Jessica Helfand and William Drenttel
Read Jessica Helfand and William Drenttel's presentation, "Culture is not always popular." Bill and Jessica are partners in Winterhouse design studio. Their work focuses on publishing and editorial development; new media; cultural institutions; and education and literacy projects. Recent clients include the New England Journal of Medicine, Norman Rockwell Museum, Yale Law School, New York University School of Journalism, University of Chicago Press and the National Design Awards.
Communicating the power of design to other designers

Although an amazing number of designers made the trek to Vancouver for the conference, the fact remains that many more designers weren't there. How are you going to communicate the power of design to other designers either in your firm or in your chapter? What did you tell your friends when they asked, "So, what did you learn at the conference?"

Add your Response

Jim McLean, Slack Barshinger, Chicago, IL 60601, 13-Apr-04
The summary by William Drenttel and Jessica Helf at the AIGA site illuminates a truth: that thinking and writing on one's own is about making the "important" questions personal. The result is a life delineated by a constant, conscious "figuring out" of things (see my figurings, called WSPs, at

Designs on Democracy, Berkeley, CA, 24-Jan-04
To take another step, designers who are interested in a focused disucssion of design and activism should check out the upcoming Designs on Democracy Conference (March 26-28 in Berkeley). Details at

Steven Soshea, Steven Soshea Design, Oakland, CA, 08-Nov-03
There were a number of very inspiring and insightful lectures. Fritjof Capra, David Orr, Terri Irwin, Ralph Caplan, and Jessica Helfand and William Drenttel stand out in my mind. Each of them opened up my mind to greater possibilities and opportunities.

Communicating ideas about ecological sustainability and socio-economic responsibility may not be as easy for some than for others. But, the fact that such a large part of this conference dealt with these issues was truly remarkable and a sign that our profession is beginning to seriously consider the greater consequences of our actions. It is my hope that some of us come away with a renewed or new-found interest in striving to make a difference (even in small ways) with how we engage in the practice of design.

For my own part, I have been trying to address these ecological and socio-economic issues by going to the root of the problem and redefining the very nature of design to be more relevant to the 21st century. For those interested, please visit

Justin Damer, Vision Design, Edmonton, Canada, 07-Nov-03
Here at Vision Design, we learned that we have a lot to learn. As a first step, we made an epilogue to the conference for our web site to stimulate a broader design discourse in our own practice -

Jennifer Idol, Lucy's Cakes, Austin, TX, 05-Nov-03
How many of us changed our own paths to reflect the Power of Design? To communicate our paths we should exemplify the points through our actions.

I found hope in the confeference that I can be of use in any area of my life for the power of design. I am a cake decorator and recent graduate from a design program at UT. I am working to make a difference and showing this to all the people around me, designer or not, whether I get a job or not.

We may have the technology, but to implement it into existing systems of life will take time despite immediate demand.

We should do what we can, soak up the philosophy of those at the conference and of discussions after the conference. We make the difference now. Do you recycle? I started recycling at my cake shop. We use our personal plastic cups now instead of styreophome.

Here here to the preachy. Here here to people like Studio Eg making sustainable furniture. Here here to the not funny. Let's not cannibalize ourselves.

Beth Emmott, Philadelphia, PA, 05-Nov-03
While enjoying the conference on many levels I do have a major concern and that is the value placed on design both by designers and non designers.

A number of speakers (non designers) with very important messages seemed to feel that it was important to give visual people visuals... but they did not seem to realize the value of a well designed visual. One only need to look at the beautiful booklet included in our bags, "The National Security Strategy of the United States of America", to see the value of presenting important yet often difficult to process information in a well designed manor, yet this seems not to have been recognized by many presenters. I'm sure many of the speakers know or could discover designers to work with them.

An example of the other side of the coin occurred at the "Designing for Life" focus session by Fritjof Capra. After an inspiring discussion the question was asked, "What can we do?" and several answers were put forth. "Educate yourself, talk it up, and use your skills and talent to spread the word" were mentioned. When the "use your skills" subject arose many in the audience were excited by the prospect and several responded with statements such as (and I paraphrase) " I can design a web site for you. I can do some Flash. It's easy." I strongly believe in doing Pro Bono work as both a human and a professional condition, however there was no discussion of looking for funding nor of the immense value of the work being offered - It's easy! Well, it's not easy! Perhaps to build but not to design a vehicle to communicate and these designers were selling themselves and the rest of us short on many levels.

Why should we expect others to recognize and value our skills if we are so quick to give them away with the statement, "It's easy!".

Tabitha Holmquist, Seattle, WA, USA, 03-Nov-03
Let's get more people like Fritjof Capra to express ideas to us, eve if its extremely preachy and overdramatic, if thats what it takes to scare people into thinking about the issues and really talking about them. If it causes massive arguments and debates, we'll all be wiser when we come out the other end. Its better than not having the dialog at all?

I would love to see a section of case studies added to the AIGA site with best practices in sustainability for clients that are less than glamourous and wealthy... some real life best-practices for clients who have low budgets and closed minds? I think the main frustration for people coming out of the conference is that we don't have these situations where the client will just hand us a blank check and tell us to be great eco-designers... quite the opposite, we will face clients who want something flashy and cheap and by next week and have to learn to fit the practices into this type of down-and-dirty work. Especially in this economy of budget and staff slashing, most of us non-superstar-designers have to take this work in order to survive. We don't have the luxury of dumping our regular clients and inventing new products that win awards, so we have to strive to find ways to make our bread-and-butter work smarter and more eco-friendly without sacrificing schedules and profits.

ALan Ball, ABID, Boston Ma, 01-Nov-03
I thought Capra was great, particular the discussion group he participated in the afternoon. I believe Mr. Sagmeister would feel different about Capra if he had heard his uplifting and optimistic answers to what a designer can do to improve the world and answer the challenges which face us.

Candice Kollar, Kollar Design Associates, San Francisco, CA, 31-Oct-03
I wasn't able to attend but would greatly appreciate sharing of information about sustainable choices that we can offer our clients - besides specifying recycled paper, of course - and sustainalbe best practices for a marketing design firm. Thanks!

Kurt, Seattle, WA, USA, 31-Oct-03
I have to agree with many of the responses from others to this point with regards to attitudes and quibbles over semantics.

The presentation by Jessica Helfand and William Drenttel was by far the best, in my opinion, and brought up the level of the conversation without being smug. It was focused on educating designers in the areas that make our society tick (ie. hard sciences, language and others). Just taking a few aesthetic classes, buying Photoshop and calling yourself a designer won't cut it in professional design. If you want be taken seriously, then one needs to be aware of the client's business. How else can you meet their needs?
"Designing isn't Art", seemed to be the take away.

Several other speakers brought out how important cultivating relationships are and making connections with our clients to enhance their business and enhance our skills of the craft.

Ralph Caplan brought us down from our pipe dreams and taught us to examine exactly what it is we're doing and why and what is best left to others to do.

Bottom line for me: Keep working, keep thinking, keep learning.

sunny kwok, new york, ny, usa, 31-Oct-03
i am glad to see varieties of the speakers, address "massive" range of cultural reference to remind/redefine us the power of design.

but i hope some speakers can be more responsible to their attitude and statements. Mr. Mau put our mind in a state of emergency. His idea surely show us "his imagainary power", which capable on destroying our diversity. (if we put all the trees in one global park) how about built a disneyland in every country around the globe! i would be feared to live in the world of Mau, and his team!

Mr. Zolli does a good job showing us the future is surely going down, from an "american" point of view. what is the world migration idea has anything to do with the power of design? that is what i want to know. maybe a design campaign for immigration office about moving the stat of ohio to middle east!

Nathan Shedroff, San Francisco, CA, USA, 30-Oct-03
Personally, I think the world "design" has always meant something larger than any one discpline. Graphic designers (who claim the latter word too often without using the former) are used to it refering to aesthetics because that is their context. But lots of people around the world and throughout history use the word as well. We can talk about Design (with a big D) or design (with a little one) but I think it's clear that we can no longer look within our own little world to find answers, understand things, or build solutions. To me, the point of the conference was exactly this. If a designer (of any kind) wants to view himself or herself only as a practitioner of one approach, one medium, or one domain. So be it. But it doesn't mean that the rest of us should so limit ourselves nor ignore the very real cconnections between media, domains, approaches, or processes.

Geoff, Seattle, 30-Oct-03
I thought I knew what design was before coming to this conference. Now I find out that design can be either a process or a product (any process or any product). I'm not sure by expanding the definition of design so that it can include anything and everything we are really doing design a service. Let's take the example of mowing lawns. By design we could mean getting the grass short (product) or we could mean teaching someone else about the 12 steps to getting the grass short (process). If I fancy myself a "lawn designer" however, I am setting myself apart from either of these. I am saying that I can mow the lawn (or have it mown) in such a way as to produce an aesthetically pleasing result. I am saying I can do it better and that, therefore, I should get paid more. Designers may quibble over what is aesthetically pleasing but I think designers, clients and the public know it when we see it.

Marcia, Studio/lab, Chicago, 30-Oct-03
As an interesting conference summary, these are definitions of design as heard from various speakers

Design is:

conceiving, planning, and making products and services -- that serve people.
-Tony Golsby-Smith

about Citizenship.
-Brenda Laurel

the shaping of flows of energy and matter for human purposes.
-Fritjof Capra

a core competency that begins with passion.
-Michael Volkema

how we make things that fit.
-David Orr

global success (well-being) as a practical objective.
-Bruce Mau

not different from other businesses (don't ignore proven business advice).
-David Baker

an impulse that relates to a practical imperative.
-John Hockenberry

the shape of things to come.
-Andrew Zolli

stefan sagmeister, sagmeister inc., new york, ny, usa, 30-Oct-03
There were some really considered and smart presentations (Ralph Caplan, Dan Sturges) and then there was also quite some preaching going on. Fritjof Capra preached the romantic notion that all of human culture of the past was great, and everything we do now is just horrible. To illustrate his thesis he showed an aerial shot of a medieval Italian city (which I guess had no sewer system and was pest infested). His example of the horrors of modern life included a seventies shot of the Battersea powerstation in London. Unbeknownst to him, this is a gorgeous building, in my opinion the best piece of industrial architecture in all of Europe, my favorite building in London, a beloved landmark. I just downloaded this:

The Battersea Power Station Community Group has a plan developed from discussions through open community planning forum meetings. This Peoples' Plan would see the Power Station developed with a mixture or sports, entertainments, arts and commerce.

But Mr. Capra does not know any of this.
He proceeds to proclaim the human race as the only species that kills its own kind in the pursuit of religion. Well, which other species exactly has religion? Just because those penguins look like nuns, does not mean they are catholic.

Bart, New York, 30-Oct-03
This might be harder than it sounds. What are the arguments that are compelling enough to persuade someone to choose social and environmental responsibility over financial gain? Especially in this economic climate. Turning down work is a luxury I can't afford. I'm sure I heard some great arguments but now that I'm back in the office, I'm having a hard time making the case.

terry flores, American Greetings, Cleveland, Ohio, 30-Oct-03
As a designer I feel I can start by communicating the many messages I heard at the conference, about sustainability, innovation, efficiency, resposibility to our environment, etc. to my co-workes, and to the future students of design in my local community.
I realize that it is imperative that we teach ourselves to speak the lingo of the those who are making the big desicions, and teach ouselves about the many other fields that are related to design, if we indeed are to be an integral part of innovation.

©2003 AIGA | the professional association for design | credits