I’ve recently returned with my design team from Next, the biennial AIGA national conference, held this year in Denver. It was an inspirational event and rather than a dry report from the main stage, I’ll give you my general survey of a worthwhile weekend which may include moments of lucidity amongst the rambling. (BTW, UnBeige has an excellent summary of keynote presentations and the Next site will soon showcase video so you can view all the goodness for yourself.)
First…what’s NEXT? Here’s what I took away from three days of sessions:
- we cannot effectively practice design in a silo,
- we must consider a network of impact and consequence,
- we cannot isolate ourselves from cultural and political forces,
- problems cannot be diagnosed without considering the context,
- we cannot ignore human history or that of adapted species.
Alex Steffan from WorldChanging drove these points home. Recycling cans will not stop global warming. Neither will driving a Prius. His organization estimates U.S. Citizens need five Earths to keep up with the resource consumption necessary for our lifestyle. The radical changes we need are systemic. We must begin asking how to dematerialize the way do things instead of simply focusing on changing our stuff. How do we build a neighborhood? How do we get to work? How do we get our food? How does it get to our homes? The local food movement is bolstered by health concerns, but it’s also political. Can we sustain our neighborhood without negative environmental impact? Can we give our money to those in our community to strengthen local economies?
Janine Benyus’s theory of biomimicry is a radical, but natural, means of approaching Alex’s challenge. In her words, it’s time to join the rest of the species on earth and stop living like we’re aliens. We must ask ourselves what has worked for millennia and how can we apply it to new forms of manufacturing and new products? A well-documented example is research at the University of Akron that discovered how geckos attach to surfaces and the implications for new forms of adhesives. Visit the Biomimicry Institute web site to read about more exciting applications.
Since understanding design in the context of systems rather than singular solutions yields effective results it’s no big leap of faith to see how this same approach adds value. In an incidental hallway conversation with Mohawk Paper’s Laura Shore we discussed a simple question… how do we convey the value of design to those we serve? I am convinced it is wrapped up in understanding the system. Brochures or ads do not exist in a vacuum. They are hurled into a sea of market forces, each with the capacity to render the message impotent before it reaches a destination. Understanding the business, economics, and competitive landscape begins to reveal a path to success. Neil Powell’s’ presentation on the Rheingold Beer campaign illustrated this beautifully. He also drove home the point that traditional definitions of advertising do not necessarily provide the best communication and business results. A cross-discipline approach to design (not dissimilar from the team at Kid Robot who presented as well) represents a system of thought applied to multiple mediums. This is our approach at Tricycle as well and probably explains our unfettered optimism in the face of every challenge.
Throughout the myriad discussions and presentations another singular topic emerged: life/work balance (another system? Yes). I believe it’s no coincidence that women are leading the way in this thinking — career opportunities have radically shifted in the last 50 years. Ellen Lupton, Marian Bantjes, Maira Kalman and Ann Willoughby all shared provocative thoughts about this journey from the main stage and the dining table. What makes our careers worthwhile and fulfilling? How does work and home dovetail? How do we work toward improving life, personally and globally? Is this not sustainability? Ellen has summed this up eloquently on the AIGA VOICE site.
That’s what’s in the stew. A jumble of thoughts I can’t separate from my own experience. So I bring it home. I know Tryks won’t save the world. In fact, on their own they have a minor impact on a global problem. Their significance lies in what they represent. They are the physical artifacts of a dematerialized system. The way we use to develop, manufacture and merchandise products is, today, a radical departure from physicality that dominated our lives 30 years ago — we were NEXT then. This weekend excited me about the next 30 years. And in the spirit of Tricycle, I confess I’m optimistic.