Winter 2009

Design’s virtual Woodstock

AIGA Make / Think Design Conference

Memphis Cook Convention Center,
Memphis, Tennessee
8-10 October, 2009

I was spoilt for choice. The speakers had all been outstanding, the line-up stellar, the topics relevant, and the programme entertaining. Yet there was more to it. The AIGA design conference, which took place officially in Memphis, had only been the expression of a meta-event located somewhere else, in the vast expanse of the blogosphere.

Pretty much everyone in attendance had been broadcasting live during the three-day event. I tried to imagine the sheer amount of media coverage already generated by more than a thousand people posting their impressions, comments, interviews, photographs and videos on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Flickr and other networks, not to mention personal blogs. Alissa Walker, former editor of the Unbeige design blog, had been orchestrating this electronic blitz from her ‘Gelatobaby’ Web headquarters. The result had been a multi-faceted and free-wheeling digital happening, a virtual Woodstock.

Close to 100 individuals had been invited to speak, and recording their thoughts and comments was a daunting task. There were a few scribblers, myself included, who insisted on taking old-fashioned notes, but we were a sorry minority. We struggled in the darkened auditorium with pen and paper while next to us people stared at their illuminated monitors. Head down, they followed the presentations on the retro-lighted display screens of their phone or laptop, only looking up to take an occasional photograph or video. For us folks stuck in the non-virtual world, sitting next to these busy data-watchers was somewhat unnerving. The technology they played with was not unlike that used by surveillance operatives.

The influence of online social networks is such that today we monitor cultural events with the idea of sharing our observations rather than storing them for our own edification. What used to be described as ‘food for thought’ is now the fuel that powers the Web. Not surprisingly, connecting – not debating issues – had been the primary reason most attendees had come all the way to Memphis. Whereas the buzz word in the design world used to be ‘communication’, the paradigm today is ‘communities’. We’ve dropped the ‘-ation’ suffix that indicates action and replaced it with the ‘-ity’ suffix that stands for quantity. The more people you communicate with, the better. At the AIGA conference, the speakers who got the biggest round of applause were those who explored novel ways for communities to connect. New-fangled phrases such as ‘crowd-sourcing’ or ‘shared usership’ have made their way into ordinary speech.

Mercifully, most VIPs on the main stage were not preachers but performers, with Stefan Sagmeister probably the most accomplished entertainer. He got everyone to stand up and sing an irreverent hymn based on Beethoven’s Ode to Joy, in which he poked fun at both business communities and graphic design communities, with a reference to his own over-exposure on Ted.com.

More subtle, but addressing the same issue, was British conceptual artist Daniel Eatock, who chose as a theme for his presentation the circles he draws freehand everyday – a perfect ‘connecting’ metaphor, since for him the most interesting thing about drawing circles is the point where the beginning and end of the line come together. He set up a twenty-minute photographic chain-letter experiment during which attendees took pictures of each other with his camera passed around from hand to hand. Everything he showed was a demonstration of the hidden power of forms joining together: from a human chain on a circle of chairs precariously balanced on two legs, to an elegant eighteen-karat necklace made of tiny gold clasps. There was a palpable hush in the room when Eatock showed two similar photographs of grocery items, one taken just before and the other right after the expiry date on their package. Attendees stopped Twittering, apparently unable to find words to describe the magical mental loop connecting the two images.

Australian-born Nick Law, creative director of R/GA North America, explained how he tries to bring together ad men and geeks – two tribes that do not speak the same language. His Nike+ Human Race advertising campaign provided a formidable case study: thanks to a tiny electronic device embedded in a running shoe and connected to the Nike website via the runner’s iPod nano, marathon enthusiasts from all over the world are able to share their running scores with their Facebook friends, or with a network of runners who happen to like the same songs.

Some speakers, who took a less upbeat approach to the subject of community building, were just as compelling. Liz Coleman, president of Bennington College, had the audience spellbound as she promoted a vision of civic engagement as an alternative to social networking. Cameras were clicking when one of her most lucid statements flashed on the overhead screen: ‘We cannot have a viable democracy made up of experts, zealots, politicians, and spectators.’ Quiet and unassuming, she got the longest and most sincere standing ovation, proof that in every graphic designer still lurks a social activist.

Coleman had touched a raw nerve, though. Designers gathered in Memphis were the spectators of their own spectacle. Famous or not, you were likely at any moment to be interviewed, recorded, photographed, videoed, or immortalised, your image and comments tossed right away into an overflowing stream of electronic data. Whenever someone waved a camera in your direction, you would strike a pose. Hug someone. Smile. Wave. Or hold your nametag in front of the lens. Not only did designers take pictures of each other, they also took pictures of walls, doors, windows, fences, posters, murals, puddles, chairs, and vernacular street signs. It was as if we were all contributing to the elaboration of some huge ongoing performance piece.

No spectacle was more popular than ‘Command X’, a live graphic design reality show taking place twice daily on the main stage. A group of seven young contestants were subjected to a series of gruelling design challenges, their ranks quickly thinned by process of elimination. Deadpan MC Michael Bierut entertained, while the four judges offered a medley of meek encouragements and harsh comments. Seasoned television viewers, the audience knew exactly when to cheer and boo.

Yet every one of the attendees took away from the conference some memorable, un-Twitterable moments. For me, these included my delight when eccentric Stefan Bucher demurely explained how he tries to make less money; the look of excitement on the face of a student talking about DIN, her favourite typeface; and the frightening optimism of David Butler, VP of Global Design at Coca-Cola. I suspect that, ultimately, the private impressions we do not share about things we experience together are just as much part of what makes us a community.

First published in Eye no. 74 vol. 19 2009


EYE74

Eye is the world’s most beautiful and collectable graphic design journal, published quarterly for professional designers, students and anyone interested in critical, informed writing about graphic design and visual culture. It is available from all good design bookshops and online at the Eye shop, where you can buy subscriptions and single issues.

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