Thoughts on Conferences

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I just came back from the Microsoft Research Social Computing Symposium 2008in Seattle which in the end I enjoyed enormously. I say in the end, because at the beginning I didn’t get it. This is only my second American conference and I’m learning that the flavor of these kinds of events is definitely different in Europe. I think I got it though.

The key difference is: the content doesn’t matter, the people do. In Europe, its definitely about what the theme is, what people say, if they’re smart or not, if things said are innovative or not etc. The content will act as a starter for conversations. In the US, its not that the content doesn’t matter, but it’s not necessarily the key focus or starting point to a good conversation. During the entire 2 days, people were on the backchannel commenting, bitching and connecting while someone presented. It sometimes felt like noone was listening. I was stupid enough not to join, I might have met more interesting people that way.

In anycase, content-wise here are some remarks:

Social Objects revisited talk by Jyri was fantastic.
– It’s interesting to see the expression “social objects” be taken literally by “the internet of things” crowd. Much like “product design”, it shows that material-based metaphors are still handy even when you work on the web.
– Second Life is dead to most designers and geeks but very much alive for most researchers and academics
– 18 year olds in wealthy neighbourhoods are as scary and dependent on technology as we are.
Jesse Alexander has the best job in the world
– Location-based services haven’t gotten any more exciting for me, I’m still waiting for the killer app.
– Academics have their own secret language and it was interesting to dive into that world for 2 days.

All in all thanks to Tom for inviting me and being generally wonderful and supportive, Liz Lawley for organising this fabulous event and Gwendolyn Flowd for the fantastic conversations.

Reboot10: a belated report

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WordPress ate my first attempt, so here I go again. After several years of recommendations I finally decided to make it to Reboot, the much-loved Copenhagen-based conference orchestrated by Thomas Mygdal-Madsen. I was there primarily for Tinker mind you (we ran a workshop on the second day) but I attended a few talks and thought I’d jot down some quotes and thoughts from these 2 days.
FAVORITE TALK: Marko Ahtisaari spoke about wellbeing from a philosophical and economics point of view which I quite enjoyed. The theme of the conference was “free”, which a lot of speakers seemed to interpret as an invitation to add the word “free” to the title of their talk. Marko didn’t make that mistake and spoke eloquently revealing his background as a professor of philosophy. Quoting from 3 different perspectives (those of John Rawls, Esa Saarinen and Amartya Sen) he presented different approaches to how wellbeing and happiness are evaluated, how we approach our establised institutions and the impact they have on our happiness and issues of perception of freedom. Fantastic stuff.
TALK WITH THE MOST POTENTIAL: Molly Wright Steenson spoke about the concept of space and modularity by comparing the work of Cedric Price in his Generator project and the war tactics of the Israelis during the mid-90s also referred to as “walking through walls”. I thought it was interesting to think of the different intepretations of space especially from a historical perspective. I’d like to see more cross-overs with the way we look at the web from a historical perspective (especially in the light of recent debates) I think we have a tendancy to be too much “in the moment” when we think of new technologies and to bridge out to other areas of specialisation would be really useful in geek conferences. Molly’s perspective was really welcomed in that respect.

A quote I thought Brendan would enjoy from Molly’s talk “Designing for delight and pleasure should very seldom be seen to happen and must encompass doubt, danger, mystery and magic”.

I went to see a few other talks, most of them not really worth reporting though as they were either really badly structured or product pitches in disguise. Not my cup of tea in a conference context but part of the dynamics of Reboot as the schedule is pretty much decided in an un-conferency kind of way. The weather was beautiful though and this gave me an excuse to go in and out of sessions and catch up with a few people who I hadn’t seen since my Amsterdam days.

I gave a talk on the challenges of building a business that is part of the ecology of an open-source hardware platform (not posting the slides right away, as I want to test this talk on the Americans next week) and even made it to Danish radio!
In general, I loved the city and the context of the conference. I can’t say I came back with any great new ideas on the state of things and I thought a lot of it was rather old stuff being presented for the nth time, which of course affects the level of enthusiasm of the speakers. Having said that, perhaps that’s not what conferences are for these days. They’re maybe just a way to meet up with old friends and make new ones, because really, the rest is all online :)

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.

Xtech talk: Ceci n'est pas une pipe

Had a great time at Xtech on monday and basically tweaked my talk in light of the great things I had seen at Designmai. I talked about product design, how designers see objects and how that influences how the future “internet of things” will be designed.

So you can download the pdf of my slides here (2,1 MB). Enjoy!

Caved in to popular demand and have put it on Slideshare. You can still download it though : )

New: Vie the talk on blip.tv. Thanks Ian.

The difference between a U and an S

I’m sitting in Berlin in a great café with a bear on the logo, on my way to Paris, not ready at all for my talk tomorrow, but have been terribly impressed by what I saw at the Designmai event. More on that later I promise.

I was also part of a panel, invited by my friend Goerg Bertsch, and lead by Mel Byars about “what do people hate about the world of design” with fellow panelists Sophie Lovell, German editor of Wallpaper* and V. Ragunath, architect and photographer.

Strange to find myself surrounded by people from my former life in industrial design as we found ourselves talking about design, designer/client relationships, how can the internet help designers, and the lack of theory in design to make for good critiques (in a more evolved way than “i publish what i like”) but not at all about what we hated about design and what can be improved. Too bad, that conversation needs to happen and be seriously directed and orchestrated.

Strange also because i now find myself talking in between 2 roles, too advanced in my understanding of the web and it’s dynamics for most product designers, not enough for most geeks. At least I understand them both and in Paris tomorrow I’ll try to talk to the geeks about why they should be talking to industrial designers. Maybe one day i’ll be invited to talk to designers about why they should care about what the hackers do with their soldering irons in their kitchens.

Ich bin ein Berliner

I will be, for just 24 hours unfortunately, dropping by Designmai, a yearly design event in Berlin, to be part of a panel named“What they hate about the world of design”. As the organiser of the panel Mell Byars describes the conversation as follows:

” I wrote to a number of journalists, museum curators, manufacturers, designers, teachers, and others. I asked them: “What do you hate about today’s world of design?”

I offered them anonymity. If I had not, they would not have replied. I received a torrent of angry (in some cases), annoyed (in other cases), and generally disappointed (in others). Still others made intelligent suggestions. ”

This should be, in anycase, a very interesting conversation and hopefully engages the public as well.

Thishappened.org: a cultural report

Most “normal” people, when they relocate, take a comfortable flight, try to minimize their stress levels and enjoy unpacking with a glass of white wine and a nice meal. Not this girl.

I woke up last wednesday at 6 in the morning to take a cab with my flatmate D’arcy to Schipol to drop my worldly possessions packed into a suitcase and a travelbag, then took the train back into town, at around 8, waited for the office to open, spent the day there, stepped out into another cab at 3 30, took a flight to Stansted, took a train into town, kissed Matt hello, then hopped back on a bus to attend ThisHappened.org, the first of a series of talks, featuring distinguished speakers, about the practice of interaction design.

I was invited to attend by one of the organisers: Chris O’Shea and felt very honored, considering it’s a “50 people only” event.

What happens when you step out of a plane is that you tend to forget you’ve stepped into someone else’s culture and this also applies to professional circles. I definitely felt I had stepped in someone else’s living room for a few hours as there was a homey feeling that everyone knew each other and knew who so-and-so and thingypoo were. Jokes about certain companies and people were flying left and right, which set off my mental to-google list.

The highlight of the evening was of course Moritz Waldemeyer‘s presentation of his work with fashion designer Hussein Chalayan’s on his spring/summer 2007 collection. If you’ve been hiding under a rock in the past 6 months, well let me point to the recent NYT article written about him. A poster-boy for the technology-saavy designery crowd, he’s been working with the likes of Zaha Hadid, Ron Arad and Yves Behar helping their technological and interactive wet dreams come true. As he went on to explain the grueling task of sewing electronics onto the dress of a beautiful model, I could hear the jaws of many a people in the audience drop. The room was of course, mostly full of men and some moody looking women in great skirts (very London).

There was definitely designer-envy. As a professional, you don’t often get to get your hands that dirty. I know people in the field who do production work by spending weeks on Illustrator, so the picture that Moritz’s career paints would make anyone drop their dayjobs and go study engineering for a few years.

His presentation was followed by a man whose work I’ve always respected immensely: Durrel Bishop, now co-founder of Luckybite, also former head of the Interaction design program at the RCA. He went on to present the excruciating process of designing for cell phones for a project he did for Mixi, the Japanses MySpace. Always witty and gracious, he lead us through the the process of developing a cell phone photo-based community tool and the hurdles of dealing with hardware and software for cellphones to build a prototype.

Set on the upper floor of a pub, with the rest of the town watching football (I heard Liverpool Manchester United lost) this event was cozy and engaged enough to be worth repeating monthly. If I’m lucky enough to be invited again, I will surely keep reporting as the stories behind interaction design projects definitely deserve their 15 minutes of fame.

Official pictures for the event here.

Species of speakers

As I prepare my talk for next week’s Xtech in Paris, frantically trying to read the books that got delivered too late, I wonder about the people who do the conference circuit and have to give talks every other week. I think, from what I’ve seen and heard, that there are 2 types of speakers who work very differently on their talks:

1. The gardener: Matt is a good example of someone who starts off talking about a subject on a smaller scale and slowly adjusts it and adds content as time goes by.

2. The improviser: Bruce Sterling would be the prime example here of someone who masters their material extremely well. He flavors it differently picking up some things for a certain type of audience and shaping it to make it relevant to them. I’ve seen him speak twice and seen a number of videos of his talks and it’s always quite impressive.

So there, this is my first proper conference talk, and I am quite nervous, especially since i’m addressing the main subject of Ubicomp in a very different way. Hopefully I’ll try to string together the things that interest me the most about ubiquitous computing, the internet as a product designer and what this means for our cultural perception of the material world. More on that very soon I promise : )

Presentation sustainability

I will write more extensively about Luminous Green this week and what it feels like to be in a room full of artists, advertisers and cultural types talking about sustainability but for now i’ll concentrate on a smaller anecdote around the event that links nicely to the recent conversations about the use Powerpoint.

In order to make the event more sustainable, the speakers were asked to reduce their reliance on technology ( projector and therefore powerpoint) and several of them found this extremely demanding. Others requested to present in powerpoint anyway as they couldn’t possibly fathom not using their presentation (one of which was from the world of advertising of course). This resulted in weaker presentations as the speakers came unprepared for image-less descriptions of their projects and I found that they were struggling to perhaps mentally remember what their slides said.

This then poses the question: is that intellectually sustainable? If the content that you might have been exposed to relies on the speaker being able to be prompted by some sort of tool, this I suppose says a lot about speaker’s independence. As a member of the audience, you don’t have to prepare, you’re a white sheet of paper that someone either artistically writes on or awkwardly scribbles on with their hand in a cast.

Had the speakers been told in advance of this restriction, I think they probably would have absorbed their talk very differently, brought cue cards and orated like a priest in a church, or politicians did before technology’s presence, just like speakers used to when people just read books. Think Gandhi (who was referenced several times times during the event) and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

I think our reliance on Powerpoint has ultimately made us poorer speakers and we handhold our audience much more than it needs to. Inspiration doesn’t come served on slides.

Rough guide to Salone

When asked what he thought of this year’s Milan Furniture Fair a friend of mine said:

“hmm, i think that the european furniture market is doing well, it’s def on the up-and-up. very shameless stuff. after a few years of crisis it seems that it’s doing better… big things. marcel wanders, hayon, studio job, moss, bisazza, established & sons. big expensive pieces. people are investing more because they have more money. i also think there’s a trend to replace art with design objects. this year reflected that trend. i don’t think it was about innovation, there was more of a statement, rather than real advancements or clever stuff”

This of course, proved to be a general sentiment shared by the NYT as well as Monocle. However I’m finding it very difficult, as a designer to keep being interested in kitchen counters and bedspreads after a few hours. Having spent a week there I’d like to use this opportunity (and since now I have a bunch of free time) to give a different view and a few guiding principles about going to the great yearly adventure of the Milan Furniture Fair.

0. Book a hotel WELL in advance: Some hotels get booked a year in advance, so if you don’t have generous friends like mine with a spare bed or mattress, consider yourself warned. Staying on the outskirts of town won’t do, the traffic in Milan is monstrous and renting a car is simply out of the question as parking is next to impossible to find. If you really like last minute decisions, then more recently, a network of spare beds and sofaswas organised for that week, but it remains a pricey option.

1. Get your hands on an INTERNI guide asap: Reading this and deciding what you want to see, especially if you’re with friends, will take a few hours. So it’s worth taking the time at the very beginning of your trip, unlike me who finally had time to sit down and look at it on the friday afternoon, 2 days before the end and didn’t end up seeing very much.

2. Assume nothing happens on the last day: Don’t plan to see anything on the last day as most designers are already sick and tired of visitors, hungover and already packing for the most part. The busiest days for them are the weekend but the most important days are the first few ones where the press and the important heads of companies hover around, going to lake Como on the weekend.

3. (Advice for women) Bring 2 pairs of shoes with you during the day: one for endless daytime walking in the heat, the other for fancy last minute aperitivos where you suddenly have to look your best and shmooze. You also wont waste time in transport going back to your hotel to change. Getting anywhere in Milan is a hassle so you dont want to waste 2 hours just taking trams to change shoes.

4. (More advice for women) Bring a satchel type bag: you’ll be collecting catalogues like no tomorrow, the last thing you want to do is carry them in your arms and try to balance a glass of “prosecco” at the same time as trying to answer your phone.

5. Just wear black: don’t think about it, just do it. This is Milan, not Milwaukee, avoid trainers or flipflops, try elegant slight sandals if you really want to, but Italians hardly ever reveal their feet in public. Wear jeans if you want, but that’s a kid thing. If you’re over 30, think elegance, long dresses, great shoes and scarves (never mind its 30 degrees outside, the milanese are elegant like it’s -30 at any temperature), sunglasses, uber-glossy lipstick and of course the look of someone who does this every bloody year.

6.Get a taxi company phone number: they’ll pick you up at any place in the city. You can’t hail them so you’ll be stuck with the other bozos at 3 in the morning in a huge cue at a taxi point.

7. Go see school work: they actually produce the most interesting work, the rest is chairs, tables, tiles, lighting. In a nutshell.

8. Be careful about italian time: Lunch is from 1 – 3 sometimes 4 which means that some shops might be closed during those hours. Sundays mean everything is closed. Shops close around 6ish-7ish in the evening. Malls are rare so you have to obey these timings. Dinnertime is late in general and breakfast is before 11. If you ask for a “cappucino” after 11 they’ll think you’re crazy, a tourist or hungover. So order a “latte macchiato” instead, nearly the same thing and wont get you as many annoyed stares.

9. Plan for breaks: If you don’t want to be blasé after a few hours, start the day late, as most events are opened quite late. It will allow you to spend some time in the morning digesting the information from the day before and getting over your hangover.

10.Have an aperitivo: Drinking on an empty stomach 5 days in a row will kill you so either go to aperitivos where they’ll serve food or make sure you book a table somewhere to have a short break before you go back to selling your skills and talent to the design sharks. The last thing you want to do is start hitting on Karim Rashid while drunk at Barbasol.

And finally: just have a “gelato” and watch as the world of design gazes at it’s own navel, worships it’s superstars and it’s trivial and over-advertised innovations, ignoring it’s own eventual demise and the bigger problems that it faces. You’ll think about sustainability tomorrow.

Salute!