Gravity Free Outlaws and Icons Design Inspiration

jer-thorp-gravity-free“Design is not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works.” Steve Jobs

What do you design? Communications, marketing, interiors, cuisine? Recently, I had the opportunity to be in the company of many who call design their profession. Thanks to the presenters for the comp ticket – and the opportunity to share these ideas.

The world’s only multidisciplinary design conference, Gravity Free: Design that Opens Minds, took place in Chicago on May 1 and 2. Gravity Free’s 2012 theme, Outlaws and Icons, celebrated individual designers who break the rules, ignore the boundaries, reject the norms and rewrite traditions in the pursuit of game-changing ideas and personal passion.

With a jam-packed program of inspiring presentations, here are my notes from a few of the presentations I attended.

Brian Collins, brand and experience designer

Collins is most known for is the design of Hershey’s chocolate factory and retail store in Times Square. Originally hired to create a simple billboard, Collins and his team instead created a Willy-Wonka-esque 15-story factory complete with smoke stacks that belch colored steam, 4,000 blinking bulbs, and glowing candy-bar brands.

Brian says brands make a connection between promise and performance. To explain this connection, Brian asked us to close our eyes and visualize being on a ship in 1768 on a sunny day. The seas are calm and we are excited to see our family after being away at see.

When we opened our eyes, here’s what we saw:

pirate-flagThe pirate flag is a brand promise. When you see it, you’re f_____ed,” Brian says.

Two things happen when the skull and crossbones flag goes up. Passengers on the cargo ship think Help! Here come the pirates!! On the pirate ship, sailors yell “ARRGH! It’s time to act like pirates!”

The brand promises performance.

When Brian came up with the Hershey Factory idea in Times Square, the concept was to build an historic building as a magical place. The store did so well that they opened one in Chicago.

“Don’t think of yourself as a problem solver, think of yourself as a problem seeker. Look for challenges to overcome.” Brian Collins

 Javier Mariscal, multidisciplinary designer

“Javier Mariscal is a polymath who can, literally, put his hand to almost anything,” says IDFX magazine. A multidisciplinary designer hailing from Spain, Mariscal works in underground comics, illustration, mural painting, sculpture, graphic design, interior design, textile design, furniture design, and animation. Despite the rise of computers in his nearly four-decade long career, Mariscal remains loyal to the simplicity of pen and paper. In 2010, Mariscal drew and co-directed the animated film “Chico and Rita,” which was nominated for Best Animated Feature Film at the 2012 Academy Awards. Mariscal is a recipient of the National Design Prize of the Spanish Department of Industry and the BCD Foundation grants in recognition of achievements throughout a professional career.

Presenting from his studio in Spain via Skype on a huge screen, Javier’s presence loomed larger than life. If you want to make an impression at an event, offer to speak via Skype – on a huge screen. In his presentation, Javier ran through many animated videos that kept the audience amused.

“Everything must change everyday. Everything is in movement, even if you’re sitting in your chair, the world is still in movement.” Javier says.

When asked “if you could do something different than what you do now what would that be?” Javier said he would be Marilyn Monroe or Jimi Hendrix. How would you answer that question?

Disruptive Design in Action

During the question and answer session with the other panelists, Javier shared pictures from his iPhone. Clearly, he stole the show. And, nobody minded, not even the other panelists.

My favorite image? The one of the skeleton head with flowers. Why? It looked so cool when Javier put a cigarette near the skeleton’s mouth. This playful, inventive – and yes, disruptive, spirit is what the best designers bring to the world.

Vincent Leclerc, lighting and performance designer

Vincent Leclerc is co-founder of ESKI, a Montreal-based studio that engages audiences with lighting and interactive technologies. The studio used PixMob, its wireless lighting technology, to give an emotionally-charged experience at a 2011 Arcade Fire concert.

Vincent talked about multiplicity, emergence and collectivity.

“We’re the geeks behind the freaks.” [advertising agencies, artistis and producers.] Vincent says of his studio whose projects include 21 Swings, interactive swings with light sensors that play music at Place des Arts in Montreal.

Collectivity can be interpreted as what if we scale up instead of down and use the crowd as the medium. Group behavior supersedes individual behavior.

People become ambassadors of the experience. Vincent uses technologies for crowds. He’s working on a docking system that goes into a smart phone to create an experiment to build momentum, using the phones as an interface.

Three things Vincent’s projects do:

1. Be bold and quick

2. Challenge people and throw things at them like beach balls

3. Add a dash of magic so that they have to wonder, “How in the hell does this thing work?”

Ivan Brunetti, comic book artist

Ivan Brunetti makes dark, misanthropic comics that channel taboo-laden subject matter — making his adoring readers gasp with relish. Brunetti was born in Mondavio, Italy and moved to Chicago in the 1970s, always with a reverence for comic book art. Spin magazine writes, “Brunetti’s self-loathing and seething disgust is so unrelenting that it begs a simple question: What the hell is wrong with this guy?” He’s contributed cover designs for The New Yorker magazine, and he is also the editor of “An Anthology of Graphic Fiction, Cartoons, and True Stories.” Currently, he teaches classes on comics, drawing, and design at Columbia College of Chicago.

Ivan never went to art school. He grew up in Italy. From the ages of 4-6 he copied Disney comics that his parents put on the wall. One day he came home and all the drawings were gone with no explanation.

Note to Parents: tell your kids where their art projects are going after you take them off the fridge. It’s the right thing to do.

Ivan says copying cartoons is a good way to learn. Notice where you deviate and this will tell you about your style. Drawing every day helped him simplify and tap into his unconscious drawing. Charles Shultz is one of his greatest influences.

Two quotes I liked:

“Step back and look at the matrix, architecture and form of your life, go beyond the moment to moment.“

“Remain unreasonable until the world bends to your will.”

Ivan collects toys that have a sense of being alive. About cartooning, Ivan says, “It’s strange how you can take ink, lines and stories and make them come alive in your head.“

Jer Thorp, data visualization

“The art itself is the software — not the charts that come out of these things, but the actual programs that I distribute into the world,” says Jer Thorp, data visualization artist. “Data visualization is often a very serious business, with assorted constraints and restrictions that typically apply to scientific pursuits,” Thorp says. “As an artist, I’ve felt that I can leave some of this objectivity behind and create work that has less to do with legibility and communication and more to do with aesthetics and concept.” His work has been featured by The New York Times, The Guardian, Scientific American, and The New Yorker. He is currently Data Artist in Residence at the New York Times, and is an adjunct Professor in New York University’s ITP program.

Jer started out by showing us hand-drawn data illustrations that mapped out characters and super hero stats – by a 10 year old.

Who influences you?

Bill Atkinson, of Apple, was one of Jer’s earliest influences. Atkinson wrote a programming language called HyperCard that allowed people to write programs for Apple computers. People shared their programs the old-fashioned way, via floppy discs sent in the mail. This is the last time that a computer shipped to the public with software that allowed people to write computer programming.

Jer says the New York Times uses data from twitter to develop graphics around their 7,000 pieces of content published every month. For instance a “just landed” map shows where people are traveling and models in real time human traffic. In these mapa, science, design and art come together.

How do things get from point A to point B on the Internet?

Cascade graphics help us to understand what sharing systems look like. For instance, the biggest spike on twitter around a story called “But would it make you happy?” came when @zappos tweeted the link. The story was about people who pared their possessions down to 50, including shoes, silverware, etc.

Social networking is embedded into the data. Shares are important touchstones embodied in the data. The embedded narratives build our personal histories.

Open paths is a new location based project. You can store your data privately or donate your data to researchers.

Jer says each location point represents a fixed moment in our lives. Pieces of data make up our lives and our collective histories. We have to think about how numbers relate to people; numbers come from humans.

“Data is the new oil, the new resource. How can we protect it in a really thoughtful way? Designers can push the conversation forward,” Jer says.“Pick anything to study and you can get to a level that’s interesting. “

In a TedX video Jer says,“The world of data will be transformative for us by bring the human element into the story, I think we can take it tremendous places.”

Gravity Free Food Design Competition

After lunch, the designers went to work transforming food into artistic creations with captions.

View my Gravity Free food design competition images. gravity-free-food-design-competition

On my way back to the parking garage, I came across a flash mob dancing in the street. Stopping traffic is downtown Chicago is disruptive.

Dancing to “Born this Way,” the group offered a short preview of Columbia College Chicago’s Manifest urban arts festival. I couldn’t help thinking that one day one of these students would be on the Gravity Free stage.

Post icon image: Jer Thorp presenting at Gravity Free 2012.

Disclosures: Thanks to Gravity Free for a full conference pass. Our daughter is a music business management student at Columbia College Chicago. 2017 Update: Our daughter went on to be the marketing/PR director for Blind Pig Records and is now a social media marketing manger in the hospitality industry who designs communications, ads and experiences. 🙂

Your Turn: Who or what inspires your design creativity?


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