Rick Poynor's reflections on contemporary design conferences demonstrate the poverty of imagination in design-event-land, though his implicit advocacy of a conference addressing climate change promises another 'festival of ill-informed, solution-free hand-wringing' in the spirit of D&AD's SuperHumanism conference. (Design Conferences: Isn’t it time we demanded more?, Rick Poynor, Creative Review, April 2008)
In response to the comments on the piece, the Social Innovation Camp was well-considered, but was about problem-solving rather than debate... Chris O'Shea & Co. deserve credit for the 'This happened…' initiative, which fills a gap establish design organisations should be filling... Colophon2007 was probably an exception as it was programmed by Jeremy Leslie, who is actively engaged in design thinking... Though Pecha Kucha, while an engaging format (now adopted by D&AD), represents design as entertainment for people who (the organisers assume) have a short attention span and don't want to interrogate ideas... I am pleased to hear about Designyatra, and that Wally Olins show respect for our Indian colleagues when he is over-bearing when dealing with British audiences... Kevin rightly inveighs against climate change 'propaganda' but wrongly believes the only valuable alternative is discussion at the level of 'design tips, tricks and inspirations'... As to the need for a 'new kind of design event that gets its audience off the seats and use their talents to challenge current day social problems', when did the design world determine what these social problems are, through a well-informed and dispassionate debate?... And I guess Peter (Hall) is referring to DesignInquiry, which looks intriguing.
In a Vox Pop in Design Week, in the context of a mooted World Creative Economy Forum, I advocated a 'worldly, rational, inspiring and humanistic' approach to design conference programming. Hand-wringing has not been in evidence in British design conferences post-SuperHumanism, largely because – other than the eclectic and poorly grounded World Creative Fora – design organisations stopped programmed substantial events. The hand-wringing moved to the US. While US culture has tended to afford better informed and more thoughtful design conferences, in recent years organisations such as AIGA (which I worked with in its more progressive phase around experience design) have embraced a wider role for design but succumbed to the broader cultural tendency to overstate challenges and problematise human activity. Since the AIGA's Collision conference (at which I spoke) it has programmed two AIGA National Design Conferences – Voice (Washington, DC, 2002) and The Power of Design (Vancouver, BC, 2003) – which embraced vogue political discourses but avoided any challenging thinking.
I was one of the people Poynor interviewed for the piece, and my responses to his questions follow. Though described as 'one of the most active conference-goers on the British design scene', in reality I am one of the most active event programmers working around design, technology and innovation – largely playing a necessary role that has been abdicated by design and other organisations.
Poynor didn't pick up two points I made. Design conferences are in general poorly designed as experiences, and in particular they are poorly documented, which says a lot about the seriousness of those behind them. (Though here AIGA, the IIT Institute of Design, and the various organisation behind InterSections should be given credit.) Secondly, in the last decade the most interesting discussion about design have taken place at conferences that are ostensibly about technology (such as the O'Reilly Emerging Technology Conference) or address broader themes (such as TED).
For more reflections on this theme see the article Conference madness, Alice Twemlow, Eye, Issue 49, Autumn 2003, to which I also contributed.
What are you looking for from the programme and speakers when you attend a design conference?
I am interested in programmes that address new areas of thinking in a well-informed fashion, are coherent, facilitate debate, and add up more than the sum of their parts. I want to see event programmes that are both theoretical and practical; giving us real data and telling rich stories. Above all programmes and speakers should be worldly, rational, inspiring and humanistic. I am also keen for conferences to be well designed and well documented.
Do design conferences attain a high enough standard, and how could they be better?
Generally not. Programmers of design conferences often appear to be unaware of the limits of their worldview, uninterested in new thinking and practice, and insufficiently confident to address controversial issues. Design conferences tend to be aimed at 'jobbing' designers, who the programmers think want 'dog and pony' show and tells, maximising presentation with minimal explanation and little discussion. Where they aim higher design conferences go for the fashionable points of view, avoid critical debate, and eschew audience discussion. For instance, the Doors of Perception conferences, while often inspiring, offered almost no opportunity for the audience to interrogate speakers or question the programme.
More generally, in the last decade design conferences have played second fiddle to information technology conferences such the O'Reilly Emerging Technology Conference, 'geek' conferences such as SXSW Interactive, and meta-design conferences such as TED and LIFT. At these events, design is discussed in more sophisticated and ground-breaking way than at most design conferences.
More specifically, design conference programmers have barely engaged with the ways in which conferences in the technology sector facilitate preparation, audience interaction, and documentation. Most design conferences aren't even listed on Upcoming.org, which has become the de facto listing service for any mildly modern event. While many of the models in question are employed in a frivolous way at tech conferences, they can deliver considerable value. Overall, design conferences are generally poorly designed.
What's the best design conference you ever attended, and why?
This is a tough call, not least because design conferences fulfil different roles. So, I will propose three:
The American Center for Design's second Living Surfaces conference (1995), programmed by Hugh Dubberly, laid the foundation for much thinking about design and the Web, from virtual reality to editorial design, and introduced the idea of the browser as operating system -- still being debated today. [The American Center for Design was subsequently absorbed by AIGA and no conference archive is available.]
InterSections (2007), sub-titled 'design know-how for a new era', presented by Dott 07 and Northumbria University School of Design, and programmed by Kevin McCullagh, presented the most sophisticated and future-oriented discussion of design in the UK since Design Renaissance. It addressed themes from service and interaction design to co-creation and business strategy, as well as the limits of design thinking, and attracted a smart and diverse audience. (I chaired two sessions at this event.)
The Institute of Design Strategy Conference 2007, programmed by Patrick Whitney, presented a sophisticated discussion of the relationship of design thinking and business strategy, bringing in speakers from beyond the design world such as SAP co-founder Hasso Plattner. (See my review of IDSC2007 in Core77.)
Other valuable conferences include the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) Special Interest Group on Computer Human Interaction (SIGCHI) sponsored Designing Interactive Systems 2000 in New York (see my DIS2000 review) and Designing for User Experiences 2003 in San Francisco. In recent years the most interesting looking conferences I haven't attended have been the Carnegie Mellon University School of Desgn-programmed Emergence 2007: Exploring the Boundaries of Service Design, and the Bill Moggridge-programmed CONNECTING'07: ICSID/IDSA World Design Congress 2007 in San Francisco.
What's the worst, and why?
There are many worst conferences. I will highlight one the worst in relation to its great pretensions. D&AD's SuperHumanism conference (2001), programmed by Richard Seymour, attempted to position design as a humanistic approach to problem solving at a societal level, but ended up being a festival of ill-informed, solution-free hand-wringing (though a few presenters, including Dan Wieden, Malcolm Garrett and Irene McAra-McWilliam rose above this). SuperHumanism avoided any serious debate, and its (admirable) ambitions to spark a wider debate foundered. (See my review of SuperHumanism in New Design.)