A tech and design conference thrives in an unlikely setting — nature

Photo by Meredith Jenks.

Is Likeminds a conference, a camp, a music festival, or simply a weekend escape from the city? I returned to the third edition few weeks ago to find out. Organized by Rachael Yaeger of Human NYC and music producer Zach Pollakoff, it’s a unique combination of talks, performances, installations and workshops, set over two days at a summer camp near Beacon, New York. After a positive experience in year one, which you can read about here, I was curious to see how the event had evolved. Here are my thoughts on year three, with some valuable commentary from Rachael and Zach based on a conversation we had after the event.

Why exchanges?

As was the case last year with the theme Growth, this year’s theme, Exchanges, was quite broad. Zach described their approach:

“A lot of conferences aim for a specialization, for people who share a certain skill set or are in a certain industry and finding a way to narrow it down. In a sense, we’re trying to do the opposite.”

He detailed how he and Rachael came up with the idea of a theme in year two “both to narrow the focus of the talks but also create a narrative that happened over course of the weekend”. The idea is to bring people coming from very diverse backgrounds, with very diverse sets of skills, yet speaking on the same page about something. The inspiration for this year came from the 20th-century Jewish philosopher Martin Buber, and his concept of exchanges. He defined one type of interaction between people as “I-It”, referring to trivial quotidian interactions that you have with people and things around you. A second “I-Thou” interaction describes a more profound relationship with people or things or events or places, reaching an almost a spiritual level. While this is a vast simplification of his philosophy, it’s clear that Zach had put some thought into choosing this theme as a backdrop, beyond the obvious notion of people meeting each other in a conference setting and exchanging ideas.

Photo by Meredith Jenks

Programming strategy

This approach translated into a very diverse speaker line-up. While in year one, it seemed like most talks focused on design or web development, this year, we heard talks about international development with midwives, remix culture in Morocco, travelling in the Middle East, and housing activism in San Francisco, to name a few. It felt like there was a deliberate intention to expand our horizons and hear different voices, beyond our own industry.

Rachael explained: “That very naturally stems from Zach and I’s individual communities. My community is in large part designers and developers, whereas Zach has this huge art and music community, and has a lot of friends in advertising agencies — a lot of these cultural packets of New York that I wouldn’t have access to. When you mix them all together, Likeminds is that culmination of both of our networks combining.” Zach echoed: “In this day and age, people are less specialized, they have a lot of interests and can be inspired in a lot of different ways.”

While some guests seemed confused at the programming choices (I heard a few references to the Growth-themed content last year being more accessible to a startup crowd), I tried to keep an open mind and see what I could learn from each speaker.

Highlights and Threads

There were too many panels and speakers for me to cover exhaustively, but here are a few talks which stood out to me for their message or approach.

Art as an exchange

Stanislava Pinchuk photographed by Meredith Jenks.

As a reaction to the fact that artists can’t afford to purchase their own work, let alone that of their peers, visual artist Stanislava Pinchuk wanted to create a project that was more accessible to her community. She shared insights on a side-project of exchanging tattoos for anything from books, to places to stay, jewelry, or clothes.

“We have a lot to give as creative people, but it can get sidetracked by the hustle to survive.”

She noticed her unique barter system of giving tattoos in exchange for other objects or experiences has caused an unexpected reaction in some: “People don’t know what it’s like not to be sold to. It creates outrage — why can’t I have one?” While the gift economy is not a new concept, and this doesn’t seem like a project you could survive on, it was refreshing to hear a counterpoint to our overwhelmingly capitalist culture.

Every act is political

Liana Jegers and Clay Hickson, photographed by Meredith Jenks.

A theme that echoed throughout many of the talks was a need to do something concrete, to use our creative skills as a means to counter the current partisan and poisonous political climate. Clay Hickson and Liana Jegers, creators of the monthly publication The Smudge, for example, admitted that as illustrators, they did not think of themselves as political prior to 2016, but that every act these days feels political.

Inspired by the protest zines of the 60s and 70s and with access to a printing press, they launched a publication with a focus on illustration. While often dealing in satire and comedy, they argued that this lightness is not fluff, but rather a means of reaching the truth. As a publication that they produce every month by hand, they stressed that “creative freedom with strict deadlines has yielded good results”, although admit that they have begun to think of all their friends and acquaintances as potential content. A year and a half into the project, they’ve realized that they’re largely preaching to the choir politically-speaking, but are still motivated by the goal of keeping people engaged, and making the most of the tools at their disposal in order to do so.

The future will be confusing

The established Berlin designer Eike König, founder of Hort studio, gave a keynote which continued on this political theme, opening with a crack that we should all start by patting each other on the back for thinking “like-mindedly”. In an impassioned talk which involved not only images of his design work, but also lots of music (and his singing what I believe was a Kraftwerk song?!) he hammered home the message that designers are always making ethical decisions.

Using the example of the design of the atomic bomb manual, he reminded us that whatever work you put out into the world will karmically come back to you. He likened his work as a designer to being a sort of transmitter, needing to listen carefully. On a more practical note, he explained his maturing approach to working with demanding clients over the years:

“I used to think, this is a brilliant idea, the client just doesn’t ‘get it’. Now I understand that it’s my job as a designer to better communicate my idea to the client so that it’s understandable.”

He discussed the rise of ‘normcore’ in design, with reference to his redesign of the Bauhaus Dessau Foundation’s visual identity. While criticized as boring by some, he jokingly referenced how German it was, stereotypically dry and organized, “like a letter from the tax office”. He took pride in this democratizing approach, however, arguing that the use of fonts like Courier and Arial are accessible on every computer in the world. As a teacher, he seems to be taking innovative steps to change the male-dominated design industry, for example, in inviting only female students to participate this year in his art & design camp After School Club. He ended on a hopeful note, stating that despite how bad the political situation seems today “things always swing in the other direction”.

How to live in cities

Vincent Woo photographed by Meredith Jenks.

Founder of CoderPad and housing advocate Vincent Woo announced straight-off-the-bat that he wasn’t going to talk about his work, but he did deliver an insightful talk about the housing situation in San Francisco. As an East Coaster, I know this is a hot and divisive topic, yet didn’t understand the degree to which it’s complicated and resistant to change. He began by describing his experience growing up in a California suburb, and how he came to appreciate cities as a young adult.

“The city is a character in our lives that is often overlooked.”

He described with fondness the serendipity he discovered when he first moved to a city, the ease with which he met new people and bumped into acquaintances. This pleasant feeling quickly evolved to frustration when he moved to San Francisco and discovered the myriad ways that affordable housing developments were being stymied: “If we know how to build affordable, dense cities that are accessible by public transit, why is living in cities still so expensive?”

He discussed the inherent racism that has been a fundamental part of many urban development plans, going back as far the 50s and 60s, when mortgages were denied to black residents as a means of segregation. In his Californian suburban hometown, for example, which incorporated in the 1950s, their first act was to ban apartment buildings, in fear of black car factory workers moving in. He described how this conflict is ongoing in San Francisco, where poorer longtime residents have been clashing with rich tech yuppies since the 90s. He stated that the main arguments against new development in San Francisco are often that 1) poorer residents will be displaced 2) these developments will be out of character with the neighbourhood and 3) there won’t be enough parking. But the real issue is that existing homeowners are afraid that affordable housing will lower their property values.

“If only the rich can live in cities, it’s bleak. Serendipity only happens when enough interesting people can afford to live in cities.”

In an effort to actually create meaningful change in a city where most housing developments are voted down by municipalities, along with the team at the housing advocacy group SF Yimby (a play on NIMBY a.k.a. “not in my backyard”), he is suing neighbourhoods that have turned down development projects, and are starting to see modest success. Their platform states: “We believe that San Francisco has always been, and should continue to be, an innovative and forward-looking city of immigrants from around the U.S. and the world.” This talk was an important reminder to not take for granted the context within which your work happens and thrives. As a Montrealer, I feel comparatively lucky to live in an affordable city with a high degree of cultural diversity.

Best conference swag ever :) Photo by Meredith Jenks

Putting our privilege to use

One of my favourite talks was delivered by the founder and CEO of the non-profit Circle of Health International, Sera Bonds. Admittedly not involved in the design or tech sector, she spoke about how we can use our individual skills, or “superpowers”, for good. In reference to the current political climate, and in contrast to many of the other speakers, she stated:

“The world is not crazier than it’s ever been, there’s just more information.”

Her work focuses on working with women, especially midwives, in disaster relief, training and providing supplies to communities in crisis. While this has brought her to work extensively in areas like Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq, she emphasized that her Austin-based company has also been active for years much closer to home, on the Southern border of Texas. In an effort to get the Likeminds audience to use our skills for good, she spoke of the need to volunteer our services in a sustainable way. In other words, not to volunteer in a self-serving way that just makes you feel good, but actually commit to working for a cause that you won’t get tired of in a few months.

With this in mind, she challenged the audience to change the systems that we’re already a part of, specifically by using our privilege “to advance someone else’s personal growth, community growth, or business growth”. Although this campaign unfortunately didn’t get much traction over the weekend, you can still participate in Circle of Health’s “ActivateUs” challenge on Twitter until September 24th, and win an “activism kit” for a cause of your choice! It was refreshing to hear someone from a completely different field talk about how to concretely use our communication and design skills for good. While technologists often like to talk about “making the world a better place” in a fairly nebulous way, I found Sera’s practical message inspiring.

The ultimate exchange

Ross Simonini and Harry Gassel, photographed by Meredith Jenks

The talk the that was most closely related to my day-to-day was between the editor Harry Gassel and the writer Ross Simonini, who, in meta fashion, interviewed each other about interviewing. Opening with a clip from the film The Master about the founder of Scientology, they discussed the inherent power dynamics of interviewing. Ross mentioned how he often aims to break the ice with an interviewee by making himself vulnerable, although admitted the inherent manipulative nature in doing so, a sense of false camaraderie:

“Are you creating a human connection, or extracting value?”

Another clip illustrated the challenge of breaking down PR-speak, featuring Tilda Swinton obsessively rehearsing her lines in preparation for an interview as an executive in the film Michael Clayton. Ross mentioned the importance of doing a lot of research, e.g. knowing what your subject has prepared and trying to undercut it in order to create something new. They likened interviewing to playing chess, always needing to see several moves ahead. They concluded by suggesting that dialogue is the most fundamental form of language, and closest representation of our fragmented minds. Some of their literary references escaped me, e.g. comparing picaresque vs. paratactic writing techniques, but it was nonetheless refreshing to hear two writers speak frankly about the challenges and pleasures of crafting narrative from conversation.

Growing at human scale

As co-founder of the foundry Grilli Type, Thierry Blancpain shared his experiences of starting and growing a company initially accidentally, and then with purpose. As a graphic design student in 2009 in Bern, he admits that he never thought he would be a business owner one day. “Designers design”. Despite this, with three initial typefaces, by 2012 he and his partner were making a little bit of money, but not enough to live off of. While freelancing on other projects, they had to decide whether to abandon the type foundry or invest as much in it as they could and see where it led them. But neither of the two most common business models, i.e. of working yourself to death, or having a “4-hour work week” appealed to him. Was it possible to do something in between?

Nine years in, the answer seems to be yes. Along the way, Thierry’s notion of “making it” has evolved. Whereas in 2014, a fancy office in Switzerland was a symbol of success, today he works remotely from various locations around the world. He referenced the “zebra” movement, proposing an alternative to the often disruptive ”unicorn” startup culture. Its basis tenants are that unlike unicorns, zebras are real! Secondly, “zebra companies are both black and white: they are profitable and improve society. They won’t sacrifice one for the other.” Inspired by this model, Thierry has come up with his own internal definition of success, while giving himself the luxury of time to create quality work. While he still has to pay the bills, running his practice deliberately has allowed the studio to stay small, and be more selective about the work they take on. While this doesn’t sound like a typical “work hard play hard” New York City attitude, it was refreshing to hear a more human, (and perhaps more European) view on how to run a successful and sustainable business.

≠ Takeaways

As you can see, the programming covered a lot of ground. At times it felt like Likeminds was trying to pack too much in, leaving little time for questions and discussion after talks. While I didn’t draw any sweeping conclusions from the weekend, I think that’s part of the point, to open our eyes to new perspectives rather than come home with a clear list of action points. On a personal note, I was most inspired by the many interesting people I met, and everyone’s open and friendly attitude. I often found myself eating with strangers at meals, but without any of the awkward banter that often dominates networking events. Shout out to the team from Care/of who started a hilarious guessing game over pizzas, trying to figure out where everyone around the table was from by asking only yes or no questions. It’s the kind of thing that had it been imposed as an icebreaker activity would likely have failed miserably, but when happens spontaneously, is actually really funny.

Photo by Meredith Jenks

The nature effect

One of my favourite aspects of Likeminds is that it takes places largely outdoors, and mostly offline. I don’t know of any other tech or design conference like it. Rachael explained that this has been part of their strategy from the beginning. “I was hearing more conversations about people wanting to get out of the city, but not necessarily knowing how to do it or where to go. So the idea was always to get people into nature in a way that Zach and I both value. Being off of your phone is so important now more than ever — we really take pride that Likeminds has limited cell reception. It encourages people to take time and have a conversation and just genuinely spend time with themselves or each other.” She mentioned meeting a guest that perfectly encapsulated their vision of why they hold the event outside of the city: “I’m burnt-out. I don’t get to meet a lot of other people. I work in isolation in the city and really wanted to get outside of my comfort zone and be in nature.”

“Being off of your phone is so important now more than ever — we really take pride that Likeminds has limited cell reception. It encourages people to take time and have a conversation and just genuinely spend time with themselves or each other.”

Zach added: “The city is a grind, and nature is a break from that. Technology and social media is a grind, and nature is a break from that. If you’re in this environment (at Likeminds), there’s a presupposition that you already have something in common with those around you and you don’t have the escape of technology or the city at your doorstep. It’s sort of encourages both people to interact but also encourages healthy debate and future collaborations”. I couldn’t agree more.

“The city is a grind, and nature is a break from that. Technology and social media is a grind, and nature is a break from that.”
Drink n’ draw. Photo by Meredith Jenks

Forming, storming, norming…

When asked about how Likeminds has evolved from year to year, Zach referenced a conversation he had with an attendee about Bruce Tuckman’s stages of group development. It’s a model in which, as a new group, you’re initially “forming” ground rules, then in the second stage you’re “storming” i.e. implementing them, but everything kind of goes wrong. In the third phase, you’re finally establishing norms. “The presentation aspect of Likeminds, from the food to the music to the extra activities, and the lake — from the types of speakers that we’re curating and the style in which we’re curating them, all telling a story around a theme, that’s the ‘norm’ that we’ve been trying to establish from the beginning and I’m excited that we’ve arrived.” While this year felt much bigger than the first event in 2016 in terms of the number of attendees, Rachael and Zach seem adamant that they want to retain the same friendly vibe as they grow:

“Likeminds should always feel like something Zach and both enjoy. We never want it to feel like some corporate work event. We’ll always try really hard to create something that we would genuinely want to attend ourselves.”

Zach added that they do want their community to evolve, but they haven’t yet determined exactly how. More events throughout the year, both in and outside New York City are likely on the horizon, but what form they will take is still up in the air. Rachael’s community-oriented vision seems to sum up what we can expect: “I really truly hope that Likeminds always has its core essence from year one. I would never want to go to Likeminds and not know everyone”.