AIGA 2016 Conference

Welcome spread in program book.AIGA Conference program, notebook, and my Metro mug.[/caption]Statement by Christopher Simmons, conference chair.Welcome spread in program book.

The AIGA decal on the glass entrance door at The Mirage hotel.
The AIGA decal on the glass entrance door at The Mirage hotel.
We”re in Las Vegas. The sun is setting, and peeks at us right above the horizon, blasting its honey rays through the full-length windows of gate C22 at McCarran Airport.I just wrapped up 3.5 days of the annual AIGA conference. Sadly, missed the Chuck D finale presentation for fear of not being able to pierce the thickening ring of security that was tourniquetting the roads and freeways to my outbound flight. The final Hillary vs. Trump presidential debate was taking place that night at nearby UNLV.The confluence of events may have been a coincidence but, by most indicators, this year”s AIGA Conference found a way and a need to grow in the midst of a barrage of uncertainties in the national landscape, the least of which was the shaping of our future presidential leadership.
Ken Carbone Election poster.
A series of posters designed for the conference and the impending election.
Sheep as people, wolves as governement poster. Voting is free while liberty lasts poster.From the outset, I was unprepared for the gush of show(wo)manship but then found my second wind or got high on my own greed. The event”s productions were immense and elaborate, with multi-level stages, three giant screens, music intro”s, and lighting design.Three screened stage in the conference. Lots of audience.And the presentations examined subjects as diverse as the speakers themselves. It seemed that AIGA wanted to offer something for every kind of designer. From the looks of it, about 700 people were involved, including attendees, organizers and speakers. The average attendee was a young woman, either a student or a neophyte of a design practitioner. For this reason perhaps, a number of presentations were pep-talks (i.e. AIGA Executive Director Julie Anixter’s opening speech, Alina Walker’s David Bowie presentation, Diógenes Brito and “Earning a seat at the table”, etc.). As part of the more veteran minority, I thought it was sweet.I attended none of the additional fee events because the “standard package” was already over-the-top — I mean literally: from 7:15AM until 10:30PM at night with 1-hour breaks in between for meals. The morning symposia occurred simultaneously so the selection was tough. Based on what I was able to attend, these were the main themes of the talks:Encouragement\r\n

    \r\n

  1. Equal pay and career opportunities for both genders.
  2. \r\n

  3. Feed curiosity.
  4. \r\n

  5. Have fun. Find audacity and fervor, exuberance, and personality to express through your work.
  6. \r\n

  7. Dare. Don’t fear messing up. Learn from each mistake.
  8. \r\n

\r\nClient relations\r\n

    \r\n

  1. Don”t forget who the real clients are: the client’s customers.
  2. \r\n

  3. Educate the client. Many don”t know what design is or what it can do for them.
  4. \r\n

  5. Show empathy for the user.
  6. \r\n

\r\nPersonal development\r\n

    \r\n

  1. Being ready to do your own research and not relying solely on the facts that the client has given you. It may not tell the whole picture. Initial research to inform the design project and then, follow-up assessment research on the performance of the final design in the environment and with the audience.
  2. \r\n

  3. How to iterate quickly and productively.
  4. \r\n

  5. Have a complementary practice outside of design, whether it is music, writing, and/or art. It”s a way of digesting one’s work and giving it inflection.
  6. \r\n

  7. Be more than a traditional designer: Designer as content-maker, as programmer, as venture capitalist, as business manager, president of a school, as motivational speaker.
  8. \r\n

\r\nThe jam-packed conference schedule.Vegas is an interesting place to have this AIGA conference. It can be seen as the epitome of all that design does not aspire to be: gaudy, excessive, contextually fragmented and jarring, a visual assault with lights and fire. While the The Strip entranced with its dazzle, the limpid swimming pool and jacuzzi taunted with its refreshment and the plethora of restaurants promised copious and savory offerings, I was here for design first, and relaxation second… Although nearly every one of the design presenters mentioned that having fun was the magic elixir of making great work!

View of the Mirage swimming pool from hotel window.
Too bad, pool only open from 9A to 6P.
Shiny colored metal Popeye statue by Jeff Koons at The Wynn.
Popeye statue by Jeff Koons on display at the neighboring Wynn hotel.
zipliners at night in the city.
Zipliners hurling through an upside-down half-pipe of an LED screen, a canopy over the new old downtown Las Vegas.
Vegas is also a uniquely fecund seed tray for fantasies, dreams, and alternate realities of all sorts, including the diaspora of notions contemplated throughout these three days. A metaphor that encapsulates its mystique was the nightly eruptions of the volcano at The Mirage, the location of this year’s AIGA action. An enormous, custom-made outdoor water feature of fiberglass boulders, pyrotechnics, and tribal percussive rhythms and toucan calls. It was tremendous, and impressive, not unlike the conference itself.The dormant volcano outside of the hotel and at night.Ok, perfect place for AIGA.Those who slept in registering for conference in hotel.The mornings from 9AM to noon held the symposia. On Monday morning, I kicked off with the Management Practice Symposium, on how to run (keep financially afloat) an independent design entity.Husband-and-wife leadership, Justin and Sarah Ahrens, of Rule 29 in Geneva, IL were rockin’ and talked about the push-pull between balancing the business’ revenue and expenses, and how to seek projects: some of the more creatively enticing ones may not be as lucrative as the cut-and-dry ones, but with a grasp of the business’ needs, a balanced design diet can be achieved. Harvest was their business software of choice. They also discussed the imperative of having an advisory team, consisting of a CPA, a lawyer, another creative professional, and a professor, with whom they check in on a quarterly basis. They addressed when it makes sense to hire freelance staff versus full-time staff. All of this to say that a pro-active business posture, with foresight and anticipation for future income and project types, is just better than a reactive one.What I appreciated about these two was their clarity, the abundance of memorable anecdotes, their willingness to use their mistakes to exemplify points, and the live performance of the jovial and respectful chemistry they have together.The value of a strong creative and financial partnership was echoed during our round-table with Ken Carbone of Karbone Smolan in NYC. Ken is a designer, artist, entrepreneur, rock guitarist, writer and educator. He is in charge of the creative and Leslie Smolan “knows how to make money.” They”ve been partners for 40 years. He credits her with being indispensable to the success of their firm. “How did you find her?” Another asked. Ken replied that it was pure fate. I”d say he must be a good judge of character!Ann Harakawa, Principal of environmental graphic design firm Two-Twelve, flavored the symposium with how to seek and prepare proposals for new projects, drawing the difference between public and private sector pursuits. She talked about how to get as much information as possible before embarking on one’s own submission of quals and how to figure out the secret of the budget. She also touched on the interview experience and, once short-listed, the negotiation rigamarole. All and all, one could extrapolate from her wisdom that advice is helpful but the ability to procure a project is a skill truly mastered through practice. Ann said that she’s had many failures and many a lesson learned from each one of them. Ann is both business leader and creative director of her firm, and a Yale classmate of my CalArts prof, Lorraine Wild.A photo of a projection showing the line-items of to prepare for an RFP.Linda Joy Kattwinkel and Shel Perkins talked about copyright and what of graphic design can be copyrighted and therefore compensate the creator. They even walked us through applying online for copyright and the careful language that must be used and what words must be avoided.So the morning started out with the hard facts of how to keep the lights on. The opening ceremony was to follow after the lunch break. After a series of celebratory intro’s from the leadership and organizers of the event, the speeches veered back towards more aspirational messages.As I absorbed the panoply, it became evident to me that design is a gaping broad gamut. We had Luke Woods of Facebook talking about user flow processes on mobile devices and Gemma O”Brien talking about mural-sized calligraphy. From appearances and from the nuts-and-bolts, these are like totally different professions. They seem like night and day but something links these disparate practices…what is it? I would propose two hypotheses:\r\n

    \r\n

      \r\n

    1. A deep interest in and commitment to the quality of the user”s experience. The emphasis was on knowledge-gathering to drive the design process. Several dealt with digging deep and investing significant time and creative measures just to find out what were the heartfelt issues that their audiences contend with.
    2. \r\n

    3. Soft power. Design thrives in the world of soft power, of cultural permeation and evidencing behavioral change through persuasion (or dare I say inspiration) in contrast to force or coercion. While many businesses now grasp the strength of soft power, it”s something that still needs to be articulated and demonstrated to clients.
    4. \r\n

    \r\n

\r\nEach designer”s approach was individual and distinct, with their specializations not exactly interchangeable but the commonality, the linchpin, seemed to be empathy. Hearing all of the presentation, I walked away with the question as to how do I engage empathy? What is my personal design approach for doing so, at least for right now?Designers can have different approaches at different points in our lives. The esteemed Paula Scher humbly looks back on her own and acknowledges that she”s lucky to be able to keep working in design at her age, when many contemporaries failed to maintain relevance. Her talk was framed around what I call Paula”s 10-Step Program to Staying Relevant as a Designer:Paula Scher at the podium.\r\n

    \r\n

      \r\n

        \r\n

      1. Think about and remember the pieces of design that inspired you to pursue design as a career.
      2. \r\n

      3. Who are your own heros and heroines?
      4. \r\n

      5. Push back against something, like a norm or a convention. Challenge it.
      6. \r\n

      7. Defy the age staircase. Climb further instead of extending the plâteau.Paula''s slide showing what each decade of your life means.
      8. \r\n

      9. Go the distance. Stick with it even when the going gets tough or confusing.
      10. \r\n

      11. Be a neophyte and keep learning and stretching.
      12. \r\n

      13. Have a point of view. Sometimes this means doing personal work on the side. It will find a means, a beneficial way, to influence your design work.
      14. \r\n

      15. Work for free to build relationships in your community.
      16. \r\n

      17. Hang out with people smarter than you.
      18. \r\n

      19. Do what you do best but change with the times.
      20. \r\n

      \r\n

    \r\n

\r\nThere was a generosity and awesome strength to Paula”s choice to confide in us her own fears and struggles throughout her magnificent career. Her personal accounts that intimated each point in her 10-step program resound with poignancy and pertinence. I really appreciated the soulfulness of her presentation.Same would be true for John Maeda”s. He has engineering, art, and MBA degrees and now runs, Automattic, the company behind wordpress.com and which is hiring, by the way. All that follows a stretch of serving as president of RISD. The arc of his career is driven by “why not?” and “what if?” choices that run on iron rails of vision, curiosity, and, of course, hard work. He says that most creatives are bad with money and the business side. “Why not look at money as institutionalized love. If you love me, give me money.” He quipped.A nice respite came from Quindar, a joint project between Mikael Jorgensen and historian & curator of modern and contemporary art, James Merle Thomas. Suited up and bobbing their heads, these DJs worked their electronics against the projected backdrop of photos of 1960s astronaut trainings and archival footage of deep space. Sound waves pervaded: That”s the great thing about design conferences… Entertainment and education coalesce in the brackish waters of – was it a kind of edutainment?Shifting from the speech format to film, the evening showcased a documentary called Design Disruptors, which examines the endemic role of design in the vitality of businesses and products, which, the piece notes, is really being embraced today. Here”s the trailer:\r\nhttps://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W4AViRgrgkUI slept some and the next morning… Design criticism symposium — an unprecedented subject at the AIGA conference. My favorite part of the entire conference!Andrea Lipp, associate curator at the Cooper-Hewitt Museum of Design, said, this is the first and hopefully not the last time criticism gets a spot in the lineup. Ed Fella, Prof Emeritus at CalArts, explained, “Well, you know, the AIGA has historically been for the practitioners and the commercial side of graphic design.” Louise Sandhaus, Prof at CalArts, succinctly responded,”Yay!”Andrew Blauvelt at the mike.I enjoyed Andrew Blauvelt”s presentation on design”s place in culture. (Before I go any further, Andrew Blauvelt is the head of Cranbrook”s art museum. He started out as a Designer at The Walker and became Creative Director. He has also taught design.) Andrew made a distinction between public curation and social curation where the access afforded by the former does not equate to the kind of participation by the latter. Tracing examples through history from the French Salon (as it went from monarchical to public), to the Whole Earth Catalog, and to the modern day pinterest, he argues that participation in the form of reviews (judgement and criticism) can evolve into more artful criticism, thereby pervade a larger practice of active involvement in culture-making. Social criticism about design enriches the tradition and health of design criticism, much the same way that art criticism arose out of the democratization of The Salon. He suggests that such a spirited and active dialogue could usher in a new and overdue age of enlightenment.While Andrew was trying to start a movement, Jeremy Mendé operated as a one-man shop for instigating change. Jeremy runs his own firm, Mendé Design in San Francisco, for commercial clients. He questioned that if design is so good at messaging for consumerism, then why not use your powers to vocalize the roar of your own conscience, designers?Jeremy''s ven diagram of conscience, awareness, and morality.He lamented how a google search for “Deep water horizon” now brings up Mark Wahlberg and an IMDB rating before the actual historical disaster. He commented that if that explosive oil hemorrhaging of the earth”s surface in the Gulf of Mexico was of an apocalyptic level, then the public nonchalance towards its aftermath is as well. Jeremy felt compelled to stir consciousness and did so with graphic design as public art in a provocational campaign, 100 Years from Now in Italy, in which he printed one of five verses of a Futurist poem on separate posters. Jeremy explained how jarring these plain and direct ads appeared amidst the mosaic of other ads in the landscape. Confronting the poster”s appeal, the viewer must decide to act or ignore, and neither is easy for the conscience.Jeremy''s poster, black helvetica on white paper, that says, I was really moved by Jeremy”s personal design intervention and motivation.My handwritten notes on Jeremy Mendé''s talk.

Andrea Lipp talks to Jeremy.
Andrea Lipp interviews Jeremy.
During break, I cut out and went to another symposium on design and yoga (essentialy Buddhist tenets), which was intriguing in theory and strong in principle but was difficult to relate to. On Wednesday, I attended an interaction design symposium MC”ed by NPR Creative Director Liz Danzico. Luke Woods effectively presented Facebook”s design efforts on humanitarian capabilities such as disaster relief communication functionality. I felt less persuaded by the Littlebits presentation, as it centered more on the product and its sales successes rather than its particular insights on the nature of interactivity and the future potentials for interactive product development.The Branding symposium was entertaining too with Yo Santosa, Creative Director of Ferroconcrete. She is such a colorful and bubbly personality, translating her childhood joy of shopping and hanging out at malls into her adult profession of thoughtful product branding and merchandising. A substitute presenter (sorry, I missed his name) for Andrea Sullivan of Interbrand told the story of their Sydney Opera House rebrand project. Interbrand converted the client”s source of confusion and fragmented identity into a noteworthy characteristic. The Opera House envelopes myriad arts programs, retail spaces, and dining venues. Rather than letting these dissipate a single branding image, Interbrand devised a graphic system that was porous to its various offerings while still conveying a single strong identity to encompass them all. See it.99% Invisible”s Roman Mars was the MC throughout the conference. I didn”t know about this Oaktown podcaster and design critic with a mischievous molasses voice.He gave a little slideshow featuring Kate Wagner”s critiques of McMansions but what was really awesome was “Unpleasant Design”. During the introductions, I fully applauded how he prefaced each speaker and rounded each out with a short interview. His wry humor and sardonic wit took the edge off of things as 700 designers in a room can get pretty intense.All speakers were recorded and to be accessible via the AIGA website. Don’t know when, but sometime. Worth catching!* * *\r\nBtw, let me say, nearly every guest speaker really knew how to present. As a Toastmaster, I’ve got a few clues as to what”s the stuff of solid oration. Not only chucking the notes but also:\r\n

    \r\n

      \r\n

        \r\n

      • Naturally flowing yet concise language
      • \r\n

      • Eloquent and varied vocabulary.
      • \r\n

      • Movement around the stage, using the space entirely and effectively.
      • \r\n

      • Projecting one’s voice and enunciation.
      • \r\n

      • Emphasis techniques: Intonation, dramatic pauses, hand gestures and body language.
      • \r\n

      • Using humor and personal anecdotes to illustrate a point.
      • \r\n

      • Using slides to augment what is being said, not for reiterating it.
      • \r\n

      \r\n

    \r\n

\r\nFrom a TED talk standpoint, most of these guys have got it. In fact, they got it so bad that one of the speakers, Pat Kelly of Kelly&Kelly, parodied the Thought Leader presentation rubric. It was hilarious. They have a radio show called This is that, if you want to hear some.* * *The exhibitors were fantastic: Adobe, some art schools, some paper companies, Pantone.

Ibm''s minimalist, introspective trade booth.
IBM”s minimalist, reflective trade booth.
* * *Maybe I”ll add yet more to this blog as new thoughts arise. If you go to next year”s in Minneapolis, tell me about it too.