SPAN: Conversations About Design & Technology

The designer Charles Eames once said, recalling a conversation he’d had with architect Eero Saarinen, that “the role of the architect or designer is that of a very good, thoughtful host…trying to anticipate the needs of his guests.” If you are reading this right now, it’s very likely that you are a designer, or that you work in the world of design. And even if you don’t enjoy entertaining all that much, we’d guess that there’s something in Eames’ quote that resonates with you. As designers at Google, that idea of “being a good host” sounds a lot like one of our core values: Focus on the user and all else will follow. We do it almost obsessively: Will users understand the information? Will this interaction or image delight or provoke? Will users think it’s beautiful? Between the user and the designer is an imagined dialogue of the liveliest sort, informed and intuitive in equal measure, a conversation that aims to connect people with what they most want to know or do. When we set out to host a design conference, we wanted to assume the role that Eames described above. But instead of an imagined dialogue, we wanted to host a real one with the very people who spend their days dissecting “experiences” and imagining how they could be better.

As we began to think about the programming for our SPAN design conference and ask ourselves what excites designers, a very nuanced and varied picture emerged. For example, we know designers love to talk shop, but we also know they like to think about the future, about never-before-imagined possibilities. They like to learn from people who are are tremendously skilled at their craft, but they also like to try out tools they’ve never used before. So, we did what we know best, and designed an experience that excited us.

For SPAN, we gathered a range of practitioners and thinkers who represent elements of what we believe to be important to a contemporary design practice. People like the architect Keller Easterling and writers and curators Geoff Manaugh and Justin McGuirk whose individual work examines the fringes and peripheries of our built environment and how understanding these spaces can better inform our design thinking. Or Ken Wong and ustwo, who’ve captivated millions with the playful expansiveness of their imagined gaming worlds. We’ve invited historical perspectives from John Harwood and Davide Fornari, who explore how innovative companies like IBM and Olivetti invested in the development and proliferation of design in the ’50s and ’60s, and how we’re still seeing vestiges of that patronage in the way we interact and interface with devices today. Taeyoon Choi and Technology Will Save Us show us how to use digital making as a means for connecting more fully to the humanity in our devices, and Luna Maurer gives us a series of exercises in conditional design. The writer Paul Ford reflects on time, and how important it is for designers to think a little bit more deeply about how they (and their users) will spend it. And so many more…

Designing the party is hard work, but we believe the true brilliance in Eames’ analogy is that it gets at what is edifying about the guest/host relationship: When a party is well executed, everyone — the host included — is enriched by the experience. The conversation and the unique history and perspective each person brings is what makes the event a special one. In addition to hosting the conference in NYC and London, we produced a reader to complement the programming from both events. Consisting of 192 pages of newly commissioned and previously published writing and design work from many of speakers, our hope is that the SPAN reader will give people a broader perspective on the breadth and depth of our “guests” collective work. We’ve published portions of the content from that book and the conference on Medium, and we hope that as a collection (and an artifact), it will offer readers a new perspective to bring into their daily design practice.

SPAN: Conversations About Design and Technology — Table of Contents

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