This is the second in a series of satirical pieces in which we invite our contributors to—lovingly, respectfully, but absolutely scathingly—poke fun at the everyday absurdities of the industry we adore.
“Ideate, innovate, celebrate, obfuscate,” reads the neon green program for Synergistic Design 2017 clutched in my left hand as I bring the third single-origin hemp milk macchiato of the morning to my lips with the jittering right. Conference season has arrived, and I can’t wait to spend the coming months traipsing through fluorescent-lit hangars gridlocked with pop-up LCD displays bearing bitesize but impenetrable slogans that will surely become clear after a few enlightening mainstage talks—or at least once the caffeine has kicked in, unless [shudder] perhaps I’m just not the digital native thought leader I thought I was.
“Diversity!” shouts the bright-eyed design student furnishing me with my conference pass. “Inspiration!” yells the tall teen with a man-bun shepherding me to my seat. I stare straight back at him. “Craft?” I offer weakly. He shakes his head, backs away, and I slump disheartened into my seat. The welcome speeches begin. I muffle a sigh. Craft was the buzzword in 2015.
A silver-templed, sharp-suited ad man leaps to the stage with practiced grace, tan face and designer spectacles flashing knowingly in the stage-lit glare. “I’m excited,” he mutters into his face mic, “I’m excited, excited, excited,” louder each time, “because today we’re going to eat, sleep, and drink deep from the well of creative excellence.” The audience cheers with heightened anticipation as the ad man rolls on with his speech, and I finish the last crumbs of a hand-ground matcha and sour cherry biscotti stuffed into a tote bag of freebies and beam. I am literally eating design, and it tastes of blanched almonds.
Intros loquaciously delivered, it’s onto the main course. Today’s humble theme is how this audience of innovative thinkers is going to bring about radical, tangible change to the world. “Think of all the different problems facing human civilization today…” begins designer, co-founder, CEO, brand visionary, and dream-weaver™ Tim Tucker. “What’s the one thing that binds them? They can all be bettered by design. Not just the practical aspects of our problem-solving profession—no, no—I believe design thinking to be the very essence of humanity itself.” Rapturous whooping, a flurry of applause as Tucker points his clicker at the ceiling to initiate the first of five video case studies. He clicks, he clicks again. Nothing. His smile wavers. “…the very essence of humanity itself…”
The video cuts in with an eruption of static that yields to a score of sweet fingerpicked guitar and a whispery female vocal that wafts across the room. “Typically, Bud Light drinkers have been blue collar men in their late 30s-50s suffering from high blood pressure,” the voiceover purrs. “But our challenge was to make the brand more appealing to a millennial audience.”
By the time the lights go up and Tucker turns once again to face the crowd, there is not one dry eye among them. In just a few minutes we have learned how this titan of design single-handedly engaged a market share of millennials previously apathetic to the low-alcohol beverage sector, generating a 700% upturn in sales and a threefold increase in shareholder bonuses. One in four millennials surveyed now report only a mild disinterest in the products of Anheuser Busch, and are three times more likely to choose Bud Light for their next kegger. He has shown us a glimpse of a future that we are desperate to be shepherded towards.
“This kind of future-forward strategy can be applied to all kinds of market sectors, like a bank, a startup, or a sportswear brand,” he concludes. Standing ovation.
Up next it’s competition time for a cohort of soon-to-be graduates, who have spent months answering live briefs on no sleep and crippling hang overs. The six contestants compete for the opportunity to wash the feet of the ECD at Ogilvy, combined with a year’s expenses-paid internship in a creative department of their choice. Their sense of optimism is palpable, their exhaustion complete, as they watch a panel of industry leaders dissect their finest work.
“Too round,” offers the director of a San Francisco agency in response to one contestant’s logo for an international tire manufacturer. Her fellow judges nod sagely. “Yet somehow, not round enough,” suggests another, agitating his stubbled chin. The panel murmurs their enlightened agreement.
Desperate to pee I turn to leave the auditorium and endeavor to make my way across a cavernous exhibition space where the prophets of modern design technology are demonstrating the latest innovations in their field under a giant banner announcing the “Revolutionary Ideas” being shared below—like the VR goggles that let you sit in a lifelike simulation of your own living room from the familiar comfort of your own living room, and the latest developments in online browsing for stock photography. It takes all my strength to wrench myself away from the myriad demo booths and into the giant line for the toilets, but I’m in a rush; there’s a breakfast burrito branding workshop about to start upstairs.