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Did the World Design Congress Connect?

Thoughts on the wrap-up of the 2007 World Design Congress in San Francisco

Phew, what a busy week it was. Unfortunately, it was busy for me in a way that meant I didn't get to see as much of the World Design Congress as I had hoped. The plan for blogging during it also didn't work out as expected. Tim got to see a lot more than I did, and his post does a masterful job of capturing the highlights and trends.

From my more limited perspective I would tend to agree with the key points of his post. The highlight for me, as I think it was for many, was Ken Robinson's all-too-brief talk on the importance of teaching creativity in formal education, giving it the same level of importance as conventional intelligence. Both, he argues, are equally important to thrive in today's complex world. I'm going to do a follow-up post on this talk as it's something I've been thinking about for a while and Robinson's inspiring and hilarious talk crystallized some issues.

I missed Janine Benyus's talk on biomimicry, though have seen her before, and that appears to have been another high point for many people. This is gratifying to see. Biomimicry is the notion that we should look to understand how nature solves engineering and materials problems in order to better inform our own designs. This does not simply mean mimicking the look, but understanding at a deeper system level how nature solves problems. Instead of "heat, beat, treat", as Benyus puts it, nature has other means of production that do not require landfills or involve toxic chemicals that are harmful to the organism producing them. Benyus has been working on this area for a long time and actively reaching out to industrial designers, so it was good to see that the attention reciprocated. What was also good to hear is that she is now able to talk to a wider array of concrete examples in practice, whereas a few years ago these were still hard to come by.

In fact, sustainability and green design were a prominent theme throughout the congress and was addressed by a range of speakers. First time I've seen that at an industrial design conference.

One question I took away from the Congress was: Can you even have a conference just about industrial design any more? Should you? Tim used the phrase "museum exhibits" to describe how some of the themes were treated, and overall the conference felt rather old school in its definition of industrial design, like it was trying to preserve the past and fending off the Cuisinart blending of disciplines that is happening right under our feet. Frankly this is surprising as the conference chair, Bill Moggridge, has been a pioneer at crossing the boundary between hardware and interface design.

Product design is an incredibly interesting field right now because it is all about combining hardware, software and services in a three-prong convergence that requires tight collaboration of many disciplines and a graying of historical boundaries between them. Keeping industrial design as a subset of product design isolated from this larger swirl is artificial and not representative of the cutting edge. Bruce Sterling, a non-designer, was one of the few to address it. Yves Behar showed the $100 laptop, but he didn't have a hand in the concept or the software he discussed them only superficially. In that sense the Congress provided only a peek into the current state of the world.

The other thing I was struck by was how "Web 1.0" the conference was. It was lacking a strong social component that is part of what makes these events so engaging, and which you would think is inherent to the "connecting" theme. The schedule was tightly packed allowing little mingling, and as a result it also felt highly controlled and not open to spontaneity. The formats of the plenary talks and the panels were geared toward talking heads rather than conversations and debates with the audience.

Beyond the confines of the event itself there was a distinctly unconnected web presence. The website itself is rather old school - an animated splash page with "skip intro button", and an overall aesthetic that is rigid and flat. But more significantly it lacks any of the elements you would expect from a conference site about connecting - a blog, tags, user participation, customization, even a search function. There was enough content on there that it could have benefited from these capabilities, and the very long pages describing the programs could have used some Ajax-y treatment.

The program certainly contained quite a diverse set of speakers, but the impact was more like an RSS feeder - it aggregated but did not provide an editorial voice or a point of view. It did not come out and say "We think this is important because...". Disparate presentations were scheduled back to back, lending it more an air of "and now for something completely different." It would have been nice to have had some provocation, and then allowed the speakers and the audience to build on and react to it.

Related things:
Core77 has coverage of some of the major talks

Some of the speakers from the Congress can be found giving similar talks on the TED site:
Sir Ken Robinson
Janine Benyus
Hans Rosling