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What Would Mark Do?
     - Musings on design, opinions on business and discoveries to be shared. 
              by Mark Bendickson.

Gravity Free 2008; Observations.

Gravity Free Eve:

What a fabulous day.

First of all, it is great because it''s Mother's Day and I got to spend time with family and eat meat, grilled over an open fire, on a beautiful sunny afternoon. Normally that would be enough to make it a good day, but today is bonus time, as I went directly to MSP to catch my flight to Gravity Free 08, the multidisciplinary design conference put on by Exhibitor Magazine Group. 

For those of you who have never been to a design conference here is how it differs from most business conferences; the food is usually much better, the dress runs mostly to black (which is, as we all know, the new black), the chances of hearing a speaker say fuck is infinitely more likely than a conference on accounting, and the fellow attendees, for the most part, are mostly really smart people who have little agenda besides soaking up inspiration like a sponge.  This is Gravity Free''s third incarnation, and if it is as uplifting and inspirational as the last two I am in for a real treat.

The James Chicago

The James Chicago

Not only is Gravity Free great, but this year it''s center of gravity (sorry, pun intended) is the James Hotel in Chicago. I first stayed here a few years back right after it opened and absolutely loved it. The experience in this hotel is very tasty and the room toys (Plasma Screen TV • Digital TV & Movie System • Stereo with Ipod/MP3 dock • Kiehl''s bath products • Dining niche • Commissioned Art • Complimentary Wireless Internet • Cordless dual-line phone • 100% Turkish cotton towels • Full length mirror • Custom James robes and slippers • Dimable lighting • Snack & Cocktail bar • Individual climate control • Daily newspaper delivery) are great, but the mini bar is of the professional variety with full sized bottles and a nice selection of glassware. When was the last time you stayed in a room that had it''s own martini shaker?  After a short flight to MDW on NWA, I arrived at the James and was upgraded to an apartment suite. Not sure why I got the upgrade, but I think this is a harbinger of good things to come.

After unpacking, trying out all the furniture in my living room and test driving my twin plasma screens, I headed down to the lobby bar for some inspiration and Mojitos. The James makes a fine Mojito. Not only do they pound the mint, but they top it with a simple sugar whipped froth instead of just mixing it in. The only place there have been more smart and interesting people gathered for drinks than this bar was probably Leonardo DaVinci''s wake. After cocktails a whole group strolled down the block and took up two long tables at the Cafe Lux. I have to admit, my Thai chicken pizza was a bit doughy and under done, and the blood orange mojito, while sounding like a good idea, proved not to be. My dinner conversation with the  McMillans however, was satisfying and delicious.  No dessert tonight, unless you count more Mojitos back at the James.  Soon it was time to turn in. Gravity Free Eve is much like Christmas Eve, if you don''t go to bed the presents don''t come. Unlike Christmas however, the fresh baked cookie they left on my turned down bed with a robe and a book to read wasn't left for Santa. I ate it.  On to Day One.

Gravity Free Day One:

Ahhh, sunshine.  I love this hotel, and I love this room. In-room gourmet coffee, a multiple headed rain shower, a fluffy robe, and CNN on two large plasma screens. The conference doesn't start until noon today, so i met with a Chicago client at the hotel restaurant for breakfast. I always love chatting and sketching with a client, and the James Omelet was the cherry on top of that particular cake. Even if you don''t stay there, next time you are in Chicago I recommend it for breakfast. The James Omelet contains truffled mushrooms, asiago cheese, caramelized Onions, and 207L fillet tips. All that and home fries and toast for $ 11.95. I'm not one to make value comparisons, but considering Elliot Spitzer pays $ 4,000 to get laid I''d say this is certainly a good deal. Plus, breakfast lasted an hour and a half...you do the math, Governor.

Gravity Free Stage

Gravity Free Stage

Perhaps now would be a good time to discuss format. After breakfast, Gravity Free's typical body of the day usually goes like this; first a few sentences of remarks (no longwindedness here) and then it's off to the speakers. Speakers speak in groups of three, each getting 20 minutes or so. Following that all those speakers go back up on stage for Q&A from the audience. In addition to the audiences questions for the speakers, Jim Gilmore makes some observations about each presenter, and then gives the audience some questions to ask themselves. Then it''s on with another group, and another round of audience questions.

A lunch break comes midday, and the cool thing is that Gravity Free speakers actually like hanging around for the whole thing, and talking with attendees. So each lunch table has a speakers name on it, and you can pick who you want to have lunch with. After lunch, more speakers. The best way to describe Gravity Free's speaker segments is like intellectually drinking from a fire hose. To close out the day there is a round table session with all that day''s speakers so you can pick one and spend some time with them in a smaller group. Then there is usually a reception where, once again, you are surrounded by the speakers so you can talk with (and drink and eat with) whoever said something you wanted to explore further.

After breakfast,  it was time to board the conference shuttle to the Museum of Science and Industry. This choice of venue was great. We actually had one session there last year and it provides lots of things to explore on break, and guaranteed that surroundings for meals would be inspirational and interesting. The Museum itself was built for the World’s Colombian Exposition in 1893, and is one of the world''s largest science museums, with almost 14 acres of cool stuff. Even without Gravity Free, I could have spent three days here. Our lair was at the end of a hall entered by going past the museum offices inside the entrance.    You traveled through an exhibit on the internet, through the room with the whispering acoustics, through a spherical projection theater about the earth (by the way, I noticed that the continents on the outer skin of the theater ceiling were backwards), around a curve with a really cool infrared camera display, and through a big room full of breakout tables, to the theater where most of the program was to take place.

Program and Laminate

Program and Laminate

Registering got me my collectible t shirt, a program with speakers bios, and a really cool name tag.  The first group of speakers got rolling after a few brief words of welcome and a thanks to all the sponsors.

Speaker Group One:

The first speaker was Charles White.  This legendary illustrator, designer, art director and founder of OLIO has been doing his thing for over 25 years. He delivered a historical overview of his early work, and then went over some amazing large scale projects including Treasure island, and The Dig at Atlantis. One thing really stuck with me.  He was showing some illustrations he did for National Lampoon, and one was of the floor of the Sistine Chapel. It had some cracks and debris on it (it was a humor magazine) and he explained that the cracked tile and smashed cigarette butt were put in to cover mistakes. It brought back some fond memories of the way things used to be done. I could sense that everyone in the audience that had been in the business less than 10 years thought that the best way to get rid of a mistake is to hit the delete key. I kind of liked the old days when you covered or camouflaged a mistake, if you could, because starting over meant losing 3-4 hours work. For the same reason, I think the people planning and directing these works gave them a lot more respect, and put a lot more thought into what the finished project should look like. I think lower barriers to entry usually lead to less attention paid to the outcome. Maybe we would all do a better job if we planned our work like the delete key didn't exist.

Next up were Ryan Genz & Francesca Roselia, who founded Cute Circuit in 2004. It is an interactive clothing and wearable technology company. They do mobile technology, environments, education design and really cool wearable projects. They actually weave the wires into the fibers of the garment so the clothing becomes the circuit. Their creations include a dress that changes colors like a mood ring to reflect the wearers activity, a skirt that changes color so you can go from a festive occasion to a funeral, a phone (well actually it''s components) built into a sleeve, and my favorite, the Hug Shirt. The Hug Shirt has panels that squeeze the wearer, giving them a "hug" whenever someone texts one to their garment. It was fascination to see how they did their research. They had focus group participants hug, and then traced where their hands were on the hugee to determine hug panel placements. I talked to Francesca later on and convinced her to put me on the beta test list for the hug briefs, should they ever develop them. 

Filling out the first trio of speakers was Jamie Drake, Interior Designer.  He does interiors for people like Madonna and Michael Bloomberg (can you say diverse?) since starting his firm in 1978 . The examples he gave were a lot like peanut butter and miracle whip sandwiches. The colors sounded like they would be an abomination together, but when executed properly they produce a perfectly complimentary and eye opening result. This man''s use of color is indeed dangerous, but like a man who juggles chainsaws, as you can see in Jamie Drake''s New American Glamour, he makes it work. 

Wall Sconce Malfunction?

Wall Sconce Malfunction?

Following this was a Q&A session and it was really neat how these three very different practices all seemed to share a common philosophy. Following this was a short break to stock up on chow (cracker jack, peanuts, popcorn and a whole manner of really nostalgic treats) and head back in. Yes, food and drink was allowed in this theater. No time at Gravity Free to waste time on physical nourishment when there was the intellectual variety waiting inside. Thank God for multitasking.  By the way, does this wall sconce that was all over the walls in the theater look a bit like what Janet Jackson was wearing at her Super Bowl mishap, or is it just me?

Group Two:

Michelle kaufmann.   Michelle worked for Frank Gehry before starting Michelle Kaufmann Designs in 2002. She gave the history and background of her green house, and it''s predecessors, from the first scratch built one she and her husband did, to their friends version 2.0, to the mass produced, factory built variety they now turn out. While I found it interesting, I always feel like I''m at a timeshare presentation when someone is talking about a green product they designed that is actually commercially available, and not just a sustainable gleam in someone''s eye. For instance, when she was asked in Q&A what it costs and she replied that we shouldn't think of it that way. We need to consider what a house costs per month, and with a house that uses 1/3 the electricity, and with electricity going up in price, and with the house getting less costly as volume goes up, eventually it will be a hell of a deal. I bought a car last month, and this always reminds me of car salespeople sound. I was told later that in her round table she said the house was about $250 ft2. In any case, the homes are really beautiful in a real zen-like way, and I'm sure as this technology gets more mainstream it will become a real no-brainer.

Rod Keegan.    Rod is a hat designer with a global reputation. He does two lines, one for Spring and one for Fall. I''m not a real hat guy, but I did enjoy the hats. He is really a hat maker to the stars, and has done work for; Alicia Keys, Elvis Costello, Brad Pitt, Justin Timberlake, Bill Murray, Prince, Sir Elton John, Dennis Rodman, John Leguizamo, Vince Vaughn, Lisa Marie Presley, Maxwell, Cedric the Entertainer, Robin Williams, Danny DeVito and Samuel L. Jackson. What I found really fascinating is that he never advertises, but achieves success by PR, referral, and a group of loyal stylists who are fashion power brokers in the entertainment world. I really loved it when he was talking about promotion and he said "I never gave Brad Pitt a free hat, and I never asked him for a free movie ticket".  I've never been a hat guy, and I am sure these are pretty expensive. But if I lose much more hair, I can see the value proposition coming into better alignment. 

Lunch With Stefan

Lunch With Stefan

Stefan Sagmeister.    Stefan, well known for the AIGA poster he carved into his torso with an Xacto knife (for those of you too young to remember), started out with an attention getting story about the self fellating abilities of sea mammals. He then proceeded to go through the lessons presented in his new project Things I Have Learned in My Life So Far. I already had this project sent to me as part of the Gravity Free Book Club, and the usual Gravity Free ''back stage'' tour of how it was developed was pretty illuminating. I was also blown away by a gallery installation he did where he spelled out one of his philosophies in a huge wall of bananas, and then the words went away as they ripened, and came back when they all aged more. Check out his work here.  He was a great speaker, but his website  resizes my window, grrrrr.  After this group''s Q&A, it was off to round tables. I sat at Stefan''s table, and he spent most of the time answering questions about the structure of his studio and rules he goes by in his practice. Where else but Gravity Free can you see such a well known artist show you his accomplishments, and then sit at a table and hear what went into accomplishing them? 

Sagmeister Banana Wall

Sagmeister Banana Wall

U-505 Exhibit

U-505 Exhibit

After that it was time to go to a reception in this huge room, with a submarine parked in the middle. We started with drinks and a few large tables with various genres of ethnic food, and wound our way down a ramp around the sub, ending up at keel level for roast beef, turkey, and a really tasty Asian noodle station where you could build your own stir fry. I took a break between beef with whipped horseradish, and the Thai shrimp and noodle number, to tour the sub. This thing is amazing . U-505 was captured in 1944, off the coast of West Africa, after being depth charged by the USS Chatelain. I went on a 15 minute tour of the interior of this beast, and was amazed at, even though they lowered the floor to make it easier for tour goers to navigate without cracking their skulls, the claustrophobic interior where every square inch was a valve, a bed, or a large generator or engine. The boat weighs as much as three Statues of Liberty and is nearly a city block long, and had to be lowered four stories into the basement hall where it lives today.  After that it was back to the James for a few mojitos.  On to Day Two.

Gravity Free Day Two:

Breakfast today was in the Henry Crown Space Center and it's pretty cool to be eating your Cheerios (unfortunately no tang on the menu) next to an Apollo Command Module, still scuffed and burnt from reentry.

One funny thing... I was sitting with a couple guys from Skyline, and two owners of a custom exhibit house sat down. They were trying to convince the Skyline folks that they should knock off a version of Xpressions. When I asked them why they would want Skyline to copy another company''s product they replied (almost in unison, and with all the spontaneity of a mid level manager using the word ''empowering'') that they were always looking for unique and exciting products to offer their customers. Get it? Copy a product so you have something unique to offer. That makes about as much sense as getting the same tattoo as all your friends, to show your individuality. We had a great chuckle about it later. It must be rather common as I heard several of the speakers touch on the subject of knock offs and lack of respect for IP.

After breakfast we went outside and toured one of Michelle Kaufmann''s homes, which had been built in a lovely area between the two buildings. This house was pretty cool. It was large, airy, and minimalist. I loved the layout and would love to live in one. I was especially tickled by the "Mr. Compost" on the kitchen counter. While I did like the home, and was really impressed with the utility room loaded with high tech environmental and entertainment toys, I did notice one little slip. I was reading an article last month in US News and World Report on putting your home on an energy diet and saw this; "Look at just one of the new energy guzzlers: the digital photo frame. This always-on gadget burns a barely noticeable $9 extra a year into the average household electric bill, says the nonprofit Electric Power Research Institute. But the impact could be staggering. EPRI estimates that if every household in America owned one, it would take five medium-sized power plants just to keep those family photo slide shows rolling in the nation''s living rooms. "I call these electronics the sleeping giants in our homes," says Thomas Reddoch, EPRI''s director of energy utilization." When I popped into the guest room in the Smart Home guess what I saw on the desk, flipping through photos and sucking up electricity? :)  All in all, it is pretty impressive, and great food for thought.  If you are in Chicago you should definitely check this out.

Speaker Group One:

Theo Jansen.  If you have never seen or heard of these Animari, these beasts that are constructed of PVC electrical conduit and wander the beaches, you have got to check this out. The thing that amazed me was how superficial my knowledge was. I knew these beasts were powered by the wind and traveled the beaches, but I assumed by wind powered they were basically a really big, complex wind sculpture. Theo has actually developed a system where the beasts capture the power of the wind and store up compressed air in 2 liter soda bottles. They then release it and drive pistons that move the legs and make the beast travel. But that is only the beginning. These beasts can tell when they are going into the water, or sand that will trap their legs, and reverse course. They are smart enough to sense bad weather and shelter themselves as well. These beasts are not some weekend hobby, like RC controlled airplanes, but a menagerie that roams the beach like real animals. This was totally amazing. Search Youtube, pore over his website, you will be amazed.

Deborah Adler. Deborah''s presentation on the Target Clear Rx system was interesting, but I have seen it before, many times. I like the product, and the thought and detail that went into it is truly impressive. If you aren't familiar, I would definitely check it out.

Stephen Brown.    Stephen Brown is a marketing consultant that apparently takes great pleasure and has achieved great status blowing up the status quo. One thing he did say stuck with me; "the customer is not always right". I can see that. Back in the day when margins were fat it was easy to be accommodating. Now we've ''productivity increased'' ourselves into razor thin margins that require the client to adhere to our process to minimize cost. If one comes along and puts a hiccup in the flow (like the guy in the Mastercard commercials that actually tries to use cash, and brings everything to a grinding stop) we have no choice but to reeducate them. Other than that, his talk came across as manifesto crossed with poetry reading.

Speaker Group Two:

Chip Kidd.   The thing I love most about Gravity Free is having a speaker show their work, that it turns out that you love, and suddenly putting the work together with a personality. And what a personality. Chip had me in stitches. I love semi-catty behind the scenes stories about how a project came about, and how difficult the clients can be. I also got a real kick out of his music video (he has a band) which was actually pretty good. I'd download it. His band is called Art Break and they do have a Myspace page. I enjoyed him so much that I took a chance that his writing is amusing as he is and ordered both of his novels. My only disappointment was that I see if I had stayed in Chicago one extra day I could have gone to go see Augusten Burroughs, and the symmetry of that would have been great. Plus, I got to find out how he did the cover of Dry.

Janne Kyttanen.  His company, Freedom of Creation, does some amazing product development using rapid prototyping techniques. All in all I like the look, but the cost of the materials and processes he uses make the products cost more like fine art that is unique. Somehow, paying that much and knowing another one just like it is a push of a print button away just doesn't sit right. I guess what really worries me is the day when the production methods get a lot less expensive and everyone with Sketch Up suddenly thinks they are a furniture and lighting designer and can pop over to Kinko''s and print out their new coffee table. I think that MySpace has proven beyond a shadow of a doubt that most people don't have the skills to be a graphic designer...I shudder to think what they will print out.

This 727 is hanging from the ceiling like a model in a kid's bedroom, and you can walk through it.

This 727 is hanging from the ceiling like a model in a kid's bedroom, and you can walk through it.

Playing with your food is frowned upon by grown ups, but at Gravity Free it is a tradition. You see, after lunch today, there is a huge table of vegetables and tooth picks and knives. People grab what they see potential in and create a piece of art from the food. The entries are very creative, and though provoking. I love this, maybe because I won the first year , but this year I didn't do one.  We ate lunch in the Transportation Gallery, and with a 727 right next door to check out I got side tracked. Seeing what people create is always amazing. Thus year's was no exception.

Speaker Group Three:

Bob Gruen.   Bob presented a really cool collection of Rock photos and stories from the road. I especially loved the tableau of Kiss and a few groupies apiece splayed out backstage. Interestingly enough, I sat at a table with him at lunch and thought he was a pretty cool guy, but had no idea who he was. We were all just having a great conversation about food and the museum. Imagine my surprise when he walked out to the podium.

Massimo Vignelli. Massimo did a great presentation on his design for the New York Subway Map(s) and the controversy it caused. I really enjoyed his outlook, and his body of work speaks for itself. It was awesome that he came in person. He originally was scheduled to present via video conference, but decided at the last minute to come in person.It was like being in the bonus materials section of the Helvetica DVD.

Karim Rashid.    Karim is interesting.  He has certainly designed an awful lot of products. I find myself not agreeing with much of what he says, but I certainly enjoy seeing him speak. It's like a stream of consciousness, fueled by Starbucks espresso and ego. We did learn that he now paints his fingernails white, to match his white outfits, so he''s got that going for him. I just haven''t been able to take him seriously since I got a copy of his book ''design your self'' sent to me last year. It is basically a how to book that gives you instructions on how to become just like Karim. Most designers want to change the world to make it a better place. He seems to want to change it to be the way he wants it. My favorite moment was during Q&A. He went off on a bit of a sermon on how tradition and ritual are bad, and hold back progress. I guess I can see why. Love his work, or hate it, one can''t argue with the statement that it certainly isn't timeless. When he finished Massimo took him to task, much like the hippies in Helvetica, and pointed out that quality products and reputations for the same are all the result of tradition, and the world might be better served with a bit more of it. It brought a smile to my face.

Round Table.

I sat at Stephen Brown's table and learned something. I thought his delivery was a bit of drama and mystery. I learned from him that he was scared to death (apparently a theater full of designers is scarier than boardrooms or classrooms) and every time the elephants in his PowerPoint screeched (which was often) he freaked out and lost his place. He was a lot more interesting in a small group that in the spotlight being terrorized by elephants. The last evening consisted of a great cocktail reception. The food was good and the drinks were flowing (vodka cranberry rather than mojitos). One funny thing; someone bumped into me in the buffet line. Turns out it was Karim Rashid and he almost knocked my plate of pasta with red sauce all over his jacket. I pointed out how disastrous that would be and he said it's ironic that everything he likes to eat is messy and stains easily, and yet he always wears white. So much for form follows function.  On to day three.

Gravity Free Day Three

Very early wake up today. Well, not really, but a late night always makes it feel that way. This week I have discovered that Mojito''s are conducive to good dental hygiene. If you don''t floss a lot you invariably have mint leaves stuck in your teeth. Lucky for me I knew about the secret elevator at the James so while everyone else was trying to go down 2 elevators that hold about 5 people each (without luggage and very cozy), I caught the express service elevator down to the lobby. A quick ride to the MSI, with John and Scott from Exhibitor in the conference van, and day three was underway.

Fast Forward:Inventing the Future

Fast Forward:Inventing the Future

Breakfast was in the rotunda, and after we could take a private tour of an exhibit, still under construction, called Fast Forward:Inventing the Future. It didn't look anything like this when we were there (bare studs and J boxes) but there was a really cool exhibit set up for us. It was a synthesizer that was controlled with a large round glass table. By laying blocks on it, representing different instruments and other sound modifiers, and moving them around to make them interact differently, you could manipulate the sound as the changes in inter block dynamics were displayed on the video table. A few people thought it was an RFID in the blocks, but the screen actually recognized the icons on each side.

Speaker Group One:

Tom Hennes.   Tom of ThincDesign showed us some great exhibitions he has done (or is in the process of doing).  One that really impressed me was an African memorial that was so reverent and beautiful.  He said that he thought it was important that the locals were the ones to make all the decisions about what it would feel like, and I think that''s a piece that all of us can take away.  In every situation where we do work, we are the expert and we need to  help our clients make their project successful, but we need to take care not to put too much of our personalities into their message.

Arturo Vittori .   This guy has a real gift for having form follow function. I was checking out a model of his Moon Base yesterday after breakfast (the one with the derivative twins) and thought it was really cool that he designed a moon vehicle that docked with his moon base and provided entrance and exit from the rover through the hub of the wheel. He showed a number of products that were really made to either improve the users environment, or protect him from it. He had a very cool looking tent whose form was totally related to function. By creating this shape, it makes the interior environment 71 degrees, rather than the normal ground level daytime temp of 115 degrees.

Phillip Tiongson.    This company really puts an extra dose of interactive in interactive design. When I think of interactive I see one person tapping away at a touch screen, and drilling down into what they find interesting. In the WWI Museum, they created flat top interactive tables that allow 24 visitors to basically reenact battles and set up strategies against each other. The other projects were interesting too. I especially liked the story of DHL bouncing their equipment from China, and having to send it back over, hand carried on a plane by an associate, so they could finish their work.

Karin Fong.    I have always loved clever movie titles (I am a huge Pablo Ferro fan) so I knew I was going to enjoy this one.  She played a really cool Herman Miller ad she directed that was really persuasive. I loved this. If a picture is worth a thousand words, the way she crafted this Herman Miller piece spoke absolute volumes about their principles, and their history. I was also blown away with the actual movie of the Wynn project. The bare set shots belied just how effective and magical the end result would be. It was like Salvador Dali meets David Byrne, on acid.

Lunch was great. I sat at Karin''s table and the discussion was about animation and messaging for a while, and then segued to business. I found it interesting that the industry is requiring artists like her to not only surrender rights to what they produce, but also all their proposals, concepts, storyboards, etc. I thought that was kind of extreme, as I think getting three ideas for the price of one is a bit one sided. I gather it is because of the advent of the DVD. Now all that conceptual work and everything else that ends up on the cutting room floor is now DVD "bonus material". It was really interesting. Poor Karin was answering so many questions, I don''t think she even came close to finishing her lunch.  After lunch the play with your food winners were announced, as well as a slide show of all the entries. The winners received autographed Chip Kidd books.

Speaker Group Two:

Bryan Berg. Bryan Berg was a bit different this year. In the past he has reviewed projects, and this year he did as well but also went more into the ''behind the scenes'' stuff that I love. It''s one thing to see a completed project, but I love to hear about the process and how they over came difficulties. Check out some of the amazing things he''s done.

Jake Barton .   Jake was interesting.  His StoryCorps presentation really hit me as genius. Like he said "someone told me once that your goal must be to get everyone in America to cry". I''m not sure about that, but the stories he did sample for us were certainly moving and amusing. I can''t begin to imagine how much raw tape they had to go through on this, but they have undoubtedly mined some real gems. I can see the appeal of the stories they play on NPR, but I think the real accomplishment is the fact that these are archived oral histories. In this digital world we don''t archive much any more. I remember when someone died you would always pull out the old albums from the attic and use it to spark stories and relive good times. I can''t really picture the same thing happening now. The chances of someone picking through a hard drive looking for .jpgs from a birthday party just doesn't seem that common place. More than one person commented that the problem with user generated content was that there was just too much of it.

Luigi Colani.   It was unfortunate that he couldn't make it, his range of practice is amazing.  His resume can be found here, and it really speaks for itself. 

There was a funny ending to the conference, besides John Pavek''s confetti ejaculation all over the crowd, albeit in a sort of middle aged way. I think perhaps that confetti cannon needs to get it's PSA checked. I had made a plan with Ken Sprick in the bar the evening before. Since we both had to go to the airport about the same time we decided to share a cab to the airport. We figured out the rush hour travel time, calculated how busy the TSA lines would be that time of day, all with the attention to detail a couple designers can muster after a few cocktails (or perhaps because of them). Well, after the last session, I went and retrieved my luggage from the van, and met Ken at the appointed time and place. We found a great shortcut out to the cab stand area, and while walking were going over details. We grabbed the cab first in line, and told the driver we would swing past the James to get Ken''s luggage and then off to the airport. "Which airport?" the driver asked, and I said "Midway". And Ken said "O''Hare". So much for details. Perfect way to end a perfect three days, with a laugh.

Well not exactly the end. I got through security and stopped in Harry Carays to eat and ended up sharing a table with some Gravity Free friends that I ran into there. When the food showed up, we were quick to note that if we were doing ''play with your food'' the meatball sandwich with two large meat balls, and the other sandwich, which was a rather large Italian sausage, would make for a rather pornographic entry. I guess the Gravity Free state of mind does linger. The entire Gravity Free conference was every bit as amazing as I thought it would be, and it was a special treat to see a more personal rendition of some of the interviews I had enjoyed in Helvetica.

The way I see it, twenty some dangerous minds got up on a stage and shared their unique points of view with us, and in return, three hundred some dangerous minds left Chicago. I was a bit sad I had to leave before the final wrap up because I didn't get to do my evaluation. If it was as in years past, the first question was "how would you describe the conference in one word". My word would be chaotic. Not because it was a chaotic meeting. Far from it. All the people at Exhibitor and their management companies did an incredible job coordinating every detail. No, I mean chaos the way the Chinese define it. You see, the literal translation of the Chinese word for chaos is ''a time of danger and opportunity'. The way I look at it dangerous minds lead to opportunity, and make for a chaotic and interesting future.

If I were you, I'd register for next year's right now.

'The Euphemism-ing of America'

This afternoon it was nice out, so I took a little break to sit out in the sun, drink a Caribou Dulce DeLeche , and read Dry: A Memoir  (I love reading Augesten Burroughs).  While I was sitting there I saw an armored car service pull up to the curb, but it wasn't the normal American Security Armored Car truck (apparently they were acquired)  but one from  Garda  Cash Logistics.  Cash logistics?  Are you F''n kidding me?  Euphemism aside, what about the branding aspect.  When I think of logistics, I think of actuaries with spreadsheets and big Gantt charts that cover an entire wall.  I don't know about you, but when the guard is carrying a big canvas bag full of my hard earned cash out to the curb I want him to have a damn 12 gauge in his other hand, not a flow chart. 

What is it with this euphemism epidemic?  I know it''s been around for quite some time, but it is beginning to get ridiculous.  Give me a break.  Oh, I can understand the puffery and job title inflation that resume writers engage in.  If I were a hostess at Olive Garden I might refer to myself as an social nourishment facilitator or some such.  And I suppose being a WalMart "Associate" might make you forget you are an underpaid clerk with no benefits and give the old self esteem a mighty boost.  And I can understand the motives of a group of employees that seek to bump up a paycheck with a title change.  But are we all so immune to this "title creep" that we don''t even notice it anymore? There is even a term for it. The Ridiculous Business Jargon Dictionary describes it this way;  Uptitling; The practice of changing an employee''s job title to something impressive (and often ridiculous) sounding in place of an actual promotion. 

Case in point; Stewardesses became flight attendants for this reason, even though the job responsibilities didn't change much.  Back in the day it was one of those jobs a young woman took to travel and meet a husband (pardon my sexism, but it was) and now it has become a "career".  The justification for this was that they were responsible for your safety.  This wasn't really much of a change.  In the beginning all stewardesses were required to be nurses, so obviously the safety thing has always been a consideration,  but by creating the public opinion that they were less waitresses and more lifeguards (and we were, by extension, really poor swimmers) they were able to justify this transition to "professional career" and give their union all the ammo it needed to assure that they were paid commensurate with their heavy responsibilities.  Does anyone really fall for this?  Does anyone really think that that surly, menopausal woman (I usually fly NWA) who glares at me when I ask her to leave the can of Pepsi after my glass is filled is going to stay on a burning plane to make sure I get safely off before they have a single thought of self preservation?  Good heavens, it''s hard enough to get them to stop complaining about their job with their fellow flight attendants in the galley when you need something.  Would not a rose, by any other name, take just as long to bring you a second bag of tiny pretzels? 

The same goes for  lines of business.  What once was trucking became transportation, and is now logistics.  From a sales standpoint I suppose that makes sense.  A friend in the trucking transportation logistics business told me how sales has evolved from calling on the shipping manager to discuss shipping, to calling the VP of Ops to discuss a total logistics solution.  I suppose after a few power point filled meetings with management and a value proposition analysis or two it's easy for that VP of Ops to send a memo to the shipping manager (cc'ing his boss) explaining the exciting new capabilities this paradigm shift will bring to the company, fulfillment-wise.  Plus, we all know how less carved-in-stone budgets get the closer you get to the top of the management food chain.  And, I imagine it's easier to get buy-in from the shipping manager when their boss', boss', boss thinks it's a good idea.

So, I guess I can see why Garda does it.  I suppose it makes it easier to get past a gatekeeper, or an initial objection.  If the prospect says "no, we already have an armored car service, I''m not interested", it can be countered with "no sir, we aren't an armored car service, we are a cash logistics specialist".  "Well damn", the impressed prospect says "that''s different, tell me more".  If I were them I think my job (and myself) might feel more important if I were tasked with the selection of our cash logistics provider.  "How was work today dear?"   "Not bad, I spent all afternoon reviewing responses to my RFP from prospective cash logistics providers.  It''s always a demanding chore when I am tasked with implementing any changes in our mission critical business infrastructure".  It would be funny if we all weren't surrounded by people all day that talk like this.

Maybe it is just me, but I liked it in the old days when you could just say something and not feel compelled to spin it.  What do you think?

Oh well, only a week and a half until Gravity Free.  Then all will be right with the world...for three days at least.

 

I hadn't gone to GlobalShop for a couple years...

I hadn't gone to GlobalShop for a couple years, but this year it was in Chicago and a European client of mine has their North America offices there (and were exhibiting as well), so it seemed like a good time to visit again.  So, off I went this morning on the 7 Am out of MSP to ORD.  I forgot how odd it is to be on this flight out of Minneapolis to GlobalShop.  I saw four other exhibit design firm folks on the plane, and it seemed like the rest were evenly split between Target and Best Buy employees.  It was almost worth getting up at 4:30 AM to see.  My client picked me up at the airport and we had a few hours of meeting in their North American Headquarters, and then headed off to the hall. 

The show was in the newest addition at McCormick, and that was another good reason to visit.  The interior looked similar to the last new addition but traffic flow seemed a bit more intelligent.  Part of the show was in the main hall, with overflow in a ballroom.  The ballroom looked really nice, with a great deal of attention paid to acoustics and ceiling treatment.  The walls and overhead were so finished looking that it even made the bad exhibits look good.  On the other hand, the food court downstairs absolutely sucked.  It is made up of stations along the wall with salad, American grill, Italian, Asian etc. dishes at each, after which you all traveled to communal cash registers.  I am still wondering how you can make a dry burger that had been in a warming tray forever and looked like a rock to be nearly raw in the middle.  In addition, their was no cell phone signal as we were in the basement.  Also, I stopped in a men''s room outside the ballroom that had 2 stalls and 2 urinals and 16 people waiting in line. This is, after all, McCormick place, not an Olive Garden.  Well, that''s enough for the venue.  Now for the show.

As for the show itself, I don''t have any numbers but it seemed smaller than I recall.   And there were some noticeable absences and scaled back presences.  I remember when the laminate vendors treated GlobalShop like the Paris fashion show and rolled out their new lines for the year.  Maybe it was because it was a EuroShop year, but they all seemed to be keeping things a bit lower key.  I missed seeing Hafele, who used to have a nice big island booth full of hardware to play with.  I also didn't see ALU, who used to always do something really impactful.  Maybe it is because (like a lot of other industries) that consolidation among store chains had key prospects to a number low enough where direct selling has become more effective, or the audience has become too broad and leads are not very desirable. 

I think the biggest shock was the "green" m̶a̶r̶k̶e̶t̶i̶n̶g̶ washing going on.   Don't get me wrong, I am pro-sustainability and applaud anyone that is working to make our industry more responsible.  Unfortunately it was a bit over the top and in most cases absolutely bullshit.  If you went to this show and decided to play a drinking game where if every time you saw the word green in a graphic you would take a shot of tequila, you would be out cold by the end of the first aisle.  About the fiftieth time I saw an exhibit for a product built entirely from petroleum products and one time use landfill fodder with a banner boasting of their corporate "green" practices I was barely able to keep from doing the same thing I would have done after that many shots of tequila.

Another trend I saw (and felt) was a huge number of graphic houses  that were all doing kind of a "me too" we print on fabric thing.  It almost seemed like they were all in the aisle in old army surplus jackets with a torn piece of cardboard that had "will print for food" written on it with a Sharpie.  The biggest shame about this (in the exhibit industry as well) is that with all the concentration on how things are printed and how cheaply they are printed there needs to be more attention paid to what is printed.  All these sexy graphic production methods and a lot of the graphics still looked like sale banners or a bad power point slide. 

Not all was bad.  I got to hook a client up with Arakawa, the most unique and precise cable grippers around to integrate their product into one we are developing.  Sparks had a really nice booth.  Simple but really inviting (sort of a hospitality venue) with a really effective lighting package and materials that took the lighting to an even higher level. It had a real loungy feel, with dimensional "branches" on a white back wall that were made of acrylic that took the LED color washes and made them look almost animated and backlit. 

Another great exhibit, both aesthetically and in purpose, was Muzak.  It was a nice closed in environment, all in black and white.  The center core was a circular closet with portrait oriented plasma screens around the perimeter with different facial expressions dissolving on them.  The sides were  closed in with vertical clear plastic tubes that had the same faces printed on them.  The whole message was how you can use your soundtrack to create moods in your store or office to make the experience more emotional.  After hearing their pitch, you got to choose an emotion button (so you could wear an emotion on your sleeve) and a card for free.   Well done process; all those ''sleeve buttons'' that drove curious attendees to the booth, the nice visual presence to intrigue and stop passers by, a great metaphor for what they were trying to communicate to make it memorable, and an after show prospect-touch (on the music download site) to extend the experience and capture post show metrics and additional contacts from people who hadn't attended the show at all. 

There was one last experience I had that seemed to sum up the mood of the industry.  I was walking through the ballroom with The Store Fixturing Show in it.  In the corner was a really nice exhibit from an Italian design firm that was giving away bags.  Since I was starting to accumulate a pretty big pile of brochures I stopped by to get one.  I made a bit of small talk and then complimented him on the design of their exhibit.  He replied (in heavily accented english) "then why when you have a new project to create do you always go to the cheapest firm you can find instead of hiring us".  He smiled and laughed and said he was joking, but I could tell he wasn't, and I felt an incredible rush of empathy. 

After the show I caught the airport shuttle to MDW (and avoided a cab line that looked like someone was giving out free  sex and money), got herded through a security line that took longer than the commute to the airport during rush hour, and ate a really bad pastrami sandwich in a way too crowded airport bar with a friend before heading home.  A long day, but all in all a very productive and informative one, even if some of what I learned was a bit depressing.

This is the book that propelled the B-Word (branding) into the forefront.

This is the book that propelled the B-Word (branding)  into the forefront.  I still remember the first time someone quoted this book to me.  I had invited Scott Leach of BrandSpeak to come and talk about this new idea called branding to our EDPA Chapter.  The Coffee analogy made the clouds suddenly part, and the sun shone through and I could see.  I went out the next day and picked up a copy, read  (no devoured) it, and finally understood  that what we all do isn''t as much sales or marketing, but helping our client keep a promise. 

The idea that service businesses could elevate and differentiate  themselves was truly a new concept, one that we all understood in our gut, but had to be shown how to understand in our head.  Even though  some of the examples they use to illustrate the concept haven''t fared well, keep in mind that at the time they were truly something new and were the appropriate poster children for the experience economy.  After seeing Jim speak on several occasions, and having a few very educational conversations in a conference hotel bar seeing things through his eyes in a more contemporary fashion, I can truly say that the principles to be learned in this book  are as relevant today as they were then.

The Experience Economy: Work Is Theater & Every Business a Stage (Hardcover) by B. Joseph Pine (Author), James H. Gilmore (Author) Harvard Business School Press (April 1999)http://markbendickson.com/wp-content/themes/hemingway/images/expeconomy.jpg"

...a documentary about a typeface, must be about as sexy as watching paint dry.

It''s not often you see a documentary that is truly interesting (informative yes, interesting no) but I watched  the other day and was truly enthralled. Helvetica.  I know what you are thinking, a documentary about a typeface, must be about as sexy as watching paint dry.  You are wrong. 

It was a really insightful look at not so much the type face itself (although it's history is interesting) but the way that the world is made up of two kinds of designers, those who love Helvetica and those who hate it.  I was really amazed that Helvetica, like so many things in life, is so totally pervasive but unnoticed until someone points it out to you.  One line described Helvetica as "the perfume of the city".  It is also as timeless as some of the works done with it, for example Massimo Vignelli's American Airlines logo done in 1966 and unchanged today. 

While the movie is good, the bonus materials (which last longer than the movie itself) has excerpts and lengthy interviews with a who's who of legendary graphic designers.  I loved seeing them in their studios and, in the outtakes, really open and unfiltered.  Paula Sher made the comment that illustrated how silly the music business is by pointing out Ray Charles and Stevie Wonder both were granted cover approval for their albums.  It was also fun to see people like Hermann Zapf, whose dingbats I had been using forever.  He told the story of how Palatino took 8 years to develop and was inspired by architecture in Florence.  Contrast that with today''s ''font of the month club'' approach to not only packaging and other temporary venues, but to corporate ID as well. 

There are many of the "story behind the project" revelations that I love, as well as some really great historical looks at traditional (read not on a computer) type setting and graphic design methods and tools.  I loved the comment in one of the interviews that type isn't art, it's what you do with the white space between it that shows the true genius.  I think that anyone who works in a creative field (not just with type) would enjoy the movie, and especially the bonus materials on the DVD.'

Tools: Type Selector Cards

(8, 1, '2007-08-16 20:20:23',

   Type Selector Cards

 

Type Selector Cards

Type Selector  by Michael Worgotter

Publisher: Thames & Hudson (November 1, 2006)

Language: English

ISBN-10: 0500241368

ISBN-13: 978-0500241363

I don''t know about you, but I cannot even begin to imagine how much time (unbillable time at that) I have spent searching through drop down menus and specimen sheets to find a good type face to use, or to find a match to something obscure.  I found this tool on sale at Amazon, and it has come in pretty handy.  It is a fan book, in size and function much like a Pantone selector, and contains 226 fonts from all the major type libraries in well over 1,000 typefaces.

The book is divided into sections for these categories:

  • Serif
  • Slab Serif
  • Sans Serif
  • Script
  • Black Letter
  • Display

Each font page contains;

  • the font name
  • sample text with notes of the different weights used (along with point size and leading)
  • a test word containing the font''s characters
  • an alphabet (with figures, if available)
  • the name of the font designer
  • the full name of the font and it''s source
  • all the weights in the font family
  • availability of small caps or old style figures
  • as well as ornaments, alternates, swash letters or other special sets.

It comes in a heavy box sleeve to keep it from flopping open in your briefcase or bag and the front few pages have an alphabetical listing of all the font families represented.

Let me know what you think of this, and if you find it useful in your practice.

'It''s not easy being...sustainable'

I'm getting a bit concerned about this whole green thing.  It seems that''s all anyone talks about. 

This afternoon, I was reading Knight Errant, Lee Knight''s column in the August Exhibitor Magazine, and  it made me start thinking (it often does that) about the greening of the exhibit industry.  I thought about it, and it made me uneasy.  Nooo, not because I hate the environment.  My good friend, The Sheriff of Mayberry, has been a great influence on me.  He is truly well versed in creating a sustainable supply chain.    You see, he got me to read Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things, and he taught me that green really means sustainable.  So my concern is that this emphasis takes a constructive path, and doesn't become some fashion statement. 

I have already seen a bit of green washing, and I think there is a real need to educate the buying public so that they do make changes that will be the most effective.  The ''reduce, reuse, recycle'' maxim should be followed when making a decision about materials and sources. 

For example:

  • To reduce we could go towards a more minimal booth, or use a system to keep the weight down and save on shipping.  We can use lighter materials in construction or even evaluate the shows we attend and eliminate those few that really aren't earning their keep. 
  • If we want to reuse, how about using rental properties.  That probably has the biggest impact in the trade show industry.  By renting you are using property that, instead of being used at 4-6 shows a year in your schedule and spending the rest of the year sitting in a warehouse,  is used as often as it can be booked.  It could conceivably be used at 3 shows per month.  That makes 36 times a year, or about 1/6 the amount of exhibit required per show as a privately owned exhibit.  Even better, if the booth you rent is based in the same city as your show (like buying locally grown produce) you save all that freight cost and carbon production.  The same goes for components.  Instead of buying furniture, consider renting from one of the companies that has a good selection of really handsome furniture and accessories.  Cort comes to mind.  Consider renting carpet or av equipment.  I know, I always hear the argument that "you can buy a carpet for what they charge to rent it".  And literally taken, that is true.  But you can''t buy it, ship it to the show, pay drayage on it, pay for it''s installation and removal, and ship it back after the show for what it costs to rent it.  When you look at it that way it starts making real sense.  Of course there are times when you need to own your flooring, and that''s cool, and that's when you can look at the recycled material content. 
  • Which brings us to to recycle.  The last of the triad, and the one you do only after you have done the other two, is still important.   And while it is important to look at what we buy to make sure it is made of post consumer ingredients and sustainable materials, it is every bit as important to recycle what we can. 

I recently got a call from a client who was doing a project for the Owsley Company and needed to know what the post consumer content of the stuff they buy from me had.  I told them what each component had in it for a range, and I said that it wasn't really possible to give an exact number.  You see you can never know just exactly what amount is used , other than that certain percentages are required to say certain things, and that certain materials (like aluminum) have a range of how much is virgin and how much is recycled.  But, you see, the company ''chief sustainability officer'' (or whatever trendy title they had) had their bonus tied to making that number go up every year, so making up a value for that particular metric became the most important thing in the equation.  What''s the problem with that, you ask?  Well, I then asked if they recycle the exhibits they have now and the answer was no.  Not surprising, as I subsequently asked quite a few of my clients and not many did, or didn't know.  The most common reasons were that they didn't know how, or they outsourced it to their exhibit services company and weren't sure what they did.  So, you can see why I find it a bit frustrating that a company who wants to wrap themselves in the cloak of responsibility for buying recycled stuff doesn't even recycle themselves.

Another concern I have is; who is going to come up with guidelines and values for our industry?  It really can''t be an industry association.  Oh, they can, and should, weight in.  But the standard developers need to be impartial so it doesn't turn into a counterproductive waste of time and resources (UL 2305 comes to mind) creating some universally non-offensive statement of position.  And it can''t be vendors, because that is just going to get ridiculous (it already has, actually).  We need someone totally impartial who loves numbers that can come up with a points system for balancing what we do with what we save.  Sort of like the LEED system for building, we need something that is relevant to our industry.  There are those who give LEED values to their exhibit products, but that makes about as much sense as me shopping for a car that is approved by The American Dental Association.  It needs to be someone who will calculate what order of magnitude more effective one thing is over another.  For instance, should we really be getting all excited about using compact fluorescents in our exhibit lighting when they are only on for three hours at a time...three days in a row...a few times a year.  Hell, you''d make more difference in the world turning off the porch light at home fifteen minutes earlier. 

That's it.  Just my opinion.  But I do think if we start to do things that are actually helping things better, not just making us feel better, maybe this can become a sustainable habit, and not just this season's feel good fad.

I thought about blogging on and off for the past few years.

I thought about blogging on and off for the past few years. Not because I have some earth shattering news to impart, or because I am some narcissistic 14 year old who actually thinks the world cares what music I like, but because it just seemed like a great way to share, to learn, and to get things off of my chest.  I thought about it a lot, did research and made a few false starts.  Then something happened that made me really want to jump in with both feet.

Awhile back I was taking a walk down memory lane on the internet archive wayback machine and looking at what my website  looked like 10 years ago>.  As I was browsing I ran across  a feature that I had back then called ask Dr. Display where I answered questions from clients and associates with the following call to action: ASK THE EXHIBIT DOCTOR Something ailing your exhibit program? Find a cure for a common ailment?  Or is there some holistic, preventative regimen that works for you?  Well, visit the Exhibit Doctor (tm).  Our clinic is a great place to share information with your peers, or get advice from the Doctor himself.  And, unlike some pesky HMO, we''ll let you stay as long as you like.  So drop the doctor a line, and let us know if we can use your question in the column.  It was a lot of fun, in a Dear Abby-esque sort of way, and allowed me to share my experience in a lighthearted and sometimes irreverent method.  Here is an example of one of my columns (note how little the square foot range and percentage of budget numbers have changed since 1997):

Dear Exhibit Doctor,
What is a good estimate for average cost per square foot on an island floor plan?
-Searching in San Diego

Dear Searching,
Wow!  This question is just like when your wife asks whether or not a certain pair of jeans make her look fat.  There is NO right answer.   But let me try anyway (email me and let me know if I have to sleep on the couch tonight). 
First of all there are different types of exhibit materials and construction techniques.  People say that custom modular exhibits will run 70-90 dollars a square foot, portables 50-80, custom 100-130.  These are approximate, and there are many variations on these figures, but these are approximately accurate.  Second, there are different requirements for an exhibit.  A computer company with eight workstations and a large presentation theater has a lot more content than a company that makes printing presses or semi trailers and has a product that takes up 75% of their exhibit. 
Then there are different design requirements and disciplines.  Some exhibits are crowded (and the stuff that makes them that way costs money) and others are more open and inviting.  Designers call this ''negative space'' because in theory the open space will draw people in.  By the way, the goal everyone should be working towards in an exhibit''s negative space is best thought of in this way; you''re walking down the street looking for a restaurant for dinner.  You want a restaurant that has room to seat and serve you in a reasonable amount of time, but that''s crowded enough so that the food must be good.  That's a good booth, crowded enough so people know there's something in it worth looking at, but not too crowded to get into and a staff that''s not too busy to get information from. 
Third, remember that these rules and dollar amounts are for your exhibit only.  This usually includes the structure, the crates or cases, and corporate id and some product specific graphics.  Backlit transparencies, design, large format graphics, computer and multimedia equipment, video walls, monitors, sound equipment, pierce cutting and dimensional elements would all be extra.  And these items can add a lot. 
So, we have different market''s and industries'' requirements to consider.  Different exhibit materials; custom, custom-modular, portable or a mixture (we call this a hybrid) of some or all of these types to figure in.  And, different booth designs, which can all influence the price.  Confused..... I don''t blame you. 
My advice to clients is two fold. First, budget between 90-150 dollars a square foot as a starting point.  Hopefully it will get approved.  Second, remember that based on an average five year show schedule, the cost of your exhibit is usually less than 20% of the cost of exhibiting, so think long and hard about ways to control the other 80% of these costs.  A good exhibit design firm should take these factors into consideration and make recommendations that will make your investment count.
The best advice I can give is to find an exhibit designer who you feel comfortable with, and whose work you respect, and let them give you a range after they have input on your needs and objectives.  That way you''ll be a step ahead, and you''ll have a pretty accurate number to use in budgeting.  And that''s better than a handful of people who have never designed a booth sitting in a marketing department conference room and pulling numbers out of their, er, I mean, the, air. 
Hope this helps in your search.
- The Exhibit doctor

Hopefully this blog can be a good way to recapture that and spark some good old fashioned discussion and commentary, to learn from others and share some points of view I have developed over the past twenty years. 

Enjoy.