer's process in terms of research and development, and the technology that bridges the two.

On a final note for the day, Earl Powell, the President of the Design Management Institute gave excellent insight into the emerging role of a design manager as a producer who can truly shape the success of their organization without losing sight of designers' core concern for their "vision."

Friday night brought the big highlight of the conference: the Core77 Continuum party! Couldn't make it? Here's the next best thing . . .

Finally, Saturday wrapped up the diverse themes of the conference nicely. Analyst David Bodanis discussed the value of researching cultural trends to better forecast future trends and interests based on dominant and recessive aspects of culture at large. Good ideas come and go quickly, in a historical sense as well as within the early stages of the design process. It's important to study cultural thinkers like Einstein, Dickinson and Thomas, as well as holding on to early drafts and sketches of an idea.

Terry Duncan, advanced design studio manager for Ford, noted this need in a different light: "New computer advances are hurting many aspects of design education. Students can do beautiful computer work, but they're missing out on design history, art history and basic rendering skills . . . computer aided design definitely has it's place in the process, but towards final presentation, not early ideation, steps. Going straight to a computer application, rather than the sketch pad, skips vital opportunities to develop variations of your idea that are key to the overall process."

Altogether, this was an overwhelmingly instructive and thought-provoking conference. A virtual melding pot of influences cohesively reminding us to pay heed to all of life's various influences: from those within our own ken to those from the rest of the world's cultures and environs.


Check Out More of IDSA '01:
Conference Overview
Core77 - Continuum Bash
Release 1 Party
The Design Gallery
Educator's Conference