Listen to the Best of SPAN 2017

Highlights from our Design Notes podcast recorded live from SPAN Pittsburgh last year

As we gear up for SPAN 2018 in Helsinki, we wanted to take a moment to look back on some memorable insights from SPAN 2017. Last year’s event in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania brought together a mix of multi-disciplinary creators asking nuanced questions about what it means to have a contemporary design practice. Topics were varied, but a throughline emerged—the fascinating, ever-evolving, alternatingly fraught-and-fantastical connections between humans, technology, and design.

We invited Longform co-host Aaron Lammer to help us delve a bit deeper and record interviews with a handful of our speakers for our Design Notes podcast. The following four excerpts represent a range of what we learned at SPAN PGH—like why gamifying language lessons is the surest bet for making them stick; the surprising (or not so surprising!) connection between architecture and the nascent field of AI; the importance of gathering a solid squad to attack weird and wild and wide-open creative briefs; and how to make an emotional bond with a one-ton industrial machine.

Luis von Ahn went from programming an 8-bit PC in Guatemala, to inventing CAPTCHAs at Carnegie Mellon University, to co-founding Duolingo, the wildly popular education and language app.

On his mother giving him a Commodore 64 instead of the original NES as a child: “Unfortunately, I didn’t have very many games, and I didn’t have very many people that I knew that also had games to share, so I started trying to figure out how to make my own.” On DuoLingo’s approach to keeping students motivated: “Our inspiration really, was games. We very early on realized if we want to teach something to somebody over the Internet, the biggest problem was staying motivated.” Listen to Design Notes, Episode 4

Molly Wright Steenson is a writer, designer, and researcher. Her book, Architectural Intelligence, explores the direct relationship between architecture and AI, which might seem worlds apart, but are both truly “about building worlds.”

On what connects architecture and AI: “All technologies need an interface for people or even programmers to understand them, and architecture was one of the first places where those interfaces developed.”

On AI’s history: “What I hope is that people realize that these [modern AI] ideas have long histories—it's really some 70 years of computing and some of these ideas are centuries old. We just [now] have the technology.”

Listen to Design Notes, Episode 6

Nathan Martin and his colleagues inhabit what he describes as a “nebulous” space that defies easy definition at Deeplocal, an advertising and marketing “innovation studio.” This is where his band of problem-solving specialists invent big, attention-getting campaigns for multiple audiences: IRL, and those who “live online.”

On the importance of talking to your team members: “As long as we have really good communication, there are a lot of ways to correct a problem in the middle of a workstream. When people are talking and not just doing their piece of the work, you never get to a point where you put it together and it doesn't work.”

On learning over expertise: “I don't put huge stock in specific technical skills. People that thrive working with me are those who want to learn, who want to be challenged, and who are okay with a subjective goal.”

Listen to Design Notes, Episode 8

Madeline Gannon is known as the “robot tamer.” The skill is a brilliant asset at ATONATON, her Pittsburgh-based research studio; it’s there that she programmed Mimus, an industrial robot outfitted with sensors that establish—and bring out—its curious personality.

On designing more intuitive interactions: “Today, if you have a really cool robot and it has to work with people, you slap a screen on it and maybe it has some eyeballs that look at things. To me, that’s a missed opportunity to explore the natural lifelikeness of this thing that can act in the world. We interact with things in daily life, like our pets, that don't look like us, but we can communicate with them in a really intuitive way. We can negotiate with one another in a shared space and enjoy each other’s company.” Listen to Design Notes, Episode 11

Stay tuned for our next installments from SPAN 2018, coming soon! Catch designers from Google and other creative spheres as they examine the dark side of future tech; discuss design as a means to make extraordinary dining experiences; talk livable smart homes; and share what it takes to build a relationship with a humanoid robot.