Outlaws & Bravery: A Gravity Free 2012 Recap

For some time now, we've been kicking around the idea of attending conferences that talk more about big ideas and less about the nuts and bolts of designing for the web. Gravity Free, a two-day multidisciplinary design conference in Chicago, provided just that for myself and my trusty companion, Mark. The theme this year was "Outlaws and Icons" which I originally read as "Outlaws OR Icons." What I didn't realize beforehand was how important the "AND" part of the theme would become. While I was attracted to the conference by the 20+ "icons" of design that were listed as speakers, it became clear very quickly that the conference "icons" were more comfortable as "outlaws." Therefore, the first takeaway for me became the very notion that these design icons were outlaws first and foremost and that they might not have ever been icons if not for their outlaw nature. 

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Conference schedule

Some themes from Gravity Free 2012: Outlaws and Icons:

Sustainable vs. Green vs. Nature

There was general consensus that just because something is sustainable doesn't necessarily mean it's green and vice versa. Gordon Gill shared the work of his visionary architecture firm that explained how thinking about how wind travels through and around buildings is far more important to sustainability than finding ways to support trees and greenery in the structures. Put simply, finding ways for wind to penetrate structures easily means lighter and fewer materials are needed to build taller buildings. Contrasting slightly, James Ramsey cited the importance of greenery to human comfort, health, and happiness as he described how he and his partners are working to build a subterranean park in an abandoned underground railway terminal in Lower Manhattan. Margie Ruddick explained the importance of natural "mess" which is essentially designing around nature so that nature can thrive the way it is supposed to – naturally. In essence, she described how nature allows for both order and chaos and how we, as humans, walk a fine line between the two.

Chip Kidd

Chip Kidd speaks about his graphic novel.

Pencil, Pen & Paper

Big ideas often come from the simplest of tools. Opening speaker, Chip Kidd, right off the bat referenced the pencil as an important tool for creative thinking. Conference organizer, Lee Knight, described Javier Mariscal as a pen and paper designer before introducing him to the audience through video conferencing. While Mariscal didn't specifically reference pen and paper, it was clear very quickly how important the two tools are to the sketch-like quality of the design he's become known for. In the epic closing remarks from George Lois, he was quick to tell us not to expect a clever idea to come out of a computer. He went further to say that collaboration was far less important than individual creative thinking. He calls the resistance to collaboration "rejecting group grope."

Panel discussion

Panel discussion led by Jonathan Alger featuring Brian Collins, Margie Ruddick and Javier Mariscal.


Cartoonist Ivan Brunetti stated "Remain unreasonable until the world bends to your will." Reflecting back on all of the speakers, it was clear that none of them gave in easily on their ideas. Good ideas require confidence first, then persistence to ever see the light of day. Lois backed this up by saying, "There is no such thing as a cautious creative" and that "Designers don't need to learn how to design. They need to learn how to sell their ideas."

Ivan Brunetti

Ivan Brunetti speaks about his persona and approach to comics. 

Bravery, Courage & Risk

Perhaps the biggest takeaway for me was the importance of courage as it relates to design on a day-to-day basis. This includes everything from the courage to try new things to the courage to fight for the best ideas and to never compromise what you feel strongly about. Neville Brody reminded us that "Possibility grows out of risk." If we don't take risks, we limit what is possible. James Victore shared a story about how the Museum of Modern Art wrote a letter to his mom in reference to his upcoming exhibition just because he asked them to. The lesson being that if you want something, just ask for it. Finally, George Lois built a career on courage. Every sentence out of his mouth in his closing remarks was either directly or indirectly a reference to bravery, courage, or fearlessness. An excerpt from his book (a gift to all attendees) sums it up best:

The courage to create only superb work, through thick and thin, and to fight to protect it at all cost, is not generated in the head … it comes from your very heart and soul. 
--George Lois, Damn Good Advice (for people with talent!)

George Lois

Keynote George Lois spouts good advice.

The beauty in Gravity Free was in the broad brush strokes. While there are plenty of conferences out there with more narrow nib focus, it's good to use different size brushes from time to time. I'm glad I went. 

Be brave. Make design that matters. 

Tom is vice president of design and works in our Falls Church, VA, HQ. He has over two decades of experience as a designer and team coach, and works with clients such as the University of Pennsylvania and The Chronicle of Higher Education.

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