Case Study: IDSA 2010 International Conference
Ed. note: This case study is a selection from the 2011 “Making the Case” competition, in which an esteemed jury identified submissions that demonstrate the value of design in a clear, compelling and accessible way. It serves as an example of how to explain design thinking to clients, students, peers and the public in general, based on specific metrics.
The project was to design, organize and implement the 2010 International Conference for the Industrial Designers Society of America. As a consultancy with significant industrial design capabilities and a long involvement with the IDSA, Ziba was asked to plan the conference pro bono, from concept and visual identity to publicity, scheduling and speaker selection. The design team was tasked with creating an event relevant to the current generation of industrial designers, that would attract strong attendance and reinforce IDSA’s role as the premier organization for working industrial designers.
The field of creative professional conferences is broad and varied, with many IDs attending conferences held by professional organizations such as AIA, AIGA and IXDA, as well as conferences with general creative appeal such as South by Southwest Interactive, Gravity Free, Pop! Tech and TEDx.
Environment: $4,000; Printed collateral: $8,000; Attendee gifts: $10,000
For this project, Ziba had an unusual resource available: an internal team of industrial designers who matched with the conference’s target audience precisely. Their insights proved invaluable to the conference team throughout the project, from initial concept to detailed execution. They participated in early brainstorms to help identify the DIY theme, suggested speakers and activities, and rigorously critiqued specific aspects of the conference design, from signage and display fixtures to website and printed assets. “If the ID team gets it, then the conference will too,” became a regular refrain.
For decades, the Industrial Designers Society of America has been the nation’s premier gathering point for product designers: the go-to organization for professionals who create the next generation of cars, electronic gadgets, athletic shoes or almost anything mass-produced. And like most professional societies, the high point of IDSA’s annual calendar is its conference. For years the IDSA International Conference has been a typical gathering, bringing around 600 designers together in a hotel or convention center to get inspired, exchange business cards and portfolios, talk to vendors, and bestow awards.
When planning began for the 2010 IDSA Conference, it was clear that these annual events were starting to lose relevance. Attendance was flat, and online discussions pointed to a disparity between conference content and the changing realities of the design profession. Many creative professions have suffered generational gaps in recent years, but industrial design is at a particularly volatile moment: A burgeoning DIY ethos and cheap, powerful independent design and manufacturing tools are changing the way objects get created and the expectations consumers have of them. This is especially true for younger working designers in their 20s and 30s, who are experiencing these shifts firsthand.
Blogging and desktop publishing signaled a tumultuous shift for the publishing industry in the early 2000s, and the industrial design profession today is facing a similar shake-up. Consumers now examine the things they own with new scrutiny, demanding a deeper understanding of where they came from and how they were made. Emerging communities of makers, crafters and DIY enthusiasts are creating for each other and themselves what they might once have bought.
Ziba’s home base of Portland, Oregon, boasts one of the nation’s most active DIY communities, so it made a natural venue for hosting the IDSA 2010 Conference and exploring this upheaval. When IDSA selected Portland as the conference host city, Ziba was quick to propose DIY Design as a theme. The Portland Hilton was booked, and we began assembling a multidisciplinary design team to help with the planning.
Design conferences typically center on a series of high-profile designers presenting their latest, most inspirational work, but we realized that the 2010 conference would have to be different to be relevant. What we envisioned instead was a cross-craft discussion: a speaking schedule designed to bring together a more diverse spectrum of creators than ever before, from formally trained designers to garage-based entrepreneurs and artists from far outside the ID community. Not only would the discussion be new, but every touch point of the conference had to reflect this shift. The end result needed to celebrate Portland, celebrate the surge of modern invention, and resonate powerfully with young designers in a rapidly changing field.
The modern DIY resurgence carries a sense of excitement and upheaval—a feeling that the tools of creation are being passed around freely, and that for the first time in decades something truly unexpected might come of them. In designing the conference, we realized we couldn’t just schedule a series of talks; we had to make a platform. The maker and crafter communities are revolutionary because of their lack of predefined outcomes, so IDSA 2010 would need to relinquish some control of the space and discussion, and combine visual and programmatic elements in unpredictable ways.
First, this meant utilizing existing platforms wherever possible. The conference website was built on a Wordpress blogging platform, and the printed Speaker Guides and City Guides were based on a 32-page notebook format called the Scout Book, invented by a local Portland print shop. The environmental graphics and signage took obvious, recognizable fixtures and materials and repurposed them: we built display tables out of spray-painted sawhorses and raw-edged honeycomb cardboard, and poster racks from Autopoles, string and binder clips. In each case, the DIY imperative of using familiar objects in creative ways drove the design, resulting in a lo-fi/high-design tension that permeated the conference venue.
The second driving theme was hackability: Wherever we could, we designed assets and signage that encouraged attendees to modify them. At its simplest, this meant graphics that were obviously temporary, from magnetic decorations on the escalators to vinyl clingfilm on the framed artwork of the conference center. At its most elaborate, it meant an 8' × 60' Pixel Wall made of painted boxes slotted into a Fome-Cor grid, forming custom icons depicting the “threat” and “opportunity” aspects of the DIY resurgence.
In the months before the conference, we hinted at this hackability by building opportunities for customization into the publicity initiatives and website. The “Participate” section on the conference microsite included a downloadable file of assets for creating custom posters, a gallery of DIY project images driven by an open Flickr group, and a Mad Libs–style letter that readers could download, complete and submit to their managers to ask permission to attend the conference.
More than in its environmental and graphic design, IDSA 2010 departed from previous years’ conferences in its programming choices. Of 30+ presenters, only five were formally trained industrial designers. Instead, we devoted the bulk of the schedule to independent innovators from further afield: software developers, chefs, medical doctors, magazine and blog editors, artists, instrument builders and other professions with much to teach professional designers about the merits of the DIY approach.
The success of the conference can be measured by its reach, which was considerable. True to their design intent, the conference graphics and assets were tweaked and repurposed by attendees from the very first day. Magnets showed up on cars parked outside, and pixels migrated across the Pixel Wall, distorting the icons. Attending firms and individuals seized upon the DIY theme and brought their own contributions. Lunar Design arrived from the Bay Area with entry forms for an impromptu design competition that they designed and screenprinted themselves. Wieden + Kennedy featured local independent food vendors at its IDSA rooftop party, serving from hand-built plywood replicas of their carts down on the street. A visiting furniture designer carted homemade lounge chairs built from shipping pallets into the main ballroom, inviting attendees to use them instead of the provided seating.
The conference content was a marked break from previous years. Moderated panel discussions each morning brought together experts who might never have otherwise shared a stage, resulting in cross-craft discussions that exposed a broad spectrum of potential in the DIY scene. Highlights included Dale Dougherty of Make magazine debating the value of open source design with Michael Czysz, designer of the world’s fastest electric motorcycle (a decidedly closed-system project), and Vanessa Bertozzi of Etsy.com discussing the role of craft and entrepreneurship in design school with educators from the Oregon College of Art and Craft.
DIY-enabling services and technologies were well represented, with small companies like Ponoko, Uncommon, Blurb and Newspaper Club telling their stories and showcasing the exploits of their customers. Major players like Nike and Intel showed how mass customization and an internal DIY design ethic are transforming their business. Taken together, this let attendees draw a clear line from the rising communities of makers and crafters to the effect they’re having on design and industry, both as a source of ideas and a growing consumer group.
More importantly, the discussions sparked by the conference, both intentional and incidental, were more substantial than at any conference in recent memory. Reactions from Metropolis, Fast Company, Monocle and other publications were overwhelmingly positive, reporting not just on speakers and panels, but reflecting on the growing role of amateur and independent design in the professional world. More broadly, the ongoing discussion on independent blogs, discussion boards and local media channels has been rigorous, suggesting a conference that was timely, appropriate and open-ended enough to advance the crucial design conversation of the next decade.
Response from the IDSA itself reinforced this impression:
“We absolutely needed this and you and your team delivered! I believe this conference will be memorable for its quality and smart approach for sometime to come. We now have a new bench mark!” —Eric Anderson, IDSA President
“What an amazing job you and the team did for the conference. I received a lot of great comments about the presentations and the content. Things like, I can’t believe we got the Mayor of Portland to be at the opening of an IDSA conference to, I learned more from that musical instrument maker than I have learnt from any designer..the breadth of positive comment was huge. I heard a number of corporate designers comment on the fact that after the first morning of keynotes, they totally understood how DIY applied to them.” —Clive Roux, IDSA CEO