One doesn’t go to a conference expecting to laugh, cry, and share personal secrets. This year’s AIGA Design Conference blew expectations out of the water.
The theme was “connect.” Speaker after speaker, the theme came through in myriad forms. Connect with fellow designers. Connect with professionals beyond the design industry. Connect with the community you live in. Connect with the disabled. Connect with clients. Connect with heroes. Connect physical and digital experiences. Connect design with another passion. Connect design with business value. Connect design with your personal values.
The sense of community became stronger as the conference went on. But perhaps the turning point was with the final round of Command X, a cutthroat gameshow-style competition for younger designers. The final challenge was to design a campaign against lies.
Unlike the other finalists who had made excellent mockups and fluidly introduced them, Daniel Cardoza came onstage, looked straight into our audience of several thousand, and said, between anguished pauses, that he was going to tell us something he had never felt was ok to share with anyone. He paused and asked for water because of cottonmouth.
You could see the sweat on his face as he wrestled with the words. You could hear his labored breathing through the microphone. The auditorium was so silent you could hear a sticky note drop. Every word he said felt like he was wrenching it out of his gut. It was agonizing.
It’s not my place to repeat Daniel’s truth here, and doing so would be beyond the point anyway. To me, the message was less about his truth and more about his sharing it. Because we each have truths we feel we cannot talk about. Often, we think these truths are shameful. We are afraid of what others will think if they knew that truth about us. We think they won’t understand. So we act like everything is fine when, in truth, we are acting out a lie.
What Daniel designed was a simple text PDF containing five statements meant to help others tell their truths. But in his moment on stage, he had done more than that. He had created an audience experience—a real campaign—that touched and changed lives. As with any other campaign, there was dissension. Someone in the back shouted angrily about what he was sharing with us. He responded with compassion, saying that that he didn’t mean to offend, but that this was his life and his story.
To have the bravery to be vulnerable, to have the humility to tell the truth, to have the empathy to listen…this is the hardest work of design.
We gave Daniel a standing ovation.