A New Design Experience: AIGA Design Ranch 2011

Since 1999, the AIGA Austin chapter has been holding Design Ranch (DR) biyearly. This year’s gathering took place at the beautiful Camp Waldemar in Hunt, Texas. As I drove down Hwy 39 through the Texas Hill Country I began to sense how different this conference was going to be, as compared to other design conferences I’ve attended in the past. Turning off the main road, I lost all cell connection, at once transforming my iPhone from a connective multimedia device into a really expensive calculator. After the initial shock of loosing connection to the “outside” world, an elated sense of freedom came over me. As it turns out, this disconnection with an emphasis on handcraft is what makes the DR conference special.

Let me give you the rundown on most design conferences: some big-name, accomplished designer gets up on a podium, shows his or her amazing work, and gives you a list of pointers on becoming just like him or her. However inspiring these speeches may be, the standard lecture format always seems flawed and underwhelming, and most of us designers learn best through the act of making. Each workshop at DR, on the other hand, provides an object on which to reflect your experience—instead of a pile of scribbled notes and some fancy schwag. It is through these objects that you gain a deeper glimpse into the process and passion of the brilliant workshop leaders.

photography by Erin Bender (erinbender.com)

Working side-by-side with the workshop leaders was eye opening. Although you wouldn’t know it, many of them had never attempted workshops of this size. Chris Sickles of Red Nose Studio said that he usually does smaller workshops. And never anything at this scale. But he, literally, set the stage with a 60+ person collaborative stop-motion animation that developed throughout the weekend! Through the manipulation of Sickles’s beautifully handcrafted characters, we gleaned a deeper understanding of his craft. His joy and excitement was clearly seen in the reflection of ours.

Dan Ibarra and Michael Byzewski of Aesthetic Apparatus openly stated early on during the workshop that they “weren’t sure how this is going to turn out.” But sure enough, I walked away in possession of a limited edition screen-print that was hacked together using a screen door, floor squeegee, and BBQ sauce. The most inspiring bit of information I gained was from Dan Ibarra after workshop hours. I’m paraphrasing here, but Ibarra said, “The mind can be such a terrible tool for creativity. We want to make things perfect and orderly, but it is those unexpected things that come up in the process that are always the most beautiful.”

photography by Erin Bender (erinbender.com)

In a workshop with Zeke Leonard, a furniture and set designer, this understanding of natural and unexpected beauty couldn’t be more apparent. With a half burnt piece of wood, some electrical supplies, and a whole lot of help, I was able to walk away with a beautiful lamp. This lamp, as it sits on my desk, is a constant reminder of how important it is to let the process of design form naturally. As much as we crave “perfection”, it is the imperfection, inherit in the process of making that humanizes design.

Most conferences, in my experience, leave me exhausted and unfulfilled. It’s been a month since I left DR, and I’m still having withdrawals. 2013 is a long time to wait for the next DR, but if you are looking for a conference with real emotional value, you should attend. I’ll see you there.

Photography for this story, contributed by Erin Bender (erinbender.com)

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By AIGA Austin
Published November 20, 2012