“Innovation has nothing to do with how many R&D dollars you have. When Apple came up with the Mac, IBM was spending at least 100 times more on R&D. It's not about money. It's about the people you have, how you're led, and how much you get it.” - Steve Jobs

The professional organization: IDSA & IxDA

I’m here at the IDSA (Industrial Design Society of America) National (or this year International) Conference. During my time here due to the very warm hearts of some of the colleagues I’ve met over the years, I’ve been included for the first time in some of the more … how shall I say this? … central group gatherings of the organization. As a point of background this is my 3rd IDSA National Conference and I’ve also been to 1 regional conference.

So why is this worthy of a blog article. Well, I had an epiphany the other night as I was doing some covert participatory observation research. The focus of my research was to gain insights into the formation and sustaining of a design professional organization for the purpose of discovering usable data points for my constant thinking about the organization that I helped formed and which is going through its own sustainability issues, Interaction Design Association (IxDA).

As I was looking on and participating in festivities among a crowd of the most devoted and hard working people of IDSA it really hit me.

Professional organizations are really just the evolution of peers discovering coalescence around a specific practice or interest and converting that, or growing that into a community of peers who then feel that they want to spread that “feeling” to a larger group of people in the form of a professional organization.

This is by no means a bad thing. It means you have a strong group of peers who are devotees to the “cause” of maintaining the quality and spirit of the original community. There are cautions, however. There can be a sense of defensiveness or exclusion on one side. The other side is that you may not really be able to maintain that core, or sustain it new peers’ energy because the initial group has not created enough of a compelling story to move beyond it’s initial intimacy-based roots.

So when I think about my organization, IxDA, I have a few thoughts:

1. Since we started out as almost an entirely virtual entity (except for small localized exceptions), we actually don’t have a single peer group driving the gravitational center of the organization in quite the same way.

This is both good and bad. It is good in that there is not really any sort of exclusion behavior, because what would we be excluding you from. I do know that there are people who do feel excluded from IxDA, but I don’t really understand where that comes from outside of excluding people who well do not practice interaction design.

The bad side as I see it is that lack of a coalesced center. We are non-defensive (well I am a little, but that’s just my nature) as a whole, and thus have a hard time saying “THIS! is who we are for any sustained period of time.

2. Our organization lacks age. We don’t have people who went through leadership cycles of college chapter > district work &/or local chapters &/or topic sections > national leadership who then became luminaries, thought leaders, “rock stars”, initiative leaders within the organization. (Not with any critical mass)

Why would Tog, Cooper, Buxton, Crampton-Smith, etc. take on any sort of leadership role within the organization? What I saw and continue to see here is luminary and veteran deep commitment to the organization.

Of course, one could say that well, we haven’t gotten there yet and that is fair, but I think there is something more. We don’t expect it. This past year at the Interaction 09 conference we only had ONE keynote speaker of 4 return to our conference from the previous year. (I understand in ’10 this may happen again, but with a different person). What struck me was that in ’09 this person had 2 qualities: 1. They were outside our target (which I love) as primarily an architecture professor (neither practicing nor focusing on IxD); 2. They were not speaking at all on their return visit to our (HIS) conference/community.  I’ll add a 3rd; his participation between conferences was not seen.

I remember being so happily surprised to see this person in ’09 in Vancouver. I really like Malcolm McCullough. I think he is brilliant and from an adjacent discipline has done more to define who we are than many inside our discipline. But that’s an aside. But I was also struck by the question, where are X, Y, Z people who are “leaders” of us all? This is not a condemnation in any way shape or form. Their support has been HUGE! and I know for one in particular it was not out of lack of desire.

But coming to the conference is very different from what I’m seeing here from 30-40 year veterans in IDSA/Industrial Design.They may not be officers, but they lead the conference, lead initiatives, support and mentor officers & district leaders, and devote themselves to the guidance and maturation of their organization (sometimes in heated ways).

I really feel that we need this. We tried to contrive this as an “Advisory Board” early in our formation, but as most contrivances, it failed. So I challenge us to figure out how to engage our most esteemed luminaries of our discipline so that they lead in more active ways. Right now, I don’t see why they would and I’d love to talk to any of “them” (sorry for the us v. them language, but I’m lacking the articulation of another way of saying this right now) and figure out what it is we need to do so that active participation is a valuable contribution to their lives and careers.

I also want to clarify that this isn’t about “luminaries” per se, and I apologize for using that semantics. But it is about the most senior among us. The execs among us who are giving tremendous leadership in their own organization without any “notoriety” at all.

3. An evolving but constrained vision for providing value to your constituents is the most important aspect of sustaining an organization. The channels change and one cannot merely engage them as a contrivance, but need to do so from a position of connectedness and thoroughness.

This is where IxDA excels. We are grassroots AND we are top down. We understand that the grass needs tending so to speak, but also know that it needs to breathe on its own. We understand that it is about building infrastructures that enable the grass to do on its own. We understand though that philosophically we need to maintain a consistent message across the local and the global.

My personal lesson here though is to not be too rigid. Find a broad enough vision and mission that isn’t more “inclusive”, but rather allows for the greatest evolution, yet maintain its accuracy. I’m not interested in including more views per se. For example, I’m not interested in broadening IxDA into a generic User Experience organization. If all you do is research & validation, or graphic design, or even industrial design (classical) then well there are other organizations and communities for that. I will bring you in so that my community is exposed to your areas as they are relevant to my own, but that is different from including you in my community. (Yes, I know a possibly controversial point.)

What I mean by being broad is to understand that for some Interaction Design means in their lives something much more narrow and specific in terms of technology & medium than it does to me. There is room for both, for sure, and quite honestly that broadness is increasing every year with inclusion of “behavior is medium” and service design as a medium that engages behavior.

I think that IxDA is in an amazing and exciting point in our young lives. Compared to IDSA we are but in childhood if not toddlerdom and we should maintain that context. We should be mindful of their flaws, and embrace their many successes. The stewardship of the current board has been beyond impressive and I will be sad to see some of them go this February. The leadership in particular of Janna Hick DeVylder (@jdevylder) has been the perfect transition from the entrepreneurial leadership like my own, to sustainable leadership. The Board is asking all the right questions for creating a NEW type of professional organization and seems to be avoiding so many of the pitfalls we can so easily fall into.

This organization was started by a “Call to Arms” by Bruce Tognazinni. Our discipline is filled with many “elder statespeople” like Bill Moggridge, Bill Verplank, Bill Buxton, Alan Cooper, Brenda Laurel, Gillian Crampton-Smith, and many more. I would love as part of the this work mentioned above we find a way to bring them home, instead of inviting them as guests. We need our elders, not just to teach us, but to model for us the very meaning of the work we hope to understand.

I think I just had an idea about how I might proactively start to do this! More soon!

I knew that a cathartic blog entry would lead to something good. Always great to find NEW moments of serendipity.

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  • http://designaday.tumblr.com/ Jack Moffett

    You’ve raised a really interesting question here. IxDA was formed by “us young’ns” because we were the ones using the technology to communicate with each other. The organization was formed at a specific moment in time by a specific “generation” of designers. So, the luminaries, being more experienced and thus typically older, weren’t in the loop. They weren’t part of that peer group. So, how do we get them to feel that this organization belongs to them too? How can we instill a sense of ownership when IxDA evolved almost completely outside of their own peer group?

    If we can’t, IxDA will have to continue to evolve until our generation naturally assumes the luminary throne for it to have what you are looking for.

    I’m really intrigued to hear your idea.

  • Fritz

    Dave firstly thank you for your thoughts on this topic your passion and depth of thought is truly inspiring. As someone who comes to Interaction Design circuitously through Graphic Design and Web Design I must say this (IxD) is (and the IxDA by extension) is undoubtedly home for me.

    In your above post you raise a great point that I’ve often wondered to myself. As I’m unaware of the history, I’ll ask a few maybe dumb questions…

    a) have these (admitted) luminaries ever been asked to play a role? If they’ve said no, why? What would take to get to yes?

    b) If they’ve not been asked, prior to an overt invite has there been attempt to even define what role these people would play (I’ve found outlining time commitments clearly goes along away to someone’s decision making process)

    c) What are your thoughts on doing some sort of “legends” award (or some similar designation) at each conference? This would help make them feel welcome, acknowledge how we perceive their value to the community and maybe open the door to a longer term commitment—sort of designers hall of fame

    Anyways that’s my .02. Keep hope alive and let me know if there’s anything I can do to help. It’s needed. – Fritz

  • http://www.ergonomidesign.com Lennart Andersson

    Dave, great read about your thoughts about IxDA and how it compares to a more mature and somewhat rigid ISDA. I really admire the openness of the IxDA, and the ongoing sometimes quite intense discussion about who we are and what we do, which will continue to change faster than in the (traditional) industrial design community. Especially the skills required to stay in the forefront. It is difficult to both include and exclude various disciplines and skills, but an important balance act. There might be a core of what we do, but certainly no clear boundaries.
    Keep up the good work!

  • dave

    Let’s answer each question as best I can from my person point of view. But first Fritz you have to understand that everyone’s sense of community is built from their own relationships with those in the community. If your peers are not engaged then it is hard for you to engage unless you find affinity with those who already are who are not part of your peer circle. This for me is the big gotchya for us. It is hard to go to anyone and say, “join us” unless what there is to join is attractive to them. How much do we ‘change’ to make ourselves attractive to non-core groups? What advantages does that give us that make the sacrifices worth it.

    Here are your questions:

    a) have these (admitted) luminaries ever been asked to play a role? If they’ve said no, why? What would take to get to yes?

    When you ask this question, it assumes that anyone has been “asked” to take on any leadership. We are about volunteerism which means self-involvement. All of our board members past & present are almost all self-volunteered. Some have been invited or pushed (out of their shell), but that is not exactly like an “invitation”. I have a few exception in my mind during the 1st retreat, but even those 1 or 2 “invitations” were among peers who the original steering committee had direct relationships to. It was always assumed that people like Cooper, Tognazinni, Buxton, Moggridge, Verplank, etc. were too busy for starting a new organization (some even said so much directly).

    b) If they’ve not been asked, prior to an overt invite has there been attempt to even define what role these people would play (I’ve found outlining time commitments clearly goes along away to someone’s decision making process)

    An “advisory board” was created by the 1st official board. We even had members on it (some mentioned above). But the issue was we really didn’t have a need for it. We are fairly a tactical organization that leads from the bottom, so having an advisory board on top of the head of the organization (the board) just didn’t work for us then (and I’d suspect wouldn’t work now).

    c) What are your thoughts on doing some sort of “legends” award (or some similar designation) at each conference? This would help make them feel welcome, acknowledge how we perceive their value to the community and maybe open the door to a longer term commitment—sort of designers hall of fame

    I think the keynotes at the @ixd10 conference really is just that. Some are legends, some are noteworthy and some are young but important voices, but all are notable and important. As for a specific award akin to the Fellow of IDSA, I’m not sure this fits our cultural model of @ixda.

    On the flip side and positive side, we have seen a response to the conference whereas some luminaries have come back year on year after being keynotes. I hope this is something that continues. I really hope it does! I know it is hard. The other issue is the definition of “luminaries”. I think the gurus are not the only market we need to think about, but just the older generation. Not everyone who is successful is famous or outspoken. When I look at IDSA folks, and the FIDSA among them, it is really the non-famous folks who have 30-40-50 years who are still in the trenches keeping the organization alive whom I’m talking about as well.

    — dave


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