“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

A reponse to Jon & Other thoughts on IDSA (the conference & the org)

This morning [I started this on Sunday & finished it on Tuesday], very early, I had a chance to read Jon Kolko’s thoughts on IDSA. Just this week I wrote some thoughts of my own on the topic and much of what Jon states compliments my own analysis in that piece. In his piece, is decries IDSA as irrelevant and all but euthanizes the organization.

I’m afraid though that Jon dost go too far and over simplifies a much more complex landscape. But let’s hold off condemning Jon (too much) because, as I was talking with collegues last night about the piece before reading it, I cautioned them that the reason rants are ineffective for communication is that the tone, and provocation distract us from the kernel of truth almost always embedded within its core.

In here that kernel is that IDSA is in trouble. It is stagnant and there does contain a definite element of older guard that are unprepared and illequipped for moving forward the way it needs to. But Jon, in his all out diagnosis of terminal illness gives no hope and offers to path towards success and doesn’t even describe what a new (since this organization is dead) would look like. It is just a hopeless and well non-constructive scathing rant without constructive critique.

So what is the trouble. I think Jon outlines it quite good and I’ll even offer some others based on about 20 conversations with internal upper leadership of IDSA and core constituent stakeholders:

  • commodity of core practice of industrial design
  • lack of vision by significantly controlling leadership
  • a small controlling defensive leadership with “something to lose”
  • an under representation of membership compared to the community of practice
  • A primary merit system disconnected from the realities of practice
  • A contrived understanding of the expansive nature of design
  • A leadership growth system that is pretentiously democratic, giving too much power to the oligarchy

But what Jon has done is throw away the baby with the bath oil and he disregards those who are part of the leadership who are giving the good fight and the elder statesman who are doing great work creating invaluable content. Further, I think Jon is confusing semantics for reality.

I’ll take on the last point. While the items he mentioned are all true, there was much in the conference that he ignores in his piece that could be used to create an completely different story. For example, the largest thread of content was nothing to do with industrial design at all. It was about design research. There were also many presentations about sustainability and the need to look deeply at connected systems, issues of contextualizing culture, service design and a few interaction design presentations as well. In fact, I never experienced a single traditional ID conversation or presentation at all. But again, this doesn’t mean that Jon’s argument is wholly wrong, but rather I mean it to demonstrate that his argument oversimplifies a complex collection of problems that require thinking from a larger context.

To say that IDSA is irrelevant is unfair and obtuse. There is some great content out there in IDSA land. Enough to justify the cost? NO! but again, let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater and this is my biggest point.

I too was inspired by the conference to write a blog post before this one. In it I congratulate what IDSA has that IxDA doesn’t have and what IxDA has that IDSA doesn’t. I like Steve’s quote about comparing IDSA to the intractability of the record industry and I agree that any organization that is out to first “sustain itself” probably will fail. Where I most disagree is in the early death sentence that Jon offers.

AIGA was (and some can argue still is) in a similar position. An artifact focused design organization that completely rebranded itself around an improved strategy. Why can’t IDSA do this? Because of the politics of a few? I spoke with too many at IDSA ’09 who know there is a problem right at the top. Board members and FIDSA’s who are frustrated.

What is totally clear is that IDSA is struggling:

  • It charges too much for what it offers
  • It’s overhead is too high
  • It is out of touch with practice, education and design today
  • It’s conference is valuable for networking but horrible for content
  • It is out of touch with the middle & young generation of designer

Is IDSA completely irrelevant? No way! Is it on the brink of destruction? No way! Is it in need of revolution? Yell Yeah!!!!!!

But I also want to challenge something. This notion that designing 3D form for mass production is dead? Is fashion dead? Is furniture? Is there no place left to advance 3D form? Are we going to have static aesthetics moving forward? Architecture which is several hundred years older is still evolving.

I am always cautious of what I call “the big climb up the umbrella”. I think it is a disservice to any discipline when we look too high up the mountain (the 100,000 foot view). The truth is that even if you are designing services and eco-systems, you are still going to need to be pushing the interactions and the forms that are the very foundations (joints) of design. Services are nothing without the forms & behaviors that give them life.

So I declare that while AIGA has gone up high, have they done it at the expense of graphic design? I don’t know yet, as it hasn’t been long enough. Can a single organization represent meta-design and low level disciplines? It is a hard path that’s for sure! I don’t know if it is the right path for IDSA? Do they have no choice?

To be honest, I don’t know how we can do this? Should we concede to AIGA and remain focused on form? Do we need to just blow the whole thing up and start from scratch? What I know is that the industrial design point of view is both special and NOT unique. I know that other points of view are special and NOT unique. I know that design disciplines across all forms and behavior are converging, but I know that from an educator’s perspective that we cannot train all forms of design craft at the level of undergraduate cannot be done. I’m scared that if the organizations just keep lookin’ up that they will be doing a worse disservice to their respective disciplines.

What we need is organization cooperation. What we need is an education system that is more skillful, unified, collaborative, and cooperative across disciplines. What we need are graduate programs that focus on creation of new knowledge, explore form & aesthetics, and teach leadership & strategy. We need corporate practices that return to mentoring junior designers, that build relationships with a wide section of schools, and that contribute knowledge. Lastly, we need to acknowledge that more than degree-based formal training is needed to complete the needed education system for all of design.

So these are my thoughts post IDSA ’09 and in response to Jon Kolko’s own thoughts, euthanizing IDSA.

I’d love to hear from others.

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  • Kerstin

    There are two points you bring up that I definitely agree with – as a young(ish) professional in IDSA it can be very difficult to find your fit as there has always been an ‘old boys club’ feel to the organization. As you also pointed out there are many higher ups aware of the crippling problems that are currently inherent in the system.
    Speaking with the new crop of board members and volunteers I am encouraged that they will make a difference in opening both the organization and profession up to begin a more positive and responsible position of nurturing the upcoming generations. IDSA as a governance has turned off most of my peers and it has always been disheartening hearing from fellow junior/young senior designers that IDSA has nothing to offer them.
    Which can make the second point, the value of networking, that much more relevant. As a networking engine the conferences are invaluable and few designers, especially during these questionable economic times are properly taking advantage of this aspect. Even if you are gainfully and securely employed it is your duty to meet and guide the next generation of designers. If you are not gainfully employed why would you not take advantage of the face time given to you to meet interested professionals looking to help out? I learn 10xs more about a designer speaking face to face with them than I do from their portfolio.
    I would agree with your assessment that the presentations can be horribly hit or miss. I enjoyed a number of the general session speakers but was sorely disappointed in all but one of the breakout sessions. In the defense of the committee in charge of choosing content I would argue that some of this is also due to the fact that you work with what is presented to you. The majority of speakers are chosen from submissions to present and often times while a name/company/summary sounds like a sure hit – it can often be painful to experience first hand.
    That being said, I hate to fall on the default argument that “if you don’t like something then change it” but it’s particularly true in regard to IDSA*. IMHO because of it’s hefty membership and attendance costs it is very easy to see the organization as a service to cater to Industrial Designers. It is also easy to sit back and expect a pricey organization to cater to its audience – thereby drawing a line in the sand regarding stewardship.
    The truth is that IDSA can only be improved, rejuvenated and most importantly be evolved if there is involvement by all levels of members and all participating industries. If you want better content – make it. If you want better chapters – get involved. If you want better conferences – do your part to make it happen.

    *The asterisks I’d put to this argument would be that we have failed to embrace other hubs of our profession that attempted to join with the IDSA, which seem to end in that they have become their own entities such as the IXDA, the Designers Accord and Core77. In this the IDSA has failed to embrace non-traditional involvement and taken some dangerous steps towards irrelevancy.


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