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Design Digital:
International Design Conference at Aspen


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Many conference attendees looked to be my age (52)or older. Clearly, the 1999 International Design Conference at Aspen didn't attract the hot young designers who are shaping the Web...



But maybe my expectations were unrealistic. I have been to four or five IDCA's over twenty years, and they tend to deal with the Big Picture, raising questions about the relationship between design (broadly defined to include everything from education to architecture) and issues in society at large. I always return home afterwards with new ideas and new resolve to change at least some aspects of how I work. This year was no exception.

In many respects the conference was a good one (hard to go wrong spending three or four days in a picturesque town surrounded by the Rockies). The attraction of Aspen probably accounts for the fairly large proportion of regulars who attend regardless of the topic. The regulars tend to be an older crowd, not always favorably impressed by bleeding edge technology and design.

Given the explosion of web-related design activity in the past several years, I was surprised that there was little debate about the direction in which this medium is evolving. Craig Kanarick of Razorfish impressed many with his presentation, judging from the crowds that gathered to talk with him afterwards, but Razorfish, in my view, represents good but mainstream web design.

Nothing wrong with that, but I had hoped to hear from people pushing the edges a bit. People who are making the web more personal and less predictable. I wanted more presentations like the one by Mark McCabe, a product of the Royal College of Art (London). His slides and videos showed student projects that brought physicality to interactivity, like jam jars filled with honey that played musical tones that changed as you moved the jars. These were short-term projects done as explorations. Maybe that is why they struck me as so fresh and unique. Lacking any immediate practical use, they offered possibilities, not answers.

The topic most interesting to me as a college teacher was the Juicing the Academy session about interactive/new media programs at several universities. The session was, well, academic. The presentations were factual and unenthusiastic. The juice in the title was not apparent.

The talk by Lorraine Wild, based on her The Macrame of Resistance article (Emigre #47, 1998), was much more interesting. Her advocacy of the value of craft in the computer age raises important questions for both teachers and students. What is craft where computers are involved? How do we recognize it? How do we teach it?

Overall, Design Digital was enjoyable, but the presentations themselves were lacking something. Or maybe not lacking but over-weighted in some ways. After the introduction of one of the speakers on the last day of the conference, a man behind me said "Too many people from MIT," to which I'd add "Too many architects."

In fact some of the most wildly imaginative work shown was architectural, and this may be the core of my dissatisfaction. With only moderate interest in architecture, I had hoped to see and hear more about visionary interactive multimedia work. Wrong conference, I guess. Maybe next year I'll try SIGGRAPH. But I'll miss the mountains.

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