Design conferences are dead.


Getting sent on a corporate-sponsored trip to a conference was once the ultimate indicator that one has reached “valued employee status”. But recently conferences across industries have lost their luster. What is the reason for this? Information overload? Accessibility afforded by the web, video conferencing, social media, and smart phones making us spoiled? Or lazy? A cultural epidemic of fading intellectual curiosity?

Possibly. But one could also argue that the constant influx of noise should make a conference environment more appealing and necessary than ever before. Who doesn’t crave an excuse to unplug and learn, or share a beverage with old colleagues and heroes?

So why do they feel so…lame? IIT Institute of Design is no stranger to this struggle. Both the Design Research Conference and the Strategy Conference brought in big thinkers, dynamic speakers, and individuals ready to push the envelope on where design could have impact in the world. Still, after over a decade of delivering both events, we observed a lack of enthusiasm that we dubbed “conference fatigue”. Themes were being recycled and the two were bleeding into one another, becoming indistinguishable.

After struggling to get people to care about what we were doling out — a classic push vs. pull scenario — we made a decision to either quit producing conferences altogether or set out on a mission to bring something new and meaningful to the table. The latter sounded more hopeful. But how to accomplish what felt like a monumental task, especially for a relatively small organization and even smaller team?

1. We took a step back to evaluate the landscape.

Conferences tend to suffer from one of a few possible maladies. The first is to be so painfully academic as to be impenetrable to anyone not working or studying in that particular field…and quite possibly irrelevant to 75% of the people within it. Presenters read from their papers as if giving book reports while the audience waits for its turn to speak. I’ll congratulate you on your debunking of the XYZ theory, you recognize my genius analysis of blah blah frameworks, we all leave feeling like our life’s work has some meaning. To someone. Out there.

Just as frequently, the conference pendulum swings opposite of esoteric — trying to be everything to everyone. We’ve all been exposed to the all hype, no depth style of conferencing. At SXSW, the Hollywood movie of conferences, I showed up two hours early to score a seat for Al Gore, only to discover there was no way I’d step foot in the auditorium. My best hope was to watch the talk on a screen in the lobby — an offering less appealing than queuing up An Inconvenient Truth on Netflix.

It’s no secret that the best part of SXSW is the party. If you want to binge drink with thousands of people who loosely share your profession, but whose names and companies you’re unlikely to recall to complete so much as a LinkedIn search on the plane ride home, then SXSW is well worth the $800 price tag. But it’s less suited for meaningful reflection on modern challenges or potential solutions.

Industry tunnel vision, disconnection from consumer desire and a misunderstood value proposition…aren’t these all sounding a bit like the traps that stagnating industries suffer from? Shouldn’t we expect more from designers?

2. We made the students do it.

At the first planning meeting for what could have been the 2014 Design Research Conference, the graduate student co-chairs gathered at IIT Institute of Design with customary bright eyes and bushy tails, ready to take on the challenge to create the coolest, bestest, most transformative conference of all time. In previous years, we’d fallen into an administrative trap of using our knowledge from previous experience to naysay creative ideas from our students. Yes, we were guilty of exactly what we teach our students not to do. So, we decided that this time we would listen to them.

The students posed questions like: How could we deal with epic challenges in our own backyard? How can we deliver an experience that is unlike what students get in classrooms at other institutions and unlike what designers are doing around white boards? How can we actually make something, instead of just talking about it?

They result was BarnRaise, a two and a half day service design make-a-thon that lets design leaders in the community share their expertise to develop solutions for real problems as posed by community partners in Chicago.

With DRC replaced by BarnRaise, it was time to focus our attention on the Strategy Conference.

3. We took cues from stuff we like but that has nothing to do with us. Namely, VICE. When VICE graduated from snarky street mag to the HBO series — and multimedia platform — thoughtfully examining global warming in Antarctica, and human trafficking in border cities, I was floored. Guerilla journalism, apocalyptic undertones, skate punks growing up and doing something meaningful with their lives…I can’t really imagine anything better on TV.

Separately, most of us at IIT Institute of Design are total NPR nerds. What do VICE and NPR have in common? They both delve into modern wonders of the world and the experts who have spent their lives understanding them, from the perspective of “yes, but what does this mean for the rest of us?” They focus on the experience of now, but inquire as to what it could mean for the future — particularly the future of humanity.

In design we often pull inspiration from analogous situations that differ in context but share building blocks — ie. comparing a hospital emergency room to the 8p dinner rush at a Michelin star restaurant. In this case, we went further than pulling inspiration and just straight copied VICE. But in a totally nerdy, NPR kind of way.

4. We learned from accidental prototypes.

The school had been putting on two hour events in Chicago and other design-savvy cities all over the world that were selling out. They were fun. They celebrated our global network of alumni design leaders either by using their spaces as venues or featuring them as speakers and panelists. They provided a way for corporate and research partners to stay on top of future trends in design and business. They offered punchy, provocative content. They always included drinks and snacks.

It occurred to us that the Strategy Conference needed to act more like a good friend’s dinner party, less like a week with the in-laws. Patrick Whitney, ID’s Dean, has always felt that the most valuable part of our Strategy Conference was the coffee breaks when people had an opportunity to discuss what they’d heard. Why not amplify experiential elements to create meaning that makes the content richer and more lasting than what can come from only listening? In a sense, this would be taking what had been incidental and making it central.

Thus, our Strategy Conference graduated to the Strategy World Tour where you can apply to get backstage passes to technology, culture, and economies in transition. This is less like a rock concert and more like a journey into the near future. We don’t want you to chalk it up to all hype, no substance. Far from it. This is conceived as an experience that takes you to the heart of change in the cities where it is most acute, and where it is resulting in the most provocative new business models, forcing us to question what this could mean for how we think, live and work.

The first stop will be San Francisco to see firsthand examples of the maker movement, its impact at the large corporate level, and its influence on other domains like education, healthcare, and government. We’ll visit Hong Kong to understand how new technology has upended logistics and manufacturing giants, and carved out new opportunities for nimble organizations. In Mumbai, we’ll examine enterprises at the extremes of scale at India’s largest CPG innovation center and the slum of Dharavi. Our visit with social innovators in Detroit will shed light on how the city is being revitalized through grassroots initiatives and global brands that celebrate but modernize the manufacturing legacy.

All of this will culminate in a Chicago experience that encompasses what we discovered in the four preceding cities, plus offers a Chicago tour representing each theme.

The visits will be punctuated by thoughtful facilitation by the Dean Whitney, who has been blazing the design higher ed trail since the late 80’s and still has the Xerox PARC aphorisms to prove it, and accompanying faculty.

With BarnRaise and the Strategy World Tour, we’re advocating for the primacy of experience vs. being talked to. And it’s refreshing to see that IIT Institute of Design isn’t the only organization creating more engagement. Core77 has rolled out a new approach with DESIGNING HERE/NOW . EPIC built a web platform to connect its community year round between each annual, global event. Let’s amplify what’s inspirational and shed the talking heads doldrums once and for all, shall we?