Looking Backward for a Vision Forward

Last week I had a great conversation with someone about what I do now as a designer, and what I hope to be doing in the future. One of the questions I was asked was, “How has directing a design conference (MinneWebCon) changed you?” It’s one of those really large questions that need some reflection to answer well. But before I summarize my answer, I need to provide some context to show how this question also shaped my outlook for 2011.
As I anticipate the new year and reflect on 2010, I can’t help but recognize that 2011 will mark my tenth year of being associated with the University of Minnesota as a designer. In August 2001 I arrived on campus as a new graduate student in the Department of Design, Housing, and Apparel in the College of Human Ecology (later to be merged with our School of Architecture and renamed the College of Design).

I was hopeful that my decision to study design in this unique department, and at a large university, would provide a blend of experiences that would not be available in a smaller, more traditional art or design school — and I was correct. I had just been given opportunities to study interactive design in the context of a department that had a broad focus on design of many kinds (graphic, web, interiors, apparel, and retail experience); to be an academic advisor for incoming first-year students who were designing their personal programs of study; and to be a page layout and typography instructor for upper-level graphic design students.
And the journey began with Finnish
But perhaps the most defining opportunity came after making an ambitious decision to learn a new language, Finnish, while I was trying to focus intently on design. I had studied French for three years and German for six, so I was confident I was experienced enough with learning new languages that I could make this work. And my father’s side of the family is from Finland, where design is a particularly well-revered area of study and practice. So my hope was to find a way to fold the study of Finnish design into my study of interactive design.
I did not become a Finnish expert after only two semesters, but I did learn some conversational Finnish and basic grammar that could help with some basic niceties and essential phrases for survival. And by the winter of 2001-2002, I had also settled on a topic of inquiry for my master’s thesis project: Modernism in Finland, and what made it unique from Modernism elsewhere in Europe. My method of research was shaped by being introduced to the Kalevala in Finnish class — written by Elias Lönnrot in 1835, it is considered to be the defining cultural work of Finland.
Telling stories, curating ideas, creating language
Lönnrot was a Renaissance Man in the truest sense of the term. He was trained as a physician, but his heart was in language and anthropology. And in a fascinating twist of fate, his job of being a traveling country doctor led to him being known far more today for being a philologist than a physician. His years of travel allowed him to collect tidbits of history and folktales from across the countryside, which led him to not only write a Finnish artistic and literary epic but, in doing so, also help standardize the Finnish language and create a sense of Finnish national identity that continues to color and inform the national culture today.
I’m not the first Finnish-American to be inspired by Elias Lönnrot. Beatrice Ojakangas, a member of my childhood Lutheran church in Duluth and a well-known cook and cookbook author, began her career in a similar fashion. When her husband Richard decided to do research in Finland for his Ph.D. dissertation in geology, Bea needed to find something to occupy her time while living in this new place. Fortunate to have learned some Finnish as a child, she followed her interests in cooking and started learning how Finns prepared local foods. However, in the 1960s there were no Finnish cookbooks from which to learn, so she learned from her neighbors. And as her circle of acquaintances grew, her curiosity grew in proportion and she realized that her expanding collection of recipes and techniques could become a definitive book about Finnish foods and cooking.
Today The Finnish Cookbook is in its 38th printing and, in its own way, is a Finnish national epic. To be sure, it pulls together recipes and techniques that define a culture and way of life; but as anyone who loves food and cooking knows, the stories that are intertwined with the food and its preparation are just as important.
Inquiry and design
Inspired by Lönnrot and Ojakangas, I applied for some grants to fund my master’s research abroad. The encounters and interviews I had in May of 2002 put me in touch with Finnish designers, curators, museum directors, and design educators. The resulting master’s projects, an artist book, interactive exhibit, and written thesis about Finnish Modernism, were not only the capstone to my MFA degree but a launch pad for the rest of my design career.
The skills I developed and experiences I had have continued to inform my design work ever since. Whether it is interviewing others about what they do, or making decisions about how to structure and present other people’s stories, my research abroad and subsequent project prepared me for a career where design is first and foremost an activity of inquiry. It is also an activity primarily in service of other people’s content: what forms, formats, and systems are best-suited for connecting people and their stories through screens, browsers, and now mobile devices?
So last week when I answered the question about how directing a conference has changed me the most, I noted that it has helped me expand my concept of what “design” is even more. Before 2001, I thought design was primarily visual and task-based. During graduate school I developed a view that went in two opposing directions: my interest in design history caused me to look backwards, while my focus on interactive design required me to look ahead and stay on top of ever-changing technologies. And since finishing my master’s degree in 2004, my job has been primarily about learning as much as I can about other people’s work and interests so that we can collaborate on the best possible ways of using Web technologies to support what they do.
Conversations and writing
Now, helping to direct a design conference is but another type of design challenge. The creative activity is a blend of all that I have done before: collaborating with other subject experts on programming, working with sponsors to secure various types of support, making all of the logistical arrangements for the venue and catering, and traveling to attend other conferences so I can scout for presenters and observe how other events are done. And as with other large projects, its success is due to the creative ideas and efforts of many others, combined and synthesized into a compelling whole. The conference has also lead to some pleasant surprises, one of which was developing relationships with publishers (for conference sponsorship) that eventually lead to an opportunity for me to propose and write my own book.
So if this is what I have been doing for the past few years, what do I want to be doing in 2011 and beyond? In short: more of the same. Which really means that I look forward to more years of constant and challenging change, inspired collaboration, and learning about what other people do so that I can work with them to further their goals through design.
And the best design occurs when you step out of your comfort zone — whether it is a place, area of content, mode of work, or circle of acquaintances — to apply familiar skills to something new and less familiar. And so I look forward to 2011 not just for some of the plans that I already have, but also for some of the things that I do not yet anticipate. May it be another year that tests my skills, stretches my endurance, takes me to new places, and teaches me new things.