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Putting Fuel in the Inspiration Tank : AIGA’s Make | Think conference

“I never come to solutions unless I have restrictions.” – Paul Sahre, Designer
“Pursue creativity with courage.” – Al Bell, Stax Records
“Innovation is about experimentation.” – Marissa Mayer, VP Search Products, Google

These were just some of the thought-provoking messages heard at AIGA’s Make | Think Conference, held 2 weeks ago in Memphis, Tennessee. My colleague Anna Tou and I had the opportunity to be there in person to soak up the inspirational atmosphere of both Memphis and the conference. We tuned into a vast array of presenters, tried some finger-licking BBQ ribs, strolled the historical and soulful streets of downtown Memphis, and for two and a half days, were surrounded by hundreds of designers who are thinking and making just like us.

The guest list of speakers was a true mix of influential and dynamic people. Some were musicians or engineers, some writers, artists, business consultants, and of course there was a fair share of graphic designers. Kicking off the entire conference was Al Bell, chairman of Stax Records and president of Motown Records. His powerful and inspiring introduction focused on the parallels between music and graphic design. He talked about ‘creativity with courage,’ which will allow us to be innovative and push boundaries as he once did working with musicians like Otis Redding and Muddy Waters.


New York based designer Stefan Sagmeister captivated the audience with tales from his recent year long sabbatical in Bali – something he does every seven years to experiment and find ways to not do the same things. His goal is to avoid monotony and sameness in his design. He also spoke about the difference between a job, a career and a calling, making the audience think about how and if we each tap into our passions within our work.

Los Angeles based designer and owner of 344, Stefan Bucher, was another inspiring speaker who introduced himself and his work with a dazzling, energetic and creative reel.  His daily drawings of ‘monsters’ through ink blobs was motivating as a routine to stretch and strengthen our creative muscles.

Shifting focus to technology and the future of design experiences, Jake Barton from Local Projects spoke about ‘designing beyond the desktop.’ He highlighted a case study for the NYC Information Center in Times Square where he and his team created a pamphlet-free environment that integrated architecture and media by using large interactive ‘map tables.’ Visitors could explore these tables by placing discs with various locations on the table and the screen would display relevant content (e.g., maps, history, landmarks), all of which could be emailed and shared.


NYC Information Center by Local Projects

Marissa Mayer from Google spoke about how a single search box with 30 words is exactly what she wants to hold as the limit for the world’s most visited web site on the Internet. She recognized that although she is an engineer, focusing on the value of simplicity is something that is key to the success of the Google brand and design.

Towards the end of the conference, David Butler, VP of Design for Coke and a former colleague at Studio Archetype, spoke about how the growth of the population, the demands that customers are having for better products and services, and the technology that is now becoming available are all reasons that we as designers should feel excited and encouraged about our work. The impact that we have as a profession to create solutions that are meaningful and useful is where we should be focusing our attention, feeling empowered to have large scale impact.


As we left Memphis with just the right amount of BBQ, live Jazz, and a notebook full of ideas, we certainly felt refueled. I came back motivated to work on my daily creative-muscle stretches, and inspired to re-examine how we do things as an agency – to explore the division between thinking and making, how we approach being experimental and innovative, and how we can continue to design with courage – the goal being to continue to show our own unique strengths in making and thinking.

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