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5 Takeaways from the 2017 AIGA Design, Eye on Design Conferences

Where is design headed next? What are its most urgent conversational topics, its smartest practitioners, its most Instagrammable images? Design fans, come with me to Minneapolis, site of the 2017 AIGA Design Conference as well as the inaugural Eye on Design conference.

Entrance to 2017 Eye on Design conference, complete with pink-suited mascot.

Inflatable Eye on Design logo at Nicollet Island Pavilion, Minneapolis, MN.

I was curious about these events for several reasons. First, as both an Eye on Design contributor and reader, I’m impressed by the accelerating relevance of this AIGA-sponsored blog under founder Perrin Drumm’s leadership. Lots of magazines now host live events as a complement to the reading experience, so I was also curious how EoD might translate pixelated conversations about design into real-time dialogue. Finally, I wanted to attend the tent-pole main event because I’d never done so before—the four-figure price tag is unaffordable for many.

Below are 5 takeaways about the current state of design, based on both these events.

1. Words are the new pictures.

As a long-time design writer, it’s gratifying to see strong editorial leading the design conversation. Words—and thinking, argument, and even theory—mattered every bit as much as good-looking portfolio slides at both of these events.

Tina Essmaker, co-founder and editor-at-large of The Great Discontent and a self-described “non-designer”, organized the 2017 AIGA main conference and clearly set this tone. Roman Mars, founder of design podcast 99% Invisible and another non-designer, lead mainstage Q&A for the main conference.

The Eye on Design mini-conference was perhaps the thinky-est in this regard, hewing closely to the blog’s editorial themes: design as it intersects with politics, mental health, and sex among others. This more editorially informed approach is refreshing because it enables more holistic conversation about design, rather than focusing narrowly on sub-specialties or craft. It also leapfrogs all speakers out of the lazy habit of just wowing the audience with their portfolio deck. EoD’s focus on design’s interactions with specific subjects made the event a direct extension of its editorial content and grounds those discussions in real-world debates.

Perrin Drumm, founder and editorial director of AIGA Eye on Design

2. Visuals are more haptic and tangible.

The most compelling work at both Eye on Design and the main conference used the visual to lure you into experiencing the haptic. Speaking at EoD, Leta Sobierajski and Wade Jeffree referred to their approach as “Design as Performance”. They stage physical panorama that manifest whatever quality they want to convey—humor, vice, sexuality, enigma—and photograph the results. “Physicality keeps us from ageing,” Sobierajski observed. It also engages the mirror neurons in an exhilarating way: their pictures push you, in headlong style, to feel texture, sense tastes, explore the tangible. Back into the actual, not digital world.

That physical sensibility included a grounded sense of place. Both events made a solid effort to acquaint attendees with the host city. I learned a ton about Minneapolis from the Eye on Design intro by Emmet Byrne of Walker Art Center, who pointed out landmarks irresistible to design types, to Joe Duffy’s mainstage introduction to Minneapolis design history. Command X—AIGA Design’s fantastic reality-show event in which students undertake design challenges and have their work critiqued onstage by an expert panel—opened with a local challenge: redesign the Minneapolis city identity.

Leta Sobierajski and Wade Jefree, AIGA EoD 2017 Conference.

Every Thing We Touch by Paula Zuccotti, as featured in 2017 AIGA Design conference.

The haptic animated some of the best design at both events, from typographer René Knip’s alphabet hewn from potatoes—“You cannot do this in Photoshop!” he crowed delightedly—to ethnographer Paula Zuccotti’s book Every Thing We Touch, in which individuals from around the globe chronicle every item they touch in a 24-hour period. Zuccotti calls this a “future archeology,” documenting our actual lives now, as they unfurl beyond the screens. Speaking of her mother’s collection, Zuccotti notes: “My mom touches a lot of objects that are endangered: an alarm clock, radio, cash, CDs.” She remarked on how a toddler’s collection freely mixed toys with toy-like medicines: what seems like use and mis-use to an adult work differently for a child. “We think of technology as futuristic, but stuff like mobile phones will date the fastest” to future viewers, Zuccotti remarked at one point. “Objects like a chopping block will survive a lot longer in their current forms.” It’s a beautiful and lingering thought.

Rediscovering the non-screen world extends to design research methods, too. Many speakers decried the false totality that Googling a topic reveals. Annie Atkins, who designs period objects appearing in films like Grand Budapest Hotel, remarked: “We don’t do any internet research. Everything on the web is mislabeled.” The war on fake news starts with returning to the library and primary sources. Designers and writers are both taking note.

3. Failure is hot.

Thinking closely about failure, vulnerability and uncertainty is core to Essmaker’s focus at The Great Discontent and clearly informed her conference programming.

Speaking at Eye on Design, Mona Chalabi, data visualizer for The Guardian, said: “Sharing your failures is incredibly important.” In Chalabi’s case, failure is doubly functional in that she documents her creative process via social media, creating a popular how-it’s-made stream of content that provides backstory for the final visual. Similarly, filmmaker Gary Hustwit probed his experiments with virtual reality (VR), revealing the potential he’s discovered in this new medium. One Scenic project brought VR cameras into a correctional facility for minors, both to document their lives behind walls—a place you’d never want to experience in person—but also to give them a multi-dimensional outlet for describing their lives there.

Lumio designer Max Gunawan approached creative intuition by examining treasured objects from his desk, many of which manifest mistakes, embarrassment, and struggle. His first object was a black wooden bowl whose notched rim looks like a defect—but is actually a great place to rest chopsticks. It parallels his own attempts to acknowledge personal weaknesses and turn them into strengths.

Mona Chalabi, speaking at 2017 AIGA EoD conference.

Lumio, as featured at 2017 AIGA Design conference. http://www.hellolumio.com/

Tea Uglow’s mainstage presentation dwelt entirely on embracing uncertainty in creativity in her work for Google Creative Lab, while not shrinking from her own difficulties as a trans woman with face blindness. Similarly, typographer René Knip remarked during Q&A: “The intriguing, unexplained parts of a design become more important over time. That’s a valid connection, too: not knowing why something is there but wanting to keep it.”

Of course, failure looks best in the rear-view mirror; admitting failure while striding an enormous stage is the ultimate humblebrag. Regardless, these failures read as legit: fresh, recent, or even ongoing. (Ashley C. Ford, writer at fashion blog Refinery29, had just finalized a book proposal in her hotel room and was clearly quaking in her boots about its prospects.) Vulnerability draws viewers into the creative process like nothing else. We’d all risk failure constantly if it weren’t so damn scary—but the potential payoff should hook us more often.

4. Mental health and creativity are closely linked.

Eye on Design’s exploration of this link ranks among the most energizing conversations happening in design. Why do creatives struggle with mental health more than the general population? Where does creativity come from—and why does it sometimes vanish? During an Eye on Design panel on the topic, mental health expert Roxanne Kibben noted: “We don’t just walk around with our heads in a glass jar; we bring our bodies, too. It’s okay to feel all the uncomfortable, bodily sensations that come with creative pursuits.”

AIGA EoD 2017 panel on mental health: Meg Lewis, Qieer Wang and Roxanne Kibben.

At the main conference, illustrator Shawna X documented what she described as an “uninspired period”, which one could fairly describe as professional—and also personal—depression. How she worked through this phase melded cognitive-behavior therapy with creative practice. “It’s normal to feel jaded sometimes,” X said. She continued drawing ideas and emotions even when both were ugly and superego-heavy, and sharing those images publicly was both an act of bravery and solidarity.

5. Buried histories informs the future.

For me, the most electrifying conversations from both conferences touched on the third rail of design and politics: specifically, on identities and historical exclusion. During an EoD panel on design education, designer Hassan Rahim remarked: “I’ve reconciled myself to a design history that doesn’t recognize me. As a self-taught designer, that may’ve been freeing.” Later, speaking on an EoD panel on women in illustration, Wendy MacNaughton said something that stuck with me: “The more invisible our privilege is, the harder we have to work to recognize our blind spots.” She speaks from multiple vantage points: as a self-described white cis queer woman; as a gender minority in her field of illustration; and as an interviewer and illustrator of marginalized groups of people.

But the biggest wallop for me arrived at a symposium on design education at the main conference. Antionette Carroll of Creative Reaction Lab works with cities to “co-create solutions with Black and Latinx populations to design healthy and racially equitable communities”, as her bio describes. “We all have very different definitions of design,” she noted. Does the term refer to “visuals only? Or systems? Or the functional? Or can it also encompass building a social movement and creating change?” Her mission embraces all these aspects of design in service of the latter, ultimate goal.

AIGA EoD 2017 panel on women in illustration: Ping Zhu, Julia Rothman, Wendy MacNaughton

AIGA EoD 2017 panel on design education (pictured): Eric Hu, Hassan Rahim and EoD senior editor Emily Gosling

Carroll’s observation was simple but tremendous: to paraphrase, human inequities are built into our country’s systems. Those systems were once designed, intentionally, that way. To reverse these inequities—to design for a better future—requires digging deep into history, while acknowledging that the dominant version of history is both unreliable and incomplete.

This theme of buried narratives and history’s relevance surfaced repeatedly. It appeared in Rhea Combs’ photography exhibit, Everyday Beauty, for the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History & Culture. These images reveal how ordinary, full-featured black life co-existed with the more documented imagery of black struggles with slavery and civil rights.

The buried narrative theme also appeared again in Kristine Woolery’s work on inclusive design for Microsoft: “Disability is context-dependent, not an attribute of a person. Designing for a one-handed person helps not only the small group of one-handed people, but lots of other people who are temporarily one-handed (with a broken arm, say) or situationally one-handed (holding a baby or carrying groceries).”

It appeared in AIGA Medalist Lance Wyman’s review of his iconic 1968 Mexico Olympics identity: “Back then, people thought it was crazy to navigate the Olympic Village with icons. Now, we navigate our lives with icons—our mobile apps.” It appeared yet again in the shocker finale of Command X. Asked to design a campaign around the theme “Assault on Lies”, in which Daniel Cardozo dropped a bomb onstage: how he dealt with the revelation that his father had sexually abused his sister. With the sister’s permission to tell the story publicly, he drafted a manifesto for victims and their families to move past the shame—to process history.

Lance Wyman’s iconic identity for the 1968 Mexico Olympics

Antionette Carroll of Creative Reaction Lab and speaker at 2017 AIGA Design conference

I found myself returning over and over to Carroll’s remarks. History informs so much of the future we’re all keen to design: from graphics to typography to mobile apps and software. Certainly history surfaces in the ongoing imbalance in our industry of women and people of color—but history underpins everything. How much history relevant to all design work remains buried? What are the unknown unknowns of design? It’s both thrilling to explore these terra incognita, yet our previous ignorance can induce both vertigo and shame. Again, Carroll’s remarks point to a solution: “To have empathy as communicators, we also have to display humility.”

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