William Drenttel | Essays

Does Aspen Have A Future?

From Aspen Magazine, Vol. 1 No. 1, 1965

The American Center for Design was for many years the most dynamic, innovative design organization in America. It spearheaded conferences about interface design and business-design case studies. It had a vibrant student membership, and growing education initiatives. And the ACD 100 was the most selective and respected design competition in America. As the inheritor of the history of the Society of Typographic Arts, founded in Chicago in 1927, ACD was the only meaningful counterpoint to the New York-based America Institute of Graphic Arts.

Then, one day in 2000, ACD simply ceased to exist.

During its few years of ascendency, ACD had an ineffectual board and multiple executive directors. There was also tension between the Illinois Institute of Technology-based industrial and process designers and ACD's heritage as a graphic design organization. If ACD does not exist today, it is because its board was arrogant enough to try to persevere in the face of bad management and failing finances. It could have partnered with other organizations, or it could have focused its efforts where it was sustainable as an organization. Instead, its board choose to go it alone down a path to bankruptcy. Google ACD today and you will find some very cool designer napkins; a sad legacy for a once distinguished institution.

Now it looks like the International Design Conference in Aspen (IDCA) may be about to go the same way . . . down a path into oblivion. I've heard rumors about the demise of the Aspen Design Conference every few years. I'm hearing these same rumors again after ambient:interface, the 54th annual conference this past August.

Founded in 1951 by Chicago industrialist and design-sponsor Walter Paepcke, the International Design Conference in Aspen, Colorado has a long history: conferences focused on international design (Europe, 1968; Japan, 1979; Italy, 1981 and 1989; Canada and Mexico, 1984; England, 1986; Germany, 1996); years with themes (the environment, 1962 and 1970; Hollywood, 1997; sports, 1998); a lot of professional practice (corporations and the designer, 1960; the prepared professional, 1982; new business and the definition of design, 1995); and basic humanist themes (design and human values, 1957; illusion and truth, 1985; design and the human body, 1994). Interestingly, Aspen grew out of a 1949 conference celebrating the Goethe Bicentennial where 2000 people from around the world came to the Rocky Mountains to share ideas. In this spirit, IDCA was usually an interdisciplinary gathering, steeped in Paepcke's belief that Aspen was "an ideal environment for nurturing the whole human being."

Even if IDCA managed to breakeven in 2004 with a conference of limited appeal, there are all those years of mismanagement and unpaid bills. Plus, everyone has an opinion in an organization with four boards: an executive board with the likes of Agnes Bourne and Rob Forbes, a design board with Paola Antonelli and Michael Rotondi, an Emeritus board with Ralph Caplan and Ivan Chermayeff, and an advisory board with Aaron Betsky and Dorothy Twining Globus. Too many cooks in the kitchen? No doubt. More importantly, I suspect too many of these design leaders are arguing for past relevance and success, even in the face of marginal impact and relevance in 2004. What they need to do is to rally and pay off the Aspen debt they have accumulated under their watch. This is the way to a new future for Aspen.

In the coming months, if we read that the Aspen Design Conference has gone into bankruptcy, I will be sad. It need not happen, I suspect (and hope).

Posted in: Graphic Design, History, Social Good

Comments [12]

The decline of this venerable institution is indeed sad and I commend you for addressing it in detail and out of the rumor-mill. The Aspen conference has an imposing legacy and as a relatively young designer I admit to having entertained fantasies of one day sipping hot apple cider and comparing Norwegian sweaters with design luminaries after a short day on the slopes. I always wondered how the New York designer wardrobe would morph at this conference--all black Patagonia? Prada fleece? It seems odd that the IDCA has waned just as Aspen as a conference destination has ascended. The town now hosts the HBO Comedy Arts Festival and the Aspen Filmfest among others. Can it be that designers are uniquely qualified to run a losing conference in this town?

Through the 70s, the International Design Conference at Aspen was the only national gathering of designers, and, as the only game in town, it may have become a bit self-satisfied. The rise of the AIGA Biennial Conference and, probably more significantly, Richard Wurman's TED conference (which was the true inheritor of Walter Paepcke's vision) suddenly made its relevance questionable.

The purpose of design conferences is still somewhat mysterious, and I say this as someone who has organized more than a few. Clearly, they are delicate organisms that can shift from robust health to near death with the slightest change in the weather.
Michael Bierut

Conferences historically provided the opportunity to explore and shape our cultures of practice. The old STA, ACD and Aspen gatherings were collegial affairs, and served as a form of open source development for our profession. Over time, however, brand-name personalities came to dominate the boards, planning committees, and speaker lists. The openness, sharing, and sense of collective purpose that once was is sadly long gone. Today's large conferences are not much more than publicity and sales opportunities for their sponsors and presenters. A wonderful exception is the Society of Typographic Aficianados' inclusive and vibrant TypeCon. In my experience, the human value of a design conference is inversely proportional to the size of its sponsors.
Rob Dewey

The first and only Aspen conference I went to was nearly twenty years ago. The setting was beautiful but, to quote Rob Dewey, the "brand-name personalities" were just as dominant back then, perhaps even more so.

The first truly transformative conference I attended was the AIGA conference in San Antonio in 1989, which I've written about elsewhere on Design Observer. It had its share of b.n.p.'s and then some (Tibor Kalman, Neville Brody) but it also had the "sense of collective purpose" that Rob misses. More recently, the rescheduled AIGA "Voice" conference in Washington in 2002 had the same kind of excitement.

Rather than signaling the last gasp of the ambitious design conference, the decline of Aspen may create new opportunities as the field realigns one more time.
Michael Bierut

well, it would be negligent for me not to chime in on this one. i agree that the ambition of the ACD, set around 1990 with its change of name from the Society of Typographic Arts, was misguided. Its core was truly the typographic and communication design community. in brief, the ACD suffered from a series of ineffectual managing directors and a board that failed to govern. the lavish production of the organizations materials were way out of whack with revenue. when i was asked to become president of the board, the organization was $150k in debt with printers, hotels, collection agencies and laywers calling on a daily basis requesting payment.

i and a few other volunteers took on the challenge of reviving the organization and making good on its debt. we worked a year to increase programming, grow the community who would support the organization, and pay off its debt, one week at a time. at this time i broadened the board explicitly to include non-Chicago and non-IIT directors.

the brief success we achieved was probably only a function of the Internet boom -- our seminar series and conferences were well attended and voluminous entries to the 100 Show returned. we were successful in paying the debts but the community of support never materialized. membership decline which started before the boom continued in all member categories.

was this an indication that the organization was headed in the wrong direction? perhaps, but several of the board members really saw it as the end of the membership era and the growth of alternative sources of intellectual content. moreover, the organization received 90% of its operating budget from membership dues and the Living Surfaces Conference. membership dues had been in steady decline for about 10 years.

with the collapse of the internet boom and the attacks of septemebr 11th i can tell you the life support of the acd vanished. it was clear that the most responsible thing to do was to close the doors of the acd. contrary to bill's assertion, the organization did not go bankrupt. it simply shut it doors.

jack weiss and others from the "old STA" secured the archives and delivered them to the design archive at the University of Illinois at Chicago. It is, in fact, impressive and not a sad legacy. Unfortunately, it isn't Googleable.

The ACD was a great organization and while it had its moments post 1990, was really in decline for much of that decade in spite of the efforts (misguided perhaps) of many great designers/staff/volunteers.

I would underscore Michael's sentiment that the demise of these organizations, while seemingly unfortunate, creates new opportunities. Maybe design observer should start a membership drive, hold a conference, and create one or more delicious publications!

chris conley

I was on the board of the Society of Typographic Arts when the name was changed, and if there was ever a decision that seemed like a no-brainer, that was it. What an awful name! The vaguely elitist, stuffy sound of "society;" the exclusionary "typographic," the arty, undesign-y "arts." It was a heady moment when we voted -- unanimously -- to change the name to the interdisiplinary, all-inclusive, coast-to-coast American Center for Design.

Chris is right to date the decline of the ACD nee STA from that moment. The reasons were many, and he's delineated some. Another was the idee fixe -- still mesmerizing to some -- that there is an important unfilled role for "a design organization that serves all the design disciplines." ACD would pay token lip service to product design and environmental design, usually in the last few pages in the ACD 100 Show catalog. I've since come to believe that the pan-disciplinary design organization makes about as much sense as a pan-cuisine restaurant: hey, there are good French restaurants, and good Mexican restaurants, and good Chinese restaurants, but isn't there a crying need for a really good French-Mexican-Chinese restaurant? No.

There was also a peculiar schizophrenia. On one hand, the ACD's leadership were largely advocates for the sober, team-based, rational practice of design, that great Chicago tradition that has roots in the New Bauhaus, Walter Paepke, Jay Doblin and Unimark. On the other hand were the oodles of dollars to made off the ACD's crown jewel, the 100 Show, an unparallelled orgy of formal experimentation, the catalog of which would generally feature page after page of designs for art school mailers, lecture invitations, and designer's own letterheads. Both perfectly valid and necessary forms of design activity, but never properly reconciled (or even acknowledged as mutually exclusive) by the ACD leadership.

I had thought that the end that a merger between the ACD and the AIGA would have been a very interesting idea. The 100 Show and the pioneering Living Surfaces conferences were both ACD franchises that neatly addressed chronic complaints about the AIGA: that the AIGA's competitions were too conservative, and that the AIGA had no credibility in the world of new media. The AIGA could have brought financial stability and management structure. The will to merge was never quite there. One wonders now, what if?
Michael Bierut

ACD's original vision, as I understood it at the time as its communications director, was to explore the spaces between disciplines, to complement the work of the various discipline-based organizations, and to advance the profession through rigorous thinking and discourse.

We were not wide-eyed holists; the unanimous vote to change the name from STA to ACD reflected a compelling strategic opportunity. Important, emerging inter-disciplinary issues were not being addressed elsewhere and we were well-positioned to do so through publishing and events.

ACD broadened and elevated design discourse; placed an early focus on interaction design and new media; published a substantial published body of design writing and design work; pioneered an informed curatorial format for design competitions as an antidote to bland, consensus-driven juried shows; and embraced and engaged the education community. It's influence on today's design institutions is significant if not widely known.

I agree with Chris that a new financial model was needed by the time he became president. (I've always wondered why the board didn't come up with one.) The membership model was doomed to fail in an internetworked world.

Yet with ACD's passing something more than a professional association was lost. At it's best, ACD brought us together, seeded our culture, challenged our assumptions and helped us imagine what we could become.
Rob Dewey

Rob Dewey just described the ACD's mission and programs very well, based on my knowledge as a past president. I'd take exception to Bill's characterization of the Board as "arrogant enough to try to persevere in the face of bad management and failing finances." ACD's demise has a relatively simple explanation. When longtime Executive Director Jane Dunn retired, some of the brightest design minds and biggest business successes led the search committee, including Bob Vogele and Larry Keely. Unfortunately, as we all have seen time and time again, a candidate with a prestigious MBA that looks great in the interview can turn out to have fewer skills than indicated. After two promising but problemmatic appointments, Chris Conley and his partner Cira Conley took the ACD administration into their own design firm, Gravity Tank, and devoted a year to successfully reorganizing the finances and revenue base. ACD then had just enough budget to hire a new Executive Director about 6 weeks in advance of the year's major revenue generator, the Living Surfaces Conference. Two weeks later, 9/11 happened. People stopped flying to conferences and the upcoming year's funding vanished. In fact, ACD was another fatality of 9/11.

Chris Conley makes a good point that the membership model for generating revenues was no longer appropriate for ACD's evolving mission. Chris had developed a menu of innovative programming as a successful alternative to membership dues.

But I don't agree with Michael Bierut that there's no role for an interdisciplinary organization and that the ACD only paid lip service to that. Although ACD didn't focus on product design, it did focus on design research, planning and strategy which added an important body of information to product design's resources. And ACD's substantial publication and conference content on interaction design contributed to product design nearly as much as communication design.

Although the ACD was cross-disciplinary, each content vehicle was highly focused. The Aspen Conference is a different animal. Today, do designers need a large interdisciplinary conference with a broad theme that changes every year?
Katherine McCoy

The spirited discussion in this thread about the American Center for Design says much about its past vitality and current importance: even after its demise, ACD is worth remembering and discussing.

I appreciate the thoughtful responses by many involved in ACD, especially the posts from Rob Dewey, Chris Conley, and Katherine McCoy. There is a maturity to these posts that leads to a criticial dialogue rather than to defensive arguments about the recent design history of professional organizations.

Kathy McCoy's description of ACD's demise (a bad MBA hire and 9/11) strikes me, personally, as a post-bankruptcy rationalization. But Kathy was in the middle of ACD's decline. I wasn't a board member with an internal perspective: I'm reflecting on the fact that I miss ACD from the outside. What I do know is that ACD was in trouble two years earlier, and that a number of us suggested alternative futures, including merging with AIGA. Perhaps ACD would have survived without 9/11. We will never know. What we do know is that the legacy of ACD is still relevant and still informs critical design discussions in America.

Interestingly, there has not been a single response to my post from the community that frequents and believes in Aspen. I'm still hoping to attend the International Design Conference in Aspen someday. But I'm still not sure what it stands for, or why I should care. Is the future of Aspen, despite its important legacy, worth our consideration and discussion?
William Drenttel

The following article, citing this Design Observer piece, appeared on December 1, 2004 in the Aspen Daily News.

Red Ink Floods Design Conference
By Rick Carroll/Aspen Daily News Staff Writer

An Aspen event that has fed off the energy of Walter Paepcke's "Aspen Idea" for the last 54 years now finds itself searching for ideas to reinvent its image, while at the same time emerge from mounting debts.

Since September, the International Design Conference in Aspen, held every summer here since 1951, has seen its executive director of five years resign, a federal lien filed against it for unpaid employment taxes, and the design industry abuzz about the event's fragile state.

Seemingly worse, the conference's business license has been revoked since December 2002, according to the Colorado Secretary of State.

"Theoretically they shouldn't be doing business," said a state official.

But despite the IDCA's sullied reputation - a writer for designobserver.com observed that it appears headed "down a path into oblivion" - the conference's chair of nine months says the Aspen community needs to "stay positive."

"We'll be back for a 55th year and I want the Aspen community to remain optimistic and friendly," says Agnes Bourne, a renowned designer, part-time resident in Wyoming, San Francisco and New York, and the IDCA's newest board chair. "We're taking care of our situation, not as fast as we'd like to be, but we are taking care of it."

For 54 years, the summer conference has attracted a veritable who's-who list of the design world - from designers, to engineers, to artists to business leaders. The conference was founded by Chicago industrialist Walter Paepcke, a man whose surname is as common to Aspen folklore as Hemmingway is to Key West, or Revere to Boston.

The IDCA has long been considered a cornerstone event of Paepcke's Aspen Idea that here people could nourish their "mind, body and spirit" because of the intellectual, cultural and natural resources.

"The design conference is yet another event that brings a group to town that benefits our lodging community, our retail community and our restaurant community while at the same time it provides an education outlet for the attendees," said Aspen Chamber Resort Association President Hana Pevny. "It also puts Aspen on the map for the arts and cultural activities."

Bourne said that one way IDCA plans to return to prominence - its attendance has been down for the last few years - has been the IDCA's recent alliance with the American Institute of Graphic Arts, or AIGA, which is based in New York.

William Drenttel, former president of AIGA and a designer based in Connecticut, said the conference's once prestigious reputation has eroded.

"The perception from the outside world is that the conference is kind of relaunched with new leadership every few years and it's not had the consistency or built a loyal following," Drenttel said in a telephone interview Wednesday.

Drenttel posted a scathing essay about IDCA's woes on designobserver.com in October, dropping names of some of the design world's elite. The site generates some 60,000 visits a week.

"Even if IDCA managed to break even in 2004 with a conference of limited appeal, there are all those years of mismanagement and unpaid bills," Drenttel wrote. "Plus, everyone has an opinion in an organization with four boards: an executive board with the likes of Agnes Bourne and Rob Forbes, a design board with Paola Antonelli and Michael Rotondi, an Emeritus board with Ralph Caplan and Ivan Chermayeff, and an advisory board with Aaron Betsky and Dorothy Twining Globus. Too many cooks in the kitchen? No doubt. More importantly, I suspect too many of these design leaders are arguing for past relevance and success, even in the face of marginal impact and relevance in 2004. What they need to do is to rally and pay off the Aspen debt they have accumulated under their watch. This is the way to a new future for Aspen."

Bourne said that AIGA is in the process of "reorganizing" the IDCA's apparently floundering business plan. AIGA stepped aboard after Helene Fried, the IDCA's executive director of five years, was asked to step down on Sept. 30, Bourne said. She would not say why.

"And we appointed an interim board to restructure the conference," she said. "We're in the process of doing many things and we're discovering the real financial situation."

Bourne said she didn't know how much the conference's actual debt is, but she said it's typical for an event such as the ICDA to "run through cycles."

"It has seen this before," she said.

On Oct. 19, a federal tax lien claiming the IDCA has an unpaid balance of $3,946 for taxes for four quarters between 2001 and 2002 hadn't been paid, according to records at the Pitkin County Clerk & Recorder's Office. And in 2002, the most recent year available for 501(c)(3) non-profits, IDCA reported having expenses of $271,871 that year, and revenue of $258,138. That translates to a loss of more than $13,000.

Aspen resident Mark Joseph, who is an advisor to IDCA's board of directors, said that he expects the conference to emerge from its problems.

"We've always been a dysfunctional organization that's fantastically inspired," he said. "But we've been doing it for 54 years."
William Drenttel

Re the absence of posts from frequenters of the Aspen conference: Board members are probably too busy trying to save the conference to post blogs about whether it deserves saving. I haven't been a member of the IDCA Board since 1996, but I can guess how the present Board would react to Bill's suggestion that they "rally and pay off the debt." Namely, "Damn, why didn't we think of that?" I doubt that there are too many cooks, at least not anywhere near the kitchen. I also doubt that "everyone has an opinion of an organization with four boards." But the "Emeritus Board" and "Board of Advisors, are not really boards, they're rosters. As far as I know, neither of those "boards" ever met or was intended to meet or ever will meet. (It's possible, on the other hand, that they meet all the time, and I'm just not invited).

Even two boards is one too many in my opinion, but the second board was created precisely because of the financial crisis described in Bill's post. As I understand it, the design board planned the conference programs and the executive board was more directly charged with raising money or giving money or both. It was in that sense comparable to the boards of museums, colleges, and philanthropic organizations.

My own take on the matter is one that has few takers. I have always opposed the idea of trying to support the conference through contributions from individuals. The IDCA is not the American Friends Service Committee or Black Mountain College or MOMA I believe IDCA ought to be supported in the main by designers and the industry that uses them. In this context I favor a free market. If a design conference is not supported by the people it exists to serve, that suggests that they do not believe they still need it. We have to confront the possibility that the IDCA no longer does.

As Michael points out, Aspen began as the only game in town. In the early days of IDCA there was relatively little discussion of design ideas anywhere else, even in most design magazines. What trade organizations talked about, naturally, was trade. Over the years professional organizations like AIGA, IDSA, AIA, SEGD came to invite the same kind of speakers (indeed, the same speakers) that came to Aspen. Aspen's once unique programs played an important role in raising the level of design discourse everywhere. The world has changed. (The once-remote town of Aspen has changed.) Today there is a design conference every time you turn around, and if you don't want to bother turning around, there's more of the same on the internet. Design publications are better and more numerous. The IDCA has had trouble adjusting to those changes.

Bill says the conference has failed to attract a loyal following. For most of its life IDCA had a very loyal following, but that's become hard to maintain. In the case of the professional organizations, the loyalty is to the guild. But IDCA represents no guild. Ironically, as the intellectual level of professional conferences became elevated, they had to be supported --- and still are --- by wrapping them around massive trade shows. The paper companies that support the AIGA, like the materials manufacturers that support the IDSA, do not find Aspen cost effective. As Jack Roberts, president of the IDCA during some of its most successful years, kept reminding his board, "Our only mission is to hold the best design conference we can once a year.

By the way, as an honorary member of the Society of Typographic Artists, I loved the name. It was quirky, mysterious, and no one else was likely ever to call me an artist. The American Center for Design, admittedly clearer and more useful, sounded too much like the myriad "centers" for everything from fitness to career counseling. I never understood the basis of its centrality, but under the new name the organization did seek to move beyond graphic design. I don't think Michael's restaurant analogy works. A restaurant sells food, as a design office sells services. But no one goes to a food conference for food, and such conferences are not populated only by chefs or managers or nutritionists, but by a mix of people in the food business. Similarly, no one goes to a design conference for design, but for design ideas. And the most interesting and far-reaching ideas are not confined to a particular design specialty. That's why Aspen has sought to address all design disciplines.
Ralph Caplan

What many of you are forgetting, or may not know because of your age, is that Aspen was a place that male board members either brought their girlfriends to, never their wives, or hooked up with a young female design groupie for the duration. The male speakers also attracted young design groupies. (I am not recalling any obvious gay alliances or maybe I didn't even know such things existed in those days. It was also a place of major pot parties. I am not saying that these types of occurances were "wrong;" in the context of the time, they were perfectly acceptable. The point is, the world has moved on. Not just from the need for a place to go to talk about design, but dope and sex are now dealt with in new ways.

TED did eventually supplant it because it was great, and easy to get to. I could never understand the 'romance' of that bumpy ride in the tiny plane to Aspen airport.

After a time, TED got tired too.
Cornelia West

Jobs | July 21