AIGA Y17 Conference

I can’t remember who or when she said it, but years ago at one of my first Y-Conferences, a speaker came right out and said “You can’t be professional without embracing your professional association”…or something along those lines. Along the same route, Seinfeld quipped “If you’re dumb, surround yourself with smart people; and if you’re smart, surround yourself with smart people who disagree with you.” Each of these representations of social experience drive home how the Y-Conference changes you; as a person, designer, human, and consumer. If I had to pick one line from this wonderful two-day conference I would re-purpose an idea presented by today’s first speaker Andrew Byrom – who gushed about the Eames and how they found “uncommon beauty in common things”. With that…how about a nice recap of #Y17?

Y-Conference Day One

Andrew Byrom

I have to hand it to the San Diego AIGA chapter for really nailing their first speaker line up. Andrew became the full embodiment of why I come to the Y-Conference, he was funny, dedicated, driven, quirky, crazy, and shockingly talented. Like a cup of perfectly roasted organic coffee, he was spirited and unwaveringly dedicated to quality.

His talk heavily touched on the idea of constraints, and how according to the Eames, a good designer must poses the ability to recognize constraints so they can effectively design around them. It was the bigger picture point that constraints drive the outcome, however having constraints does not mean the death of creativity. Failing is an option, said Byrom, and you have to be open to failing…you have to build time to fail into a budget.

Here is an example of one of his projects, where he was constrained by the physical mechanics of using neon tubing to build three dimensional typography.


Beyond speaking of constraints, Andrew knocked our socks off with his creativity and passion for typography and fonts. Take time to peruse his website and note that there are quite a few projects that are familial, or how Andrew describes it – obsession.

Karim Rashid

Karim Rashid is by all accounts a demi-god. I actually might even describe him as the Lady Gaga of the design world – or as one tweeter replied – “the Life Aquatic Jeff Goldblum all hanging on his yacht.”

Dressed to the nines in a pale pink blazer, button down, pants and shiny pink/purple/sparkly hightops – Karim paced the stage like a pro who may have done this a couple times. He spoke quickly and deliberately, about big sweeping design concepts that as one commenter pointed out – lie somewhere between physical and hyper-physical. His work, is known for defining design as high art, he is known as the democratic designer.

My favorite part of his talk was about the current state of design. He started by describing everything in Shanghai is a digital explosion, and a very kinetic environment, and then drew an in-air infographic about how this kinetic world is “up here”[drawing a big circle in the air near his head] and the current physical world is “down here”[drawing a round lump on the ground] – the point of which was to illustrate how most companies don’t know what consumers are ready for and should strive to be kinetic.

 “We have to push boundaries and shape a better world.” – Karim Rashid

Eben Bayer

Every year on Day One the Y-Conference has a resource center open where all your favorite manufacturers have tables. The likes of Neehnah Paper, Client and Profits, New Page, etc etc – this year I arrived with a little time to peruse and one thing that knocked my socks off was a table presenting Mushroom based packing material…the sample on the table felt just like a soft styrofoam but completely sustainable. Now, I love me some mushrooms, and have a basic understanding or the organism Mycelium…but this was a real treat. Even better though was the articulate talk by Ecovative’s Eben Bayer, a mechanical engineer by trade as well as a bike nerd!

Bayer, hailing from upstate New York, has engineered a method for hydro forming sustainable packing material. The material starts as the organism mycelium, mixed with raw material ranging from factory waste such as buckwheat and hazelnut. The mycelium then digests this material over a period of a few days and forms a solid packed shape to your hearts desire. All it takes is a plastic mold and some patience.

The finished product is fire retardant insulate, which will bond with just about any porous surface using only water! “It’s Bio-Adaptation which fills a purpose for organisms on earth”.

In addition to packaging alternative, Ecovative also produces products for the home such as candles and herb gardens with Mycelium bases. #Want.

 

Nancy Harris Rouemy

Having an emotional connection to your work can be a magical experience. When you care so deeply for what your are creating that you will risk your career to see it happen; some work their entire lives to feel this way, others live by that principle. Nancy is the later.

She began her talk with talking about her kids and how children will ask you questions that re-orient life in an unexpected way. While I can’t personally verify her point of view I understand the big picture of what she is saying in that it is a vehicle for experiencing the world through someone else’s eyes. Children are fearless to say what’s on their mind.

Her magazine spreads are evocative of something we all want to do but are blocked for one reason or another. What was different was that she was not afraid to risk her job to push through the design she believed in. Independent now, her work is ethereal and detailed on a couture level.

Later in the evening, I was having a lovely conversation with Petrula Vrontikis and she made a point that the late Doyald Young would have been tickeled by her talk. Doyald was a very emotional type designer who loved what he did, and I saw these same qualities in Nancy.

Joseph Foo

One of my favorite aspects of the Y-Conference is how they are able to bring in such a variety of speakers, some of whom are completely unrelated to design, and are from half way across the world. Last year we were delighted by a presentation from an underwater videographer, and even in the past…ninjas. Joseph Foo is a creative from halfway across the world with ideas similar to the big picture presenters.


Coming to San Diego all the way from Malaysia, Foo answered the questions of what drives him by touching on the basic fundamentals of life. Faith, Love, and Hope.

His videos played heavily with religion and how your beliefs effect how you fundamentally approach your work. How does hope come into play every time you pick up a pencil? How much of yourself is in your work?

These are ideas that take a genuine amount if time to answer. We all get wrapped up in our personal lives, bills, obsessions and the like – and sometime we forget to insert ourselves in our work or are limited due to the existence of a style guide. When it comes to attending conferences and looking for solid information to take from the event, you have to approach speakers like Foo the same way you would approach a yoga class. Even in my busy corporate office, there are times where I need to breath deep and take the current project at hand away from the physical cubicle farm and enter the meta physical kinetic environment. Big words, yes, however its not about “Do this to accomplish this”, its about connecting with your medium on a theoretical level. Its speakers like Foo, who bring back meaning to all those theory classes I slept though in college.

 

Dave Bruno

What is stuff? Is it only material objects to you? Do you think emotion can be placed into the stuff category? What about emotional connections to physical objects?

In our ever connected world, its gets easier everyday to ignore these relationships. How many times have you gone to dinner with your friends, and when the conversation dies for a second – everyone jumps on their phone and checks their messages? Even as I write this, I’m sitting in a Starbucks with a laptop on my lap, iPad to my left and iPhone to my right. I’m connecting on a personal level to an electronic world with this blog.

These are just many things that Dave Bruno speaks about in his book “100 Things“. Dave is a 40-something writer who was so bothered by the happenstance of our material lives that for one year he chose to live with only 100 things in his life. He did not stash away his collection of stuff somewhere – he sold it all, paring everything down to that magical number in order to break out of a confined consumer life.

His story reminds me of my two friends Russ Roca and Laura Crawford from Path Less Pedaled who sold all of their belonging to become worldwide bicycle tourists.

Dave brought the topic of stuff to the Y-Conference, and I have to admit I was really looking forward to his speech. The concept of clutter and our consumerist lives plays a heavy role in how we function as graphic designers. How? Think about it – every object you own places some sort of stress on your life. The iPhone that handcuffs you to email, the car that removes you from the natural environment, that pair of shoes you bought because they make your feet look good but you only wore once because it made walking an impossibility.

This all goes back to my last post about re-defining what it means to be sustainable; I’ve always approached the topic in regards to being an earth conscious human being. What Dave Bruno made me realize however is that the topic of Sustainability also applies to our emotions. Personally, two years ago, my stress levels were so high that I could not go 24 hours without anxiety medication. I can’t help but look back at that time as an unsustainable emotional relationship with life. I had let too many material and inmaterial objects negatively affect me, and it was my ego that needed re-adjusting. I identified these deep emotional hang ups and deleted them. Such as my penchant for making excuses to not be brave. Or more recently my critical, sometimes negative approach, to the work I’m putting out there.

Where I’m going with this is that, Dave makes a great point. If we can pare down the emotional attachment to consumerism on a big picture level, our feelings and desires become more fluid. Creativity has more room to play inside your skull. Just try it, for example try living without Starbucks and television, and instead of driving the 1.2 miles to the grocery store – walk there with the kids and only buy one bag of groceries.

When it came to the question and answer time after his speech, I asked Dave about social media and what he thinks about emotional connections as they relate to the physical object we conduct them with. I will expand on this topic in a future blog, but simply stated I connected with his presentation up until his answer to my question…he said he had never met anyone in person from social media. Dave seems to genuinely care about personal relationships, however I feel like he is a tad uninterested when it comes to how modern relationships are cultivated. What becomes the question now is which style of relationship applies best to our creative lives?

 

Jorge Alderete

On a lighter more illustrative note, the last speaker for day one at the Y-Conference was a goateed man with a thick spanish accent. However, there was nothing hard to understand about the sheer talent wafting off “Dr.” Alderete as he is known. You may not know him by name but you certainly have seen his work, for he is known for being a prolific album cover illustrator in Mexico. Jorge is one of those illustrators with the ability to perfectly execute an inked drawing on the first try. It seems to come so easy to him – and while his presentation wasn’t in perfect english – he maintained the “no excuses” approach to his work and said “…if you can’t understand me, well then…just look at the pictures.”

No excuses is what struck me the most about Jorge – either that or I spent too much time with my jaw on the floor to write anything down. How about letting his work speak for itself?

Y-Conference Day Two

72&Sunny

Seventy-Two and Sunny is the dream branding agency you always wanted to work for, the unicorn of the north persay. What makes them so great? OPTIMISM.

Being from LA, I’ve have personally experienced working in some of the most toxic creative environments. Egos so large you could barely walk though the halls. Like the bi-polar creative director who would verbally abuse over the phone to the point of tears every other week or so; or the studio where every day you came to work you didn’t know if you were still going to be employed by 5pm. These studios lacked optimism, and that’s was made Matt Jarvis and John Boiler from 72 &Sunny so wonderful to listen to…a positive outlook.

Each of them re-affirmed my hope that good down to earth people really do exist in Los Angeles. It was refreshing to hear them say that 72 & Sunny was not a company, but an idea where everything is an opportunity. It’s Harmony.

The idea is supported by optimistic relationships where nothing but the truth is told, support of hybrid talent and a platform for growth and expression. They are of the mindset that if we can only have this great talent for 3 days a week, then that 3 days is better than zero days.

Beyond their good natured approach to the creative model, 72 & Sunny produces fantastic work. At one point they attributed that fact to their design motto: “Do not explain, provoke.” Something I’ve always stuck behind when doing my own branding, its not about producing the status quo, its about producing work that makes the audience remember the product. Like Nancy Rouemy from day one, stand up for what you believe and take a risk. To highlight how they have done this in the past, here is an example of a commercial for Nike+ from their portfolio:

 

Guy Iannuzzi

Do you remember that scene from Jurassic Park where Richard Attenborough talked about the mosquito in the amber? This guy was a real life Doctor Hammond.

Riffing off the underwater time-lapse videographer from Y16, Guy Iannuzzi was not your typical Y-Conference speaker, he is an entomologist of sort or to be more precise…an amber guy. Cataloging, identifying and photographing extinct insects trapped within million+ year-old amber pieces.

Where Iannuzi’s work does come into play is…surprise. How often do you allow yourself to produce work where you can be surprised at every turn? Where you allow yourself to escape the “required” structure to explore new options? We saw lots of pictures of dead insects frozen in time during his speech but two things struck me: the first is that these insects proved according to Guy “that you can’t keep life down”, its kinetically frozen in time. The second was a deep quote he sited:

“To see the world in a grain of sand, and heaven in a wild flower: Hold infinity in the palm of your hand, and eternity in an hour.” -Blake

His time on stage made me want to leave my cell phone at home, find a big rock on top of a big mountain, and sit there for as long as a I could either looking up at the sky or buried in my sketchbook scribbling away.

 

Andrea Dezsö

On day one we were delighted by Jorge Alderete and his mad pen & ink skills. Day two brought the same level of talent with Andrea Dezsö, who hailed from New York by way of Romania/Hungary.

A bright woman with hot pink army boots and two hair buns with flowers stood on stage and described what is was like to grow up in communism and how in her youth she would be inspired by simple things like water dripping from a faucet, or art from the soviet space race.
Andrea is everything except simple however. Her work is so rich with detail and surprise that I feel the only perfect way to experience it is through touch and time. From embroidery, to pastel, mosaic and even cut paper, Andrea is the full embodiment of a commercial fine artist. Her work is featured on the walls of subways illustrated with the smallest glass tiles, in magazines and even on public railings.

What drives her is that time is made visible “because we don’t get time back”. Its that the purpose of the piece is defined by the level of commitment and devotion from the artist. In my personal life I am the same way, there are a million bicycles out there I could purchase but time and again I will go after the custom welded rig from the independent builder. I want to experience the commitment for myself.

I’m not sure I can really do Andrea’s work justice with this blog, it takes a special kind of person to be able to produce such a rich body of work. Tying into Guy Iannuzzi’s surprise, Dezsö sites “the raw feeling that starts with a surprise, a moment where you’re just experiencing it.”

 

Austin Kleon

Wrapping up the Y-Conference is always a sad moment for me. I look forward to this weekend every year, and yet Y never disappoints even down to the last minute. Our final speaker was a writer from Austin, Texas, whose name also happens to be Austin.

Throughout all of Austin Kleon’s talk I found myself unable to type fast enough and get it all down, it wasn’t so much that he was talking fast, but more that everything he said was worth of my notebook/iPad.

So I’ll just go out an say it…buy his books.

Touching on topics that every artist deals with on a daily basis, Austin came right out and gave us pointers on how to steal properly. He put words to the thoughts we have when starting our careers where there is a huge gap with what we are and what we want to be. Where in the act of making things, we figure out who we are. We learn by pretending to be our heros.

So how do you steal properly? Well, Kleon describes artists as collectors; it is our job to be curious and collect ideas. From these ideas we reverse engineer what we are copying to create something new. It’s about which pieces we keep and which parts we throw away. Creativity is subtraction.

At the end he tasked the crowd to leave the conference and steal something from everyone they met this weekend. Mash it up and transform it into something new, then open it up to be stolen by other artists.

He closed the conference with wise words form a great man.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Og7gC1GJPF8

To conclude, I hope people take from this post how valuable the Y-Conference can be on so many different levels. It does not matter what medium you work in or if you are still in school or professional. I’ve been inspired by so many people over the years that I continue to come to Y year after year as a way of pressing reset. The Y-Conference is like Drano for my brain, only better and with new and improved creative enzymes.

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