evolvedesign – A Design Roundtable Reflection

evolvedesign - AIGA Roundtable Design Event

Last night at the University of Minnesota, 13 design leaders came together to speak about the past, present and future of design. It was a night to remember – a look into a history that has shaped the design world as we know it today. I was inspired, given awareness and also challenged last night. It was a pleasure being in the company of such great people.

The Past

It was inspiring to hear the stories of four design legends from when they first started their careers in design. The world was a much different place back then. Design was just taking shape and becoming a different form of communication, apart from advertising. Tim Larsen (Larsen) of talked about his first three clients. All Fortune 500 companies today. Crazy to think the big dogs now were just starting off too. Larsen made a great point about working with clients. His point of view was refreshing.

We don’t work for corporations, we work with people in corporations. -Tim Larsen

Design is all about people – how they think, what they do each day and how they can live and work better. When working with a corporation, designers should treat them like they would any other person. They are not as big as the corporation they thrive in. People will always be just people. The panel discussed the line between advertising and design throughout the first session.

Larsen described the break as advertising being persuaders and design as information. As designers, we present the information and allow people to decide how they would like to interpret it. Advertisers try to persuade people to purchase a product or service. In the past, there was a very concrete division between the two business philosophies.

Today their is a fine line between advertising and design.

mono, an agency that blurs that fine line, was also represented in the panel by Travis Olson. mono’s main goal is simplification and to work across various mediums of design. When a client comes to them, they may not always know exactly what medium would be best to solve their business objectives.

They provide solutions not always “just a brochure, or website etc”. I really found that concept to be spot on with the way the design world is today. With so many different outlets to advertise in and ways to be a part of a person’s everyday life, it’s wise to not dictate what the medium should be from the get-go.

Design is more than a medium and I think mono really understands that.

The Present

I have to be honest, Monica Little (founder of Little & Company) is quite the brilliant woman. Extremely well-spoken and full of spot on observations about the world of design as it stands today and in the future. Half of the words that came from her during the discussion could be in a book or in today’s world, a blog post!

He who defines the problem owns the whole river. -Monica Little

You can move up the river by uncovering a business’s problems and present your ideas to their problems. Similar to Travis Olson’s outlook on design, Little discussed that you can’t necessarily pinpoint the right medium until you can fully define the client’s problems. Designers need to understand their clients business, not just give them designs. Ideas and solutions to problems are what businesses are looking for. If it doesn’t solve their problem, it’s not a successful design. Designers need to understand the why behind what they’re doing.

Design has become transparent. It’s not just the visuals that matter anymore. BP was given as an example during the talk. When you look at the BP logo, no matter what the visual mark looks like, it represents something so negative there is no way to disguise it. Branding encompasses every message and action by a company. No visual can change that.

The Future – Design Education

The majority of the time was focused on design education. The discussion got a bit heated when the group started talking about placement rates after graduation. Only so many jobs are available and educators need to be able to factor that into the equation when setting up their programs. If the placements rates are extremely low, they should only allow a small number of students into the program.

I’ve heard a number of designers that have graduated in the last 5-10 years complaining about their education. This isn’t to say that all programs are lacking, but it certainly is something to think long and hard about.

I sometimes wonder how often professors update their lesson plans each year and how often the curriculum is required to change. With the way technology is moving. It should be updated every semester.

Web design isn’t going away anytime soon. I think more schools need to embrace the online world instead of trying to fit it in or learn as they teach. As the market shifts so should the education. If particular educators don’t want to embrace change, why should students have to pay for an education that will be useless to them when they graduate? It’s simply not fair to them.

If I was teaching the way I was taught, I’d be teaching my students to serve coffee. -Bernard Canniffe

Education has a huge impact on the future of design and this was clearly and strongly expressed by the panel. Even though the debate got a little heated at points, I think many of the comments (whether they be inappropriate or not) needed to be said. Jason Rysavy, principal at Catalyst Studios in Minneapolis, spoke strongly about design education. He said when he was in school, not everyone would graduate and they were much tougher on the students than they are today. I think this observation is 100% spot on.

When I was in school, I remember a lot of students not putting forth the effort that they could have and still getting their degree. Shouldn’t it be a little tougher? If you don’t quite “get it” you should continue to learn until you’ve grasped the concepts to get you a job in today’s market.

Sure, it may cost the students a little more then, which from the education system’s point of view could really be a good thing. It would also help the students as well. They would either work harder or switch majors. I think that would be better than them never getting a job in the field and leaving them to serve coffee.


Another topic of conversation that was had was about collaboration – Collaboration between agencies, collaboration between agencies and freelancers, collaboration between account managers and designers, designers and writers and everyone in between!

Collaboration is the currency of the 21st century. -Monica Little

Little touched on how many students showing their portfolios don’t even understand what an account manager does or haven’t experienced working with a writer. Working on a team, whether it be physical or virtual, is about collaboration. The best ideas come out of brainstorming and building ideas with different points of view. Students should learn how to work with different types of people and specialties. Maybe schools can offer courses that require these different types of positions to complete a project together?

I think that would be an excellent course to take. As a freelancer, I find collaboration a necessary part of what I do. The best ideas come from multiple perspectives. I constantly am asking for feedback and another set of eyes. Sometimes the solution is looking me right in the face but I don’t see it until I open the work up for critique. Working with people from many different disciplines is absolutely necessary in today’s world. With so many different types of media, from web and print to social media, there is no way to be an expert at it all.

It’s best to collaborate with those who excel in their particular area, rather than compete. Competition exists for one reason – to fuel, to push and to innovate, not to create a negative space. And if the collaboration is creating a negative space, then it is better to look elsewhere. Nothing good can come from negativity.

Want to take a look at the panel’s work?

Here is a list of all the wonderful design leaders and their respective businesses.

Phyllis Aragaki | Target

Bernard Canniffe | MCAD

Joe Duffy | Duffy & Partners

John DuFresne | CVA

Tim Eaton | Eaton & Associates Design Company

Tim Larsen | Larsen

Monica Little | Little & Company

Eric Madsen | The Office of Eric Madsen

Steven McCarthy | University of Minnesota Professor of Graphic & Interactive Design

Travis Olson | mono

Jason Rysavy | Catalyst Studios

Peter Seitz | Art Director for the Walker Art Center & MCAD Design Program Development

Bill Thorburn | Thorburn Group

Patrick Coyne | Editor & Director of Communication Arts (moderator)

Sarah Shuda

Sarah Shuda

Designer. Mom. Wife. Loves Gilmore Girls, healthy living and a good cup of coffee.

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