A creative conference for the real world

With an increasingly international programme, can Semi-Permanent still manage to bring emerging and established talent to the same stage?

The designer’s habitual pursuit of inspiration is itself often an uninspired task. It’s rarely quality controlled and these days online resources provide endless distraction. Design conferences are therefore an excellent opportunity to break such habits, as concentrated exposure can prove far more valuable. But attending such events has become less vital with the emergence of online conferences like TED Talks, and thorough bloggers breaking down particular events into audio highlights.

Yet the pull of the real world prevails. Semi-Permanent, held annually in Sydney for nine years, now also stages design conferences across Australia, New Zealand, and in Hong Kong, London and Dubai. This year saw its first in Berlin. With a bill of creative speakers, both emerging and internationally recognised talents, and events running alongside, the experience is similar to a mini-festival; celebrating the idea of cross-pollination between disciplines, attracting mainly students and young professionals.

Once inside the Melbourne venue, and with 12 speakers over two days, the conference is less like a party and more like hard work (to Semi-Permanent’s credit). But while spotlighting emerging creatives can add to the richness of the entire experience, when a designer just hasn’t had the years to succeed and fail, they can have little wisdom to share, and can flounder within the given expanse of an hour.

Speakers aware of the excessive levels of hard work needed to generate modest achievements were the ones who succeeded in connecting with the audience. Adelaide-born artist Sam Leach was an unexpected source of the kind of inspiration I was looking out for with his earthy, cynical charisma. He spent years working in the Australian Tax Office before committing to art full time with paintings appropriating the contrasting worlds of 17th century Dutch art and modern corporate foyers. His ease of talking about his work without a moment’s grandeur, was certainly refreshing.

Not so with agency Droga5. Their efforts to distinguish themselves as independent of the advertising world wound them tighter within the stereotype, with sharply edited videos of their campaigns backed with ‘inspirational’ soundtracks. With strong undertones that their work was changing the world, they kept what would have been truly interesting – a breakdown of the realities of creating campaigns such as The Great Schlep – a myth.

UK designers, The Entente, pointing out a spelling mistake on one of their slides, confessed, “We deal with letters, but can’t write.” Anthony and Edd talked through their type and design work that, seen out of context, resembles unearthed print curios. But their use of typographic novelty, faded inks and retrograde sensibilities remains strikingly contemporary.

Scott Dadich, VP of digital magazine development at Condé Nast, and previously art director of Wired in the US, was one half of the main draw-card for this year’s conference. He gave off experienced cool on-stage, his talk sectioned into snappy maxims, “Good design is more than graphics”; “Constraint is freedom”; “When in doubt, beer”; but his case studies using examples from Wired proved the most memorable. His Wrong Theory, which he expanded with “Design something beautiful, then ruin it”, was Dadich recognising his own preoccupation for slick, simple layouts and teaching himself to design in a way that makes him uncomfortable, working against his own judgment. With engineered print errors and graphic elements that disturb balanced compositions, it’s an anti-formula immediately recognisable in the magazine.

Dadich has spoken at SP before, in 2009, and while quite discerning about his lecture circuit, had wanted to return. And this time, he suggested his friend and colleague, the photographer Platon, speak as well. Platon, too, exuded an ease on-stage which comes from lengthy practice, the confidence of great work and a natural charisma. His rehearsed anecdotes shared little about the inner workings of his process, but entertained with the inner workings of his subjects. With each portrait of Obama, Gaddafi, Berlusconi, came his humanist style of commentary – mostly humorous but, at times, as in his portraits of Burmese children, chilling.

I’d heard Semi-Permanent criticised for its tendency to recruit speakers who gain a lot of contemporary hype. Murray Bell, one of SP’s founders, explained that the speakers are chosen for relevance, not trendiness. “When I was in college, I didn’t know where to go, what to do,” he says. “Direction really helps. We want to include speakers who people can relate to, who are closer to them, and also those who are aspirational.”

A conference that celebrates the modest achievements of emerging talent on the same platform as industry giants surely represents a healthy, fully-formed cross-section of the contemporary creative world. 

Bonnie Abbott is a Melbourne-based designer and illustrator, halloo.com.au. More on Semi-Permanent at semipermanent.com

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