in Uncategorized

(Side thought on AIGA’s Power of Design)

So, I’m reading these notes from various illustrious speakers, and all I can think is, “I’m sorry… Isn’t this the same circle jerk the “design profession” has been engaged in for the past… 5, 10, 20 years?” “The Power of Design.” “Design is All Around Us.” “Design as Social Responsibility.” etc. etc.

Okay. So I decided to strike-through that. It was a bit harsh, a toss-off based on initial thoughts. Not that I don’t stand by it. But perhaps it’s worth digging a little deeper.

I suppose my main problem is how the notes from presentations at The Power of Design seem to have come from the self-help section in a bookstore. Either it’s the “Design is Everywhere” stuff, detailing just how essential design is in our lives, or it’s the “Design Can Save the World” stuff, all about sustainability, and developing countries, and smart use of resources, or it’s the “Design Is Not Doing Enough”, a set of chastisements about how designers aren’t living up to their potential in a world that needs them.

I suppose it would be less irritating if these were novel ideas — but they seem to be the subject year in and year out. The profession of design can’t help but discuss how glorious and essential it is, while bemoaning its underappreciation and underachievements.

I love working with designers — they see the world in ways I don’t. I just can’t bear this incessant Big Picture Hand Wringing, which inevitably keeps me at arm’s length from the “design profession.” (And causes me to wonder if the AIGA are the appropriate stewards for Big D-Design.)


  1. repetition is the key to religion, no?

    I’m not sure IA, Interaction Design or whatever is any better. Us westerners are prone to periodic bouts of guilt over our privileged place in the world, and love to talk about changing things. But we are far less prone to actually act. In the end business tends to get done as usual. It takes a lot more then just manifestos to produce actual transformation.

    Course I’m a designer, and here I am talking again…

  2. your initial reaction was right on. visual designers have a horrible account of who they are, what their value is, and how to build a career. design education and the professional reinforcement of naive viewpoints are to blame…

  3. Your review seems a bit cranky. What annual conference isn’t a circle jerk? Why do ideas have to be novel to be a legitimate topic for discussion at a conference? I agree that there’s a lot of overinflated rhetoric, and, as Abe points out, maybe a bit of privileged guilt going on, but there’s enough good stuff there that I feel like the level of discussion *is* advancing, albeit slowly (though Victor Papanek or Buckminster Fuller would probably say it hasn’t gone anywhere).

    The Cradle to Cradle stuff has its moments, David Orr’s “Ecological Literacy” is quite a nice piece of design theory, and hell, even Capra does do some nice synthesis of other’s work in “The Web of Life”. I think it’s hard to perceive any depth of the dialogue from one person’s notes, but I do think that the overall theme was a good one, and even if it wasn’t fully successful, it probably did raise some designer’s awareness that design can play a role where it’s not traditionally expected. Check out Tony Golsby-Smith – dude’s helping to rewrite the Australian tax code. I’d like to hear some reviews from others who were actually at the conference; from what I’ve heard, it *was* a bit green for most people, but there was still plenty of provocative stuff to think about.

    And I agree, I don’t think AIGA is the appropriate steward for Big D-Design, but, more to the point, I don’t think any one organization is.

  4. Any good conference is not a circle jerk.

    The IA Summit, DUX2003, and the About, With, and For conference were not circle jerks. Yes, they were focused dedicated explorations of issues and ideas of concern to a particular professional community. But it wasn’t masturbation, the way The Power of Design conference seems to have been. They weren’t exercises in self-gratification.

  5. Aren’t all professional associations, conferences and related things the same as the myths, symbols and rituals long practiced by religions and other organizations, however formal or informal? Commonalities include structure, relatively long-standing beliefs, and a core that is constantly at odds with a dissenting fringe (which may grow in influence or power, become the core, until forces swing in the opposite direction)?

    Organizations (and their events, resources, et al) are either what their members make them, or what their singular leaders and their inner circle make them. Rare is the collective that can continue to exist while embracing and providing sustenance and countenance to a wide variety of viewpoints, including those of their leaders.

    Then again, too much wine and too much stress.

  6. I read the posts here with interest, from the perspective that:

    * I wrote the referenced conference notes
    * My background is in business strategy, not visual design
    * I have self-selected AIGA as one of the communities that I associate myself with despite not being a visual designer
    * I do not think that AIGA is the sole steward of “Big D Design”

    First of all, I think that word choices like “circle jerk” are not necessary, and speak to an ongoing level of immaturity in too many assessments of disciplines adjacent to our own. I see the AIGA, ACM, AIfIA, STC, etc. etc. as organizations with different types of people and different skill sets that ultimately are part of providing solutions to common problems. I understand some types better than others, yet I certainly would not make external judgements about others, along the lines of what is being said here.

    The AIGA conference draws a very large attendance, far more than the IA Summit and DUX. Many of those attendees, in my experience, are quite young. Their backgrounds are in visual design. The presentations at this conference seemed very appropriate to that majority audience, pushing the value of strategy, social responsibility and global thought/local action. When I was a young professional, indeed, I would have been inspired by these messages and the fact that such a large community/organization was so focused on them. For this young audience, which seemed to comprise a majority of attendees, I thought the content was very appropriate.

    More, while the AIGA community takes its barbs for the blue sky focus on environmentally-friendly approaches, that is quite consistent with the type of many (but obviously far from all) visual designers: liberal, unconventional, aware of the natural world. It may not be your or my cup of tea, but we are essentially impugning them for having a different agenda or interest than us. Those differences reflect their constituency, and should not serve as a point of derision.

    The thing I liked best about the conference was spending time with industry friends. I *have* already heard the basic essence of the conference content in one form or another, which is not to denegrate what was a very interesting assemblage of presenters. Indeed, it was a pleasure to see Fritjof Capra and learn about other new people who “get it,” contextualizing them into my own personal knowledge tapestry. Yet, I personally would have gotten more grist out of the HITS Conference (and very much wanted to attend it as well). But that doesn’t make one amazing and the other an exercise in self gratification.

    And it doesn’t take away from what AIGA achieved. It was a very large conference (despite being smaller than traditional Nationals) and proved the first exposure of many participants to some of these ideas. A number of the speakers are mainstream names – not self-identified visual designers – and actually represent a richer collection of thinkers than many of the other cited conferences.

    I suppose my overarching point is that, rather than leap to criticism about other communities that we do not self-select and perhaps do not even understand, we should remember that the very differences between “us” and “them” are what might make something that is unappealing to me very attractive to someone else. Our success as a broad discipline – whether you want to call us designers, communicators, architects, etc. – will ultimately come down to our ability to listen, respect and find areas of commonality instead of difference between the types. Standing from afar and accusing a whole community/conference of people of masturbating is certainly not the way to build bridges and create mutual understanding.

  7. What the Power of Design conference appeared to demonstrate was a lack of intellectual independence in designland. I wasn’t privileged to attend, but from the conference documentation it appeared that the programmers assumed that the environment and sustainability were key issues, not just for the world but for designers in particular. Yet there was no attempt to backup these assertions intellectually, let alone scientifically. Neither did there appear to be any debate about why designers are uniquely privileged to extend their professional ethics into these areas.

    In the UK we have at least managed to develop a debate that questions the sacred concept of design for sustainability, and that debate extends from Blueprint magazine to the Forum for the Future journal Green Futures. Committed greens are prepared to have a debate about the virtues of sustainable design yet the AIGA can’t even get it on its agenda. You have to wonder whether designland is yet ready to lead any debates, even about design.

  8. Golsby-Smith etc is a business guy on the make and designers as the latest schmucks. I’m sick of people who have not done the hard yards in any discipline of design telling me to suck eggs – and for a big price!

  9. I just read this quote today and I think it’s awesome:

    It is by universal misunderstanding that all agree. For if, by ill luck, people understood each other, they would never agree.

    Charles Baudelaire

    Just thought I’d share.


  10. I just read this quote today and I think it’s awesome:

    It is by universal misunderstanding that all agree. For if, by ill luck, people understood each other, they would never agree.

    Charles Baudelaire

    Just thought I’d share.


Comments are closed.