Design Research Conference 09: Lessons Learnt

Last weekend I was fortunate to attend the Design Research Conference in Chicago (that city of sausage links and thick-necked men, sleek city people clad in black, tall, reflective buildings, and a giant 3D bean-shaped mirror.)

It was by far the most ‘designy’ conference I’ve attended.  It was held at the Spertus Institute, a modern and angular white and grey space in the middle of downtown.  The speakers and attendees were polished and stylish.  There were innovative eyeglasses frames.

Spertus, from the inside

Spertus, from the inside

The speakers were an impressive group of design and design research leaders.  As I listened to the talks (and tried to take sketchnotes, the results of which I might post at some point), I began to notice some key themes that crisscrossed the talks and my conversations with other conference-goers.  I’m going to briefly lay them out here, and then I have 2 anecdotes to share.


  1. Wanna be a researcher?  Be a talker. Robert Fabricant of Frog Design was the first speaker of the conference, and he said that there is no special training design researchers need; but they do need to be comfortable talking to people.  He said this: “go to a mall and start talking to strangers.  Do you like it?  Is it you?”  If not, you might be better suited to something else.
  2. Innovation comes from the people.  Robert Fabricant and Stokes Jones (an ethnographer with Lodestar) both described various ways in which solutions come from the people; we need to uncover those sparks of innovation that develop organically and then build on them.  Stokes described this as ‘bottom-up’ or ’embedded’ innovation that comes from the reuse of existing materials, drawing on or adding to the store of cultural knowledge.  Mark Rettig also noted that ‘change is social.’
  3. We must create an extended conversation with users. Instead of researching discrete moments in a user’s life and then losing contact with them, it is important for organizations and researchers to build an ongoing relationship with users.  This will help us understand how the context of use changes over time, and it allows researchers to capture those moments of user innovation as they’re happening.
  4. Human relationships and connectedness are essential. Mark Rettig of Fit Associates described a said we need to ‘build social fabric’ in order to ‘engender a positive, profound, lasting impact’ when we design.  We should foster connectedness and care between people and work on building and healing human relationships – which are woven of language and conversation.  Ryan Armbruster, of Mayo’s SPARC Lab, was also interested in ‘persons interacting with persons;’ he designs services for medical patients in which the human interactions largely are the design.

ANECDOTE 1: Midafternoon Megabus Tweet

On the bus on the way to the conference, I checked twitter using my sad old iPod touch and Megabus’s sad, weak wireless internet.  I searched for #drc09 tweets, and came across this one by idfarmer:

Waiting for the bus of mega-ness in Ann Arbor. Geeked about #DRC09 SCAD kids shout out when you get there!

So I wrote back:

@idfarmer we are 3 UMich school of Info grad students also headed to #DRC09 via megabus-say hi or @ me, @lrodrian, or @noleli

As I sent off this tweet, the guy in front of me turned around and said “are you guys going to the Design Research Conference?”  @idfarmer turned out to be Kyle Lawson, a supersmart and interesting industrial designer-by-training guy who loves design research.  We had lots of thought-provoking, fast-paced, cheesy-joke-making conversations over the next few days, and Twitter made it all possible.

ANECDOTE 2: Richard Saul Wurman is a cranky, offensive, glorious person

This is getting long, but Richard Saul Wurman (70-something-year-old who created the TED talks) spoke at the conference as well – and I loved his sassy, curmudgeonly attitude.  I had a hilarious picture of him wearing a giant scarf, but now I can’t find it.  Here’s my first tweet from his talk:

Richard Saul Wurman staggers out onto the stage, says “isn’t it fuckin’ cold in here?” ! #DRC09 #ilovethisguyalready

RSW had many wise things to say, and he somehow pissed off half the audience whilst imparting his knowledge.  This is no longer an anecdote – I’m just going to list some quotes I captured from him.

Quotes from RSW

“I don’t give a shit about working for anybody”

“My life is driven by my ignorance”

“Most people don’t know what the hell they’re talking about”

“I like getting in touch with my ignorance – embracing my fundamental ignorance”

“That is my advantage – being a very BLANK SLATE”

“My life is a passion of explaining things to myself.”

“This auditorium is stupid, people have to turn to look at me.  I can’t bear it.”

“Don’t take notes.  It’s telling your brain you don’t have to remember.  If you have a question, call me.  I take all my calls.”

“How do you have blindingly truthful and honest conversations that let you extract meaning?  Even with yourself?”

“Question things that don’t make sense!”  (like atlases organized alphabetically.  each page is a different scale.  stupid.)

THIS JUST IN: listen to a recording of RSW’s talk! Courtesy of @idfarmer, a.k.a Kyle Lawson.


3 thoughts on “Design Research Conference 09: Lessons Learnt

  1. Pingback: Wurmanisms from DRC 09 | Wildly Appropriate

  2. Pingback: Wurmanisms from DRC 09 | Wildly Appropriate

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