Good Experience Live 2006 Was Brilliant
I was in New York last week, attending the Gel Conference. Gel is organized by Mark Hurst and the rest of the team at Creative Good. It's a spectacular two-day conference unlike anything you've ever attended. I describe it to people as a conference that brings together people who create good experiences in fields like art, technology, film, music, etc, with the idea being that you can learn things from disciplines that aren't your own. This description doesn't really do Gel justice though; as Mark tells people, you really have to attend to get the full impact.
The official theme at Gel this year was "hidden potential". Whether it was an impassioned Douglas Rushkoff exhorting companies to Get Back In The Box and serve the fundamental needs of employees and customers, or Geoffrey Canada rebuilding communities in Harlem, all of the speakers found and unleashed hidden potential to create a good experience in the area in which they worked.
For me, an underlying second theme of the conference was the importance of having fun. Many of the speakers were obviously following their passion, and were having fun every day doing what they were doing. Some created fun experience for others, and some were driven to create fun experiences by being kept down by The Man for too long.
The first day of the conference I attended a Sacred Spaces tour, hosted by Scott Berkun. Scott took the group to several churches, Grand Central station, and Strawberry Fields (the John Lennon Memorial) in Central Park. For me, the interesting take-away from this tour was the how designers created environments that triggered certain social cues, and how those cues affect behavior. For example, many churches are built so that conversations in "outside voices" would echo throughout the church, so tones become hushed while in a church. When new people come into a church, they take the cues from the people in the church and talk in the same hushed tones.
The second day went from 8a until 7:30p, and started with a murder's row of speakers comprising Rushkoff, Craig Newmark, video game designer Jane McGonigal (she did I Love Bees), and author Seth Godin.
There were very few low points during the day, and I will summarize the high points for me, here:
- Rushkoff. I've dog-eared just about other page in his incredible book, which rails against general management practices (he cites GAP hiring a former Disney manager who proudly states that he knows nothing about making clothes on the first day of his new job), encourages companies to go deeper instead of broader, to fix the fundamentally broken services instead of trying to market a service that doesn't work, and espouses following your passion in order to make a great product. At Gel, Rushkoff nicely summarized his book in a fiery 20 minute speech.
- Newmark spoke about his experiences creating Craigslist and how the company is run according to what users want.
- McGonigal spoke about building her latest real-world game, which is set in a real cemetery. It was fascinating to hear about the design decisions she made to create a positive, inoffensive experience.
- Godin described seven reasons experiences stay broken by firing through hilarious slides of broken experiences that should all belong on This Is Broken. Godin is entertaining and knows how to work a crowd; if you haven't seen his brilliant presentation at Google, it's highly recommended.
- Marc Salem can read body language like most of us read books. At Gel, he had five people draw pictures that he couldn't see, then matched up the first four with their authors by reading their body language, and guessed the contents of the last picture. Really crazy, interesting stuff--it reminded me of Paul Ekman's work on reading facial expressions. There's a crazy clip of Salem in the far-right column here.
- Cathy Salit, CEO of Performance of a Lifetime, teaches leadership and team-building through improv. She made the great point that acting allows an individual to try different ways of doing things without violating others' expectations of them; when you're acting, you're supposed to be different from how you usually are. Plus, improv is fun, and fun is often missing from corporate life.
- Ji Lee was a Creative Director at an ad agency in New York, and founded The Bubble Project after his brilliant ad pitch to Cheerios about their five different flavors ("Only the holes taste the same") devolved into a 45 minute discussion about the difference between taste and flavor. In reaction, a fed-up Lee said screw it--he got a huge cheer from the Gel crowd as he recounted this part of the story--and printed out thousands of empty speech bubble stickers to stick on print ads around New York City. It was his way of bringing fun back to advertising, and he succeeded: people filled out the speech bubbles with lines that were poignant, hilarious, raunchy, or all of the above (examples can be seen on the site linked above). The participatory ads turned corporate monologues into public dialogues, and made them more engaging at the same time.
- Geoffrey Canada, of the Harlem Children's Zone, got the only standing ovation of the day. He is working to rebuild communities in Harlem by building a network of charter schools and support programs to help kids develop into responsible adults from birth through the completion of college. Canada is a tall, distinguished, black man who talks with a Bronx accent, paces the stage, and speaks eloquently and with great rhythm and pacing about his cause. During the talk, you could have heard a pin drop. From a strictly numbers perspective, four simple figures make his case compelling: in the USA, 21% of black males under 25, and 60% of black males under 30, have spent time in prison. Given that it takes $60k per person per year to incarcerate someone in New York, and that he requires a little over $3k to put a child through school for a year, and all of a sudden the return on investment of putting a child through school makes a hell of a lot of sense. I was talking to conference producer Dawn Barber before the conference, and she said that Canada would blow the crowd away. She was right--Canada's presentation was perhaps the most powerful of the day.
- Rick Smolan, the photographer who produced the America 24-7 project, told the story of how his best friend Gene (who I had lunch with that day) adopted the orphaned young daughter of an American GI and South Korean woman that Smolan had run across in his travels. It is a beautiful and heart-wrenching story, and it was all I could do to avoid ending up in tears as the day wrapped up. I think the book will be called something like "Natalie's Story", so keep an eye out for it.
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