Old masters, inspiration, and time: agIdeas has its 25th outing

Published:  May 19, 2015
Aidan Connolly

Design conferences are strange environments. There’s an explosion of effusive positivity — everyone’s out to be inspired, find some pearls of wisdom, discover a new hero. In many ways, it’s a manifestation of designers searching for knowledge in this strangely existential way. We’re trying to remind ourselves of why we design, but we frame it as a search for inspiration.




The agIdeas International Design Forum, which describes itself as an “inspirational resource”, celebrated its 25th anniversary this year. This makes it older than most of its volunteers, as well as many of its attendees. There was an urge, I think, to make something of this: there were speeches congratulating Cato from the Melbourne old guard of design; a changed format; an expanded focus on learning and student life. But the essentials of the conference remained the same — a quest for meaning, described as inspiration.

Naturally, the best (“most inspiring”) presentations actually have little to do with quotable pronouncements on creativity, or innovation, or what the design process really is. The best presentations simply talk about the work, and what the drive is to do it. And the people who delivered on this all had one thing in common: they were older.


25 Years Of Design, Cyan

I mean, they weren’t old old. Not ancient. But definitely at least in their 40s, for most the part. There was grace in their presentations, and a confidence to talk honestly about what they do. One of the big winners of the day was Swiss designer Flavia Cocchi, who desktop interviewed earlier this month. Cocchi gave her presentation almost wordlessly, relying on a strong sense of visual humour to support her body of work.

Cocchi, who speaks little English, had an interesting task. But her solution, which was to remove language as much as possible, actually served to better illustrate her ethos. While this makes it difficult to tweet her speech, it was the most memorable — and elucidating — talk of the day.

Similarly, A2-TYPE’s Henrik Kubel, former Pentagram partner Lisa Strausfeld and Slovenian poster designer Radovan Jenko were all refreshingly unfussy. They simply showed their work, and how their experiences and understanding of the world had lead them to arrive at their conclusions. Others, like UK director Neil Huxley, or US creature designer Neville Page, simply spoke pragmatically. There was no attempt to lay design bare — they had the ease of masters.


25 Years of Design, Harry Pearce

In stark contrast was a panel from San Francisco Design Week. It often felt like the individual panelists were trying to really define themselves, or the industry, or something, and it was hard to keep up. Twitter’s Miki Setlur spent quite a while trying to explain why he calls himself a product designer, while Pinterest designer Mia Blume spent a long time detailing how she thought of her role as being both a graphic designer and an interaction designer. It was challenging for the audience to remain engaged. Moderator Dawn Zidonis tried to lighten the mood with a few jokes, but it was a misreading of the situation: the constant attempts at self-definition just fell flat.

Of the younger designers to get it right, three stood out: Dirk Vander Kooij; James Brown from MASH; and Masashi Kawamura, from Party. They each had engaging, and at times thrilling work (a school teacher who took some teenagers to the Design Futures event tweeted that Kawamura was “completely inappropriate”, which seems like high praise). And… they just talked about their work, or their lives, and why they do what they do.


25 Years of Design, Mimmo Cozzo

Ultimately, an “inspiration resource” can only provide a portrait of a person’s life, not a handbook to live your own. But we receive comfort from seeing people who love the same things we love, and this is the real magic that continues long after we forget the top ten quotes. A friend remarked to me as we left that although Kubel’s presentation didn’t give her much insight, it felt like a reaffirmation. “It reminded me that I’m on the right track,” she said. “And I hope I can be doing what he does in 10 or 20 years.”

agIdeas International Design Forum is part of the annual Melbourne International Design Week, run by Ideas On Design. 


3 Responses

  1. At 45 years of age, it is kind of strange being described as “old guard of Melbourne” Aidan. When you reach my age you may change your mind. I certainly don’t feel old in my head, even though my work may seem to some old fashioned at times.

    25 years of giving something back to any community or sector, is not the greatest business decision, as your Directorship at Niche will attest with the Create Awards.

    Our remarks were a genuine thanks for putting it out there. Creating a project that doesn’t grow bottom line, or fatten the folio, it is there to inform, get people together, create some dialogue, maybe even magic sprinkles – shakes as far as I am concerned.

    Often I encounter people at events like this and often I am confronted with the perception – What’s in it for me? – I dumped money on the gig and I want it to be amazing. And if the gig doesn’t meet expectations, the speaker line up didn’t get it 100% right, for some reason its not right.

    At 45 years I am really pleased to see some diversity practice, some highs, some duds, some awkward moments and some wonder. I am always amazed that I am sitting live in a big room, who think creatively too, and we are sharing this moment too.

    Aidan the question to consider is – Imagine our sector without people like AGIdeas, Semi Perm, Jacky Winter, and Sex Drugs putting out there great big extra – sad is a great word to start with.

  2. With age comes wisdom and it shows. That’s okay Andrew! What is great about diversity in both designers presenting and formats to engage with is that we reinforce the differences in design and that design can make. Some feedback about the SF panel suggests that for many the insight was valuable and format engaging … they wanted more. Panels do require a bit more work on behalf of the audience but then also offer a format to get involved. Some suggested that the SF panel would have been better in the business program. But our aim is always to push the audience outside of their comfort zone somewhat. I am pleased that you got a lot from the program and we appreciate the time you have taken to respond Aidan.

  3. Gjoko Muratovski

    I for one, quite enjoyed the SF panel. Yes. It was not the typical ‘show and tell’ type of presentation that one might expect from agideas – but the panel was talking about things that are interesting to some people. For example, I like seeing great design, but I am also interested to hear about the dilemas and issues that designers are facing in what is an emerging field (digital product designers). How they try to define themselves is an interesting part of the whole ‘growing up’ experience as a discipline, rather than just a profession.

    We have a whole new generation of designers that will take on similiar positions in the future, so it is probably not a bad idea to hear from the people that are set to define this trend? After all, they are placed at some of the most influential tech companies of today. We might as well hear about these things from them, rather than read a comentary about it in Wired Magazine or Fast Company.

    And I also agree with the comment that Kristin made that some people felt that the SF panel would have been better placed at the ‘Design for Business’ – a program that is all about research, strategy and current trends and tendencies in design-led business innovation.

    This is a program where presenters focus on ‘how and why’ rather than ‘show and tell’. And that’s fine, because different audiences have different interests.

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