A call for more blending, swirling and mixing among us

When I first beheld the continuously evolving array of richly saturated colors that comprised the background of AIGA’s Head, Heart, Hand conference website several months ago, I was reminded of when being confronted with that particular progression of coloration meant I was in a place where I was dancing badly—yet shamelessly—to disco grooves in places where I wore large-collared, wannabe silk shirts, “elephant” bell bottom pants and a great deal of falsified self-esteem.

“Perhaps the conference organizers and the web designers they’re collaborating with are unaware of the negative allusion to the ‘Night Fever’-ish, late-1970s-in-America aesthetic (and sensibility) they’ve created here,” I thought snobbily when I first perused this website. I then experienced a momentary chill when I realized that perhaps the site’s designers were trying some new-and-superwaycool, hip-to-the-rightnow graphic tactic by employing this animation that made the type on the website somewhat more difficult to read— at times—but that I simply wasn’t cool enough to appreciate. (If you DO have difficulty with the readability of the type on this website, you only have to wait a few moments for the coloration of the background to change.)

I eventually allowed myself to think that this simple, “Boogie-oogie-oogie!”-inspired, ever-changing wash of background color was supposed to operate as a contextual metaphor writ large for the kind of conference that “AIGA H3”—that was and still is the megaswank way to refer to it—was trying to be. Against this dynamic background a diverse, richly informed amalgamation of ideas about AND of visual communication design and the decision-making processes that guide it could debut and operate, swirl together, sometimes hybridize, sometimes clash, and be critically discussed, all while affording a bit of fun (or phun, if you’re into that…) for those in attendance.

This type of experience could and did occur for some participants at AIGA H3, but the hoped-for blending between more people from the attending groups, types, classes and brands of designers in attendance remained more in the realm of wishful thinking than reality for many. AIGA conferences of this type still tend to be events where friends of mine with backgrounds in the social sciences observe that “birds of a feather really do tend to flock together.” The hoped for “introduce yourself to the people sitting next to you” idea expressed on Friday morning during one of the opening, main stage sessions of that day remained more of a aspirational objective than an attained one for all too many participants as the event progressed, as attendees predictably opted for sessions and workshops designed for “designers like them.”

Using a venue as richly and diversely populated as a biennial AIGA National Conference to expose yourself to new ways of contemplating, understanding and framing design THAT ARE DIFFERENT FROM WHAT YOU KNOW OR AGREE WITH is and has been a viable rationale for attending an event like this since long before the Days of Disco, and remains so today. It shouldn’t require contrived—but very intelligently framed and effectively orchestrated by Maria Rogal—moments during conference sessions such as the one where attendees were encouraged to hug someone they’d never met before for 30 seconds to achieve this end, but… More of these kinds of experiences may need to be facilitated during the next AIGA National Conference in New Orleans to encourage more meaningful interactions between more participants who are unlike each other.

How many “design professionals” missed out on participating in the incredibly enlightening trust-gaining exercises that Bernard Canniffe facilitated during the “Design Educator” workshop titled “Design Like You Mean It” Thursday morning because this workshop was scheduled during the “Design Educator” portion—the first day, the “pre-day”—of the conference? (Hint: much of the content delivered on “Design Educator Thursday” was and is pertinent and extremely relevant to designers of all types, classes and brands, but many from outside the realm of design education missed these entirely.) The ideas, and the rationales that were articulated to support them, espoused by Cameron Tonkinwise, Gideon Kossoff and Terry Irwin during their affinity session “Transition Design: Re-Conceptualizing Whole Lifestyles” also went largely unheard by conference goers who immersed themselves only in experiences relevant to “the profession.” Conversely, many attendees whose ideas of light reading don’t drop below so-called “A-List scholarly journals” missed the insights regarding the array of intelligences necessary to launch startups and entrepreneurial ventures that were offered during “Kern and Burn: A Conversation with Design Entrepreneurs” facilitated by Jessica Karle Heltzel, Tim Hoover, Jen Bilik, Jake Nickell and Matt Stevens.

I’ve been attending AIGA conferences since shortly after the time when wearing a “Disco Sucks” t-shirt was a sign of real socio-cultural rebellion in many parts of the U.S., western Europe and Australasia, and this “sticking with the people like you” aspect of how AIGA conferences transpire has been relatively constant since then. Hipsters then were a short-lived type of blue jean shorts for “husky boys and girls” that never caught on beyond the minds of a few long-since-dismissed members of the marketing arm of the Sears’ Mens’ Store, and there were no demands being placed on our time and attention by personalized, computational devices that afforded us access to millions of streams of real-time-occurring information, (or “tweets-n-texts,” if you prefer). Yet there was then and still is now a tendency to not approach, much less engage, a conference attendee who is unknown to you, or who hails from a design tribe whose ways are alien or counter to those of your tribe. Because of this, too many AIGA H3 conference participants missed out on “one of the coolest reasons to go to an AIGA conference” that the late design educator Lonn Beaudry advised my classmates and I at KCAI to indulge in over three decades ago: the enlightening thrill, and perhaps risk, of immersing yourself in a meaningful conversation about design with someone you introduce yourself to in a convention center hallway, concession line, book fair or even (gulp) lavatory.

A conference sponsored by the AIGA should be a place where attendees get to the point in their exchanges with others that result in the happy task of having to sort through LOTS (dozens?) of business cards upon return home, each with a meaningful conversation attached to it.

I had an incredibly enlightening and intellectually compelling experience attending many of the sessions, workshops and presentations that transpired during AIGA H3. I took a smattering of photographs, and resisted the urge to tweet or text out too much for fear of not being able to participate in enough real, meaningful, two-way conversations with the wide variety of people who were there. I met a large number of folks that I enjoyed conversing with that I hadn’t had the privilege of exchanging ideas with before, mostly in the afore-mentioned hallways, concession lines, book fair, and, well… not in any lavatories this time. I also renewed many acquaintances and friendships I’ve made over the years, often in these same places. I think the powers that be that plan and orchestrate events like this need to consider immersing participants in at least one or two experiences at the outset that facilitate this type of meaningful exchange: it’s been used to good effect to begin large (100+) student lecture courses in universities, as well as to “warmly commence” proceedings that transpire in places like the United Nations, and several large (3,000 attendees +) conferences that support knowing and doing in health care, banking and financial administration, as well as those that support exchanges of understanding between the academic and the private sectors in disciplines like computer science, engineering and biology.

These examples of blending ideas and, as necessary, ideologies, will perhaps be easier for the various types of designers who attend AIGA National in New Orleans two years from now, as the Big Easy is a place where richly mixed amalgams have been flavoring far more than the gumbo for more than 300 years.

By Michael R. Gibson
Published October 28, 2013
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