30th October, 2012

AIGA Design Camp

Earlier this month I spent four days in remote Nisswa, Minnesota where I delivered a keynote to around 350 designers, alongside Pentagram’s Paula Scher, book designer and Batman author Chip Kidd, and heroes of illustration The Heads of State. It was a breath of fresh air, and it made me think again about what I present and to whom I present it.

The journey was long; almost 24 hours from my house to the lodge including three hours in a van to Nisswa with Chip, Paula, Dusty and Jason (The Heads), and also Will Gay from Disney and his partner Susana. Quite a collection.

This year there was a meat theme around the idea of “making the cut”.

Arriving at Grand View Lodge in Minnesota lake country I soon realised that Autumn was a month ahead of anywhere else. The trees every colour imaginable, the ground a sea of burnt leaves. The temperature was noticeably cold too; so cold that it snowed the first night. I settled in at my wonderful cabin, turned the fire on, and spent some time watching dozens of locals (squirrels) going about their business. I had no idea what to expect of camp at this point, but at least I was cosy.

What is AIGA Design Camp?

Since 1980, AIGA Design Camp has been the premiere event for AIGA Minnesota and the largest regional design conference in the country. It mixes indoor and outdoor activities with educational and social events for all “campers”. Previous speakers have included Erik Spiekermann, Ellen Lupton, Milton Glaser, and Frank Chimero.

The folks from Hamilton Wood Type & Printing Museum, Wisconsin

Alongside the five talks, there were workshops across the three days. There was a lot of alcohol and food. There were bonfires on the shore of Gull Lake. There was live music and a fantastic trade fair. I met amazing people such as print geniuses Studio On Fire, and the folks from Hamilton Wood Type & Printing Museum in neighbouring Wisconsin. My head filled with great conversations and ideas.

Talking web to 350 print designers

When I was invited to speak I was very surprised and said “yes” immediately, yet knew very little about the event. Had I known how few web designers would be in attendance I’d probably have declined. As my Saturday 9am keynote began I asked for a show of hands. Firstly, how many considered the web to be their primary focus? A total of four (yes, four) hands went up. Hmm. OK, how many deliver web design as part of a broader range of services? Maybe twenty hands. Shit. Finally, how many had never ever designed anything for the web? Three-hundred hands or so.

And with that, I expected to fail. This talk would go down like the proverbial lead balloon. Why was I even here? My role would have to be as web missionary: advocate for the web, an educator. This was a chance to turn hundreds of graphic and print designers on to the possibilities of the web. I decided if I was gonna go out, it would be in a ball of flames, so I went for it.

Chip Kidd talks about authoring Batman: Death By Design.

I was aware that Paula and Chip — and to a certain extent the fantastic The Heads of State — would be delivering showreels (broadly they would talk about themselves and their projects). This is something I’ve noticed a lot in traditional graphic/print design circles. Somebody of note will share a timeline of their career path and key projects, and that’s that. At Design Camp my fellow speakers were certainly not arrogant and I enjoyed their talks a great deal, but personally I was surprised how little the talks addressed the attendees and their work directly, and wondered how much the campers would be taking away from these talks, aside from broad inspiration.

Static versus ebb and flow

Design Camp reminded me of one thing in particular: graphic design has had centuries to solve most of it’s problems and is now moving at a glacial pace. There is little new to be discussed and taught in the auditorium. Conversely, web design is a unique medium that we are still coming to terms with. Our rate of learning is incredibly fast and every day there are hundreds of new ideas to take on board. So from a learning perspective, the ebb and flow of the web is a million miles away from print. Print conferences are opportunities to meet and listen to established practitioners discuss their work, whereas web events are essential pivoting points where we collectively move our industry forward responsibly, and help each other learn.

AIGA Design Camp introduction at the Norway Center.

At almost all of the web design events I have ever spoken at or attended, the audiences expect to learn or be inspired to a high level. They assume the speaker will be smart enough to craft an engaging and thoughtful talk, weaving unexpected stories and influences into a careful narrative. There is usually a little dissatisfaction if a web designer gets up and just showreels their work.

Make the web seem inviting

So perhaps I was lucky at Design Camp, but with hindsight my decision to try and include the audience in a talk about what it means to be a designer was a good idea. Unusually for me, I spooned in a bunch of examples of my work for the first ten minutes as I realised most would have no idea who I was or what I do. Getting that out of the way, I moved into territory that anyone who has seen me speak in the last year might recognise: doing away with goals, strengths, values, craft, tools, the importance of simply working, and all that stuff. I focused on web design in a couple of sections, making the web seem as inviting and exciting as I possibly could.

I also fielded questions during a two-hour lunch workshop. Flickr credit: sandraktheis.

For the rest of camp, at the bars or around the campfires, designers were constantly coming up to me and thanking me for the talk, explaining that they were previously fearful of the web, that it had appeared too complicated, and purely functional, or just too plain difficult to make sense of. Also, I kept hearing how they’d assumed it was full of amateurs, and not something they could take seriously or make use of for their ideas. For some, the talk had changed that perception, or even made them start to think as craftspeople where they had not before. I don’t assume the talk worked for everyone, but it definitely resonated for some. I was delighted.

Shifting my focus

So, this got me thinking. I’ve been preaching to the converted for several years. I speak about web design to web designers, and for the most part the stuff I discuss is already on the radar.

On the journey back to Brooklyn I completely rewrote my talk for the Creative Mornings Benefit to reflect some of this. In a nutshell, I was considering doing less speaking whilst I go away and learn some new things. However, it’s not what I speak about, so much as who I speak to. I learned at Design Camp that this stuff is even more powerful and useful for audiences as yet unconverted. I therefore feel more inclined to look at speaking to more established graphic and print design audiences or educational establishments. I want to speak to more young practitioners and show them that the web is a warm and welcoming place to make work, and full of opportunity.

County Road 77 between the lodge and my cabin.

Anyway, grand personal realisations aside, I have to say that AIGA Design Camp was a truly wonderful experience. The board, committee, and all the volunteers were amazing and made each of us feel so incredibly welcome. Numerous folks did all they could to ensure I had a great time, and I honestly came away with a bunch of new friends and a head full of fantastic ideas and refocused purpose. If ever you get the chance to go I sincerely recommend it, and it’d be great if more of you web designers could make the trip.

Minnesota Flickr set.

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