"Like, Oh My God" = "I Am God": Heidi Dangelmaier and 3iying at AIGA's GAIN Conference
This past weekend, The Roosevelt Hotel, a short walk from Manhattan's Grand Central Station, hosted GAIN, AIGA's conference on business and design. Sold out for more than a month, the conference boasted more than 20 extremely accomplished presenters, including big design names such as Brian Collins and Stephen Doyle as well as a few notables from outside the design world, e.g. New Yorker writer and bestselling author Malcolm Gladwell.
When I arrived at GAIN, the first of Friday's after-lunch speakers had already taken the stage. This was Michael Jager of JDK Design, the studio responsible for the identity and packaging of the Xbox 360, among other trend-setting campaigns. Jager's theme was the importance and complex nature of "collaboration," and he illustrated his points by finding the words within that word: "lab," "ratio," "rat" ("there are always rats in the system"), and even "Borat." When I spoke with Jager a couple of days before his talk at GAIN, he promised surprises. These came at the end, in the form of a one-man band who led the crowd in a folk song about "the collaboration nation." Jager joined in on vocals, as did many of the 700 designers in attendance.
Debbie Millman, national board member of AIGA and host of the internet radio show "Design Matters," presided over this year's 20/20 challenge, in which 20 thriving designers were asked to communicate the secret of their business success in a 60-second visual presentation. Standout participants included Michael Ian Kaye, Julia Hoffmann (of "the MoMA"), and Under Consideration's Armin Vit...but for sheer star power it was difficult to beat Chip Kidd, who told a joke about onanism in a doctor's office, and a personal anecdote about mishearing the phrase "I'm from Target" as "I'm retarded." It was funnier coming from him.
On the Saturday afternoon schedule was a talk to which I had been looking forward: "Girl Market Relevancy. Rethinking Creativity," by Heidi Dangelmaier and 3iying. Dangelmaier launched 3iying three years ago as an "all-girl innovation think tank" designed to offer major brands and agencies "the insights, creative concepts, and strategies they need to succeed" with young women. 3iying (the name combines "third eye" with "ying," as in "ying/yang") is unique in that outside of Dangelmaier, its brand experts are all millennial girls themselves, some of whom are recruited from New York City high schools and put through a rigorous selection and training process. If you're questioning my terminology, you should know that Dangelmaier and 3iying have embraced the word "girl" and use it freely.
Before the conference, I asked Heidi via email what GAIN attendees could expect from her talk, and her response was as follows: "I think people will learn that we need to rethink a vital part of [the] design process, which is how to achieve deep emotional connections with the consumer [...] As consumers grow more savvy and have radically more choices, they also become liberated - they no longer have to accept things they do not like. Choices allow people the privilege of making decisions based on emotions: hate, love, and desire. This new liberation forces design to raise its bar and become more sophisticated. Average will not cut it any more, we have to impress and inspire."
Dangelmaier prepared the crowd for her presentation by placing on every chair in the room a torn-out magazine page bearing an ad that "turned the girl off." (The Reebok ad on my chair, taken from CosmoGIRL!, showed a "boy-crazy" blonde getting freaky with a dorky-chic male model in a library. I assume the silly sexual stereotype was the reason for 3iying's objection. Ads near me were for Jimmy Choo and Simple Shoes.) Accompanied by two 3iying girls on GAIN's stage, she stressed the millions of dollars that are currently being wasted on ad campaigns and communications that don't connect with young women. The 3iying team claimed that design professionals can sometimes settle into an "I Am God" mentality, according to which design skills alone are enough to create a genuine connection with an audience. Dangelmaier's view, however, is that "there are some things you just can't fake." Without the ability actually to see the world through another person's (in this case, a young woman's) eyes, all the technique and hard work in the world won't help you get through.
During the talk, I sensed some resistance to 3iying, even a slow-building resentment of their message among some conference attendees. There were at least a handful of walkouts before the Q&A session, and a pointed silence greeted 3iying's joking description of their simultaneous collaborations with brands and agencies as "threesomes." Later in the day, Stephen Doyle of Doyle Partners injected an out-of-nowhere 3iying putdown into a talk about designing for Martha Stewart Living, saying, "I have one thing to say to 3iying: 'Like, oh my God.'"
I contacted Heidi Dangelmaier by phone this morning to get her reaction to 3iying's reception at GAIN. She had a lot to say on the topic. "It's so easy to be judgmental, biased, arrogant," she said. "I could have made them laugh for an hour, but my talk was about business. I think biases got in the way. Maybe they didn't want business from a girl."
Instead of receiving questions about the substance of the presentation, Dangelmaier was, in her words, "yelled at" by women at the conference who were offended by the sex-tinged humor in her talk. "No one asked about an ad!" she exclaimed. "This is about business: how to connect with consumers, how to be a professional design firm. No one asked about any of that. This is deeply more complex than 'Oh my God.'"
Designers who want to learn more about 3iying's "girl-approved design methodology" will get a golden opportunity next month when 3iying.com launches an online series of monthly lessons on how to reach the millennial girl audience. Asked for details about this initiative, Heidi wrote: "I think I will start with trying to end (once and for all) about 25 cliches that people use when marketing to females. We have collected a pretty big list of design trends that really need to just go away; to use them is to just throw your money out the window. After that we will just keep people in beat to what me and the girls find important - which often has nothing to do with what people are reading in the trend books."
I, for one, will be watching with interest.
In addition to being valuable in and of themselves, these videos may help readers who were not at GAIN to resolve for themselves the debates in the comments below.
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