Adrian Shaughnessy | Essays

The Design Conference

I’ve sat in darkened rooms listening to designers delivering verbal renditions of their websites; I’ve lugged home tote bags full of sponsors’ tat (and the occasional item I might actually want); I’ve eaten the soggy breakfast pastries and gulped the anodyne coffee. I’ve also been royally entertained, informed, and stimulated by speakers at the many design conferences I’ve attended. 

But in the age of the Internet and social media, design conferences seem anachronistic. If it's true, as the design evangelists tell us, that design is helping to forge dazzling new paradigms for living, it seems odd that design conferences are locked into a quasi-academic model that would have been familiar to the Victorians. 

Most conferences still cling to the old format of one-, two-, or even three-day events held in major cities, and featuring designers showing me their work. Surely, the design conference is ready for an upgrade? 

Yet perhaps there is a good reason why the format is unchanged since Charles Darwin lectured on the Origin of the Species. Perhaps there’s no need to change the format when we consider that lectures are only one of the reasons why people attend conferences. Perhaps, as we finger-tap our way to a world of virtual communication via devices and digital interfaces, we seek more keenly the comfort of personal contact. 

Perhaps the great graphic design tribe—one that swells annually with new zealots keen to undertake the rituals of initiation (first job, first published work, first design conference)—has an urgent need to congregate in open ground. And perhaps it is only design conferences that meet this need. I can remember only a fraction of the talks I’ve sat through (and given!) at the numerous conferences I’ve attended. But at these same events I met people who are still friends today. 

As well as scintillating speakers, a large part of the attraction of a conference is formed by the event’s geographical location. I’ve attended conferences in wonderful cities I might not otherwise have visited. I regret the increase in my carbon footprint, but relish the opportunity to experience new environments. 

Today, design conferences are generally slick, well-polished affairs. Organizers have long-since mastered the technicalities of audiovisual presentation—multiple screens glow with pixel-sharp luminosity and sound booms out with sushi-knife sharpness. Though it should be noted that conferences on a large scale, with high production values and speakers flown in from around the world, nearly always require sponsorship. Nobody, I'd guess, stages design conferences to make money. 

The confident conference speech is now an essential component of the ambitious modern designer’s repertoire. Writing in 2003, Alice Twemlow could reasonably state that: “Many designers are brilliant communicators—when teaching or writing, pitching or designing. Only some are brilliant speakers. And they are not necessarily the most talented designers.” Now, more than a decade later, most designers invited to speak know how to deliver a lecture, and the days of mumbled deliveries telling audiences what they are looking at (“this is a logo”) are less common. 

So what should a design conference for the second decade of the twenty-first century look like? The first thing to say is that the virtual conference is a non starter: people want the camaraderie of herding together, sharing experiences and doing a bit of gentle networking. But they also want interaction with the speakers—the invisible barrier between speakers and audience is especially anachronistic in the age of social media interaction. In my experience, conferences that address this problem (a design problem!) tend to be more successful. 

An even bigger problem than the outdated lecture-based format is that too many presentations lack self-reflection and critical objectivity. Discussion of matters such as ethics, politics, even aesthetics, is rare. And too often the only option for attendees is to sit passively through a portfolio presentation that can be done at home more quickly and often more productively. And at zero cost.

There are honorable exceptions to show and tell. There are conferences that try to foster debate and discussion, and there are designers capable of talking about their work with style and aplomb. But it seems likely that the appetite for tribal gatherings—no matter what the content—will persist. The challenge is to cater for that demand while offering a more sophisticated examination of the craft, with more voices than those of celebrated practitioners, and with the opportunity for critical involvement. Speakers shouldn't have to check their Twitter feeds to find out what people think about their presentations.

Comments [3]

Thanks for this article, particularly your points on show and tell. The modern designer is also a modern rhetor, and I agree, the role of audience is greater than passive pairs of eyes or minds that simply ‘ooh’ and ‘aah’. For design educators, I think there is opportunity to teach toward understanding the audience and how they can be actively brought into a presentation. New speakers would benefit from learning how to contextualize their work with other matters as you’ve mentioned (i.e., ethics, politics, science, economics, aesthetics, etc.) — and perhaps realize that a bit of vulnerability is needed as they seek interactive, critical dialogues (from the audience, live and face-to-face!) on those potential connections. Mix that with stylin’ visuals and maybe things start changing…
Jessica Barness

The format of AGI Open 2014, in São Paulo was interesting. With 20 minutes to each member, in two days a lot of designers talked from the stage. The disadvantage: there are no questions or discussion. It's just a sampling of portfolio of successful cases. Furthermore, questions are generally not interesting. They become quite lengthy reflections without asking anything. The public is impatient and presentations become longer. Something must change when questions open. About social networking, here is a useful idea http://www.sexdrugshelvetica.com/recap-sex-drugs-helvetica-conference-2014/ Tracking presentations online, with a step by step of what happens on stage, for those who can not attend.
Lucas López

I've found that it's between sessions or at the end of the day when less guarded speakers and earnest attendees take deeper dives into the ethics, aesthetics and maybe even politics surrounding a project or concept introduced earlier. In that instance, the conference becomes a catalyst for richer, more personal discussions. The kind of discussions that might be a hard to ignite in one controlled hour in the glare of a spotlight.
Ed Roberts

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