Q&A: Chris Livaudais, Executive Director of IDSA
In January, Chris Livaudais became interim executive director of the Industrial Designers Society of America (IDSA). It’s a job for which Livaudais is well-suited, having been a member, advocate, and community leader of IDSA for more than 15 years.
A graduate of Auburn University, Livaudais began volunteering for the Atlanta chapter of IDSA in the early 2000s, working his way up to become the Southern District chair. During this time, he also worked as an industrial designer for HOBBS Architectural Fountains in Atlanta, then as creative director of the design firm InReality, eventually moving to San Francisco with the company. More recently, Livaudais has worked as a senior design consultant in the Bay Area.
This summer, we caught up with Livaudais to discuss his new role at IDSA, as well as changes within the organization—including a revamp of the annual International Design Conference (IDC), to be held September 19-22, 2018 in New Orleans.
appliance DESIGN: When you accepted the role of executive director for 2018, did you have certain goals in mind that you wanted to accomplish?
Chris Livaudais: I did, but only in the sense that I’ve been a member for so long, and I’ve been on the board of directors as well. I’ve held every volunteer position within the organization that’s available, and I’ve seen the organization from all sides through that. So, I did have ideas, but they weren’t formalized into a plan just yet. That’s what we’ve been working on this whole year: developing a strategic plan that has input from myself, from the board, and from the staff. And those ideas aren’t always groundbreaking. Sometimes, it’s just focusing and making sure our email communications are as clean and simple as can be. It’s not always about moving mountains. Sometimes, small things can have a big impact.
Our database runs on an association management system that, for a long time, wasn’t working the way it should. Before I started as executive director, a plan had been in place to launch a new system. The staff was already working on that at the IDSA headquarters office [in Arlington, VA], so I just jumped in and helped navigate the last six months of launch.
In May, we launched that system, and now it’s easier for members to run transactions with us: renewing a membership, buying a membership, buying tickets to events, and things like that. It also allows for a connection between members that we haven’t had in the past: to find people who are in your chapter and connect with them, and for members to write messages to each other and find people who have similar interests. We hope that this new digital platform allows for a different kind of connection that also strengthens the value of membership. The new system helps us on the back-end—many of the folks at our headquarters use it daily to run reports and do their jobs—but it also has that front-end piece, where users can interact.
A more glamorous success story would be the new International Design Conference. The launch of the IDC website was also a big success for the headquarters staff, because it’s the first conference we’ve built out a separate brand for. We’ve also done a significant amount of work in changing up the format of the conference itself. It’s been in the works for almost three years now and it’s great to finally see it come to light.
AD: When we met at the IDSA South District Design Conference in March, you talked about how the 2018 IDC will be more inclusive, welcoming different types of designers and industries that work with industrial designers.
CL: Yes. It’s a conference that’s put on by IDSA; but publicly, and first and foremost, it’s the International Design Conference. So, IDSA is almost taking a second tier, as far as an information hierarchy. The thinking there is that in the past, since it’s a conference that’s put on by our membership, it’s only been attended by our membership. But we think that with the shifts in design and the cross-pollination—and how many teams now are multi-disciplinary—it makes sense for us to have a conference that invites all these different professions and voices to the table, so that we can have a more well-rounded conversation.
The conference has what we’ve been calling an ID-out focus; it’ll still have a bias toward industrial design. But we want to be able to talk about and highlight how UX and ID can work together more effectively, and also how service and ID work together, and how futurist design and ID work together.
AD: This doesn’t seem like a stretch, given the direction of the industry in recent years.
CL: And it’s not like we haven’t done it in the past. If you look through the old speaker lists from the past four or five years, we’ve had UX designers present, and people doing social impact work and social design. It’s just that it hasn’t been to the level we’re trying to do now, as far as the caliber of these speakers.
We’re really making an effort to get the best of the best at this IDC, to celebrate the fact that the reason we’re inviting these people is because industrial designers can learn from them—in the same way they can learn from us about how industrial design works—and highlight the fact that there’s been a convergence of product experience, digital and physical, and industrial designers can’t work in a silo anymore.
AD: These are important relationships that are only going to grow more important moving forward, so that will be great to see. What else can we expect from this year’s conference?
CL: We’ve changed the format so the actual conference is two days, where before it was three and a half sometimes, based on feedback that past conferences were too long. So, we’re condensing it; not in the sense that we’re trying to cut things out, but in actually making what we have that much more valuable.
The conference will be bookended by the International Design Excellence Awards (IDEA) gala and ceremony—a celebration of the very best in industrial design—at the beginning, and the Education Symposium at the end. The [fourth, full day] is not just for educators, because we would like everybody to stay for it. But educators will have a focus to present papers and talk about the academic world of industrial design, because they’re grappling with the same sort of challenges that we are: the convergence of digital and physical, and the shifting definition of industrial design.
The format is new, and so is the venue. Instead of a hotel, we’re in this really interesting, open space called the Sugar Mill, which is quite different than what we’ve done in the past. And, of course, we have John Maeda and Debbie Millman as emcees. We specifically asked them to be part of this because they are two luminaries in design. Debbie, in the branding world and into the arts space, has a massive following. She’s a big advocate for design. And then you have John, who’s coming at it from a technical standpoint. He’s big into the software side, into universal design and being very inclusive. We thought by having John and Debbie on as emcees, that they could help highlight those outer areas of industrial design and also be a bridge between. If I’m sitting in the audience, and I’m doing industrial design, to hear from John and Debbie about how their work relates to what I’m doing—I think it’s a great educational piece.
We’re also having what we’re calling pile-ons. These will be extra activities that will be meant to get you out to the city, because New Orleans is an amazing place to visit. These activities will be peripheral to the conference and encourage networking, to get out and see something interesting, and to experience the city in a way, hopefully, that you haven’t before.
AD: Moving forward with IDSA, what challenges do you think still need to be overcome?
CL: As a 50-year-old organization, you can imagine that we’ve done many things over that time that are in response to or out of a request from membership. We have a lot of different programs and initiatives that are underway. Some of them have come and gone over the years, legacy-type programs; some of them we still do, but maybe it’s a bit half-hearted; and some have gone by the wayside. So when I talk about focusing, it’s really about taking an open and honest look at the programming we’re offering to our membership and to the community, eliminating the clutter, and offering a core set of values and a core set of programs that align very closely with our pillars, as we call them—education, advocacy, community, and information—and also aligning our programming to those pillars in a very clear and simple way. That means getting rid of some programming that may be dated, or finding a way to reinvigorate them.
Through that is realizing and embracing the fact that the industrial design community is our audience, not just our membership. Of course, we want you to be a member, but we think there are other ways that we can provide value to the community. That’s through our chapter events that are attended by members and non-members alike, our website, INNOVATION magazine, and the IDC. We want to make sure that all of those touchpoints are up-to-date, relevant, and putting out a current message and information that a modern industrial designer would want to know, read, see, and be a part of.
It sounds kind of cheesy, but I do fundamentally believe that the organization, and the connections and the community that we have, can help change people’s lives and help direct people’s careers. It’s exciting to be a part of that.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.