Design Conferences: Isn't it time we demanded more? asks Rick Poynor
For anyone who loves going to design conferences, we live in remarkable times (writes RICK POYNOR). There are dozens, if not hundreds, of them. A design conference always seems to be just starting or finishing somewhere in the world. It would be quite possible to make going to conferences into a full-time job and some of the more in-demand and tireless design conference speakers appear to be doing just that. When do they get their real work done, you might wonder? The answer is that they do a lot of their thinking in transit, at 30,000 feet, or in the away-from-it-all, vacation atmosphere of distant hotel rooms paid for by conference organisers who are thrilled they are willing to appear.
As I write, Design Indaba (Cape Town) and TED (Monterey, California) have just finished – only the most stellar designers such as Stefan Sagmeister get invited to speak at TED – and the Tasmeem Doha international design conference is under way in Qatar, where the hosts treat speakers like royalty. Dutch book design maverick Irma Boom and Australian type designer Stephen Banham will doubtless have found it a blast. Next up is the latest Semi-Permanent conference aimed at the cool crowd, which kicks off in Sydney in April (it came to London in 2005). This will be swiftly followed in May by the How Design Conference in Boston, one of the monster events on the global design circuit: 60 speakers are expected to attract the usual 2,000 or more visitors. Then it’s straight back to Europe to see Sagmeister, Barnbrook and Marian Bantjes – a big hit at last year’s biennial AIGA conference – at Typo Berlin 2008 at the end of the month. If, after all that, you need to take a breather with something a little more intimate, there is the New Views 2 symposium at LCC in July. Only another five more months of frantic conference-going before Christmas!
What is it all for? Let’s start by asking Sagmeister since he is probably the most sought-after and ubiquitous graphic design speaker of our day. “First and foremost,” he says, “I like doing it. I tend to get the most out of conferences that are either not centred on design – my favourite in that category by far is ted, where I am just coming from – or the ones that are in places I normally would not get to visit, like Poona, Shenzhen or Doha.” Sagmeister adds that he enjoys being introduced to a new culture by local designers, and all this is fair enough. These are reasons that most people would give for accepting invitations to speak in faraway places: lecture trips provide a little holiday at someone else’s expense. We might also mention the career-building opportunity, the adulation and the speaker’s fee, which can be considerable.
If that’s how it looks from the stage, the audience is entitled to be much more demanding. While some of my writer and curator colleagues love design conferences and even organise them, I have always had mixed feelings about these events. Too many “major” conferences do nothing more ambitious than offer a line-up of star speakers who are simply expected to say whatever they like about their own work. They give their standard spiel and, if you are lucky, it will be amusing, revealing in an anecdotal way and perhaps even inspiring. “Most recently, I went to Kyoorius Design Yatra in Goa,” says Michael Johnson. “That was quite something, with a great list of speakers.” Most were British or American and they included Kyle Cooper, Neville Brody, Wally Olins and – no conference is complete without him – Sagmeister. “Trouble is everyone did their ‘stump’ speech and it didn’t really feel unique to India.”
More often, especially with some of the less experienced speakers, the presentation will be merely so-so – not something you really needed to see. Sometimes it will be a complete waste of time. At a conference in Berlin, I saw a famous British designer, who should know better, ramble ineffectually for 45 minutes while his work looped round and round on screen, with no connection to anything he was saying, until we were sick of the sight of it.
Only rarely at this kind of event will you encounter strong analysis and original new ideas. “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,” says Nico Macdonald, one of the most active conference-goers on the British design scene. “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.”
I asked a designer who recently graduated with an MA from LCC what his priorities were. “What I look for in a conference is to gain knowledge and get exposed to new attitudes and ideas,” says Yoni Alter, creator of the KnowYourValues.com website. “Finding original thinkers to speak, rather than famous personages, should be the main concern of conference organisers.” He singles out Semi-Permanent (2005) as a conference that got it wrong. “The speakers were all graphic designers, illustrators, art directors, creative directors and there was nothing more than them presenting work, which I didn’t find too engaging or inspiring. There was no interaction among themselves, or with the audience.”
Nevertheless, it looks like we are stuck with this kind of overblown, conceptually thin, commercially driven event, endlessly air-bussing around an elite group of designers with a diminishing stock of things to say. It’s a shame that it seems to have become an international norm: emerging design cultures, with issues of their own to address, deserve better. Far more satisfying for most of the conference-goers I asked are events carefully curated for a clearly defined purpose. “Right now, I prefer smaller, focused thematic conferences to large anonymous ones,” says Teal Triggs, professor of graphic design at LCC and organiser of the first New Views conference at the college in 2005, as well as this year’s event. “I also tend to go to conferences which fall outside conventional graphic design and are more about design in relationship to interdisciplinarity.”
Unlike just turning up on the day with a ready-made PowerBook slide show of greatest hits, thematic talks require extensive research and hours of hard work putting it together. Speakers who don’t have something fresh to deliver and the writing or presentational skills to make it interesting shouldn’t be up there on stage taxing our patience. Both Johnson and Macdonald mention D&AD’s Super Humanism conference (2001) organised by Richard Seymour, as a supposedly themed event that made
a gigantic, well-intentioned promise to solve social problems, but failed to ignite a serious debate – Macdonald calls it “a festival of ill-informed, solution-free hand-wringing”.
In recent years, there have been some excellent themed design conferences. I count myself lucky to have attended and spoken at two of Steven Heller’s Modernism & Eclecticism conferences about graphic design history held in New York in the 1990s. Jan van Toorn’s Design beyond Design symposium (1997) at the Jan van Eyck Academy in Maastricht was a moment-defining event attended by international speakers of the highest calibre. The AIGA’s Looking Closer (2001) co-organised by Heller and Alice Twemlow, was a hugely stimulating conference about graphic design history and criticism. Triggs has positive recollections of the Declarations of [Inter]dependence conference in Montreal (2001), with contributions by Van Toorn and Naomi Klein. I have always regretted missing that one and I would like to have attended InterSections at Northumbria University last year, described by Macdonald as the most sophisticated and future-oriented discussion of design in the UK since the Design Renaissance conference in Glasgow in 1993. But I was speaking at another conference at the time.
One problem conference-goers often complain about is the lack of opportunity for discussion. Sometimes conferences are even planned that way, with no time allowed for questions. Often the speakers run over – it’s easily done – eating up question time. Still, the most rewarding conferences are those that succeed in promoting interaction and debate. “I appreciate speakers who want to engage with their audience not only during their talk but in the coffee line afterwards,” says Triggs. The next New Views is subtitled “Conversations and Dialogues” and her aim, inspired by a conference she attended at a Danish design school, is to encourage everyone to be an active participant, creating a “new model for more discursive design conferences”. We can only hope.
There is still the question of what it is really worth holding a design conference about these days. When I asked Jody Boehnert, founder of EcoLabs, an ecological literacy initiative, what she wanted from design conferences, she got straight to the point. “We need to address the issue of climate change at design conferences,” she says. “There are myriad strategies for denial. But design can no longer feign innocence. Design motivates action, actions have implications, and design is implicit.” Too many design conferences don’t aim much higher than entertainment, escapism and the vaguest kind of hero-worshipping ‘inspiration’ – as in, “I wish I could be a famous designer like you.” What they should provide is unique occasions to concentrate design thinking and propel it to a higher level. For that purpose, small and focused is likely to work best.
The above piece by Rick Poynor appears in the April issue of Creative Review, available now
Yes, I totally agree.
Design conferences are only for the purpose of increasing
There are much more interesting things going on than simply listening to designers talk about their work. How about actually doing something!
Designers should look at events like this weekend's Social Innovation Camp which took place at NESTA. This brought social problems, programmers and designers together to solve real life social problems.
Not wishing to blow our own trumpet, but these are issues we've tried to address with the event series This happened...
I think that's why I liked Colophon2007 in Luxemburg so much. Real interactive debate over design issues combined with portfolio shows. It can only improve over the next years.
Dear Creative review editors,
Way too many words to read. Can't you summarize it for me?
This is tv's fault. I can't read that much anymore.
Agreed. It seems like it's only in the smaller conferences that substantial content slips in.
I think that's why we're seeing a rise in local, community-based showcases and conferences like Pecha Kucha Nights.
i dont understand why anyone would actually want to pay money to hear people talk about anything/anyone listed above. yet more wasted hours given over to graphic fucking design. all of the above mentioned in the article are just no interest to me and im really surprised that there is such a thirst for them, let alone such a glut that it inspires such a long post.
Agreed. It seems like it’s only in the smaller conferences that substantial content slips in.
I think that’s why we’re seeing a rise in local, community-based showcases and conferences like Pecha Kucha Nights.
As a curious designer, why should I pay pay to listen to other designers? More specifically, to watch them blinking and talking about their unique way of being so creative?
Said that, what's left? A lot.
I experienced other kind of conferences: PICNIC,TED(TV only...it's far too expensive for mortals),REBOOT,LIFT,where design is far not the first and unique topics. At these conferences there will be always one or two "big" stars whatever assures the organisers> you probably know their names, but they're minority.And at these places we do not discuss only typography. Only the shape of my new object.
Well, yes, they're super interesting, nourishing but what if we had both together: teams talking about their experiences in applied design, applied typography, applied biology, and how typographical studies helped a biologist in his research. yeahhh something cross everything. Where creation is THE topic and no more the results, the form, the accomplishment. Back to the basis. SMALL,SLIMMER,SPECIAL instead of BIG,BOLDER,BETTER . Just a thought.
Perhaps the western world has grown beyond the stage of seeing design conferences as more than elite designers showing their greatest hits. However, the typical Asian culture towards design conferences is still very much about designers flocking to meet their idols, to see how these "stars" work and think, and hear what inspired the greatest hits.
Writing as the organiser of Designyatra, I can frankly say that Designyatra in India is a money-losing business (both the 2006 and 2007 conferences). We always set out not to lose money and in order to build a safety net, we have to put some "stars" onto the list, knowing very well that these "stars" will most likely do a show-and-tell session. But, as event organisers, we do need them to attract crowds. Curating a themed show is the difficult task about getting the balance right - the speakers who will expand on the theme and the greatest-hits-show.
We suspect the idols already have several presentation kits ready to go, for whichever conference they are asked to present, on whatever subject they are asked to speak about. Peter Saville and his New Order/Factory, Stefan and his Things I have learned, Irma Boom with her books. But they draw crowds, and they do inspire the young ones.
Having said all, Designyatra is an event that is important to the Indian design community. It probably doesn't mean anything to the LCC/RCA or SVAs, where students have access to Teal Triggs, Steven Heller, Harmish, Gerard Unger, Phil Baines, and a whole big list of guest lecturers. They can and should demand more. When you are dealing with underfunded schools with no Macs and no subscriptions to EYE or Creative Review, being able to initiate one-to-one conversations with people like Wally Olins, Kyle Cooper or Michael Johnson is already a life-changing and career-changing experience to many young designers.
After two years of learning, hopefully this year's Designyatra will be different. I am hoping the speakers will keep to the theme while doing the "show-the-works" routine. That will be very helpful for India.
God help us all - the LAST THING I want to ehar about is more propaganda. Climate change discussions at a design conference? Slit my wrists now. This is what's wrong with most organized events. They get infiltrated by activists (who also happen to be designers or whatever) seeking new platforms to spew their dogma. Can someone please tell me how design and climate change are related? Is my computer putting out to much of a "carbon footprint"? It's just ridiculous. I don't go to a conference for designers to be lectured about climate change and all the anti-capitalist, pro-socialist political views that go along with it.
I'm there for design tips, tricks and inspirations. To learn about new techniques and technologies. NOT about what kind of light bulb I should use in my studio.
Oh thank god! Someone finally said it. Does that image have anything to do with the Seed 3 conference coming in Chicago? Because honestly, aside from Gary Vaynerchuk (which is awesome!), the others speakers have spoken at every conference before. I want to tell them to pick some new damn speakers!
FINALLY someone says it!
It's a load of BOLLOCKS if you ask me. No really it is!
I am in the last stretch of my final year at Duncan of Jordanstone in Dundee and for my personal project I have decided to brand a conference called BOLLOCKS.
I feel there is an overwhelming amount of pretencious BOLLOCKS when designers feel the need to become the next great pionnering ethical designer. If i wanted to change the world and make it a better place I would have become a politician. Don't get me wrong i feel we all could be a little more ethicaly aware in our lives but surely this is the case for everyone in the world, not just the people who can arrange a bit of type on poster!
Geeze, Tony - What do they teach you at Duncan Jordanstone in Dundee?
When I read these comments it becomes clear to me the great spectrum that exists in the design world. Splashing around in the shallow end are those that play at making things pretty. And far on the other side there are those that are actually engaging in this great human process called communication. The only way climate change can be meaningfully tackled is by humanity engaging in dialogue, and change can only happen through people being informed and inspired. And if that isn't what design is for then I don't know what the hell is.
Visual communication has been used to promote too many useless messages and consumer patterns. It's been used to promate war. Now its time for all of us to act, I think we're all awake here? Act in everyway we can to try to minimize the catastrofic effects of climate change, communicate social change, get your head out of your gas tank. Start to breathe.
A valuable discussion. The celebrity culture that has developed in the design industry is not something I have followed since being a student. I am quite shocked however at the monochrome nature of responses to this article (Ascar certainly makes a significant point that there are two types of designers around today. A moral debate in itself, perhaps).
Many conferences are simply an exhibition of famous works, but as Rajesh illustrates students will forever love the opportunity to meet/see/admire their favourite designers (and there is nothing wrong with admiring your inspirations). As we develop into professionals however, there is more to learn and think about than “new tricks and computer skills”. If everyone just learns how to recreate the same thing, designers will evolve into nothing but another form of technology.
We should be asking for a new kind of design event that gets its audience off the seats and use their talents to challenge current day social problems. I therefore agree that smaller interactive debates, discussions and workshops that consider social change will assist the Communication industry to evolve positively into the future, and perhaps eradicate the risk of stagnating its designers into aesthetically orientated tech-savvy talent.
The whole concept of my personal project is to generate debate and discussion, and for participants to become vocal. In no way has my personal project been bias towards my own opinion. I am aware my comment is very opinionated but that is not the case for my project.
In defence of your sneer at what they teach us at Duncan of Jordanstone. I am simply branding a conference where people would want to voice their own opinions, like yourself. Surely you would encourage a conference like this to happen. It would give a platform for designers to communicate to a wider audience but at a much more personal level. whatever their beliefs, every designer would have the opportunity to be heard.
I feel the variety of comments and opinions been left on this post reassures me that there is room for a great deal of debate.
I think that maybe besides Rick being an excellent design critic, I should just forward him my complaints about the industry and eventually he mention them in some discussion he starts(like this one).
I know i'm gonna sound like the whiner, but the price of conferences is ridiculous. I don't know which graphic designers can drop $2000 to go to HOW with hotel and all, but it isn't anybody I know. This just becomes an issue as well when you go, love a little bit of it, say meh to the rest and then realize you dropped 2K to do what? See Paula Scher's new haircut?
Yet they never seem to lack people attending them, so in some ways these conferences never even bother changing anything up. They never ask anymore and seemingly only care to comment about it on blogs.(personal shot)
Sure conferences can be great for improving your workflow and learning new tricks, but if I dropped 2K to learn three new shortcuts i could have found on the internet, i'd be real angry at myself
People, we need to be hands on and letting the minds run wild. We need an ice breaker session, where we go around telling each other what other things we are doing(not work) or some dream we've been hiding away in text file.
I have these things and i can't be the only one.
Let's go counter-intuitive. Bring in people to teach us about fashion, cooking, farming, writing a novel. How does this relate to creating better drops shadows in Ps? Who cares? If we're spending our time agreeing to positions from people who we already know, how does that best serve your interest and self-education(as conferences are know to be for).
I thought the most interesting thing done in recent time was the contest they did at the AIGA conference. The work was okay, but it was a change for a least a few people and an interesting way to engage them. Lets just get that going on the scale of a HOW conference and then we might start an uncontrollable forest fire of goodness.
Although I only skimmed through the article, above, I tend to agree with what is said. The last few years I have attended quite a few design conferences but increasingly found myself listening to the same old 'stars' talking about the same old projects.
Problem was that they were speaking at so many conferences they never had the time to work on any project and therefore never had anything new to say.
Perhaps design conferences need to be treated in the same manner as I treated this article, speed read with a nod to the best bits.
I'm not an eco nut, simply want to do the right thing and not destroy our nice planet, but Jody Boehnert is spot on:
“We need to address the issue of climate change at design conferences,”
“There are myriad strategies for denial. But design can no longer feign innocence. Design motivates action, actions have implications, and design is implicit.”
... as is Rick:
"Too many design conferences don’t aim much higher than entertainment, escapism and the vaguest kind of hero-worshipping ‘inspiration’ – as in, “I wish I could be a famous designer like you.” What they should provide is unique occasions to concentrate design thinking and propel it to a higher level. For that purpose, small and focused is likely to work best."
Thanks Rick for giving design a much needed and long overdue slap in the face.
Nicely put, Rick (& Nico with “a festival of ill-informed, solution-free hand-wringing”!!). It's partly because of design conference malaise that a few of us set up in 2004. 27 people spend a week in a fixed location (currently Vinalhaven, Maine) discussing & making work around a topic relevant to design. This year, typography and failure, July 20-25. There are 8 spots still open, come along!
ps. I moved to Austin, Texas to teach full-time. Email me!
There is a model for design conferences that does work. In the USA, the American Institute of Graphic Arts (AIGA) organizes a number of conferences each year that are thematically based: http://designeducators.aiga.org/ Via the link, a number of the past AIGA education conferences now include PDFs of papers, which one can freely download.
These conferences are different from the biannual AIGA Designers Conference which is more of a star-studded event. I am not sure about the lineage, but I think the AIGA Educators series grew out of a number of excellent conferences held in the mid 1990s, for example, "How We Learn What We Learn" and "Looking Closer." These early lecturers included stars like Rick Poynor, Robin Kinross, Ellen Lupton, Andrew Blauvelt and Lorraine Wild, but it was also a different time for graphic design. I think practitioners were happy to attend these types of conferences because they were something new. The conference organized around the "portfolio review" had not yet emerged.
The fact that AIGA education conferences are structured around "education" should not put people off. The topics are wide ranging and in fact, submissions are accepted from designers who are neither affiliated with the AIGA nor current educators. The organizers are more interested in the quality of the presentations than the name attached to the the paper. I think too, that owing to the fact that the people presenting at these conferences are trying to build their career (myself included), they write their papers in all earnestness.
David is correct about the forums where one has any hope of engaging in ideas about design. While I hate to make totalizing comments, what Rick (and I) desire in profession-organized events simply will not happen. Step one would be for a [nothing personal but I see your name a lot] Peter Hall to respond to an invitation with, "Thank you! But we've heard too much from me. How about David Cabianca? He's a fresh, insightful voice!" Again, nothing personal toward Peter, but I can't imagine that happening. (Arguably, he might consider it impolite. I'm down with that.) The concept that one might listen to someone speak simply because they have insightful IDEAS about design is alien to a professional audience: you MUST have a reputation as a maker, or a pedigree from a small circle of educational institutions. And to pick on poor Peter again, I've watched Design Inquiry for years: same names, same names.
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.
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.
Read on in my Journal post Avoiding hand-wringing in design-event-land
Skimming through most of the comments here, there appears to be very little mention of the involvement of academically inclined individuals involved in programming conferences. The reason for academics involvement would be that they are the foundations of design and they should know what students and young designers want to know: stories.
Stories of process, stories of failure, stories of travel, stories of difficult situations, stories of their family and their values and principles...etc
I won't speak on behalf of others, but invidividually I would say a good speaker regardless of famous or anonymous is one that can encapture that essence of storytelling and creative process and have a collection of thoughts just beyond 'design'. Design already revolves around culture awareness and I think this is an essential part of what is the missing puzzles at conferences.
I'm rather tired of people showboating their work with Nike or Nokia, if I wanted to see your portfolio I would surf your website.
Like most design groups employing three of four talented individuals (which I would suggest make up at least 75% of the UK's designers), we are too busy earning a crust to go to these junkets.
Are the speakers and the audience at these events therefore truly representative of the creative 'industry', or a reflection of the narcissistic self interest of those resting on their laurels?
We used to read about them, but the reports seem to be at a loss to find anything new to report on.
Better to keep abreast of design trends by observation, and rely on our own talent.
If someone has something innovative to say, it will eventually be published.
Until then I'll save my dosh.
My apologies for not making it more clear: the AIGA Education Conferences are organized by educators even though they are affiliated with the AIGA and have corporate support. These conferences have a vetting (blind peer review) process which is usually carried out by academics, which ensures that the presentations are based on quality of content rather than name recognition. Even though it is a professional organization, the AIGA has an education subcommittee which is quite active and engaged with the academic community.
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