Designing audiences: master and puppet.

Spending time in New York is always a story of compromises. I planned to go to the MoMa but didn’t get a chance to. Nice people were in town but triangulating was a nightmare. I think it has something to do with the scale and the spread of urban life there. In some cities, you clearly have a “downtown” area where you’ll eventually bump into people (Milan is a good example) but in New York, you can go from one end to the other really quickly and there are interesting things to do and visit at pretty much at every corner. Making plans with other people becomes an odessey.

So the trip consisted of hanging out in the West Village, getting great coffee at Jack’s Stir Brew, eating at some nice vegetarian restaurants that Daverecommended, going to see Design Life Now at the Copper Hewitt Museum, breifly dropping by the venue for Postopolis and getting my new favorite ice-cream in America: Green tea Pinkberry topped with coconut flakes.

In any travel plans however there’s also a little bit of work involved and so Matt and I went to see Designing Audiences an AIGA talk at the beautiful Fashion Institute of Technology.

The panel was lead by the infamous Ze Frank with guests graphic designer Stefan Bucher, game designer Katie Salen, and head of Stamen design, Eric Rodenbeck.

They each made a short presentation of their work, Stefan with his daily monsters, Katie with her Ice Karaoke project and Eric with the work that Stamen does (presenting Trulia Hindsight for the first time).

Each spoke about their relationship to audiences both offline and online and I must say I was at first skeptical about this wide array of experiences in drawing a set of conclusions but 2 themes seemed to emerge from the conversation nonetheless:

1. Setting rules is key: Not unlike a school teacher, the designers, apart from Eric perhaps, all spoke of the need to set rules to grow a good community. If you left things too open, people would start wandering away from the “goal” of the community and produce what Ze referred to as “crapucopia”. This is a social phenomenon that teachers, babysitters and mothers all know too well. Makes me wonder if these designers haven’t all turned to become design teachers handing out briefs. The tighter the restrictions, the more creative you are forced to become in order to impress your peers and win the love of the teacher. Is this web2.0 all just an extension of school then? Strange notion worth exploring. In a way this has nothing to do per se with designing a community but more to do with maintaining one and maintaining the conditions that will make every participant feel special and look great by rewarding even their most meager attempts, and keep them interested in contributing. Seen under such a light, “web2.0” seems almost a maternal activity, closer to real life than a truly unique “internet phenomenon”.

2. Platform makers: I asked them during the Q&A whether they thought that designers would become simply platform makers and their value would come from how great a platform they would create for people’s enjoyment. This is a question that I myself struggle with as a designer in an age that pushes us to think more and more about services and less about “stuff” more particularly in product design. The answers they provided pointed to a balance between these 2 roles for the future designers. Yes we will be building more platforms but the content creation will still be important to launch that community and gather people’s reactions around an initial body of work.

It seems almost impossible to think that most designers will not be following this trend even if it means more maternal maintenance work and less ego-driven creation.

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