Michal Migurski's notebook, listening post, and soapbox. Subscribe to this blog. Check out the rest of my site as well.

Jul 6, 2007 3:07am

thither design camp!

A few days ago, I posted a question about "design camps", specifically, why don't they exist? The model I had in mind was the technology geek unconference scene, most visibly implemented as Bar Camp, and most famously as O'Reilly's Foo Camp. There's also a host of tech conferences with BOF (birds of a feather) sessions and other self-organizing nerdery going on.

My loaded question got me a few mails that mentioned events such as last year's DCamp, which even has "design" in the name (sort of):

Unlike traditional conferences, there is no program created by conference organizers. What happens at DCamp depends on you. Come share your work and ideas. Tell us about some interesting UX method, explain how design fits into agile development and open source, share your design dilemma, or tell us about your new and interesting design.

In the end, the event was heavily HCI-focused, as might be expected from a BayCHI-sponsored event.

Mark Rickerby pointed out that New Zealand is home to a few emerging "time limited design contests", focused on competition rather than conferencing. 48Hours is about filmmaking, while Full Code Press is a "geek olympics": Web teams take each other on to build a complete website for a non-profit organisation in 24 hours. No excuses, no extensions, no budget overruns. These events remind me strongly of the late-90's sport of photoshop tennis, and are quite close to the problem-solving aspects of design.

One big difference that I can see already is a focus on two different ends of the process: technology events are about inputs, design events are about outputs. In general, it's possible to abstract a creative solution or sweet trick out a technological problem, and have that be the focus of a talk or session. For example, at the most recent FOO Camp I participated in a session on API authentication, specifically the derivation of a new standard process for authenticating to 3rd parties for web applications. There were people from Flickr, Google, Verisign, Dopplr, and Twitter there, and it was possible to have a meaningful conversation about the problem domain without everybody having to expose their secret sauce. Inputs. As Kevin Cheng put it, it's "fun to talk with a mixed group of both engineers and designers to get energized about building stuff."

In contrast, the competitive design events above are output-driven. Participants are expected to use the event to make a thing, with the conversational parts expected at the end. Make something, then talk about it. Mike Kuniavsky's event Sketching in Hardware (see also '07) had a lot of this element, especially the afternoon wrap-up design-off that had teams converting found electronic junk into working prototypes (my team made a record/playback telegraph machine out of a lamp and a stepper motor, and I still managed to get a bit of Flash involved). Timo Arnall imagines more of these events, with "a room full of markers, spray cans, nice paper and lego... access to a laser cutter, RP machine, etc..."

The prime example of a successful design event in my mind is Andrew Otwell's Design Engaged, held once in 2004 and again in 2005. We attended the second one, and it was really something special: fairly ad-hoc, small group (~30 people), and an incredible amount of energetic participation. I think it's important that the attendees for these two events were mostly hand-picked, with DIY social events far beyond the usual eat+drink planned for attendees; you'd be hard-pressed to beat a walking tour of Berlin/Charlottenburg hosted by Erik Spiekermann. The best way I can think of to sum up the talks at DE is that every single one was delivered by a designer of some variety riffing on what they thought was personally interesting to them. Adam talked about peak oil, Jack showed comic books and alloys with low eutectic melting points, Liz described her research work in hospitals, and Malcolm threw out some ideas on the differences between access and mobility, to name a few of my favorite sessions. It was a difficult event to sum up, and takes on a special significance in retrospect because it was such a fragile, unlikely co-occurence. It was also probably one of the few TAZ's I've participated in:

The Temporary Autonomous Zone (TAZ) describes the socio-political tactic of creating temporary spaces that elude formal structures of control. ... A new territory of the moment is created that is on the boundary line of established regions. Any attempt at permanence, that goes beyond the moment, deteriorates to a structured system that inevitably stifles individual creativity. It is this chance at creativity that is real empowerment.

Jay Feinberg gets at this as well, in his description of geek camp events as:

...enthusiast clubs, e.g., computer clubs of the 1970s or BBS clubs of the 1980s. The clubby aspect is, IMO, expressed through an implicit or explicit hierarchy among "members." People are invited and anyone can participate, but, ultimately, there are core members and even a hierarchy of leaders who define the culture of who is really "in" and who is really "out." And, the activities at camp are, on one level, very much about being part of the club - doing things that prove one's value as a member or move one up the hierarchy of important people in the club.

I liked this description enough to go scurrying for an article that Nat pointed out a long time ago, Jo Freeman's Tyranny of Structurelessness. Freeman is a feminist scholar most active in the 1960s and 70s, and her essay describes the power dynamics of supposedly-unstructured movements:

Contrary to what we would like to believe, there is no such thing as a "structureless" group. Any group of people of whatever nature that comes together for any length of time for any purpose will inevitably structure itself in some fashion. The structure may be flexible; it may vary over time; it may evenly or unevenly distribute tasks, power and resources over the members of the group. But it will be formed regardless of the abilities, personalities, or intentions of the people involved. The very fact that we are individuals, with different talents, predispositions, and backgrounds, makes this inevitable. Only if we refused to relate or interact on any basis whatsoever could we approximate structurelessness - and that is not the nature of a human group.


Once the movement no longer clings tenaciously to the ideology of "structurelessness," it is free to develop those forms of organization best suited to its healthy functioning. This does not mean that we should go to the other extreme and blindly imitate the traditional forms of organization. But neither should we blindly reject them all.

Jay points out that the designers often come together out of existing, established structures (there's a rough taxonomy of job titles and professional organizations such as AIGA, if I understand what he's getting at), and don't need to do quite so much jockeying for "geek cred".

Oddly, I've begun to form a mental model of how the conference/camp ecology operates by analogy to a previous scene I was a member of, San Francisco's mid/late 90s rave underground (just think "dj is to party as speaker is to conference") There was a constant push-pull dynamic between the promoters of permitted (in the legal sense), for-profit parties, and the collectives responsible for a dizzying array of remote, hidden, and otherwise illegal events. Questions of credibility and legitimacy were a core focus, and it was always important to stay just on the bleeding edge of acceptability and risk. The trigger for this association was a talk on unconference planning given by Jo Walsh and Rufus Pollock at E-Tech 2006, effectively an hour's worth of advice on scouting, securing, and using out-of-the-way venues for ad-hoc technology events. Same damn thing as a party, with no ear-bleeding bass.

What made it all work was the same fragility that Design Engaged featured: "any attempt at permanence, that goes beyond the moment, deteriorates to a structured system that inevitably stifles individual creativity." Look to Burning Man for a long-running example of permanence stifling spontaneity. How does an event go from inspiring, utter fucking chaos to the flaccid, gormless prose of today's annual desert art social? I'm sure that being forced to worry about BLM permits and power-tripping DPW wonks cuts the tolerance level for rave camp and the drive-by shooting range.

Many of the designers I've met over the years share joy in short-lived coincidence and unlikely collisions, and I think this is a reason that the "camp" meme hasn't found a home among designers as it has among techies. Foo camp, Bar camp, Etech, and other technology events are fundamentally about repetition: geeks need a refuge to congregate in, and this refuge can be constructed and duplicated in a fairly reliable manner. Tech events focus on inputs to the creative process, tools and techniques that want to be tried and implemented. Design events focus on outputs, results of a creative process whose constituent parts are fly together at the last moment in unpredictable ways. Boris says design is "dictatorial"; how can you have a session about the last-minute flash of inspiration, except to share war stories?

(Thank you Jay Feinberg, Timo Arnall, Peter Merholz, Boris Anthony, Hillary Hartley, Mark Rickerby, Tom Carden, and Andrew Otwell for your replies)

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