At the AIGA National Design Conference, held recently in beautiful Vancouver, Canada, the subject of the economy probably came up - but there was so much other jaw-dropping subject matter flying around, spending forecasts (which likely weigh on designers' minds as heavily as anyone else's) may have got lost in the shuffle.
This year's conference was called "The Power of Design," and the main themes revolved around sustainability and the role of design in effecting change for corporations, communities and the planet. There were panels on careers, running studios, typography and hands-on design tools workshops, but the bulk of the presentations and the tone of the conference were weighted with a broader context. Speeches did touch on the place of design on the food chain and the fact that designers are deemed as facilitators of aesthetic improvement only. But from those points, the discussion and the view went up and out, not in the navel direction. Inspiration was available for designers, branding experts and anyone doing anything creative in terms of how a discipline can apply itself across a wide sphere of influence, and in terms of seeing beyond the crappy situation that might be staring at you, and working to develop an inclusive, outward-looking view. Speakers' perspectives and efforts ranged from backyard, to community, to government, to global ecosystem in scope. Tony Golsby Smith, a designer and consultant to the Australian government is developing a program that brings design disciplines into the Aussie taxation system. Yeah, sounds like a snore, huh? It wasn't. Golsby Smith talked about how design can lend itself to a number of applications, and facilitate more levels of interaction, from CEO to consumer. Dan Sturges, a former car designer for GM, talked about "designing down," and new mobility systems that would reduce the number of traditional vehicles on roads. Jessica Helfand and William Drenttel of Winterhouse took to task the event's organizers and the entire notion of a brandcentric definition of culture, asking "Is this the only kind of culture possible?" and detailing their own efforts to apply their skills to an "intellectual culture." Bruce Mau talked about a project undertaken for a gallery that necessitated nothing less than defining global design culture. The findings, he said were so hopeful, the project became known as "Massive Change," and he proceeded to outline a fascinating array of projects and developments and information ("I've never met a mobile home designer, but this year they will account for 33 percent all new dwellings."), which demonstrated the potential reach of design into all areas of human endeavor.
With the earnestness dialed up so high, there were opportunities for eye rolling. But they were few and the low cynicism levels were refreshing. The tone was about everything that was possible - today, with existing technology - if only things were thought of and applied the right way. As Mau put it, roughly, "It's almost like we've made a treasure map so beautiful we can't bear to look at it. So we've torn it up into a million pieces and given them to anyone willing to take up the challenge." Try rolling your eyes at that.