Institute of Design’s Strategy Conference 2008 – A Disappointment

Over on Adaptive Path’s blog, I’ve blogged about my attendance at ID’s Strategy Conference (First, second, third). It definitely spurred some interesting thoughts, and I met a bunch of people new to me who were involved in interesting work.

This is the third ID Strategy Conference I’ve attended, if you include HITS (the prior incarnation of the event). My posts on HITS: One, Two, Three. And IDSC 2005.

But, and I must say this, I walked away disappointed. The conference was distinctly mediocre, which might be fine if it were simply a student-run event at a school. But considering this is a $2,950 event, this should be a superlative affair. $2,950 is half the cost of TED, and TED lasts twice as long…. Which means this should have as much value-for-time as TED, and it has nowhere near as much.

The primary weakness with the IDSC is the program. The biggest “gets” on the program were AG Lafley and Claudia Kotchka from Proctor and Gamble. P&G has made a lot of noise about how they’ve used design to turn the business around, and hearing it from the CEO’s mouth is quite powerful. But this “get” is telling — this story is over three years old, as evidenced by the June 2005 stories from Fast Company. Similarly, there was a lot of discussion of social networks and the need for organizations to invert their hierarchy…. a discussion that the rest of us were having anywhere between 1998 and 2001. There was a even a session about the music industry that simply recapitulated the general discussion that occurred after Napster exploded in popularity.

Maybe I’m not the right audience, because pretty much every idea brought forth in this conference was something that had been hashed out in blogs, conferences, and other forums over the last 10 years. It feels like the conference programmers have simply been out of touch. If there were a strong curatorial aspect to it, with efforts made to tie together these older discussions in order to deliver new insights, that would have been a valuable service.

The other thing that disappointed me was the experience of the event. A design conference should care about issues of flow and presenation. This event had remarkably low energy, and it felt little more than a series of talking heads — there were no special moments of delight. The exception to this were the lunchtime roundtables, which lead to some great conversations and meeting of new people… And I can’t quibble about the open bar at the one reception (though, if I’m spending this much, why is there only one reception?).

This conference should have elements of surprise, joy, audience engagement, but instead we pretty much got a series of Powerpoints. Oh, and an obnoxiously dissonant musical cue to return to our seats, which was played over and over and over again in a matter to suggest condescension. If I’m not returning to my seat, it’s because I’m finding more value in having a hallway conversation, so just leave me alone.

And there was no attempt at a finish. Once the people in the final session stopped talking, the conference pretty much just ended. No wrap-up, no climax – just felt like a bar closing, with a you-don’t-have-to-go-home-but-you-can’t-stay-here vibe.

If this event were half the price, I could recommend it as a solid networking opportunity with some decent presentations. But at this price, it should knock my socks off… and it didn’t.

Hyperlinked tinkering

(I’ve posted this to Adaptive Path’s blog, but since it touches on common themes, I thought I’d reprint it here. I might modify it a little bit, too. )

I’m in Chicago attending the Institute of Design’s Strategy Conference. I’ll be blogging thoughts inspired by speakers.

The event started with a presentation by John Seely Brown, former director of Xerox PARC. He emphasized that the primary challenge organizations are facing as they move forward is overcoming outdated structures. This is familiar territory to anyone who has read David Weinberger for the last ten years… Brown essentially recapitulated Weinberger’s calls for a the “hyperlinked organization.”

The basic idea is that our top-down, hierarchical organizations, pioneered by folks like Henry Ford, are optimized for efficiency of delivery. That’s fine in a manufacturing economy, but we’re seeing it breakdown in a services-lead economy.

He stressed that as a society we’re shifting from being interested in knowledge to being interested in the act of knowing, and as part of that, moving from Homo sapiens to Homo faber — we think through making. He identified the trend of tinkering as part of this, that we learn through fiddling with things. There was a death of tinkering from 1980-1995, when locked-down, microchip technologies made it difficult to take things apart and mess with them, but that we’ve seen a rebirth of tinkering, largely driven by communities finding one another online. (He didn’t mention Make magazine, or the Maker Faire, but clearly these are also part of this movement.)

One thing I wish Brown had done is to reflect on how tinkering is part of the social construction of technology, in that how we tinker, and what we make, comments on who we are as a people.

RANT: Designers and crappy jobs

When we started Adaptive Path, we set out to create the kind of services firm we wanted to work for. And much of this was in reaction to common practice in services firms. There are many things we reacted to, but this rant focuses on one thing – how employees are (mis)treated.

One of the things I’ve seen among many in the design profession is a willingness to put up with crappy jobs. Jobs where their talent and labor is exploited (this is doubtless true in other fields, but I suspect it’s especially true in ours) . The thing that cheeses me off most is overwork. It’s not uncommon for services firms to have their staff work 50+ hour weeks. I wouldn’t mind that if people were compensated accordingly. But most are simply compensated for “full-time” — there’s no over time. The thing is, I know their employer is billing out every one of those extra hours to the client. Which means that person is bringing a LOT of money into the firm, and not seeing it herself.

The thing I’m trying to understand is why so many put up with this. And the only thing I can think of is that folks in the design profession have low work-self-esteem. I think they feel so fortunate that they get to do something “fun” for their careers that their willing to put up with this mistreatment.

The companies that are worst offenders are often the services firms that get the “sexiest” projects, because many (most?) designers will put up with *anything* to work on sexy. (There’s one company in particular I’m thinking of here. And no, I’m not going to write their name here. But I’ll happily tell you over beers.)

So, yes, designers are definitely responsible for getting into these situations… When I get in these proselytizing moods, I want to shake these designers by their lapels (do designers wear lapels?) and say, “You’re being exploited! Don’t you care?!”

Apart from offending my sense of common decency, what upsets me is that this contributes to the marginalization and dimunition of the design profession, as such treatment demonstrates a lack of respect for the value designers bring to the project. It’s most upsetting because it comes from those who ought to be championing the role of design, the heads of these design firms. While their staff toils away over weekends to get deliverables ready for clients, the executives reap the benefits of those profits.

I suspect many folks working in services firms don’t fully grok the economics of the business, and assume that this just must be how it has to be.

So, to those working in services firms — challenge your employers about the conditions you’re working under. If you routinely work 50+ hour weeks, ask them when you’re going to see some of that extra scratch your earning for them (or, if you’d like a live/work balance, ask them why they can’t plan their projects so as not to burn out the staff). Make sure you know the rate you’re billing out at, figure out how much money you’re bringing into the company, and how much of that you are seeing. If you’re utilized more than 80% of the time (and that’s already probably too high…) ask about when you’re supposed to find the time to develop your skills, recharge your batteries, evolve. Find out what your company’s profit margin is, and what the company is doing with those profits. You don’t need to put up with bullshit in order to work on sexy projects — I know design firms that land great work AND treat their employees well. If you find yourself grousing about losing another weekend, start looking around — there are companies out there that deserve you.

Visiting Dublin, Ireland and Edinburgh, Scotland (and points proximate)

Stacy and I, for a belated honeymoon-type thing, are planning on visiting Ireland and Scotland from June 8-23. We fly in and out of Dublin, and would like to see Dublin and its environs, and then hop over to Scotland for some Edinburghian and possibly Glaswegian splendor.

Of course, we really don’t know what we’re doing. We will soon be cracking open guidebooks and the like, but I call upon the power of the internet to provide suggestions for what we should consider. Thanks!

The Rise of the Networked Neighborhood

Earlier today I attended a presentation by Bernt Wahl on the work he’s doing specifying neighborhood geodata. A masters’ project for UC Berkeley’s iSchool, it also seems to be what underlies the business Factle.

Maps tend to be geared around discrete entities such as streets, zip codes, city boundaries, county boundaries, etc. Neighborhoods have proved remarkably challenging, because they are far more subjective. Cracking the neighborhood nut, though, could be immensely rewarding, because people, at least in cities of significant size, tend to think in terms of neighborhoods.

This is something real estate agents figured out long ago (and one of the reasons Trulia was an early user of Factle’s data.) In some work that Adaptive Path just completed for a local-search-information company (you know who they are, but we can’t reveal it yet), we worked with them to bolster their coverage of neighborhoods, because neighborhoods are often a more important means of identity than city.

A few years ago I attended a lecture by Manuel Castells where he discussed the global city (I wrote my notes here.) His thesis was that there are emergent global connected cities which have greater meaning to their residents than the states or nations in which the cities are located. San Franciscans have more in common with New Yorkers and Londoners and Barcelonans than they do with people who live in, oh, Modesto.

Listening to Bernt’s lecture, I realized that this connection probably needs to go the neighborhood level. If I think about Oakland, people who live in Temescal are more in tuned with the people who live in South Congress in Austin, or the Hawthorne District in Portland, than they do with folks in West Oakland or East Oakland. When I travel, a big chunk of time is spent trying to find *neighborhoods* that I like, can hang out in, drink coffee, shop, etc. And thanks to the internet and relatively cheap travel (rising gas prices notwithstanding), we’re seeing the development of global connected neighborhoods, with distinct identities, perspectives mindsets. The lofty, modern, design-conscious, locally-sourced-food mentality of Portland’s Pearl District resembles Austin’s new 2nd Street or Berkeley’s 4th Street.

Thinking about the Rise of the Networked Neighborhood sheds an interesting light on subjects that warrant approaching at a level more granular than that of the city. The subjectivity of neighborhoods make such comparisons messy, but interesting.


Among the many reasons I’ve been posting so infrequently was wedding planning. My own. Last Saturday, Stacy and I conducted our ceremony at the Hillside Club in Berkeley.

Ryan posted a set of 16 beautiful photos from the event.

To be truly forthcoming, Stacy and I were already technically married, having done a San Francisco City Hall ceremony on February 15, the 6th anniversary of our commitment to one another.

(Photo by Maggie Mason)

Saturday’s ceremony was a blast. Stacy and I were both quite anxious, but we were also able to be very present during the event. My favorite photo of the event demonstrates this:

When you can double over laughing in your own wedding ceremony, things are going well.

Our guests protested over how much food we served them at dinner (a meal prepared by our favorite East Bay Chinese restaurant, China Village.) Yet when the 140 cupcakes appeared (more than one for each person), they were pretty much all eaten. Hmmmm.

We began the event with a slideshow. The slideshow had a surprise for some people, and that surprise is another reason why I’ve perhaps not been as on the ball when it comes to writing here.

Stacy and I are expecting a boy.

2008 is a liminal year. Stacy, we’re gonna have an adventure!

(I’ve turned comments off for this post.)

Design will have a seat at the table – what do we do with it?

Of late, there’s been some discussion about whether the role of design will have a seat at the table — you know the table, the large mahogany one where all the important decisions are made.

Adaptive Path’s search for a CEO (or, as one candidate put it to me yesterday, “It’s like your adopting a parent,”) has given me many opportunities to discuss the role and value of design. One of the criteria we have for a CEO is to help us enter new markets, and as part of that, to communicate the value of experience design at higher levels of the organization.

Adaptive Path is built on a foundation of balancing strategy and design. We think our strategy work is better because we know what it will take to execute, and we think our design work is better because it respects the strategic context in which it is placed. A concern I have, with bringing on a CEO, and asking that person to get us involved in C- and board-level discussions, is that our work would begin to tip toward strategy. It’s commonly believed that strategy is where the money is, where the higher billing rates are, and it’s natural to want to shift focus toward the higher margin work.

In one of my conversations, though, I was talking about how we’re currently getting greater exposure to the C-level. While we’ve always had C-level relationships with the startups we worked with, in 2007, we started developing those relationships with billion dollar companies whose names you’d recognize. And those relationships were borne directly from our design work.

These are companies that have recognized that their primary value, the main thing they have to offer customers, is the experience they deliver. Internet pureplays have had to understand this before everyone else, because, typically, their service is free (as is their competitors, so switching is pretty easy), and so they must compel with the one thing they have – a website experience.

In a later post I hope to plumb into more details (and set experience design work in opposition of brand/marketing design approaches), but what I wanted to get across here is that experience design will have a seat at the table, because in a service economy, the quality of experience connects directly to value. Many experience designers can keep doing what they’re doing and they will find themselves talking to more VPs, then C-level execs, and even boards. It should get interesting.