Postcard from Aspen

As the venerable conference reorganizes, a larger question persists: What relevance does it hold today?

This June a design summit was held in Aspen, Colorado, and you may have missed it. The campus of Aspen Meadows Resort—with its fabulously hokey Modernist decor and stunning 360-degree views—was host to 66 people, including myself, who came back to the place where corporate America and the design world had their first date more than a half century ago with the hope that they would fall in love. That first encounter became the International Design Conference in Aspen (IDCA). And although the conference went on to become a legend, the much anticipated love affair between designers and their corporate masters now seems more like a one-night stand. The design world is still waiting by the phone.

Industrialist Walter Paepcke and designer Herbert Beyer imagined that the setting of Aspen and a certain anxious urgency within the postwar industrialized world would be enough to finally fuse the humanism of design with the soulless efficiency of the twentieth-century factory. They were wrong, but they were clearly on to something. One of the speakers last June at this smaller IDCA—organized to imagine the future of the world’s oldest design conference—was IDEO’s David Kelley. On a spectacular sunlit morning he told the summit gang that perhaps management has finally run out of ideas and is ready to embrace what he called “design thinking” to address growing problems of global communication and sustainability. Aspen’s role in this new world, Kelley stated, ought to be something other than its distinctly fabulous setting and distinctly grim financial woes. The discussions grew loud and animated. The whole affair took me back to a little house outside Binghamton, New York, where I first heard about Aspen.

As a designer’s kid I had certain advantages over other kids, and my toy room was the proof. My brothers and I were the principal beneficiaries of the windfall of goodies brought home from the office and various conferences by my dad. This fabulous swag made it to our basement, where the exotic designer trinkets would regularly demolish the egos of our mere commercially available toys. My father, Jack Hockenberry, spent his career as an industrial designer with companies such as Steelcase, Kodak, and IBM. Our basement was littered with models of prototype cameras, office chairs and computers. My brothers and I refashioned them into imaginary deep-space explorer crafts, outstripping the ascendant NASA in the 1960s with our own missions to Pluto and Andromeda. Yet there was nothing my father brought home that matched the pictures, tales, and stuff that accompanied his luggage when he returned from the Aspen conference back in the early 1960s.

The event was in its heyday, and its legacy was nowhere more secure than around our dinner table. Each night following his return Dad would regale us with stories of the weather, scenery, and magical summer chairlifts up the sides of snowless mountains. He would speak glowingly of casual conversations among designers and stage presentations of leading thinkers and artists gathered together in this utopian vision of Ideas Über Alles.

In our household Aspen was spoken of breathlessly, more like imaginary Atlantis than an actual place. The poster from the 1961 conference—which had as its theme “Man/Problem Solver”—was on my bedroom wall for years. In 1964 our most ambitious family vacation was a cross-country camping trip from Binghamton to Aspen in a green VW minibus and a tent. Mom, Dad, three kids, Grandma, and Grandpa loaded up with Coleman lanterns and Strathmore sketch pads. We looked like the Joad family—if they’d been enrolled at RISD.

We didn’t actually make it to the conference as a family. We toured Aspen’s sites and rode the chairlifts and experienced the reverie that Chicago container mogul Paepcke and his collaborator Beyer no doubt experienced when they originally imagined Aspen as a universal place of intellectual and physical renewal at the first conference in 1951. Bringing radical thinking into corporate America through design was their original idea, the Aspen idea. At that conference families attended the four-day event, but even by the 1960s the idea of bringing kids to a business meeting had become too radical for my IBM dad. That would have to wait for a future era when so-called design conferences would become ubiquitous. And indeed they have.

Google design conference today and you’ll find something like 186 million entries. The original notion of a conference far away from the rituals and routines of competitive work has morphed and multiplied into star-studded schmooze fests like the TED Conference, in Monterey; power-preening parades like Davos; and that relentlessly edgy sanctuary of “Indie-think” called the Pop!Tech conference, in Camden, Maine.

The conference world now consists of group-therapy invitationals such as the Renaissance Weekend popularized by the Clintons. There are pointy-headed conferences about strategic thinking led by professional visionaries like Esther Dyson and a number of events specializing in media, which occasionally attract Rupert Murdoch and other big fish. When Time Inc. legend Walter Isaacson saw the grim future of cable news, he left CNN to head up the Aspen Institute, a year-round conference venture with its roots in the halcyon days of Paepcke and Beyer.

But bringing radical thinking into corporate America is a secondary idea these days. Conferences almost seem to exist as a well-fenced paddock for radicalism so it won’t seep back into regular office working hours. Much of the conference mission these days is attempting to bag “what’s next” for some commercial benefit. Whether you find a new product to champion, as venture capitalist John Doerr did at TED with inventor Dean Kamen’s Segway, or just want to impress your friends with having observed “what’s next” firsthand, the conference world has become a way to pay your passage to the future with a comfy first-class seat.

That ticket is not cheap; and if the conference world is shorter on virtue these days, it’s longer on profit. Conferences can make big money, as Aspen alumnus Richard Saul Wurman proved with TED. It turns out that people will pay thousands of dollars to sit next to other people who paid thousands of dollars to sit next to them. Still there’s something inherently outlandish and indulgent about all conferences. How else to explain Paepcke and Beyer’s 1949 event to honor Goethe’s bicentennial a few years after Germany practically ended civilization? Two thousand people came to rustic, inaccessible Aspen. And Albert Schweitzer opened the ceremonies.

Outlandish or not, conferences work. TED is now a self-sustaining phenomenon that continues to be successful. The original Wurman TED was Catskill comedy meets the Institute for Advanced Study. Former publisher Chris Anderson, who runs TED today, has jettisoned the borscht-belt kitsch and turned it into a chummy high-end academy for people who yearn for extra credit in life. Whatever the concept, conferences are alive and well—and however far they have drifted from the original Aspen vision, they seem to be part of the fabric of American corporate life.

The Aspen conference has struggled to maintain an identity through all this and late last year agreed to be acquired by the American Institute of Graphic Arts. At this year’s summit nothing was decided, but there was a general agreement that design has faded from the original conference idea. Facile discussions of clever marketing, “tipping points,” and “out-of-the-box thinking” jingoism have replaced the visceral radicalism of Elliot Noyes, Tibor Kalman, and other Aspen legends.

Perhaps the future of the Aspen conference is really an inquiry into how design thinking can compete with the strategic methodologies that are now the rage in corporate America. Does design, with its impressionistic risk taking in the pursuit of solving problems, measure up to doctrines like Six Sigma, with its obsessive concern for bar charts, “metrics,” and numerical outcomes?

As Kelley spoke last June I was reminded of Aspen conversations my father would bring home to the dinner table. He would look wide-eyed at us and speak of a future where users were at the center of product development. It was a future that never arrived during his career, although it was just as exciting to hear Kelley and others speak of that moment arriving in 2005 as it was listening to my dad back in the 1960s. Is it true this time, or is this just another verse in the design world’s agonized Book of Lamentations?

More than 50 years ago Paepcke and Beyer imagined designers leading corporate America. We’re still waiting. If there is something that argues for Aspen being restored to its leadership role in the pantheon of conferences it is this clarity—a faith that the virtues of good design are ultimately self-evident. In Aspen there is clarity all around: design is where radical change meets humanity. It was true in the 1940s and ’50s, and it is true today. In the dawn of the twenty-first century Aspen is still a place for design believers. There may be more expensive condos on the sides of the hills than there were in the days of Paepcke and Beyer, but the air in Aspen is still as clear as it ever was.

Recent Programs