What is xDiscipline?

And why did I decide to put on my own “design” event?

xDiscipline: a practical problem-solving conference
Well, for a start, I think everybody should try holding their own design conference.

2017 I was privileged enough to deliver a talk at UX Australia with my colleague Luke Watson. It was about our experience design work in IAG’s Digital Labs division.

We ended this talk by stressing the need for diversity in design teams.

“A team of designers, even exciting innovative designers — you can become homogenous in the same way that a “business” team can. It’s, I don’t think, any different. You just need to be aware.”

We are diverse! One of us has a moustache!

I don’t love “conference” as a format, although I have been to interesting ones before. The one that pops to mind is Transmedia Victoria, which was curated by the exciting brain of Christy Dena. The topic (transmedia narrative) was broad, the speakers were all very different and sparked off each other in a way I found fun.

The problem of a curated industry conference is that it ringfences, inviting some people in and leaving some people out. It works to define its industry, intentionally and not. It makes explicit divisions.

This is, to a large extent, unavoidable. Any time you create something, build a community, people feel left out. Our Squishface Studio is such a community; it’s part of the Australian comics scene. I see us as being open, welcoming, free as the breeze! You can’t define us, man!

But over time we’ve become an institution of sorts, sculpted by our personalities, by the things we choose to do, the people we choose to be with.

“Ah, you’re one of those Squishface people!” “We’re a people?”
“Ah, you’re one of those Squishface people!” “We’re a people?”
My people wandered in the desert for many years, until we found the Promised Land: Brunswick

In that room at UX Australia — a huge ballroom, on a big stage, me wearing a headset mic, being photographed at a lectern, big screens— I felt weird.

This is not how I like to communicate with people. This is Me being Defined as an Expert on Something. Look! I’m in the program! I must know what I’m talking about!

We can call it a necessary charade, and we can treat it like the charade it is, but the charade is designed for a reason: as a marketing channel for the organisers and for the speakers.

I don’t mean this to sound nasty or bitter. I think most of us like being put on a pedestal for a bit! And we all need to “brand” ourselves nowadays to get and keep work. So we perpetuate a Standard Conference Format, with instagrammable activations and #hashtags and so on.

And, as at many conferences, the interesting discussion happens outside of the program. Which is why I’ve enjoyed the “unconference” format when I’ve been part of it.

Another thing I like about Transmedia Victoria is that (and this may not have been intentional) it happened exactly once. Maybe there was supposed to be another conference the following year? Maybe not? But it lives on in my head as a singular experience. A moment in time. It happened once because it only needed to happen once.

“Oh, come on, David — we like having a regular event where we can hear inspiring talks from colleagues, chat, have a drink…”
“Oh, come on, David — we like having a regular event where we can hear inspiring talks from colleagues, chat, have a drink…”

I know! I do too! But I have to confess my not-so-deep, dark secret.

I get more jazzed listening to people who aren’t designers.

I’m excited by hearing stories from people who work in a completely different job to mine. How do they meet challenges? How do they communicate?

People can argue with me on this (and may win), but I see my industry — service design/experience design/human-centred design — as a bower-bird’s collection of theories, tools and ethical considerations pilfered from other, more established disciplines.

And this is a good thing! We should make use of all those things when we’re trying to solve problems.

But I’m tired of listening to designers tell me about ethics, anthropology, diplomacy, facilitation and communication. I want to hear about those things from philosophers, anthropologists, political operatives, military, athletes, poets, writers and artists instead.

So I started thinking about organising xDiscipline (“cross-discipline”).

A friend used the term “emergent” to describe what we’re planning, so I will, too. I think that means “we will not lock the schedule down so tightly that new ideas and discussions can’t influence what we do on the day”.

That doesn’t mean it won’t be planned, though. We’ll:

  • create a strong but flexible structure of facilitated (but not heavily directed) discussions and activities,
  • give everyone the chance to meet and work with our invited guests, and
  • direct everyone’s ideas and thoughts onto paper/whiteboard/post-its — so that it can be collected up, analysed and fed back to the participants post-conference.

I would imagine we’ll deal with topics like ethics, leadership, communication, diversity and structural inequity. But who knows?

“I care about the problems we’re trying to solve, but boy am I tired of pushing shit uphill.”
“I care about the problems we’re trying to solve, but boy am I tired of pushing shit uphill.”
I’m pretty sure this is all of us.

Did I say “invited guests? Yes. Because we need sharpening stones to grind our brain-tools. These guests are very, very sharp. I’m SUPER excited to be getting into a room with Dr. Steven Curry, Tanja Kovac and Geoff Paine.

Ultimately I decided not to call xDiscipline a “design” conference, because it could seem exclusive. “Designers” design things, whereas everybody has an interest in solving problems.

I’m sure I’m reinventing the wheel to a degree, but since I don’t go to a lot of conferences and design events I’m not sure exactly how new/different this is as a concept.

Have you been to a great, challenging event? What did they do there? Tell me about it in the comments.

David Blumenstein is a service designer and visual communicator. Tickets are available for xDiscipline. It takes place at Siteworks in Brunswick, Melbourne on Sunday October 6.

David works in service/strategic design: experienceillustration.com. He draws comics at Squishface Studio: squishfacestudio.com. Other stuff: nakedfella.com.

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