You Don’t Know Y (the Conference), Part 1

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Scott Ramsey's T-shirt design from Y1.

This is the first of four reports. Here are parts two, three, and four.

Sure, your boss will foot the bills for design conferences that tell you how to do this ‘n’ that. But the ones that probe the “whys,” they’re the much more significant and, ultimately, the most rewarding ones. And the one that’s frequently cited by those in the know as being the most exemplary will celebrate its sweet 16th birthday in two weeks.

I was one of the 300 who experienced the first AIGA Y, at San Diego City College, way back in 1996. And I loved every minute of it. There were the presentations by the calmly authoritative Clement Mok (San Francisco), the charmingly elegant Sharon Werner (St. Paul), the casually candid Charles S. Anderson (Minneapolis), and the amusingly obnoxious Eric Baker (New York, of course), who we laughed at, not with, when his cell phone interrupted another speaker’s talk… and he took the call! But the operation itself felt both tightly efficient and effortlessly informal. To say nothing of the hale and hearty opening and closing parties.

At the time, other attendees, largely comprised of students, were amazed that someone had traveled all the way down from L.A. for this event. I may have been the only one. But soon enough, people were flying in from Germany, Iceland, and India. The speaker list became international as well. And while the design world at large is only gradually discovering what’s been going on for the past 16 years in that sunny little city in the lower left corner of America, the conference always sells out, to appreciative crowds.

Bennett Peji at Y16, next to one of the original Y sculptures at USD's Kroc Institute for Peace and Justice. It was built by Dave Conover and conference volunteers to welcome guests.

Other venues have included Balboa Park’s Museum of Natural History and La Jolla’s Museum of Contemporary Art. It’s once again situated on a campus, this time the University of San Diego. And it will take place in two weeks, on the weekend of March 25th and 26th. And attendance numbers are still around 300, which helps maintain its intimate regional feel. Onstage and Thinkshop participants will include Aaron Draplin and Frank Chimero from the Pacific Northwest, Raphael Grignani and Lab Partners from the Bay Area, Peter Kragh from San Diego (and the Pacific Ocean), Nik Hafermaas, Petrula Vrontikis, and Brian Boyl from Art Center’s design mafia, and, umm, my son Chris. And, representing the non-West Coast, art director Brigid McCarren from, ahem, How magazine.

And now, some of the Y’s guys and gals who created and built this conference will tell you why, and how, it came to be a unique and valuable, if often unfortunately overlooked, creative design resource. Future installments will include Y’s 1996 Co-Programming Chair Tyler Blik and Adam Rowe, Y’s current Chair.


Bennett Peji: Civic Brand Designer and City of San Diego Commissioner of Arts & Culture; AIGA FellowAIGA/SD President in 1996

Guy Iannuzzi: CEO, MentusAIGA/SD Board (Marketing Resources) in 1996

David Conover: Owner, StudioConoverAIGA/SD Board (Membership) in 1996 and Y1 Co- Chair

Bonnie Schwartz: Owner, Schwartz Design GroupAIGA/SD Board (Professional Practices) in 1996 and Y1 Co- Chair

Candice López: Professor, San Diego City College Graphic Design; AIGA FellowAIGA/SD Board (Education) in 1996

MaeLin Levine: Partner, Visual Asylum; AIGA FellowAIGA/SD VicePresident in 1996; Y Conference Chair from 1996 to 2001


Postcard by Scott Ramsey.


There are usually only a few real moments in life when you have a chance to be part of something that changes the course of a community. It takes a desperate situation, followed by a clear mission of change, an intimate group of well-connected believers, an authentic message that the broader community can believe, crazy courage, and whole lot of stress, sweat, and luck to pull it off. That was Y1. And the amazing AIGA San Diego board members did just that in 1996..


Before the 1996 retreat, the mood of the board was down. Membership was declining, and the glory days of a decade earlier, when we’d had the Russian Poster show travel nationally, was a fading memory. We needed to get the local design community to re-engage..


AIGA/SD had been plagued by low event turnout, apathetic membership, and a bank account that had very little funds for events. The board had debated the idea of another local awards show. But that wasn’t smart; San Diego is too small to have too many creative shows..


There really was a sense that the chapter was in a crisis, do or die mode. We had a retreat in Bonnie Schwartz’s backyard… we really had no money..


As a board we were frustrated, wanting to do more for the design community. I was finishing my two-year term as president, from 1993 to ‘95, and Bennett was coming in. I had asked Guy to be our development chair, and we were thrilled when he accepted. He really encouraged us to figure out what we wanted to do, and to think big..


We were having a hard time coming up with a good enough reason for a designer to join our local chapter. We needed what I called a compelling “value proposition.”

At Mentus we had developed a process to create a value proposition for our clients, and it involved a variety of steps. But an important and relevant point was to examine the problem with liberated eyes. We’d learned to help our smaller, especially non-profit, clients by asking them to create initiatives that were “larger then they were.” I made the remark, “Think bigger than yourself. Dream. Imagine what would you do if money were no object. Don’t worry about the money.”.


Buoyed by Guy’s encouragement, we wanted to do something of substance, something we’d never done before. After much deliberation, Candice suggested an event for students that would have educational components. This idea evolved into having an event for the broader design community, a conference where we would invite the stars of our profession..


When I was asked what I would do if I could do anything, I said that I’d have a design conference at San Diego City College, where I teach. And I’d invite students from all over San Diego, Tijuana, and elsewhere. This concept really resonated with the board, who wanted it to be for professionals and students..


Very quickly everybody jumped in about all the things that a conference could do for the local design community, and how we could get all sorts of speakers for the program… just look at how effective the How Conference was. This could be a How for San Diego..


In a subsequent board meeting, making plans for the conference, we were debating about the name. And Dave Conover suggested we call it “the Y Conference.”.


Dave said, “I don’t care about the how, I want to know about why designers do what they do.”.


At the time How magazine was coming on strong in the design community. And as we sat about tossing out possible names for the conference it occurred to me – as it always has – that strategic graphic design practitioners knows how to use the tools to create, but differentiate themselves from others by also knowing why..


And the rest is history..

This is the first of a four-part history of the Y Conference.

Doyald Young, typeface designer and teacher, at the 2008 conference. He was a regular guest at Y. Photo by Kirby Yau.

Doyald at last year's conference. He passed away on February 28th, and will be honored at a special event on Thursday, March 24th. Photo by Kirby Yau.


Parts •

ópez #DavidConover #EricBaker #YDesignConference #CharlesSAnderson #BonnieSchwartz #ClementMok #DoyaldYoung #MaeLinLevine #AIGA #GuyIannuzzi