Design Research Conference: Bird’s Eye, Rear-view Perspective

by New Idiom


Design Research Conference 2008 has officially closed.  Besides the energy drain of the two days, not to mention that of the previous two weeks, DRC came off fabulously. The jury is still out on the evaluation cards, but everyone we talked to found value in at least some part of the event. In the weeks preceding the event, we had several comments on the superstar lineup of speakers. During the conference several people told us how great and organized and slick it all was. AND, the food was good—although I did miss the chocolate bundts served Friday night.

But that is all about what it was—what about what it could be? One comment I received during the conference about how the ID students were missing from the picture really got me thinking. Where were the presentations about some of the cool stuff that students were doing? The token piece of student work in our lineup was “Getting People to Talk,” the fabulous video that  Kristy Scovel and Gabe Biller developed for their demo project. And, because student work had become such an afterthought, we were only able to slide it into the lunch hour. The original About, With and For, reputedly featured a good deal of student work, and as a student produced conference, students have a right to be featured.

We considered, briefly, early in the planning for the conference whether we should try something different, like an unconference. We also considered for a short time some more student-oriented features such as student project posters. But, having never had the experience of running a conference, we agreed on a conference format that we knew and understood.

But despite the success of the conference—if being sold out is a success—I still wonder what it could have been? Could there have been even more robust networking opportunities, could the format have been even more stimulating? Could a completely new kind of event been created? Like any other event, Design Research Conference is an opportunity for experience design, and where better to find the talent and the ability to pull off a highly designed and amazing event than at the Institute of Design? So what stopped us from changing the world through DRC?

Maybe it has something to do with the metaphor that Bill Buxton provided at Strategy Conference 2008: we called the architect the same day that we started digging the foundations. One of the first concrete decisions we made was on the venue, the MCA. The space is beautiful, the screen is big, Jeff Koons adds a nice touch of DaDa, or whatever he is, but there is really only one type of event that fits in the MCA theatre: a one-two-three-all-eyes-on-me kind of event. The decision on venue severely limited our ability to think outside what had been done the year before.

Another limiting factor could have been our own adversity to risk. Neither of us were ready to do something drastically different because of the risk that it would entail. Would attendees like something different, or would they even come? Would a different kind of program demand more time to prepare? The unknown is scary, especially with thousands of dollars and the reputation of a yearly conference at stake.

But none of this is for justification for a lack of invention, but rather rumination. Design Research Conference will undoubtedly go on year after year for a long time, and each incarnation will have its own opportunity for “success.” Design Research Conference 2008 was a success, as measured in sales and incremental improvements in speakers, food, and networking. But how will success for Design Research Conference 2009 be measured?

5:20pm September 20, the MCA security ushered us out like so many designer sheep, unofficially closing the conference 15 minutes after the official close. Two days of overseeing content and workshops—not to mention awakening before 6:00am both days—is enough to send one—at least this one—to bed at 9:00pm on a Saturday night. We turn over the evaluation cards to next year’s co-chairs as soon as they are known. Nominate the people who will make DRC2009 a conference to remember.