Usefulness (value for money).

Imaginary tele-conversation at some Ticketmaster box office:

“Hi. I would like to get 2 U2 tickets. But first, tell me, are they gonna sing “with or without you?”

“No? You are not sure? But I would only come to the concert if they sing that song. Could you find out and let me know?”

I remember hearing Brody speak for the very first time (2002) in Singapore. Having just finished the Macromedia packaging and some beautiful Kenzo stuff, the whole hall was expecting a tour of his recent output. Neville pulled off a surprise (shock) by presenting a lecture on globalisation and the danger of design. No Macromedia. no Kenzo. No The Face. No Arena. No Fuse. Naturally, designers moaned and complained – they were expecting a Radiohead greatest hits concert with Creep as the encore song, and they got a KID A.

But I liked that talk. I knew it took Neville a lot of effort to prepare that (as compared to a portfolio show and tell). I knew it was in consideration that Singapore is probably one of the most globalised Asian countries.

Years later I find myself involved in organising (and sometimes marketing) design conferences. I am frequently tossed questions like this: “I am a product designer. Kindly let me know if this talk is useful for me?”; “Our HR department needs to justify the expenses of sending us to the conference, could you please send us the detailed info on what are the speakers gonna talk about?”; “I am a graphic designer. Why should I attend a talk by a product designer (Karim Rashid, for instance)?”; “I am in advertising. Is Bill Cahan relevant to me?”; “Will Wally Olins be talking about Orange and TATA?”

I guess this is a very Asian phenomenon. It follows strictly the equations of “if I go to this, I must get this, else it is useless.” Applying the equation – “if I go to a Joshua Davis talk, it won’t help me do better press ads, hence Joshua is useless to me.” Or for a designer – “If I attend a David Droga lecture, it won’t help me do better annuals reports, hence David Droga is useless to me”.

I have been coerced into marketing design events by categorizing everything according to “what you will get”. For example. By attending session A, you get work knowledge and insights. Session B is for inspiration and motivation. Session C is for technical knowledge upgrades. Accordingly, that makes getting funding from HR departments easier. It is also easier to persuade people to part with their cash if they are paying through their own personal accounts.

By categorization, I guess an Adobe technician is better value for money as he fits nicely into work knowledge and technical knowledge. Alan Fletcher would be a lousy return on investment – no technical knowledge, and his work knowledge is obsolete! In Asia – a talk titled “how to generate big ideas” is probably far more sellable than “An evening with Mr Fletcher”.

Sadly, people are just missing the point.

No one goes to a U2 concert because they want to hear “that” song. Why should people go to a designer’s talk because they want to hear about “that” job?

Post inspired by Sagmeister. On a long drive from Kuala Lumpur Airport to the hotel in the heart of Kuala Lumpur, Stefan mischievously joked about almost doing an entire talk about “how to get the best extruding 3D type with the best drop-shadow from Photoshop CS3 to get the nicest pee” because the organiser wanted the subject of using technology in design. Behind that joke lies a real horror.

Poster by Stefan Sagmeister