Design Conferences, past and future

While there are many groups around the world interested in how design can be a force for ‘public’ ‘good’ (I’ll refrain from critically examining those two terms in this post), two of the most well-known in our part of the world are Architecture for Humanity and Design Corps, both of whom host annual conferences on the topic of socially-responsible design.

Architecture for Humanity recently hosted their 3rd Annual Conference in San Francisco–the video below offers a brief overview. Unfortunately, mainly because it’s more of a marketing video, there appears to be an utter lack of critical engagement with the projects, the topic, or the event itself.

Design Like You Give A Damn LIVE!

Design Corps hosts their annual Structures for Inclusion conference, which they just announced will be held in Minneapolis this year. Having attended a couple of past SFI conferences, I witnessed a similar feel to the AFH video: devoid of criticality, the conference becomes more of a celebration of design-for-good and a chance to mingle with like-minded do-gooders. With the presenters being pre-selected by the conference hosts, the assumption is that, as a member of the audience, it would be inappropriate to challenge their claims. Even when smaller, group discussions are held, the goal is to reach consensus, not to stimulate debate or highlight friction. And so, the conference becomes mostly a lot of cheerleading with either this blond guy or this blond guy standing off in the corner nodding his head approvingly.

This approach to conferences seems to be a sign of the times, in which critical engagement is left at the door and seen as negative and antithetical to action (see the earlier post on Brett Steele, or consider TED talks as a parallel example). More broadly, one of the major strains of our (American) zeitgeist can be characterized as a shift towards positivity and away from the political and the critical. For instance, if one looks superficially toward music, art, and other forms of cultural expression, one can see that, for instance, the Bob Dylans of the world aren’t getting much airtime on the radio waves. Rather, we are bombarded by therapeutic images and sounds to help us escape from doom and gloom (or silence). But I digress…

Perhaps these conferences are not the most appropriate forums for critically engaging issues around socially-responsible design. They certainly don’t claim to be, and it’s their hosts’ prerogative to define their own set of rules and the atmosphere they wish to foster. But are missing a huge opportunity: such annual, face-to-face interactions with other professionals are no doubt a great time for networking and catching up, but they also provide rare moments when a community of creative individuals are all focused around a particular topic for a few days. If critical engagement continues to be seen as antithetical to both ‘good’ and ‘design’, then we will continue to slide deeper into the realm of ‘design discourse as puff-piece’ and ‘design conference as award show’. Democratizing such gatherings to foster open and constructive dialog would surely require confidence and a leap of faith on the part of the hosts. But the potential impact–achieving a critical AND socially-responsible design–seems well worth the risk.

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