Category Archives: Ringling School of Design Summit

Ringling School of Design Summit 2008 - Observations from a non-designer

It was a refreshing change of pace to attend an evening session and reception at the Ringling College of Art and Design’s Sarasota International Design Summit, Oct. 27-29, 2008 just a short drive south in Sarasota, Florida ( The evening session consisted of four presenters spread over two sessions and provided insights into the world of Google, Microsoft, Adobe and Roundarch. Being more of a design focused than an engineering focused summit, I was open to receive new ideas about topics related to user “experience” that tied in with some of my thoughts about culture and globalization. It was a rarity to be at a conference where I didn’t know anyone and where I was not presenting, and I was able to simply listen, observe, and digest the presentations. I’d like to share with you my highlights of the evening:

1. There is a distinct difference between web designers, students, and software engineers, and even in subdued lighting of the ballroom I sensed it. On average with the designers and students, the dress was more casual (more untucked shirts paired with jeans) than I’ve seen at most software engineering conferences. The gender split was also noticeable – with the designers and students, there was a 50/50 split, while most software engineering conferences are male dominated (at least 70/30 or more). Not surprisingly, the sessions at this conference were targeted on software development with a focus on enhancing the user “experience”. I’ve never been to a traditional SD conference where I’ve ever heard that emulating “second life” features on a website was seen as anything but gold-plating in software development, yet at the Design Summit, it was touted as a great way of enhancing the user experience.

2. There was no difference between the Design Summit ppt files and those in traditional software engineering or academic presentations I’ve seen. I was surprised that the colors and asthetics of slides were of similar quality to those I’ve become accustomed to seeing at any technology conference – I’m not sure why I expected the layout or color schemes to be superior here, but I did. In other words, the word density per slide, the propensity of too-small-fonts, and lack of color contrast was no different that at university and highly technical presentations the world over. It was as Edward Tufte purports, powerpoint has become a crutch in too many of our presentations, and we simply fail to realize the distraction caused by busy and unreadable slides.

3. All four speakers in the evening program were male (and under 40). While it may have been pure coincidence and timing that all presenters were male, unfortunately in the software industry as a whole, there is commonly a gender imbalance with the speaker lineup. I am often surprised to see the speaker lineup mismatched to the audience breakdown. Maybe I am cynical, but I just don’t buy the response given by conference organizers that “there are just so few female presenters in the field”. This should be unacceptable to attendees, especially if the overall quality of the “scheduled” presenters leaves something to be desired. Let me be honest here, the Design Summit presenters WERE very good, and there were female speakers on the overall conference agenda. In terms of age, as I grow older, I realize that this is the first time in history that we have four generations in our workforce we have today (Boomers, Gen X, Gen Y, and Gen Z). I just noticed how much younger the featured evening presenters were at the Design Summit than at many other venues where keynoting experts typically are over 50.

I have more observations about the content of the presentations and particularly about how Google tackles design and how global the www world has become. I’ll post these in the next couple of days. Meanwhile, in summary, what did I learn from attending this special evening event at the Design Summit? It reinforced my belief that software developers need to spend more time reading and learning from outside the their field. In other words, read the industry journals that our customers read, and explore new fields instead of simply reading Information Week or Computer World. I know for me, when I venture outside the traditional world of software development and project management, I always discover new things that propel my ideas forward and beyond into new directions than what I first thought.

Have a good week!