IDC NOLA: A Recap of IDSA’s Annual Conference 2018

October 8, 2018 akozlowski

IDC NOLA: A Recap of IDSA's Annual Conference 2018

This year marked many changes to IDSA’s annual conference, and the Priority Designs team was in New Orleans to take it all in, while looking for inspiration, and taking the pulse of the Design community. Rebranded as the IDC (International Design Conference), the multiple day event featured great scenery, redesigned awards, and fresh thinking. Amazing venues like the Sugar Mill, and the World War II museum offered opportunities to catch up with old friends, meet new ones, and exchange ideas with a diverse group of professionals. Beautiful weather, beignets, and coffee set the backdrop for MCs Debbie Millman and John Maeda to take us through an engaging collection of presenters.

Debbie kicked things off like the seasoned star of the Design Matters podcast that she is, leaving everyone to wonder how anyone would be able to follow that. John was up to the task, reminding us about the importance of ROI, but introduced the idea of ROI in a non-traditional sense. ROI is often thought of in reference to finances, but John pushed us by encouraging designers to think more broadly on the topic. It is not only about traditional investments of ROI, but investments in talented people, investments in our users, and investment in looking beyond what we can create with technology, but what we should create to improve society. We couldn’t help but feel that IDSA delivered a heavy return on investment to all involved. As we think back on the lineup of speakers, a few key themes became running threads throughout the conference. We’ll dive in to just a few.

The Blurry Definition of Product Design

A thread throughout the conference was how important it is to create diverse teams in a quickly evolving world. Diversity for creative teams doesn’t only mean gender and ethnicity, but discipline and background.

Females make up a clear majority of consumers, but according to Nicole Rouillac, make up less than 20 percent of Industrial Designers. Nicole gave some clues as to why this gender gap may exist, and how to help fix the issue. Creating better spaces for women, and becoming more patient and inclusive in our recruiting process even though it can take more time, will pay off in the long run by delivering a better product to our clients and consumers.

Sometimes it’s important to realize what you are not and build multi-disciplinary teams to supplement. As a designer, and not a developer, Becki Hyde was able to spend time learning about coding, and this helped her understand and empathize with developers to create more useful content.

Surya Vanka discussed a design powered planet where co-creating with the community as a cross-disciplinary team. When you give your user a seat at the development table, the dynamics of the team diversify to meet and understand the user. Having a user on the development team is the ultimate diversification.

Brands, Tribes, and Extreme Users

A deep discussion took place regarding who we are striving to design products, services, and experiences for. Are we designing for the traditional specs of people? Personas that barely scratch the surface of our users? Or, are we looking to dig deeper into the people and lives we are looking to effect?

Debbie Millman opened the conference beautifully by reminding us that, “…As a culture we keep marking, making, and creating things.” She spoke of where brands began, how they were the first type of manufactured meaning. Symbols were used to signify our beliefs and allegiances. One early example is a flag that was used to signal meaning from one side to another on the battlefield.

Brands were created for ease of recognition, and to communicate from one group of people to another. This “meaning making” is all part of understanding who we are speaking to and what stories we are trying to tell them.

Women are not robots, but Erica Eden discussed that during her 360 degree design and gender audit she found that her organization was taking a robotic approach to designing for female segments. She provocatively opened our eyes to rethinking what defines segments, arguing that traditional persona and segmentation practices are surface level and compelling us to reframe the way we think about our consumers. Erica asks us to lean into the outliers of our users with a Tribe mentality. Tribes are a cultural happening, with reference to Seth Godin’s perspective. “Tribes are real groups of people not profiles” and we should be asking not who is our user, but who is our tribe.

When Alta Motors wanted to change an industry, they did it by designing for their biggest critic. Mark Fenigstein and his team at Alta Motors were charged with an interesting problem. Their users (competitive motocross, enduro, & supercross racers) want a bike that wins, not necessarily a bike that’s better for their environment. Most electric motor vehicles boast about their vehicles sustainable characteristics, but what happens when your users are focused on other priorities? Alta Motors had to reframe the benefits of an electric motorcycle to meet their users ultimate goal – to go fast. They are not only trying to excel in the future of mobility, but the future of fast. They looked to outperform gas powered off road motorcycles by out designing and engineering their bikes to decrease weight, increase durability, and decrease cost to prove to their users that being on an Alta means being part of the future of fast.

"Brands were created for ease of recognition, and to communicate from one group of people to another. This “meaning making” is all part of understanding who we are speaking to and what stories we are trying to tell them."

Cultural Repercussions of Technology

Often as designers we are tasked with looking to the future, but at IDC we found ourselves reflecting on that state of the world today and how technology has influenced and shaped our realities. We were also reminded by many presenters that as Designers the future is just as we make it.

According to Claude Zellweger, Director of Design at Google, we have so many pieces of technology surrounding and influencing us that we no longer understand what it means to be bored. Our experiences today are becoming more and more frictionless; effort is being removed from all sorts of tasks. But Claude asked us, “Is friction a good thing?” These frictionless experiences in his mind, push us for a need to create a “digital hygiene”, or practices conducive to good health, to control our relationships with technology in the coming decades. Steve Selzer agreed with Claude in his talk about designing for confrontation and how “these products are tearing us apart”.

Debbie Millman discussed the original release of the iPod and its creation of an isolation nation. Pointedly arguing that we went from sharing music to having complete control of our personal audio entertainment experiences in our pockets. The only catch is this personalized, curated, and convenient experience didn’t foresee just how disconnected from the world its user would become.

Gary Hustwit shared a clip from his new film featuring Dieter Rams where the Design legend stated (paraphrased) “…people don’t look each other in the eyes anymore they look at screens and walk across the street like that, it concerns me.” He calls into question the not just our decisions about technology and its applications, but the effect it is having on society.

The film Rams is opening later this month at the Wexner Center in Columbus and many of the Priority Designs team are very excited to continue to be immersed in Rams’ perspective. We’d love to see you there!

A culture of isolation can be scary, and we’ve found ourselves in the trough of disillusionment. However, Christian Erving reminded us that we should temper our feelings and remind ourselves that all new tech goes through these stages. It peaks at our inflated expectations for what it can do for our world. We systematically fall into the trough of disillusionment where we learn to reign in our use of the tech and enlightening ourselves until we finally reach saturation of productivity. Finally, we plateau into the moderate use of tech we need.


The narrative of the conference was full of energy and enthusiasm of how designers can impact our world and the consumers of today’s culture in a positive way. Diversifying our design teams with different perspectives and talents can help us connect to a diversified population.

But connecting with a brand today is more complex and sophisticated than in the past. Understanding the desires of tribes and extreme users can help us find meaningful insights. By meeting the needs of the extreme, we can better meet the needs of the many.

As technology advances but the minute, how can our technology serve to connect our society AND meet our functional needs? As the technology disillusionment dies down, we’ll be seeking new solutions to improve our world yet again.

Ryan and Lauren returned from NOLA buzzing with thoughts and ideas around these ideas an motifs, eager to continue these conversations. We’ll be looking forward to 2019 for the next IDC in Chicago!

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About The Authors

Lauren is a design researcher with a thirst for knowledge that only feeds her curiosity and love of creative problem solving. Her unique experience with co-creation helps discover consumers’ emotional experiences with products and uncover how to create a better experience. She gleams structure from qualitative chaos and helps clients make sense of research to inform development decisions. On the weekends, you’ll find her out riding or maintaining vintage motorcycles. How cool is that?

Not only is Ryan known for being a human jukebox capable of randomly singing songs from multiple genres and eras without rhyme or reason, he is also a very versatile designer. You name the step in the design process, from brainstorming to production-ready CAD, and he can do it and do it well. Ryan brings all of it to the table.

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