Enter the Do-Ference! Reflections on the 2012 Design Ethos Conference in Savannah, GA
Designers know how to throw a good conference, and the 2012 Design Ethos conference in Savannah, Georgia, was no exception. Conferences like this play an essential role in the continued evolution of the art and science of our work. More importantly, they offer a space for the community to look inward upon itself and to ask really important – and often times uncomfortable – questions about our own assumptions, biases and motivations. These brief family reunions of colleagues, contemporaries and conspirators drive renewal within the very fabric of our character: our ethos.
Design Ethos, founded by SCAD professor Scott Boylston, aims to “to redefine the role of visual communication as a tool to help empower, shape and amplify the voices of traditionally under-served communities, and their business assets.” The energized, enthusiastic discipline of Social Design is skyrocketing into common consciousness as a designation for those who believe Design can and should be waged as a force for the common good. Those who are familiar with one Mr. Scott Boylston know that he has an uncanny appreciation for dialing up the mayhem:
“Another main objective of the conference is to redefine the structure and role of the traditional conference model to provide more experiential interaction for attendees [...] in a way that allows for meaningful interactivity between visual communicators and those whose voices would be amplified by these design abilities.”
If a conference is a place where so much talent and potential momentary convene to share the alchemy of their efficacy, what might happen if that potential for impact were fully unleashed on a common goal? What happens when people momentarily convene to do? Enter the Design Ethos Do-Ference: a forty-eight hour challenge to for conference-goers to join local community leaders in realizing and catalyzing new opportunities for meaningful, sustainable progress within the Waters Avenue Revitalization Project. Industry vets, professors and students were divided into six teams focusing on six essential initiatives:
Volta served an interesting role in the Do-Ference. R, Jill and I shuffled about as “synthesizers,” responsible for keying off of patterns and overlaps across multiple teams to bridge connections and providing clarity where possible. We were an active feedback loop, working closely with organizers, facilitators, and student aids, as well as participants who needed a little extra coaxing to engage with their teams.
From our vantage point we observed a rich medley of creative chaos and confusion as teams grappled with the gravity of the challenge. The potential for impact was huge, but so were the constraints. First: the project would last for a full 48 hours, and second: the project only lasted for 48 hours. How deep can you really dive in such a limited amount of time? And, should you engage, how much should you realistically (and responsibly) commit to? Central themes of food shed development and educational reform resonated throughout the rooms, as teams recognized that the major challenges and points of tension within the space were about identify, continuity and autonomy. Each group tempered the impulse to assert top-down solutions with the candor to simply asking better questions.
The collaboration that emerged between the conference-goers and Waters Ave. community leadership was beautiful. Common design methodologies like affinity diagramming and concept mapping (things we often take for granted) deepened conversations and forged entirely new ideas that were more connected and comprehensive than anything the teams might have proposed otherwise. In fact, it was the teams who were able to connect directly with the immediate needs and aspirations of their community leader that delivered the most value. Not surprisingly, those teams also coalesced into productive powerhouses once they defined their point of attack.
The clock marched down to the wire with Scott’s cautionary maxim from the kickoff session hovering above every team: “Promise only what you can deliver.” The pressure rattled folks; some we least expected, and in ways we couldn’t have imagined. But deliver they did:
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