Designs on the Future

What this talk about: The future depends upon design, and designers need to understand their importance and increasing role in building that future. Design is now at the center of the modern economy and everyone needs to better understand how design underlies economics, innovation, culture and progress. Design determines value, and the better the design, the more value we have.

This talk is fun, fascinating and leaves people either quiet in their own thoughts or turning to those with them to chat about what they just heard. My talks have a lot of common sense and uncommon perspectives on how all this seemingly modern mess of fads and trends can come together as we head into the future.

At the core of this talk is a sense of both optimism and hope. As scary as it sometimes seems, we can use our design sensibilities and confidence to build better futures. And, even in those moments we still have doubts, hope is still there. We can fight the hopeless battles and still hope to win. Such attitudes may not fit with modern sensibilities, but they work, time and time again. I would never call my talks motivational (if you’re not motivated, that’s not my problem…) but they are called inspirational.

There are two videos of talks on my home page. The first is from AIAS Forum, a 20 minute talk, the annual architectural student conference. (I’ve keynoted their conference five times, each time getting a standing ovation, and the one in 2010 got two standing ovations. Those are rare for me, so it’s not bragging, it’s letting you know that I know how to connect with this sort of audience.) The second video was for SEGD: Society for Experiential Graphic Design. It’s 45 minutes long and more typical of my talks for design audiences: fun, fascinating and got the crowd talking.

Why this keynote speech is different: Because I’m not the sort of Futurist who just tells you what to think, I also help you understand how to think about the future. Sure, I’ll share some of the latest, fascinating trends, but you can find a lot of those most anywhere today. Forecasts about what’s next are a dime-a-dozen. But I want you to ask: Is there a profit motive behind the prophet motive? Are the pundits and prognosticators telling you something is going to happen because they’ve got a stake in it? Are they really trying to sell you something? I help you to spot the sales jobs and distinguish between fads being sold and deeper trends and principles that are driving the economy and society.

I weave together not just the issues that are front and center, but also the concerns at the back of your mind. With each client, I always ask two key questions before crafting the talk: What keeps you up late at night because you fear the future – and what gets you up early in the morning because you can’t wait to get started on designing what’s next. In my talks I’ll scare you a little (gotta get your attention…) but then also reassure you with both humor (if you can laugh at the future, it’s a lot less threatening) and with a practical sense of there’s work to be done and here are some insights on how to take ownership of the future.

Why this keynote speaker is different: The value I bring to the conversation is to actually have lots of conversations with your attendees. Both on stage and off, I mix with the crowd, hanging out to chat, attending other sessions and not rushing off to yet another gig. I strictly limit the number of talks and only want to work with a limited number of industries: Architecture & Design, Education and Economic Development. The real value of conferences is not the speakers (no, really!) it’s the conversations in between the talks, the breaks and the meals – when you break bread, you break barriers.

What do people say after the talk? “I didn’t expect that.” “I wish my kids had been here.” “How come no one else talks about these things?” When talking with design students, I often hear, “How come we don’t learn about these subjects?” On social media, the most popular hashtag about my talks has been #mindblown.

What else do I bring to your event: Connected ideas. After almost 1600 talks, and working with every industry imaginable, I’ve found that the problems of one industry are often being dealt with in different industries. Because I often attend the conferences I speak at, I listen and share ideas across boundaries, learning and sharing ideas throughout these industries. Wealth comes from connections, especially connections we didn’t see in the beginning of the conversations.

Some key ideas from Designs on the Future: Each talk is unique, a mix of what’s just gotten on my radar and some tried and true stories and anecdotes. Here are a few ideas that have been a part of my talks to architects and designers.

Many pundits have tell us that we have to be open to change, but I disagree. It’s not that simple. In order to build a good future we must know how to hold on to the best of the past and make sure we learn from the lessons of history. Great design does not have to be new, it has to be good. For example,  Vitruvian principlesfirmitas, utilitas, venustas; that is, solid, useful, beautiful are neither new nor old, they’re timeless. And, because they’re timeless, they’re really futuristic in that they’re true now and they’ll be true in the future just as they were back in the first century BC when Vitruvius first recognized these truths. The latest fads in design may be fun and cool, but if it’s a bit embarrassing ten years from now, you know it won’t last and maybe more thought should have been put into the plans. Shouldn’t design last longer than somebody’s whims?

The boundaries of the design professions may be necessary but they are not fixed and will continue to shift and blend because of both technology and the advancements with how we design careers. The word cloud graphic on the home page for this section was created by asking architectural students: “If you don’t become an architect, what else might you do?” Their answers were put into wordle.net to create the word cloud. (The more a particular word shows up in their answers, the bigger the word gets in the cloud.) What most of those students realize is that they will take their design skills and apply it to whatever is the task is at hand. The career labels aren’t as important as the work. They will design. They will be designers.

Cameron Sinclair, founder of Architecture for Humanity, said at the 2013 AIA National Convention, “The greenest building is one that is loved.” We might love the latest design, but we should share a bit more love for those designs which have stood the test of time. (Do they teach that in design schools?)

It should be clear that not all change is progress and not all tradition is outdated. Survival and progress depend on our ability to choose between change and tradition. Again, designers are some of the best prepared to make those choices clear for others. It’s time that they regained leadership positions for shaping the choices we must make.

This presentation is a fascinating (and a bit irreverent) look at the trends and traditions affecting design and the roles that architects, designers and planners can have over the next ten years. My role as a Public Director on the board of American Institute of Architects (2010-2013) and as a popular speaker at design events have given me some good insights on what are the possibilities for the future of the design professions.