A few weeks ago, I attended the inaugural edition of Likeminds, a small conference held at a former camp in Beacon, NY, with a focus on art, design and tech projects. The unlikely pairing of a new tech conference in the countryside appealed to me — if you love all things digital but also enjoy switching off and camping, you sound like my kind of people. Combined with all the good things my colleagues at Dynamo had to say about one of the co-organizers, Rachael Yaeger of Human NYC, I decided to check it out.
I’ve driven to New York many times before, but never on my own. Six hours, three pit stops and one Schroon Lake diner BLT later, I rolled into Beacon. Initially a little nervous that I didn’t know anyone, I was pleasantly surprised by the bucolic surroundings and warm welcome from Rachael and her team. Here are a few themes and memories that stood out from the many great talks that took place over the weekend.
Be human above all else
Designer and author Adam J. Kurtz opened his talk with this phrase, which echoed throughout the weekend. A pattern is emerging in NYC studio names like Human NYC, Sanctuary Computer, or Mother New York. In an era when technology is often seen as threatening, alienating, or all encompassing, there seems to be a conscious shift towards making technology seem more accessible, friendly and better suited to meet our human needs. As a big of fan of Adam JK’s prolific work, his notion that personal work should be personal, and start from a place of honest emotion, resonated with me.
This idea was explored further by filmmaker Benjamin Dickinson, who recently completed the film Creative Control, a satire on advertising and our addiction to technology. He reminded us that technology, at its most basic, is neutral — a counter-point to the Silicon Valley’s technological evangelism, or on the other end of the spectrum, those who reject it altogether. With allusions to Buddhism and Freud, Benjamin discussed the idea that our approach to any technology should begin from the notion that as humans, we’re always running towards pleasure and away from pain. He sees value in technology meeting our most basic human needs, such as connection, friendship, good food, and health. While many tech products are optimized for profits, he argued that they should be evaluated based on whether or not they create value. In other words, can an app give me space, health, time, or pleasure? Can it set boundaries, rather than make me addicted to spending more time online? Can a tech product remind me to get outside more often, or spend more time with my friends IRL ? He put these questions to the audience, inferring it’s up to us to shape the technological future that we want — if we can accept our human condition as a baseline, and build from a place of creating true value rather than profit generation, then the money will follow.
Multidisciplinary artist Sougwen Chung took a different approach to our relationship with technology in her presentation, looking at how humans can collaborate with machines, rather than fight them. In a collaboration with New Inc. / New Museum, she has created a robotic arm that serves as an artistic collaborator. In a mesmerizing series of videos, we saw how she has created a machine that mimics her gestures in live drawing, a sort of “gestural empathy”. She believes digital tools should feel natural, complimenting a flowing state of creation. I also enjoyed her anecdote about the word “computer” in Chinese, which translates to something like “electric brain” — making an AI-assisted future sound not so distant, but rather an extension of our human selves.
How is a design studio is like a sandwich shop?
The idea that web studios and designers need to have good people skills as well as technical prowess is nothing new, but Hugh Francis of Sanctuary Computer’s metaphorical take on it was a bit different, essentially arguing that getting a website build should be more like ordering a sandwich. He explained that in order to sell with empathy, he’s started to think of the studio more in terms of hospitality than as a technology company.
Some specific examples of this at Sanctuary involve perceived simplicity and digestible complexity in working with clients, i.e. being strategic and intentional about how much technical detail to get into. They’re also advocates for transparent pricing — explaining that if you want to be paid more for your work, you should charge a higher hourly rate (what’s in this sandwich, really?). In terms of building out a team, Sanctuary looks for artists and designers with a “carpenter” like approach to their work, focusing on refining their craft, as scholarly types lack empathy apparently. He summed up their approach by encouraging friendly vibes at the studio, stating that “your internal generosity is your outward dynamic”. Sounds good to me.
We contain so many multitudes
(Apologies to Walt Whitman.) There were several inspiring speakers with multidisciplinary backgrounds over the weekend, but Lotta Niemenen’s stood out. Originally from Helsinki and now based in New York, she discussed a free-form approach to her career, shifting between freelance work as designer, illustrator and art director. She mentioned how earlier on with her illustration work, she didn’t worry so much about developing a singular style, but rather experimented with different approaches. Although her clients often come to her for a specific role, being versatile has its advantages. She described a specific case study when she was hired to art direct a Marimekko holiday campaign that was initially focused on a number of existing product shots. After many unsuccessful iterations, Lotta proposed an illustration approach. Although this was not was she was initially hired for, it turned out to be the perfect solution for the project. The upshot: don’t let yourself be squared in by a self-imposed identity. Wear many hats!
Get out of your zone
It was fitting for an outdoorsy tech conference that several of the speakers spoke about travel and surroundings as sources of inspiration. Sarah Hicks, CEO of Reaction Commerce and Likeminds’ main sponsor for the weekend, talked about the journey of setting up shop as a new e-commerce platform in Santa Monica. As a lifelong Californian, her memories of mountain hikes with her brother were likened to her collaborative approach at work, where we might all have different motivations, but need to reach the same end goal. (Her office set up near the beach also sounds pretty dreamy.) I loved how she described her the decision to go out on a limb and sponsor Likeminds — that in order to find people that will make your life richer, you need to get outside of your comfort zone and put yourself in vulnerable spaces. I couldn’t have said it better, this pretty much summed up my weekend.
Lastly, if you’re ever considering traveling to a conference on your own but are unsure if you’ll enjoy it , here are a few things to keep in mind:
- You will definitely not be the only person who came on their own :)
- You don’t need to “network” per se. As an introvert, I like socializing and meeting new people, but I cringe when I hear overt sales pitches during conferences, and generally only strike up conversations when I’m feeling up for it, or if there is something natural to talk about.
- Take some breaks. Likeminds was particularly nice for this, as we were in a beautiful country setting with a pool, but really at any conference, if you’re feeling like your brain is about to explode from too many presentations or people, take a walk and come back when you’re refreshed.
- Try not to hide in your screen if feeling anxious. I’m guilty of this a bit, but was pleasantly surprised at how much more likely people were to strike up conversations if I was simply taking notes, reading a book, or admiring the surroundings. Burying in your phone is the social equivalent of saying ‘I don’t want to talk to anyone’.
I’m so happy that I checked out this first edition of Likeminds, and hope it happens again next year. If you were there and would like to connect in Montreal or otherwise, say hi!