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. 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.

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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

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