Future Voice: David Berman

By David Berman

The Design Ethos conference reinforced for me that design conferences need to change. And now we know how.

For several years I’ve been advocating that we should take advantage of what becomes possible when a biodiversity of designers gathers: a new standard where every time designers gather we should expect that we leave a footprint of having left that place better than we found it. And now I’ve seen it done at the Design Ethos conference.

Both as keynoter or participant, my experience at Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD) has revolutionized the way I see design conferences. Scott Boylston and SCAD’s remarkable and refreshing attitude to design education have realized a vision of design thinkers; doing good with sustainable design wasn’t a side dish of the conference, rather it was its central purpose.

Over a three-day period we didn’t just brainstorm projects to improve Waters Avenue as an exercise: we actually developed completely implementable interventions to improve the community, complete with interviews, design research, strategies, design and implementation plans. At the end of the conference each team presented our plans at the conference to the community leaders, who are now enthusiastically bringing our projects to fruition. Whether repurposing an abandoned school building, creating street sculpture (my team’s solution: adoptable 400-pound babies of concrete), our overlaying new media initiatives, we left Savannah better than we found it; not just with these design interventions, but also in changing an understandably skeptical audience of community leaders attitude toward what design thinking can achieve. And the work teams continue their work remotely.

Keynoting at a conference of all-star presenters of the sustainable design world was a remarkable privilege and honour. However, just as precious was our discovery together that a conference about doing can work, and does work (even if we need to come up with a less cheesy name than “do-ference”!  (We still love you, Scott!  :) )

I’ve often been conflicted about attending conferences which pump up my contribution to carbon in the atmosphere, and catch myself questioning whether there is still value to design gatherings. I now firmly believe that the answer to this is yes.

However, we need to demand that every design gathering raises the bar: If you are creating a design conference, you need to take advantage of the power of the designers you’ve gathered to do good in your community. And if you are an attendee of design conferences, then demand that the agenda include leaving a footprint of what becomes possible when we gather. You’ll love the feeling of being a part of something larger, and the gathering will be more memorable because of it.


One other thing: in retrospect it should be of no surprise that when our gathering became about improving their community, Savannah became far more interested in what we were doing. The local network news affiliate covered the design conference on mainstream TV. If my above arguments don’t compel conference organizers, then perhaps the PR argument will win them over.

Congratulations Scott Boylston and SCAD: so proud to have worked with you to make this come true… and it’s just the beginning!

I took great pride last week in telling an audience of 3,000 designers in Melbourne about the do-ference and making the above demand to them. And we did indeed do such a thing of a sort…: at that agIdeas international design conference {www .agideas.net} 100 of we designers led 1000 elementary school kids through a design thinking immersion on how to create a better world for kids …and what they came up with amazed us all: a hint of a better designed future for all.

NOTE: A version of this essay has been published on Design Edge Canada.

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David Berman is author of Do Good Design, expert speaker, designer, communications strategist, and consultant. David has served as a high-level advisor to the United Nations on how accessible Web design thinking can help fulfill the Millennium Development Goals. His clients include IBM, the International Space Station, the Canadian government, the World Bank, and the Aga Khan Foundation. Since 1984, David has worked to establish a code of ethics which embraces social responsibility for certified graphic designers throughout Canada. He served as the first elected president of the Association of Registered Graphic Designers of Ontario, North America’s first accredited graphic design organization, from 1997 to 1999. He has served as the national Ethics Chair for graphic design in Canada since 2002. In 2005, David was elected to the board of Icograda, the world body for graphic design and visual communications, and was re-elected to a second term in 2007, and a third term in 2009.

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