Due to the nature of my profession, I attend a fair amount of conferences each year. These conference range from partner conferences, to those that cover technology and innovation to those gatherings organized by industry professional groups. While most of the time, I meet tons of interesting people and learn a lot, I tend to generally find their personal value hit-or-miss.
A great conference requires the right mix of people, subject matter, venue, location, etc. and you never really know what you are getting yourself into with a new event, yet alone an event that is only in its infancy, having been around for just a few years.
Over the last several years, I’ve heard pretty great things about the Sarasota International Design Summit, an event put on by the Ringling College of Art and Design in Sarasota, Florida. I have to be honest, while I am a practitioner of design, I often find “design conferences” to be of not much professional value.
In many cases, I feel like the subject matter presented by speakers is either too high-level, or too theoretical for me to apply to anything practical, and while ideas are being shared, many of them lack that “one thing” that will allow them to materialize.
I’ve often said, after returning to the office after an event, “Well, I would have gotten a lot more out of those 3 days had we just locked ourselves into a room with some music, food and a couple drinks and just had conversations about everything we are hearing about the industry from the outside”.
In most cases, I can’t blame the conference organizers, speakers or attendees for any of this. I think it is just an unwilling combination of where I am at and what I’ve been working on along with the subject matter and overall mix of things.
Maybe I’m a hard person to please. I attribute part of that to my background that spans technology, design and business. Perhaps I am too practical when it comes to finding value in what is presented. Perhaps I am just a cranky geek.
Whatever the case may be, I’ve finally found a design conference that, for me, couldn’t get any better.
Imagine a place where everyone in attendance is friendly, intelligent, willing to share ideas, at the top of their game professionally, personally interesting, thoughtful and hoping to apply their own skills to help solve real-world problems in order to make the world we live in a better place. Imagine a conference where nobody is trying to sell you their product or service, rather more interested in learning from one another’s experiences to help enrich their own personal and professional lives. I’ve wished for this for years, and outside of the TED conference (which I hope to attend some day!), I haven’t heard of any event that comes close to meeting this description… Until my recent experiences in Sarasota.
Dr. Larry R. Thompson had a vision several years ago. As the President of the Ringling College of Art and Design, Dr. Thompson and his world-class staff embarked on a mission to create a new type of event, geared towards the sharing of intellectual thought as it applies to design and in reverse… applying design thinking to the problems faced by individuals, companies, nations and the world as a whole.
It is no secret that the Ringling College of Art & Design has some of the finest programs in the country (if not the world), especially in computer animation, 3D design and modeling and fine art. I’ve followed the school for several years now, and the work produced by their students in truly world class.
I find it thrilling that the same dedication and energy put towards the academic curriculum is also directed at the entire production of the Sarasota International Design Summit, hosted by Dr. Thompson and the staff at the Ringling College and the Summit’s sponsors (Target being the primary this year), with FastCompany, Metropolis, Wacom, Whole Foods, HP, and several others.
Who, What, Where, When…
Each year, Ringling chooses a different general theme, but with design and design thinking as the common thread between sessions. This year, the theme was defined as ‘Visual, Social, Mobile’, and focused content on the collision of design and technology and what the impact means to the world around us.
As a professional that deals specifically with these subjects, I was asked to present and participate as one of the conference thought-leaders. Having heard of the Design Summit’s reputation and since I knew the other folks that were on the conference speaker list, I was very honored to have been presented such a unique opportunity.
Much of what I do is related to the strategy behind the design and development of creative technology, especially as it applies to solving problems faced by businesses, government organizations or consumers. While most of my professional work is geared towards the world of “The Web”, things have evolved quite a bit and I now spend a fair amount of time looking at truly “next generation” consumer technologies, from advanced mobile devices and new media-consumption hardware to multi-touch display walls and consumer robots.
I have a passion for these sorts of things, and was thrilled to have been asked to present some of my feelings about them at the Design Summit.
My Presentation – How I hoped to add value to the Design Summit Experience
Rather than hogging an hour and a half to do a presentation on my own thoughts, I thought it would be valuable to give the attendees a deep dive into all that is moving and shaking in and around technologies that enable user experience design. To help me make the point, I thought it would be a great idea to involve a couple of my colleagues in my efforts.
The Topic? “Where the Web is Going, and Why do We Care?”
Part of my responsibilities at Roundarch are to manage the partner relationships that we have with both Microsoft and Adobe. It is a unique position to be in, as I work directly with both companies to understand what they are doing next, how that applies to our clients and what needs to happen to make sure our teams of extraordinary talented people stay up to speed on the moving and shaking coming from both the bay area and Redmond.
A regular component of this work is my direct involvement with ‘Evangelists” from both of these software giants. In hopes of providing a lot of intellectual value to the audience, and not to simply subject them to my own pontification about experience design, I wanted to help provide context and help them understand how the past has impacted the design of the future, and learn how that translates into the next generation of the Web from the perspective of my partners… Microsoft and Adobe.
To help me make a bigger case for where things are headed, I called upon two really great guys, Chris Bernard (User Experience Evangelist, Microsoft) and Ryan Stewart (Rich Internet Application Evangelist, Adobe).
I sometimes find myself surrounded by all of the next-generation Desktop, Mobile and Web technology that these companies are working on, that I lose sight of how interesting things are “today”. Chris and Ryan were the perfect candidates to help me explain where we are currently at, and where the Web seems to be going. These guys are at the forefront of the user experience and technology collision that is happening.
You can find videos of Chris, Ryan and I speaking, along with all of the other fantastic presenters by checking out the online media gallery put up by the Design Summit organizers. (http://media.sarasotadesignsummit.com/)
I won’t go into too much detail about the venue, because it would be easy to go on and on and on about how spectacular the conference facility was. The Design Summit was held at the Ritz Carlton hotel in Sarasota, arguably one of the finest hotels in the United States. Not only was the service incredible, but the location (next to the ocean) was breathtaking and a wonderful departure from the typical conference digs, especially at the end of October when you live in Chicago.
This is where I realized just how rewarding the overall experience would be.
The first group of folks that we met up with were lead by the personable and whip-smart Michelle Bauer, Founder & Chief Strategist at a firm called Common Language. Michelle is a tech-savvy and lively communications professional that was instrumental in pulling the Sarasota International Design Summit together, not to mention… pulling a nice little drinking party together as well!
We joined Michelle along with several speakers and the “backbone” of the Design Summit organizing staff, most of which were full time staff at Ringling, including Christine Meeker Lange, who happens to be my parent’s oldest child. That’s right… My big sister! How fun is that?
It was a good time with good people, and an indicator that this conference was going to be much more interesting than the typical fare.
So… What made it so special?
People. Ideas. Communication. Atmosphere.
As I mentioned, prior to the Summit getting officially underway, we spent time with many of the other speakers and organizers, which lead to some of the most enjoyable and random conversations I’ve had in quite some time.
It became immediately clear that whomever picked the line-up of speakers did so in a way that brought together a collection of unique personalities, who left alone for an extended period of time might end up forming new companies or putting plans together to change the world.
Perhaps that’s a little much, but after being immersed in the experience, I seriously wouldn’t put it past some of the folks I met!
It is never easy to acknowledge each and every person that you interact with at these types of events, but some of the folks that I was able to spend a lot of time with left a lasting impression me.
It’s these people that made this event a truly one-of-a-kind thing, and I’ve already decided that 2009 will find me back in Sarasota to attend the conference. It really is a must-attend type of event. I encourage you to do the same! For the price, you simply can’t beat the experience.
“Conference” Vs. “Summit”
I love the fact that the event is not called a design conference, and instead is referred to as a “Summit”. After having the opportunity to attend, I feel that the semantics of the title has become an actual differentiator between this event and others that I’ve attended.
Whenever I think of conference, I think of large events filled with vendors and people promoting their own companies or products. The term “Summit” makes me think of more of a gathering of like-minded people who attend with the purpose of sharing ideas and learning from one another. With this being my definition, my experiences in Sarasota were much less conference-like and right in line with my mental model of what a summit should be.
People and things that I found to be interesting
There were so many unique ideas floating around that it is hard to capture all of them, however several sessions and individuals stuck out for me personally. The following people are just some of the folks that I had the opportunity to meet at the event. The list could have been 4 times this long.
Dave Gray – Xplane
Dave is a very unique guy. He’s the type of guy that just seems to show a great deal of empathy when talking to others. His work is world-famous and Xplane is notorious for creating some of the best informational graphics out there. When I asked him if he could summarize what Xplane does he just smiled and said “We help people explain things”. If you aren’t familiar with their work, you have to check things out. One of my recent favorites is “A Web site named desire”, which was created for Microsoft: http://awebsitenameddesire.com/ David has been an award-winning graphic journalist and an instructor at Washington University, now combining, his experience as a teacher, journalist and designer to help clients deploy visual thinking as a strategic communication. He is brilliant at it. I recommend you talk to him.
Charles Warren – Google (Android)
Speaking always gives you a little butterfly in the stomach, but it never helps when the guy that talks before you is as entertaining as almost anything you’d find on the boob tube. Charles Warren was funny, interesting, and explained the very complex processes behind the UX design at Google, specifically regarding Android. He had a great presentation and I now know what he looked like as a kid thanks to his fun slides and great storytelling abilities.
Charles is a Senior User Experience Designer for Android, which has given him a really great perspective on all of the minutia behind global mobile computing and the design of mobile applications. He made me reconsider a lot of my thinking related to mobile, and even convinced me to pick up a T-Mobile G1, which I did the same day I returned from Sarasota. (That’s the honest to God truth). Charles work is very interesting, and part of it is focused on designing for users in developing markets like Africa, India, and China. He’s also responsible for Google Mobile’s front-end product-concept development process. Cool? Hell Yes.
Charles is smart, laid back, funny, and rather interesting. He’s the kind of guy you’d want on your team. Not to mention… He’s a great one to recommend that you order your day-on-the-beach Pina Coladas with a “Floater”, consisting of a fat shot of 151 on top of the icy, coconut deliciousness. It was exactly what I needed. Thanks Mr. Warren!
Tom Crawford – CEO of VizThink
VizThink is just interesting, and the guy behind it is equally as neat. In a nutshell, VizThink is an organization dedicated to the creation of a sustainable, global community of people who use any form of the visual arts for learning and communication. Tom’s presentation was interesting and he has clearly proven himself to be at the top of the game in terms of understanding how we process information, and what methods can be used to capture, filter, and expand on ideas.
Steve Hamm – BusinessWeek
I had a couple of conversations with Steve over the course of the summit. As a seasoned journalist, he really seemed to “get it” when we talked about the business value of user experience design and that the next generation of Web and desktop technology will be more about enabling user experience than anything else. He seemed to be very interested in the state of RIAs in the medical industry, and I hope to follow up with him at some point about all of the interesting work we do with clients here at Roundarch. Steve is a senior writer at BusinessWeek, where he is primarily focused on, globalization, and leadership. He has been writing about the information tech industry for 20 years, first in Silicon Valley and now from New York.
Franco Lodato – Pinnifarina Extra, USA
If I was envious of anyone at the summit, it would have to be Franco Lodato.
Prior to his position as Managing Director at Pininfarina Extra USA , Franco was Professor at the University of Montreal School of Design and vice-president of design, exploration and development for Herman Miller Inc. If you aren’t familiar with Pininfarina Extra, check out their Web site and prepare to scrape your jaw off of the floor. http://extra.pininfarina.com/ . These folks are at the very top of the design world, and after watching Franco’s keynote talk, I was dying to learn more about his thinking. These folks design everything from super yachts and exotic sports cars to ski boots and golf clubs. Everything that they do is clearly an example of form meeting function, and they work in a way that keeps sustainability at the top of the priority list. Fascinating.
After hearing Timo talk and having side conversations with him, I realized that there are often days when I wish I had the opportunity to work with him on a regular basis.
Intellectually, I found a strong connection between our ideas regarding the future of “things”, and it really seemed as if his mind never stopped thinking about ways to simplify the world through the smart use of technology. He’s unbelievably interesting and I look forward to the day when I get to collaborate with him on a project. Check out his work at http://www.elasticspace.com.
Tom Wujec – Autodesk
Years ago, Autodesk was a client of Roundarch. I didn’t realize this until after returning from my stay in Sarasota. Had I known this before attending the Design Summit, I would have cornered Tom and tried to get him to bring us back onboard to help them fulfill some of the ingenious thinking that takes place behind the walls at this fantastic company.
All in all, Tom’s presentation contained the most compelling barrage of thoughts at the event. I simply cannot explain how blown away I was by some of the new technology that Autodesk is creating to help facilitate the practice of design in this new millennium. From industrial design standards to producing real-time 3-D modeling for product design, his words, slides and video clips had the entire audience smiling with anticipation of what he’d show next. When he got to the point where he showed off some of the new technology being developed (or in use) in Hollywood studios, I couldn’t believe my eyes. Simply incredible uses of 3D object capturing. Wow!
Aside from the Autodesk examples, Tom’s presence at the conference inspired all with his influence on “sketching the moment”. Granted, I am not much of an illustrator, but I even participated the best I could! If you are unfamiliar with this concept, check out Tom’s Web site (http://www.tomwujec.com/) where you can see the product of his mighty pencil (marker, pen, etc). Tom’s role at the summit was to help the audience map all of the ideas visually, as he has produced stunning illustrated records of some of the world’s leading business and design conferences, including the Fortune Innovation Conference and TED.
Tom Wujec… I am a fan!
Chris McCray – ‘Mad Scientist’, Syracuse University
You have to appreciate anyone who has a business card from a well respected university that has the title “Mad Scientist” on it. Chris McCray works for the university and has been tasked with one terribly interesting task. I can only summarize things by saying that Chris has been asked to “Develop a means for Masters students at Syracuse to collaborate, learn from other disciplines and become more well rounded so that when they enter the workforce, they have a unique perspective that helps them to excel.”
I had an amazing conversation with Chris and look forward to a long future of collaboration with him. His baby, the “Colab”, is being developed at Syracuse now. The concept is to help businesses solve real-world problems by involving students in different masters programs at Syracuse. The idea is to work with businesses (like mine, or like my clients) to help them solve issues that are often impossible to take on internally due to time, budget and resource constraints. The students get to apply their thinking to real problems, and companies benefit by having a diverse group of sharp-edged brains collaborate and provide ideas that can then be executed. The intention is to have teams that span disciplines (design, engineering, business, communications, etc).
I am a huge believer in the concept of “hybrid teams” or teams of folks working to solve business problems that come from a wide array of backgrounds. I love what Syracuse is doing, and I hope to fully support Chris in his efforts. If this sounds interesting to you (which I have to imagine it does), reach out to Chris: email@example.com or check out the COLAB Web site: http://colab.syr.edu.
Lee Knight – Chief Instigator, Gravity Free (Conference)
I love when those side conversations pop up while waiting for the bus. On the second night of the Summit, we took a series of shuttle busses to the Ringling College of Art and Design campus for drinks, Hors ‘d orderves and a tour of the facilities where all of the academic magic happens. While waiting for the shuttle, I struck up a conversation with Lee Knight. I can best describe Lee (from my half hour conversation) as a creative visionary with exceptional taste and a flair for saying it like it is. He is the man behind the Gravity Free conference, which takes place in Chicago. I heard about this event this year, and due to other obligations was not able to attend. After hearing about the vision and structure of the event from Lee, I think I also have to add this to the list of things to make sure I do in 2009. For information on Gravity Free, check out http://www.gravityfree2008.com.
Peter Kageyama – Partner, Creative Cities Productions
Peter was one of the other folks that was behind the organization of the Sarasota International Design Summit, and he also played MC throughout the event, introducing us speakers and providing context to the sessions for all of the attendees. Peter is terribly interesting, and exceptionally in-tune with what is happening in the industry in terms of digital marketing and communication technology. Peter really “gets it”. I was thrilled to hear about some of the unique projects that he is working on, one of which is with an organization in the UK that has tasked him with helping them understand unique ways to structure learning programs.
I was pleasantly surprised when Peter told me he was going to be making a trip to Chicago to a place that is just 2 blocks from where I live. “The Boring Store”, a front for 826 Chicago, a non-profit organization that is geared towards supporting students with their creative and expository writing skills. More information on this fantastic and eye-opening program can be found here: http://www.826chi.org/ and here http://www.windycitizen.com/2007/02/27/826chi-boring-store-eggers
Larry Thompson – President, Ringling College of Art and Design
Visionary. That’s the single word I can use to describe Dr. Larry S. Thompson. As the president of the Ringling College, Larry has the everyday task of ensuring the next wave of creative thinkers are able to excel in the professional world and to learn how to apply their design-thinking skills to solve problems.
Being someone who is constantly on the hunt for top-notch creative talent to join the team at Roundarch, I found my conversations with Larry to be quite inspirational and full of promise, as he described his vision for his college and other academic institutions in the United States. It is no secret that I am sometimes critical of the often rigid nature of academic programs that are designed to turn out professionals in my field.
During my keynote presentation, I addressed some of these thoughts, and could see Dr. Thompson nodding along with my statements about how it is the responsibility of higher education to be adaptive, fluid and flexible in these modern times. We are witnessing the collision of design and technology happen at a faster rate than ever before, and leaders like Dr. Thompson are the ones that are responsible for keeping pace with these changes and making sure that their students receive the ultimate value for their education dollar.
In my one-on-one conversations with him, he expressed his thoughts on the subject and seems to have already committed himself personally to overseeing the continued change that must take place to keep Ringling at the top of the world’s design schools. Often, I feel, those that are at the top of the academic pyramid get stuck in what they know, and focus the direction of their institutions into a tunnel of past thinking. Not Ringling. Not Dr. Larry Thompson. He is moving the Ringling College into the future, and I am eager to watch his success.
I look forward to continued conversations with Larry as well other leaders with his responsibility to work with them to understand their challenges and put into context what companies like Roundarch and our clients are facing in terms of recruiting and general talent development. It would be thrilling to help design the future of designers.
- I plan on going back next year. Sarasota, I’m sold.
- I encourage anyone who deals with design of any sort attend this conference.
- I recommend that if you do attend, you bring your significant other and/or kids for the weekend prior to the kick-off. You can’t beat Sarasota in October.
- I have been motivated to extend my current ways of thinking based on things I’ve learned from the people I met.
- When smart, creative and passionate people get together, magic happens.