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Design conferences should be about doing not just listening

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Design conferences need to change. And now we know how.

For several years I’ve advocated we should take advantage of what becomes possible when a biodiversity of designers gathers: a new standard where every gathering of designers leaves the gathering place better than when we found it. And now I’ve seen it done.

The Design Ethos conference in Savannah, Georgia, earlier this month, is that example. Either as keynoter or participant, my experience at Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD) has revolutionized the way I see design conferences. Scott Boylston and SCAD’s remarkable and refreshing attitude to design education have resulted in a new vision of design thinking; doing good with sustainable design wasn’t a side dish of the conference, rather it was its central purpose.

The Design Ethos Conference had the typical design conference agenda of presentations (and they were fantastic!) but it also included a “Do-ference” portion. The responsibility of the parallel “Do-ference” was to do good for the local community by tapping into the rich vein of design thinking brought forward by the conference attendees. Scott divided us into six teams, each made up of designers, design students, and most importantly community leaders from a run-down area of Savannah called Waters Avenue. This district, once proud, can now sadly measure improvement by the reduction in how often gunshots are heard in the neighbourhood.

Over a three-day period we didn’t just brainstorm projects to improve Waters Avenue as an exercise: we actually developed community improvement interventions by conducting interviews, design research, and producing strategies, design and implementation plans. At the end of the conference, each team presented its plans to the community leaders, who are now enthusiastically bringing our projects to fruition. Whether repurposing an abandoned school building, creating street sculpture (my team’s solution: adoptable “400-pound babies” of concrete), or overlaying new media initiatives, we left Savannah better than we found it; not just with these design interventions, but also in changing the attitude of an understandably skeptical audience of community leaders toward what design thinking can achieve. And the work teams continue their work remotely. Read the entire Core77 coverage of the Do-ference.

Keynoting at a conference of all-star presenters of the sustainable design world was a remarkable privilege and honour. However, just as precious was our discovery together that a conference about doing can work, and does work (even if we need to come up with a less cheesy name than do-ference).

I’ve often been conflicted about attending conferences, which pump up my contribution to carbon in the atmosphere, and catch myself questioning whether there is still value to design gatherings. I now firmly believe that the answer to this is yes.

We need to demand that every design gathering raises the bar: If you are creating a design conference, you need to take advantage of the power of the designers you’ve gathered to do good in your community. And if you are an attendee of design conferences, then demand that the agenda include leaving a footprint of what becomes possible when we gather. You’ll love the feeling of being a part of something larger, and the gathering will be more memorable because of it.

One other thing: in retrospect it should be of no surprise that when our gathering became about improving their community, Savannah citizens became far more interested in what we were doing. The local network news affiliate covered the design conference on mainstream TV. If my above arguments don’t compel conference organizers, then perhaps the PR argument will win them over.

Congratulations Scott Boylston and SCAD: so proud to have worked with you to make this come true… and it’s just the beginning.

Here’s another twist on leaving a design conference footprint: at the agIdeas international design conference in Melbourne earlier this year, 100 designers led 1,000 elementary school kids through a design thinking immersion on how to create a better world for kids…and what they came up with amazed us all. More on that in a future blog post.

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Reviewed August 20, 2012

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