Can Hopscotch Design Festival pop the tech-conference bubble? | Arts Feature | Indy Week
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Can Hopscotch Design Festival pop the tech-conference bubble? 

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For the Hopscotch Design Festival, a big step toward growth was to get smaller.

Not that it has less to offer this year than in its debut last fall. It packs more than 30 presenters into the two days leading to the music festival on which it models its venue-hopping format. And it represents fields as diverse as graphic design, engineering, architecture, city planning, fashion, food and filmmaking.

This year, it's simply a shorter hop. The change is more than cosmetic for a festival that is essentially about the ways cities (and Raleigh in particular) are arranged and experienced.

"Last year, we were spread out more like Hopscotch Music," explains Marie Schacht. "This year's footprint is condensed into the Warehouse District to be more walkable."

Schacht is the new director of Hopscotch Design, replacing Hannah Ross. Schacht is a writer at Raleigh's New Kind, where festival co-founder Matt Muñoz is chief design officer.

The consolidation of ties between Hopscotch Design and New Kind makes sense. It's exactly the sort of enterprise—big on ideas, keen on the future—that composes the festival's base. Like its peers, New Kind is fond of words such as "community," "innovation" and "vision." The closest thing its website offers to a menu of services is a "Story" page touting its "community-centric process that empowers people, builds relationships, and solves problems." A Venn diagram portrays its area of expertise as the intersection of "Open Source" and "Design Thinking."

To native speakers of the entrepreneurial argot, this must sound plain as day. But to the casual onlooker, this kind of pie-in-the-sky jargon can be opaque. The layperson has to poke around New Kind's "Projects" page to winkle out that it is, more or less, a branding enterprise.

The exclusive lingua franca of tech and entrepreneurship is the bubble Hopscotch Design must pop if it wants to be more than an industry conference. And mainstream is exactly what it wants to be. All of the changes, whether a revision of something that didn't work last year or an expansion of something that did, center on that goal.

As someone with an eclectic interest in technology and design, however tempered by an allergy to linguistic combinations of the lofty and the vague, I imagine myself to be exactly the sort of curious onlooker Hopscotch Design hopes to draw in. I tell Muñoz that, last year, I was impressed and intrigued, but not entirely sold on the festival's mainstream potential, as I occasionally felt as if I were attending self-promotional corporate pep talks.

"We saw it," Muñoz replies without hesitation. "We call that the dog and pony show." This year, they're taking steps to keep the dogs and ponies out.

Hopscotch Design sold more than 400 passes last year, surpassing its expectations. Though not sold out, it felt lively and crowded. Also notable, to Muñoz, is who some of those people were. Raleigh City Council members and Mayor Nancy McFarlane came to hear Mitchell Silver, the former Raleigh planning director, talk shop with "Walk Your City" mastermind Matt Tomasulo (now running for City Council himself).

"Then we're not just talking about the design of parks," Muñoz says. "We're talking about leaders looking at ideas that will affect Raleigh. It comes out of this abstract space to a place of, 'OK, now what?'"

With sponsorships from Squarespace, MailChimp and IBM—whose Design Studio director, Adam Cutler, is a big draw at this year's festival—Hopscotch Design is keeping a hand on levers of power as it seeks widespread public interest.

"We want this content to be relevant to everybody," Muñoz says. "We know it's not all going to be for everybody, but it's a little bit like this buffet where you go for your favorite and find something that surprises you."

This year, the buffet table itself gets an upgrade. The Raleigh City Museum, problematic last year because of the noise from the elevator and air conditioning, will be replaced by Christ the King Presbyterian Church, giving the festival a second room the size of CAM Raleigh.

And each venue will have its own host and A/V staff to ensure continuity and polish. Muñoz says the presentations will be moderated to create dialogue, steering them "past the dog and pony show."

Schacht says the opening cocktail party was a highlight last year. This year, it turns into a free block party that anyone can attend. The block of South Harrington Street in front of HQ Raleigh will be shut down from 5 to 9 p.m. Sept. 9, with bands, vendors, sponsor kiosks and beer. The party synergizes (uh oh, it's catching) with the Sir Walter Raleigh Awards inside CAM and the Innovate Raleigh Startup Crawl, which will end at the block party.

"A little alcohol is a great social and idea lubricant," Muñoz says. "At design conferences, things can be so buttoned up—you're in one venue and you talk for 10-minute increments between speakers. Density is important for ideas spreading in cities. We're trying to do the same thing on a smaller scale with this party."

Most important, each talk will follow four guidelines to make it relatable. "Show your work, because it makes things visual and tangible," Muñoz says, listing them. "[Demonstrate] thought leadership—not just what your company does or what you do, but ideas that are relevant to the future. Pack your ideas down to one thing the audience can try out in their own practice. And the fourth element is really just conversation."

Creative kleptomaniac Austin - Kleon is the keynote presenter - at the Hopscotch Design - Festival. - PHOTO COURTESY OF HOPSCOTCH DESIGN FESTIVAL
  • Photo courtesy of Hopscotch Design Festival
  • Creative kleptomaniac AustinKleon is the keynote presenterat the Hopscotch DesignFestival.

The choice of Austin Kleon as keynote speaker expresses this philosophy of accessible, actionable inspiration. Kleon is a web personality and best-selling author of books such as Steal Like an Artist: 10 Things Nobody Told You About Creativity. This is the second year that a creative type, rather than a titan of industry, has headlined.

"[Artist and designer] Elle Luna was such an inspiration [last year], looking at the softer, more human, philosophical side of creativity," Muñoz says. "We saw that as a great way to create a common language and be relevant to everybody."

"Austin [also] has that ability to cultivate new ways of thinking and inspire you and remind you why you're doing what you're doing," Schacht adds. "His work is very intentional and disciplined, but it's also playful. It's approachable."

Nothing against Kleon, who is apt to give an engaging presentation, but I have another confession: I am suspicious of creativity gurus. To me, it's like throwing a bridle on a unicorn, turning it into a workhorse. Ideas that emerge from the marketplace inevitably lead back to it in a hermetic loop.

Kleon's philosophy involves freely remixing products of what a fawning blog post in The Atlantic called, with chilling insouciance, the "idea economy." He recently released The Steal Like an Artist Journal: A Notebook for Creative Kleptomaniacs, a workbook filled with quirky exercises.

Some are mini-excursions into Kenneth Goldsmith-like conceptual writing: "Turn on a radio. Switch the station every 10 seconds. Write down everything you hear." Some are pop-therapeutic: "Write down everything you are afraid of. Now cross each one out as if slaying a dragon with a sword." Some are mysterious: "Write a fan letter." (To whom?) "Copy a passage from one of your favorite books. Write as slowly as you can stand." (Why?) And some are just silly: "Fill this page with doodles until you get an idea" and "Draw a shadow."

The notion that these are novel creativity hacks is dubious. "Art is theft," goes the well-known Picasso maxim that serves as the book's epigraph. But it's all in good fun, except when it's not. When Kleon advises baristas to "start tip jar wars," with two example jars labeled "Tupac" and "Biggie," it isn't clear what maximizing tips has to do with creativity, or how humorously capitalizing on two murders is a morally sound way to do so. The line between stealing like an artist and stealing like a thief can blur.

Still, Kleon well represents the festival's ambition to be open, inviting and hands-on. "Everybody's looking for ways to be comfortable with new ideas," Muñoz says. "There's research that shows that everybody is happy with new ideas until they meet one. Steal Like an Artist means its OK to look at what other people are doing and apply that to your own work. You hear Silicon Valley entrepreneurs wanting to be the Uber or Google of blank. That's the people who are stealing like a damn artist."

I ask if Muñoz and Schacht worried that a creative keynote might signal to industry insiders that the festival wasn't for them.

"The people who are our base are architecture, user experience, web design and creative marketing professionals and enthusiasts," Muñoz acknowledges. "Our goal, unabashedly, is that we want to bring this mainstream, so we have to focus on approachability. How is this relevant to teachers? To the mayor who wants to design a city, whether she uses that word or not? To the CEO who knows a little about design thinking because she reads Harvard Business Review? The last thing we want is for this to become a trade show where you walk away with the latest gadget. There are already plenty of those in Raleigh."

Even if I don't drink the Kleon Kool-Aid, he certainly serves that differentiating purpose, and I remain intrigued for Hopscotch Design's second year.


The first Hopscotch Design Festival didn't overtake downtown Raleigh as thoroughly as the Hopscotch Music Festival does, but you didn't have to look hard to notice something stirring. On Sept. 3, 2014, lanyards and wristbands were out in force, though they dangled from a different breed than the tattooed day-drinkers who flock to the music festival.

This was a business-casual crowd in the standard start-up uniform: a conservative yet untucked button-down shirt and expensive-looking jeans, cuffed to show off high-top sneakers in fluorescent colors—the one agreed-upon concession to fashion flamboyance.

The young professionals tapped tablets and phones as they strode from venue to venue, hoping to hear an enlightening talk, network with peers or, perhaps, find an angel investor for an app that was certain to change the world somehow.

The Hopscotch Lab in the Raleigh Convention Center was presented by Asheville company Moog, and a few of its analog synthesizers were set up. As people played them, jagged colors fluxed on video screens. I asked Moog representative Jim DeBardi what was going on.

"A unit converts audio signal into video signal on the cathode monitors," he said. I asked how this fit into the festival's concept. "Just being able to look at things from different angles," he said, "working with something familiar in a new way."

This highlighted the challenge for a festival based around "design." Like another buzzword, "innovation," it's so broad as to encompass almost anything. How to build a coherent experience on a concept that so permeates our lives?

I walked to the far end of the concourse to find Elliott Montgomery's Extrapolation Factory. It wasn't the last time that day I would need to talk to someone for 10 minutes simply to understand (sort of) what he or she did.

The Extrapolation Factory is a design studio in Brooklyn. Montgomery, one of its founders, stood behind a folding table covered with small green cards attached to forms; nearby was another table strewn with discarded consumer electronics. Montgomery patiently crammed what he was up to through my thick skull. This excerpt captures the flavor:

Q: "What is the Extrapolation Factory?"

A: "The premise is taking strategies for thinking about long-term futures that are often used by think tanks, experts and researchers and seeing what happens when we put them in the hands of everyday people. Today we're getting people to look through research developments that might inspire a new understanding of what synthetic biology could do for us in a symbiotic way. Scientists are working on ways to build microorganisms that could secrete biofuels or pharmaceuticals or help us build construction material for Martian structures, or change facets of our personality by living in our guts."

Q: [Long pause] "But what do you do?"

As I eventually gleaned, the idea was that a layperson might have an insight that eludes hidebound specialists. Subjects were asked to "invent" something useful, describing it on the form, drawing a visualization and building a model with old rollers and phone docks.

"You might not know how to create that microorganism," Montgomery said, "but you can envision the purpose or need that might exist. If we put that out in the world, there might be a researcher who says, 'Let's see if we can make that happen.'" I regret failing to ask if this was theoretical or a proven outcome.

After another sweaty trek, I walked down an alley where design firm Clearscapes was hidden like a speakeasy. Inside, Mitchell Silver and Matt Tomasulo were holding a Q-and-A in a well-filled house. Though Tomasulo comes at urban planning from the bottom up and Silver from the top down, they were united by their interest in retrofitting neglected public spaces. Then I walked to CAM Raleigh, which was packed for Pinterest Design Manager Brian Singer.

"I'm rich," he began, drawing laughs. "Filthy rich. My talk is about how to get rich from design." Singer used his conceptual art/Internet meme projects, such as putting pictures of George W. Bush on poop, to illustrate a talk about redefining "rich" around social rather than economic value. There were some sticky insights in the idealistic self-reflection, as when Singer noted how things that were "good"—untouched nature, absence of war, low incarceration rates—were bad for the economy.

I ducked into a small classroom, drawn by the hip-hop bleeding over from the lightly attended Beat Making Lab session. When I returned to Singer's talk a few minutes later, the screen on stage read "FUCK YOU BRIAN" and a Rammstein soundtrack throbbed. (No idea.) He was just returning to his opening promise. The punch line was a video of a mouse repeatedly failing to drag a piece of cheese over a wall. Then IBM designer Doug Powell took the stage, in dark jeans and blazing red sneakers, to tout something called "empathy mapping."

Later, I asked Singer about the artistic bent of his talk. "Honestly, I find the business-y stuff kind of boring, and plenty of people will talk to you about process," he said. "A more emotive story gets people more inspired. 'Rich' depends on how you define it. People say, 'You worked at Facebook so you must be rich.' No, you had to be there five or eight years ago. I'm rich because when you pursue your passions, you find more meaning in your profession."

I don't know how rich Singer is. But it sounds like something a pretty rich guy would say.

This article appeared in print with the headline "Tech, no phobia"

  • Austin Kleon headlines the design festival’s second year in Raleigh Sept. 9 and 10.


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