I really wanted to love this conference. After all, it had the makings of the ideal design gathering for the Spring of 2010: A top-notch line-up of speakers from the design and business worlds, including some of my heroes, old and new (designer, Stefan Sagmeister; venture capitalist, Fred Wilson; Twitter co-founder, Jack Dorsey); a first-class venue (The Times Center in midtown Manhattan); a focus on the “how” of the creative process rather than the “what;” and all viewed through the lens of trendiest trend site Cool Hunting and the white hot creative consulting firm Behance. Plus the reviews of last year’s 99% were ecstatic.
How could this be anything but spectacular?
As with all design conferences, great names don’t always equal great presentations, and this one struggled with several speakers who had incredible personal and professional stories, but just weren’t able to deliver them in a compelling way. Eve Blossom led off the day with the tale of her organization, Lulan Artisans, which provides opportunities for women in southeast Asia to work in her fair trade textile business as a way to escape the rampant sex trade of that region. A remarkable story, but Blossom seemed awkward and never quite comfortable telling it in this setting. Fred Wilson is connected with some of the most promising and innovative tech companies around, yet he chose to give a fairly rudimentary overview of start-up business structures when I really wanted him to toss out some great new entrepreneurial case studies and trending topics, sprinkled with the occasional new music reference, the way he does on his excellent blog. Ordinarily, Stefan Sagmeister (who, in his defense, was under the weather that day) is a reliably spectacular presenter, but this presentation felt a bit stale—despite the work itself which was stunning, as always. Likewise, Leslie Koch of the New York Governors Island Preservation project, which is working to develop the abandoned island in New York Harbor into a recreational area, failed to flesh out the (apparently) impressive vision for the project. In short, roughly half of the speakers left me with the feeling I have when I see a great band at a great club with a great crowd, and they come out and play a set full of new songs that I’ve never heard before—c’mon, at least toss a few of my favorites in the mix!
The day was by no means a total loss. Frans Johansson of the Medici Group added some much needed energy to the afternoon session with his frenetic and scattered, but highly entertaining presentation that included one of the great lines of the day, “the purpose of strategy is to convince yourself it will work.” Jack Dorsey of Twitter seemed to find the right balance of speaking to the “how do we get it done?” theme, while still sprinkling his presentation with memorable nuggets like “the original implementation of Twitter took two weeks to build.” Storyteller Jay O’Callahan demonstrated his craft with a refreshing and riveting tale of the first moon landing. And John Maeda, president of Rhode Island School of Design was poignant and provocative, imploring the audience to “make money,” while dazzling us with tales of working in the studio of the legendary Paul Rand.
In my recent design conference experiences, the onstage presentations have been complimented by lively and vigorous Twitter hashtag commentary, and this was no exception. Click here to check out the feed at #99conf.
Cool Hunting has become known for their outstanding and expanding collection of short documentary films, to which we were treated as interstitial eye (and brain) candy, with subjects ranging from rock star chef/activist Jamie Oliver to quirky Brooklyn-based chocolatiers Mast Brothers. I was excited to attend the second-day workshop given by Ami Kealoha, producer of the Cool Hunting videos, but the session was a bit ragged, unstructured, and not quite as great as I hoped.
In the end, while certainly not a waste of time or money, “not quite as great as I hoped” is a pretty good summary of my impressions of 99%. Let’s call it a solid 84%.
For the official conference recap, click here.