Sarasota International Design Summit brings visual thinkers together

click to enlarge DRIVE OF TOMORROW: Franco Lodato's design for an electric car integrates the driver's personal communication device, e.g., iPhone or Blackberry. - Courtesy Sids
Courtesy Sids
DRIVE OF TOMORROW: Franco Lodato's design for an electric car integrates the driver's personal communication device, e.g., iPhone or Blackberry.

Next week, for the third year in a row, thought leaders in business and design converge on the Ritz-Carlton in Sarasota for a conference hosted by the Ringling College of Art and Design. Dubbed the Sarasota International Design Summit, it may be one of the most underappreciated and underreported happenings in greater Tampa Bay.

Don't get me wrong — the cognoscenti will be there in numbers, as will designers of all stripes. But why even more local business leaders and entrepreneurs from all industries don't tweak their schedules and head to Sarasota for three days puzzles me. Sure, the conference's $795 price tag might seem steep. (Membership in a promotional partner organization, like the Tampa Bay Technology Forum, gets you a $300 discount.) But as anyone who has attended the Summit can attest, it's a reasonable price to pay for an onslaught of insights into cutting-edge business applications of design — from the likes of Google, Microsoft, Adobe and Autodesk, as well as emerging companies you've never heard of — that could reconfigure your relationship with technology.

That said, if you can't make it down to Sarasota, go to CL's Daily Loaf (, where I'll be blogging live from the event.

Three trends where design and technology converge set the context for this year's Summit: the increasing urgency of visual communication, the explosion of social media and the emergence of the mobile phone as the 24/7 computer. Speakers channel those topics through a gamut of perspectives, offering case studies and best practices, as well as philosophical reflections. Designer Franco Lodato describes the creation of an electric car that integrates mobile technology, while lawyer Brent Britton wonders whether a new social order created by open-source technology and self-organizing networks renders the traditional model of a company or representative government out of date. For Monday's opening keynote, Target's Michael Alexin tackles the holy grail of innovation (how to do it, that is). And on Tuesday, both Google and Microsoft take the stage to discuss the future of the Internet.

But some of the conference's most interesting participants may be the cutting-edge Web 2.0 entrepreneurs who haven't reached celebrity status yet. VizThink, for example, generates content and communities around the practice of visual communication; its members — who include designers as well as nondesigners looking to craft a better PowerPoint presentation or reach students with a visual bent — can join the company's online community or self-organize into offline regional groups (or both, if they choose). While much online content is free, paid offerings include webinars with visual communication gurus; offline offerings include conferences like one in San Jose scheduled for early next year.

VizThink — whose CEO, Tom Crawford, speaks at the Summit on Monday — sits at the intersection of two of the conference's focal points: social media and visualization. The latter has been an ongoing concern of the Summit, which will again feature Autodesk's Tom Wujec in the role of "visualization maestro." Throughout the conference, Wujec and a team of Ringling students will summarize the presenters' main ideas in illustrations produced on digital drawing pads. The illustrations, in turn, are intended to help attendees process the conference's avalanche of ideas and retain key points — a technique that suggests a variety of business applications.

"Nobody has time to read a thousand words anymore," says Ringling president Larry Thompson. "[Visual communication] becomes almost a necessity in order to compete."

Which brings me to another premise of the yearly conference: that Ringling's students — of animation, interactive communication and game art, as well as more traditional disciplines — are poised to play a role in shaping the near future of communication technologies. Wednesday's keynote speaker, Phillip Holt of EA-Tiburon — the dream employer for many Florida-based game designers — talks about the booming video and computer game industry ($30 billion in annual revenue globally) and its burgeoning incarnations, from massively multiplayer online games (MMOGs) to Wii bowling in retirement homes.

But not all of the Summit's offerings assume attendees are eager to sit quietly and listen — several sessions offer interactive engagement with presenters, including Wednesday's brainwave technology workshop with RCAD alum George Pierson, founder of Creative Mindflow. Pierson, who studied illustration at Ringling and previously worked for the Discovery Channel, specializes in inducing spontaneity and creative response through a combination of meditation and biofeedback techniques. While the concept might sound like something out of science fiction, Pierson's research is conducted with scientific rigor and bears concrete results, Thompson says.

While I doubt Creative Mindflow's techniques will replace my habitual remedy for the creative doldrums — i.e., coffee — anytime soon, Wednesday's brainwave workshop promises to be one of the conference's hot tickets. Join me online next week to learn more.

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