Design conferences are quite the fin-de-siÃ¨cle phenomenon, fulfilling a perennial craving for inspiration among designers while making tidy profits for the organisers. In the US, even in a year of hardship, designers will often scrape together the money to attend the periodic pricey powwow, viewing the expenditure as a kind of therapy.
The upshot of this level of interest and demand is that conference programmers are blessed with sizeable budgets and high expectations, and feel obliged to upstage their rivals and the previous year’s event.
Where once a design conference meant sitting through a procession of show-and-tell presentations by big heroes from the little fishpond, now it means a veritable circus of performers, thinkers and artists from the fringes of the design community. It makes for a theatrical mix.
The first Design for Film and Television event in New York – the latest arrival on the conference calendar – drew a capacity crowd to a 500-seat auditorium in mid-town Manhattan earlier this month. As circuses go, this was moderate; the majority of the speakers were show-and-tellers from the heart of the design fishpond, but the subject matter was satisfyingly theatrical.
The lights went down and the giant screen of the auditorium was emblazoned with the giddy choreography of motion graphics, from animated ads to TV channel idents, from Maurice Binder’s opening sequences for the James Bond movies to Imaginary Forces’ unmistakable titles for the Hollywood thriller machine. The audience clapped and whooped.
As Imaginary Forces founder Kyle Cooper put it recently, the impact of the Web, with its low-tech animation capabilities, has brought a resurgence of interest in film titles and the like among young designers. “There’s been a desk-top film-making revolution,” said Cooper. “Every design school is teaching motion graphics; it’s not just layout, it’s sequencing, story and sound.”
The coup de jour was an academic plucked from New York University with a presentation that seemed custom-designed to boost the spirits of the audience. “The stuff you’ve been seeing at this conference shows us the path to the future of TV,” said Mitch Stephens, an TV-age optimist and journalism professor who summoned Plato and Alexander Pope to support his argument that we should not listen to television’s nay-sayers. Every new form of communication – from writing to the printing press to TV – is disparaged by the intellectuals of the day.
Plato argued in the Phaedrus that writing was “inherently stupid”, said Stephens, since it provided a recipe for memory and wisdom that would produce forgetfulness. Pope called the printing press “a scourge for the sins of the learned”. Stephens believes that TV is still in its imitative phase – aping radio, theatre, conversation and sporting events. “Non-imitative TV” opens up realms of possibility, he argued: by adding lettering to moving pictures, for example, it’s possible to embody different levels of thought in a scene, to add commentary to commentary.
The near-perfect illustration of Stephens’ argument was, in fact, waiting in the wings. Jeff Scher, another NYU professor and self-titled “experimental film-maker”, showed a series of shorts resembling kinetic abstract paintings, wrung from the aberrations of vintage film-making equipment. The exquisite dancing shapes, created with such hi-tech equipment as a desk lamp and Bolex camera for budgets of 42, were undoubtedly the least commercial and the most inspiring motion graphics of the conference.
In one, Scher had created an animation by arranging a selection of detritus (found on New York streets) on a lightbox. The music was perfectly synced, he explained, because “when graphic collisions are that frequent it’s like Velcro for syncing. You can play Led Zeppelin or Frank Sinatra and it fits perfectly.” Here was motion graphics freed from the imitative mode. If only the audience could believe that they were the future of TV, rather than art works destined to remain in the experimental fringes.
As someone from the audience pointed out, TV, like the Web and the radio, began with high aspirations before it was co-opted by corporations and turned to crass, bottom-line programming.
The conference had fulfilled its function and provided its audience with a respite from the horrors of the commercial world waiting outside. My hope is that in the week directly following DFTV, magnificent motion graphics were being created around the city, even if only to be consigned to the digital trash can of client-rejected designs. In this commerce-driven society, commercial failure is quite refreshing.