Cincy(?) Design Week in Review

Since I was a wee smart ass lad, I’ve always been quite stellar at alienating myself. I must admit though, that at times when writing this, I was highly aware that what could come out here borders on career suicide. I know how the Internet works. I understand my little write-ups get a fair amount of traffic. But I would like to think that its all for the better. That perhaps it will inspire others, and myself, to be more proactive in the community that I have been in for the better part of nearly 17 years. Besides, it’s not every day you get to go all William Wallace and shout from the rooftops. So without further ado, my design week recap.

First off, I should commend AIGA, for yet again curating a very good series of events. This is one of the AIGA’s strengths, and I have found that the Cincy chapter can bring in incredible speakers compared to the likes of say, Philadelphia. To all others involved, CODE, Braintrust et al. I really did enjoy each and every one of the CDW events. They were powerful, inspiring, and left me wanting more. However, in that regard, I ask a simple question, “what exactly was Cincinnati about a majority of Cincinnati Design Week?”

Call me a traditionalist, but of the many Design Week functions I have attended in more major markets, it has always been about showcasing the city’s homegrown talent. Now, I know we have a crap ton of designers here. Like a lot. We have extremely large firms like Landor and LPK sucking up some of the best designers that graduate from the #3 design school in the nation, as the really good ones tend to go on to a. major markets or (more likely) b. do their own thing. And it’s really the b. part of that equation that I am wondering about. What are these things that the graduates of the #3 design school in the nation just behind MIT’s MEDIA LAB and PARSONS are doing? Exactly?

Cincinnati famously struggles with identity. Namely from its deign field. This is not unknown, I’ve attended many lectures/workshops/charettes about this. If you think of cities like high school cliques, you can envision a pretty good sense of who they are. NYC is the popular kid, Philly is the jock, Chicago is the most likely to succeed. LA is the stoners. And their designs says as such. Everyone wants a NY design. Philly designs have attitude. Chicago designs are smart. LA work is more socially conscious. Design with morality if you will. But what of Cincy? What do our professionals represent? The Design week events are chock full, CHOCK full of current design students, but current professionals are few and far between. At one event I sat with an Account Manager from Fifth Third Bank and plumber from Mason. Now, I’m not sure what the obsession plumbers have with design, as I actually have a similar plumber experience from a Tufte workshop I attended a ways back, but meeting another designer that was NOT a student during design week was few and far between. Trust me, I was trying. I need more friends, as using my Saturday nights to dictate write-ups for my own profession is not generally on my to-do list. But this has been a recurring theme in this town, and something I noticed immediately upon arrival, designers in this town (and I am at fault for this myself) just don’t seem to want to extend design past 5pm. I wasn’t aware you can “turn it off”, but if someone can point me to that switch I would greatly appreciate it.

So aside from the opening tour of various agencies about town (of which I wanted to attend, not host, but such is life), I heard neither hide nor hair from any of the “bigs”, nor any of the “littles”. Now, there could be a lot going on here. It’s very likely that the format of CDW is just not conducive to it. Meaning, nobody asked them. I understand there is a reputation that the AIGA needs to uphold, and its a good one, to bring in the best, brightest, most exciting designers on the market. And I respect the work of Drapin and Little Big things enough to support these engagements, because it’s important for them to spread their processes and messages. Especially here. Why? Cause the designers in this town think too much. If I had to dig, I would say that there is too much “strategy backed by research” before a thought is even put on paper as opposed to “design backed by common sense” with sketches and crayons galore.

But, hypothetically, let’s start with the bigs. Landor, LPK, Interbrand and Possible. Our hometown Pentagrams and RGA, respectively. Are they so immersed in the blasé of P&G world that they have nothing interesting or unique to engage us with? Doubtful. Landor gave us Lumenocity a while ago, a beautiful mixture of media. Expensive, yes. So is an encore in the cards? Maybe not. But CDW could have had a behind the scenes gallery show with snippets and small talks and a “meet the designers” wine fest. Cause lets be honest. Free food and drinks is the silent dog whistle for designers. Possible is home to some of the coolest, most absurd prototypes and gadgetry around, some of which can be played with at the Cincinnati Museum Center, so you are telling me they have nothing in the ole storage closet that we wouldn’t find vaguely interesting? Brandery, Cintrifuge, HIVE13, 3CDC. I could go on, but this city is teeming with groups and organizations that regularly throw events that the design crowd is incredibly hungry for, but not during CDW apparently.

Sometimes it’s just a meet and greet that is all thats needed. A small but exciting shop known as Peanut Butter & Jelly opened up recently in the new designer neighborhood of OTR. Now, they did recently also have a meet and greet, but another one could have been in order specifically for design week. I suppose your argument here is that we had the tour, but 10 minutes a location does not a vibe create. Sure you can shake some hands and look at the cool laser cut letters on the wall, but to really get to know a place, you need to let them dictate the rules. I guess all I am getting at is, just open it up a little. Let’s look at Design Philadelphia. (here he goes, talking about Philly again). Bare with me.

DesignPhiladelphia is still a curated event to some extent. It personally asks some local artists and designers to submit very specific proposals. However, for the other 51 weeks out of the year, submissions from companies large and small flood their inbox. They range from designer talks, to agency walkthroughs, to (AIGA) scavenger hunts to popup shows. For 10 days, Philadelphia celebrates all things design. Now, that city made a very political and decisive choice to focus on the arts a few years ago. DesignPhilly was fostered within the downtown scene of University of the Arts and has since grown into a organization that can support dozens of events, most of them free, over the 10 day period. And while there is heavy involvement from the local arts schools, namely to volunteer at these events, a majority of those attending are other industry professionals. Why? Probably ego. Philadelphian’s are a proud lot. They love their Eagles, Flyers and Phillies (order depending on seasonal success), and are out to prove they are better than NYC. The hundreds of events taking place might actually convince you of that notion, you can’t attend them all, making your decision making during this time clutch. Not to mention the economic impact of these 10 days alone to the city is enough to make their Office of the Arts, Culture and the Creative Economy blush. Yes, that’s a real office in city hall.

What’s truly beautiful about DesignPhilly is the public exposure, regular old muggles literally trip over random street events showcasing something or other in the vicinity of design. It gets the term “design” out there, as if it wasn’t enough already, and opens up possibility of cross pollination amongst industries. This year, an interesting headliner is GhostFood, where users will experience eating, without physically eating, to show the future possibility of species extinction. Impactful much?

Now, cut back to Cincinnati Design Week. Draplin? Inspiring. Bravado. Proud to be American. Little Big Things? Beautiful. Intelligent. Simple. Floyd Johnson (OAtW)? Most. Diverse. Event. in OTR. Ever. Jessica Ivins? Ok, I missed it cause the Reds were on. But she’s from Happy Cog, in Philly, so couldn’t have been all bad. There were beautiful touches that I wish could have been expanded on more, like the opening reception food experience. Frances of FEAST is doing some truly inspiring things, wether it be pork products or cheese spreads. I would sit in a workshop about this any day. Same with Please. The lunchtime workshops are things I have said should happen regularly (weird, it seems like I am responding to things involving food). I should look into that. All in all the events were, fine, just not exactly Cincinnati, or what I guess I should have expected from Cincinnati.

In my two years here, I have seen this city do some amazing things. Things other struggling metropolis’ would love to see. I know there is a strong desire to change the punchline of every joke from Cincinnati to, I dunno, Boise. (I would say Detroit, but I can’t hit a city when it’s down). I’ve seen a boom of great food (event idea!!). I’ve seen a urban neighborhood redesigned (another event idea!!). I saw George Fucking Takei host the world famous Cincinnati Fucking Pops (why that wasn’t sold out every night is a dod gamn shame). I’ve met amazing, tight knit bloggers and activists. I’ve experienced movies in alleyways, and drank beer with goats. I’ve felt both pride and heartache with your baseball team. I’ve taught in your design schools, and I’ve looked at your local resource problems. I’ve scoped out this wonderful canvas, and begged for someone, anyone to step up. I want you to win Cincy. I want you to win hard. I want your designers to go on tours, and sell merch, and be in the CAC’s and MoMAs of all the other cities. I want you to speak up. I want you to swagger. I want you to own the mid-midwest. I want you to prove me right. That not only can you produce culturally profound work, but that it can get outside of the city’s borders. And no, putting a “Made by Proctor Gamble” sticker on it doesn’t count. Let’s show our Millenials things outside of OTR and show everyone else cool events can happen in places besides Washington Park.

Hopefully, this is just the start, it all has to begin somewhere right? But I challenge the design community here to want more. To expect more. I grew up being told design in America begins in Cincinnati (yes, seriously). We have more better designers here than the rest of the dod gamn  country, problem solved some of America’s biggest hurdles. Skyscrapers? No problem. Suspension bridges? Pssh give us a challenge. Prohibition? Oh we got this. Now is the time, Cincinnati, show the world.

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