Event Recap: AIGA Design Conference 2016

I’ve always felt ambivalent about Las Vegas. The heat, smoke, air conditioning, and general Disneyland-for-adults vibe has never sat right with me—but I figured if anything could balance that out, it would be the AIGA Design Conference. I missed last year’s shindig in New Orleans (though I did get to help a little), and I hadn’t planned on attending this year either—but I miraculously got a last-minute opportunity to go, and I’m glad I did. With over 1500 creative professionals from all design disciplines and career levels attending, it was a much larger scale from the annual late-spring Leadership Retreats I’d been used to. Workshops, roundtables, symposia, music, a design fair, and much more definitely helped erase everything Hunter S. Thompson taught me to fear and loathe about Vegas.

Drinking From The Firehose

The sheer volume of design luminaries helped too. Reprising his role as host and emcee was Roman Mars of “99% Invisible” podcast-fame. And yes, Michael Bierut was there. So was Paula Scher and her glorious map illustrations. For the younger professionals who needed to meet those celebrated designers (or Debbie Millman, or John Maeda, or many more) for inspiration and encouragement, it was surely like Christmas come early. For me, though, the real privilege was reconnecting with my fellow presidents and chapter leaders, many of whom hadn’t seen since the Raleigh leadership conference in June. In particular, I enjoyed catching up with the folks from TypeEd (who visited AIGA SB in March 2015), getting to know the chapter leaders from AIGA Orlando better, meeting old and new friends from AIGA Austin (many of whom were also representing AIGA sponsor IBM), and introduce some fellow creative 805ers to the wider world these conferences offer.


This year’s conference inverted the speaking format, with general sessions beginning in the afternoon—replaced in the morning by several competing symposia tracks: Design Thinking, Education, Design for Good, In-House, and more. It’s impossible to distill the full three days into one post, because sometimes it really was an overwhelming experience. The galaxy of creativity on display was fantastic; in addition to the live mural by Gemma O’Brien, notable presentations included general career surveys (Sebastian Padilla of Anagrama), specific identity campaigns (Kodak’s logo redesign by Keira Alexandra of Work-Order), and yes, the preconceptions of pole-dancing (by Michelle Stanek of Pratt Institute). Kudos to AIGA National board member and conference coordinator Christopher Simmons for assembling a truly amazing and diverse (by any measurement) lineup of presenters.

Of all the speakers I saw, the heaviest hitters proved to be the ones who urged AIGA members to use their design skills to make the world a better place. Each speaker returned to the same idea: the world is the way it is because it was designed to be that way—by tweaks, nudges and bold strokes here and there across history. Don’t like it? Designers have the skills and the authority to change that, if they choose. Mike Monteiro dismantled Facebook’s deliberately ineffective reporting system for onsite gun sales. Eduardo Ortiz outlined how his USDS team designed better government websites for veterans and immigrants. Gus Granger and Stefan Reddick of 70kft presented the process—and danger—of “creating new symbols for the modern South.” Amos Kennedy forcefully challenged designers to apply their considerable skills to solving big problems like mass incarceration, urging AIGA to support and protect designers who take strong ethical stands against injustice. Rapper (and designer) Chuck D of Public Enemy closed out the conference with a reminder that determined creativity crosses disciplines—music, art, literature, and more—exhorting designers to not confine themselves to one tightly-focused speciality.


Buy The Ticket, Take The Ride

A few other personal notes: I got a huge ego boost when I walked into the design fair and immediately saw my own work on display: one of my posters hung in AIGA’s “Get Out the Vote” gallery with the great work of designers from all 70 chapters. I knew it would be a fun time when I couldn’t make a complete circuit of the design fair without running into someone from Leadership to catch up with every 15-20 seconds. I felt validated with my career choices after taking part in IBM’s “Mapping Your Design Journey” project. I got excited to bring national initiatives like Diversity & Inclusion, In-House and Emerge back to AIGA SB. I knew I wasn’t as cool as I thought when I got tongue-tied speaking with Mikael Jorgensen of musical presenters Quindar about his main gig: keyboardist in the rock band Wilco. I knew I’d been suckered by Vegas excess when, less than sober, I couldn’t even finish a glorious $15 sundae at the Cosmopolitan.

Thanks to everyone who worked hard to make this happen: the AIGA HQ staff from New York, the AIGA national board, the AIGA Las Vegas chapter leaders, and the army of volunteers always happy to help bewildered, sleep-deprived designers to their next session. I’m told video of pretty much everything will be available soon. My personal thanks to AIGA Chapter Development Director Nick Prestileo, AIGA Presidents’ Council Chair Niki Blaker, TypeEd Community Manager Rachel Elnar, and Oniracom CEO Jacob Tell for helping make it possible for me to attend.

Rock Star Gig Rating: On a scale of “zero” to “insane,” my first design conference was definitely insane in the best way. That’s really the only way to describe it. Consider going to next year’s event in Minneapolis if you can. It’s certainly a steep investment, but you will come away with much more than you put in.

Photography (hero & top montage) by Frank Aymami for AIGA. Snapshots (bottom montage) by Doug Bartow, Keir DuBois, Rachel Elnar, Tibby Starks, and Kristin Waddington.

By Keir DuBois
Published October 29, 2016
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