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DesignThinkers 2016

by Irv Osterer

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Heidi Veri of the Association of Registered Graphic Designers with Merivale High School students at the 2016 DesignThinkers conference.

Each year the Association of Registered Graphic Designers (the RGD), hosts DesignThinkers, the premiere conference for communication and design professionals in Canada. This year’s two day thinkfest held November 3 to 4 at the Sony Centre in Toronto, celebrated the event’s twentieth anniversary in style. “Confessions,” the theme for this year’s conference saw an impressive slate of internationally renowned graphic designers share their secrets, indulgences, quirks, fears, strategies, preferences and passions. “Confession statements” were highlighted by impressive pages in the event program, posters throughout the venue and some very effective large animated clips.

For the first time in conference history, through the auspices of Heidi Veri at the RGD, an opportunity to attend DesignThinkers 2016 was extended to the Communication and Design Specialist High Skills Major (SHSM) program at Merivale High School in Ottawa. Students in this specialized applied design elective must complete a requisite number of applied design courses, professional certifications, experiential learning opportunities, career exploration and a sector related co-op placement.

The program has been running successfully at Merivale for eight years. Several graduates are currently employed in the field and we were pleased to learn that Shogo Shimizu, a Merivale SHSM graduate, and currently attending Algonquin College’s Faculty of Graphic Design, was the winner of this year’s Juniper Park/TBWA Conference Scholarship/ bursary.

For Merivale’s Communication and Design students, DesignThinkers 2016 and its slate of extraordinary presentations was a life altering experience. Each student was given a registration package with a well designed event program and a personalized conference badge which was to be worn at all times. There were three venues, offering a wide variety of presentations on both days. There were impressive give-aways, interesting exhibitors, a chance to meet many of the presenters at book signing opportunities in the well stocked on-site book store, as well as ample coffee, tea and water for delegates.

At no time were students treated differently, and the professionals and presenters who spoke to the group were impressed that the students had made the effort to come.

All presentations, particularly those delivered in the SONY Centre Main Stage were outstanding. The following speakers were cited by SHSM students as ones that were particularly interesting to them.

“Type Designer Punch Cutting for Pixels” afforded students a close look at the nuances of type design and the issues that make it problematic for certain applications. This was an important lesson to a younger generation used to downloading free fonts from a myriad of online sources. Tobias Frere-Jones did a terrific job illustrating legibility issues and design constraints in the retooling of the Wall Street Journal using his font Retina. (

Kenya Hara, who created the opening and closing ceremonies at the Nagano Winter Olympics is the champion of “Ex-formation”—a process that approaches communication by trying to show how little we know about a subject. He showed many intriguing samples from recent Ex formation publications which challenge our creative thinking process. His latest project, HOUSEVISION2 in Tokyo, was a snapshot of twenty first century housing possibilities. Hara’s Panasonic dream home for the event was circular and had walls that were totally interactive! (

Frederik Öst and Erik Kockum, who work for the Stöckholm advertising agency Snask, were boisterous, energetic and showed an appreciative audience how they buck conservative trends and sell their services. Students found their presentation humorous and insightful. (

The Ottawa group agreed that Stefan Bucher’s honest talk struck a chord in each of them. The award winning artist who has designed album covers, motion picture film titles, animation for the Electric Company, and the Blue Man Theater in Las Vegas, recounted how he dealt with his fears, anxiety and doubts. For senior students in the process of applying to post secondary design schools, Bucher’s revelations were particularly poignant. (

Meg Lewis’ hilarious life journey presentation resonated with the students and served as the perfect foil to Bucher. Lewis is the creative designer and founder of her own business, Darn Good as well as Ghostly Ferns, a family of freelance designers located in New York and Minneapolis. Lewis contends that much of today’s design has become clinical and personality free—and she has made it her mission to infuse all of her work with the happy, honest, enthusiastic personality that she exuded on the Sony Centre stage. Meg has worked with over sixty companies to transform their brands using clean, personable and friendly design. (

The most entertaining conference presentation was delivered by Erik Kessels from KesselsKramer in Amsterdam. Kessels is recognized as one of the most dynamic creatives in the Netherlands. He maintains that our present disposition to create perfect solutions circumvents one of the most important creative forces—failure. Long ago Kessels realized that imperfect solutions are often the best ones. He showed many examples, including his brilliant campaign to promote Hans Brinker Budget Hotels by graphically illustrating the features that budget hotels are infamous for. (

Jake Barton’s groundbreaking work with the 9/11 Memorial and the Cooper Hewitt Museum in New York gave students a glimpse of how people will interact with museum spaces in the near future. The digital pen his firm Local Project developed for Cooper Hewitt, is capable of capturing shapes rendered by museum patrons, and then matching those shapes with items found in the Museum’s permanent collection. People then have the option of creating works of art using these shapes on a digital palette and exporting the results. ( (

“I Can’t Let you do that Dave,” author Cory Doctorow’s presentation, warned design professionals of the pitfalls of working in the digital wild west, where cyberpoachers, hackers, extortion artists and thieves now pose a threat to affect consumer products that people purchase in good faith. He cited the example of a recent Hewlett Packard software update that included a “ticking time bomb” piece of software that was activated if a less expensive third party ink cartridge was installed, effectively shutting down the printer. (

Most high school art students have a soft spot for street art and have attempted some form of spray painting. The work of Brooklyn sign painter and former graffiti artist Steve Powers showed them this art form, but at a whole new level of engagement. Powers discussed his personal iconography and his ambitious street painting with large typographical forms that has given his work a unique look and feel. (

David Carson, “the Godfather of Grunge,” delivered the final presentation—and was clearly the design professional that everyone came to see. Carson’s landmark publication—The End of Print—has sold more copies that any other graphic design book. For SHSM students, the opportunity to see one of the very best graphic designers in the world at the top of his game was special. Carson showed several slides to illustrate his position on legibility and then gave a comprehensive overview of his impressive output beginning with his groundbreaking design work with Ray Gun and Beach Culture magazines.

He shared preliminary works, sketches and samples that had been rejected by clients. He advised young professionals to take photos of anything that visually captures their curiosity and showed a variety of images taken from all over the world that have served as inspiration for his work. Carson urged designers to experiment with type and not be confined to conservative desktop publishing norms. To this day, he refuses to work with magazine layout grids and continues to break all the formal typographic conventions and rules. His advice to all designers was to make sure that you invest some of yourself into every work you do. (

DesignThinkers 2017 is expanding its creative horizons, and for the first time the next conference will be held in Vancouver (May 30 – 31) at the Playhouse Theatre, and in October 19 – 20 at the Palais des congrès in Montreal as part of the month long World Design Summit. I would highly encourage anyone with an interest in contemporary communication and design who has a chance to take part in this event to do so. Merivale students will be there for sure.

For more information, contact Heidi Veri at the Association of Registered Graphic Designers ( (



Irv Osterer

Irv Osterer is the Communication and Design SHSM Coordinator and Department Head - Fine Arts and Technology at Merivale High School in Ottawa.

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