From Aspen Magazine, Vol. 1 No. 1, 1965
The American Center for Design was for many years the most dynamic, innovative design organization in America. It spearheaded conferences about interface design and business-design case studies. It had a vibrant student membership, and growing education initiatives. And the ACD 100 was the most selective and respected design competition in America. As the inheritor of the history of the Society of Typographic Arts, founded in Chicago in 1927, ACD was the only meaningful counterpoint to the New York-based America Institute of Graphic Arts.
Then, one day in 2000, ACD simply ceased to exist.
During its few years of ascendency, ACD had an ineffectual board and multiple executive directors. There was also tension between the Illinois Institute of Technology-based industrial and process designers and ACD's heritage as a graphic design organization. If ACD does not exist today, it is because its board was arrogant enough to try to persevere in the face of bad management and failing finances. It could have partnered with other organizations, or it could have focused its efforts where it was sustainable as an organization. Instead, its board choose to go it alone down a path to bankruptcy. Google ACD today and you will find some very cool designer napkins; a sad legacy for a once distinguished institution.
Now it looks like the International Design Conference in Aspen (IDCA) may be about to go the same way . . . down a path into oblivion. I've heard rumors about the demise of the Aspen Design Conference every few years. I'm hearing these same rumors again after ambient:interface, the 54th annual conference this past August.
Founded in 1951 by Chicago industrialist and design-sponsor Walter Paepcke, the International Design Conference in Aspen, Colorado has a long history: conferences focused on international design (Europe, 1968; Japan, 1979; Italy, 1981 and 1989; Canada and Mexico, 1984; England, 1986; Germany, 1996); years with themes (the environment, 1962 and 1970; Hollywood, 1997; sports, 1998); a lot of professional practice (corporations and the designer, 1960; the prepared professional, 1982; new business and the definition of design, 1995); and basic humanist themes (design and human values, 1957; illusion and truth, 1985; design and the human body, 1994). Interestingly, Aspen grew out of a 1949 conference celebrating the Goethe Bicentennial where 2000 people from around the world came to the Rocky Mountains to share ideas. In this spirit, IDCA was usually an interdisciplinary gathering, steeped in Paepcke's belief that Aspen was "an ideal environment for nurturing the whole human being."
Even if IDCA managed to breakeven in 2004 with a conference of limited appeal, there are all those years of mismanagement and unpaid bills. Plus, everyone has an opinion in an organization with four boards: an executive board with the likes of Agnes Bourne and Rob Forbes, a design board with Paola Antonelli and Michael Rotondi, an Emeritus board with Ralph Caplan and Ivan Chermayeff, and an advisory board with Aaron Betsky and Dorothy Twining Globus. Too many cooks in the kitchen? No doubt. More importantly, I suspect too many of these design leaders are arguing for past relevance and success, even in the face of marginal impact and relevance in 2004. What they need to do is to rally and pay off the Aspen debt they have accumulated under their watch. This is the way to a new future for Aspen.
In the coming months, if we read that the Aspen Design Conference has gone into bankruptcy, I will be sad. It need not happen, I suspect (and hope).
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