Fixing Conferences: Six Lessons From the Designers Accord Summit

A new way to organize small groups, a focus on a deliverable, and declaring the conference a Twitter-free zone were a few successful elements of a recent meeting of design educators.

Designers Accord


I’ve realized that I can’t stand conferences. To me, conferences are akin to watching television without Tivo, or going to AAA to get a triptik instead of mapping a journey on Google. Conferences are an old workhorse model–a mix of passive consumption and fluorescent lighting–that is at odds with the seeds of inspiration they are supposed to inspire.

Almost without exception, after each conference I attend, I swear I’ll never go again.

But we do need them, or something like them. We need to get together face-to-face and talk about challenges, successes, and failures. We need to learn from each other–not through PowerPoints but facial expressions.

Designers Accord Summit

I promised that I would never hold a Designers Accord conference (because of the sheer numbers of design conferences, but especially because of the ever-promiscuous green conferences). However, it has become obvious that a significant part of the discussion about incorporating sustainability as a critical lens in design is missing. We spend so much time reworking our professional practice (or at least the rhetoric around it), but another major opportunity lies in shaping the value systems of the next generation of designers. What if the leading thinkers in design education came together to craft a new proposal for the future of the design?

Last week, the Designers Accord invited 100 design educators and activists to a two-day workshop in San Francisco to make an actionable plan for integrating sustainability into undergrad and grad design programs around the world. While I don’t know if this is the ultimate post-conference model, I felt there were six takeaways that made it valuable.

Designers Accord Summit

Social media is the enemy of time-based productivity.
I love Twitter. I hate Twitter. At conferences, Twitter reduces complex ideas to pithy one-liners. The tyranny of the hash tag! We had a Twitter-free event so that we could have an off-the-record conversation. Attendees were more engaged and present; conversations were more authentic. We didn’t ban phones or laptops, but no one seemed to use them.

All problems are systems challenges.
The prevailing wisdom in systems design is that challenges that are treated separately from their relevant political, financial, cultural systems are unsolvable. To remind ourselves of that (and to abate the inevitable high-five, self-congratulatory tone that can happen at conferences), we had a series of interstitial speakers who roused us into keeping a few key points at the forefront: design education is only as good as it directly plays out in the real world; design work that has a social value cannot exist outside our regular work stream (we need to unapologetically design new business models); we’ve gotten away with our seeming entitlement to “cheap” for far too long–we need to understand the true price of the things we create; and finally, forgiving modalities like Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) programs rarely if ever promote systemic change (ghettoizing these programs doesn’t work–think about it: every big bank that failed over the last 2 years had award-winning CSRs).


Big thinking loves tight parameters.
The concept of the Summit was to gather 100 thought-leaders to create a toolkit that design educators all over the world can use to integrate sustainability into their schools and programs. We had pre-Summit meetings to select eight of the most pressing topics to design educators (not surprisingly, most had to do with communication and administration, not curricula). Because we wanted each attendee to contribute to the development of each topic, we structured the Summit as a highly choreographed, iterative series of eight rotating brainstorm sessions, each employing a different “lens.” We were able to rapidly orchestrate convergent and divergent thinking, and more importantly, synthesize in real time, so that the content could be ported easily into the toolkit.

Ask for what you want.
I regularly speak about collaboration, and almost all of my design practice revolves around employing various protocols to problem-solve with groups in new ways. But personally, I am terrible at asking for help. How eye-opening to realize that corporations, designers, educators, students all want to give of their precious little time to actually role their sleeves up and work together. There is no halo effect from an unpublicized event–every sponsor (including Adobe, Autodesk, Sustainable Minds, KODA) and attendee was there because they wanted to be part of the dialogue. Perhaps relegating partners and sponsors to exhibition spaces and NASCAR-like thank you slides might not be the best use of their brainpower and reach.

Designers Accord Summit

Meeting in-person is powerful.
Recently, I had a very public exchange with designer David Stairs on Design Observer after he wrote a piece criticizing the Designers Accord, among other initiatives. I invited David to the Summit and he not only attended, he was a vital contributor to the weekend’s dialogue. We’re all plagued with the ubiquitous email introduction from friends and colleagues, and yes, weak connections often have longer ties. But when it comes to having the permission to ask questions, or express strong points of view, face to face is always best (and lucky for me, David was much less scary in person than he was in writing!).

Action is harder than rhetoric.
Stories about design process are like other people’s children–they are
most interesting to those who created them. And yet as designers, we
are storytellers. Our products are as much form as they are narrative,
and our social currency is the case study. But the overarching
narrative of the do-gooder design movement is short-termism. Having a
sense of urgency doesn’t mean we are short sighted, but it does mean
that we have to start making not just reflecting. The free toolkit that
will be developed from the Summit will be a (hopefully successful) test
of what moving in this direction can yield.


[Photography by Christian Ericksen]

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Valerie Casey is a globally recognized designer and innovator. She works with start-ups, governments, and companies all over the world on challenges ranging from creating new products and services, to transforming organizational processes and behaviors. Valerie is the founder of the Designers Accord, the global coalition of designers, educators, and business leaders working together to create positive environmental and social impact. Valerie’s work has been highlighted in multiple publications, and she has been named a “Guru” of the year by Fortune, a “Hero of the Environment” by Time, and a “Master of Design” by Fast Company. Valerie lectures on design throughout the international community, and is an adjunct professor at California College of the Arts. She holds a master’s degree in cultural theory and design from Yale University and a BA from Swarthmore College