Winter 2007

Gameshow naturals

Next: AIGA Design Conference

11–14 October 2007
Denver, Colorado, US

The twelfth biennial national conference run by the AIGA (American Institute of Graphic Artists) was an improvement on the past two in Vancouver (2003) and Boston (2005). Not that those two cities and events were anything less than enjoyable, but if you’re going to burn carbon moving large numbers of designers across the earth’s face, you hope for more than entertainment, information and a bit of light networking; ‘Next’ was more.

It felt as though, after all the fine talk about bringing in practitioners from outside design, and the oft-stated ambition that graphic design should engage with more serious issues, we are closer to getting it right. But serious presentations by Janine Benyus (on biomimicry) and Worldchanging’s Alex Steffen were balanced by more exuberantly visual presentations by Marian Bantjes, Maira Kalman, Christoph Niemann and the mind-blowing ‘metaverse’ presented by Blaise Agüera y Arcas, an ‘architect’ from Microsoft Live Labs. Agüera y Arcas demonstrated Seadragon and Photosynth – technologies that promise to change the way we use computer displays – live on the Web. (He first asked people in the audience to close their laptops in order to have the maximum bandwidth.) The Photosynth demo showed a three-dimensional rendering of Notre Dame constructed from Flickr snapshots. Seadragon, which enables users to show detailed images and text at any scale, was applied to all kinds of onscreen material, including the Guardian (including ad copy in tiny point sizes), an entire Dickens novel, maps and pictures. The ‘Blow Up’ sequence from Blade Runner no longer seems like science fiction.

Just in case things got too intense, there was the conference’s major innovation, the reality TV-style contest Command-X, in which seven young designers were given jobs to complete in a limited time. A panel of hard-hearted judges then cut out (hence the title) two of the remaining contestants after each of three sessions, ending with one triumphant winner. Some of us feared the worst, but it made a great, feelgood contribution to the event. Scott Stowell (Open) provided the authentic TV graphics; host Michael Bierut proved that Pentagram’s gain was TV’s loss – the guy’s a gameshow natural.

As in American Idol, or Strictly Come Dancing, there were tears, laughter and embarrassment as the young designers tackled and justified each new assignment, starting off with a redesign of the Denver Broncos logo. For this task, the Broncos’ creative director sat in as fifth judge. ‘Always a nasty moment,’ said Bierut, ‘when someone who knows what they’re talking about turns up in the client room.’ What impressed the audience was how confident, articulate and funny the contestants were. The next brief was to re-package a breakfast snack, and the final test was to find a strategy to get 18- to-24-year-olds to vote. Each task had to be carried in less than 24 hours, while everybody else was partying.

One criticism of ‘Next’ was that there were perhaps too many competing ‘Affinity sessions’. (Full disclosure, as Steven Heller would say: I took part in two of them.) This meant that for each session you caught you would miss at least ten others. Of the ones I saw, I enjoyed Julie Lasky’s witty talk about the problems and pleasures of editing a design magazine (and to note that her desk looks like mine). And it was fun to see jaws dropping as Patrick Cox of Wolff Olins bigged up his company’s widely derided identity for the 2012 Olympics as a paean to ‘my beautiful, disobedient London’, describing the campaign as one intended to ‘break the rules of corporate identity’. This didn’t discourage him from packing his PowerPoint presentation with lots of rules, including: ‘No dancing figures’. Min Wang (see Eye 65) displayed his Olympics work and invited us all to the Icograda World Design Congress to be held in Beijing in September 2009. China has 1000 design schools, he told us. ‘Designers are everywhere, just like in the US.’

Command-X provided the emotional highpoint of the day, as nearly everyone rose to their feet in response to the ‘young voters’ proposal devised by Nichelle Narcisi. This was a clever, text-only concept, set simply in Helvetica: ‘Everyone counts. Except you.’ And this was long before the judges decided that, yes, Nichelle was the winner, with all the goodies (fonts, CS3, etc.) and glory (a spread in Step) that went with it. There were tears. And laughter. And it bore out a point that emerged from ‘The Future of Design Writing’ panel the day before: writing is not just about criticism, or blog chatter. Good writing, for clients, for the audience, for your colleagues, can be a crucial part of the design process.

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