September 7th, 2012 | by RUTH BROWN Features |

Portland Digital eXperience: Day 1

Aaron Draplin on working for Obama; Dave Allen sticks it to Spotify

pdx
Ritual declaration of self interest: This is Willamette Week's festival. I work for Willamette Week. I was involved in some of the very early planning meetings. I am in no way able to report on this impartially, but I'll do my best, 

It was, we were reminded many times throughout the day, a "beta test."

Portland Digital eXperience—or PDX—the new tech arm of WW's MusicfestNW kicked off at the Leftbank Annex yesterday, and it was certainly not without its technical glitches. 

Day one comprised largely of a series of talks and on-stage discussions with people in the mostly local tech startup and digital worlds. Some belied the still formative and vague nature of the event—business owners talking at length about the minutiae what their businesses do had me wondering exactly who the intended audience was, as entrepreneurs talking shop is rarely interesting to anyone but other entrepreneurs or people in their own niche fields. But others provided glimpses at what could be a promising future as a festival that brings together people from a broad range of creative fields. 

The first such talk was the keynote from graphic designer Aaron Draplin of Draplin Design Co. You may not know the name, but you're probably familiar with his Field Notes notebooks that are sold everywhere from Powell's to J. Crew (you, ahem, may also remember Draplin from this article I wrote about him last year). Draplin is not a tech guy—in fact, his passions skew very vintage—but he had plenty to say to the audience. He's known for his forthright, and usually expletive-laden, opinions, many of which were offered in his hour-long address—which included his life history, a list of likes (his family, sweatpants, America) and dislikes (stacked food, Republicans, when people incorrectly use a quotation mark instead of a double prime) and a montage of his work set to "The Song Remains the Same"—but amongst the (thoroughly entertaining) stories and tangents, a few strong messages emerged: don't just do what you do for the money. 

Draplin had two pretty amazing stories to illustrate his point. 

The first was how the freaking U.S. government asked him to design the logo for the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act and U.S. Department of Transportation’s TIGER program—on three day's notice. A gig, he said, he would never have been called for if he hadn't been free from ties to big design firms and their slow, bureaucratic decision-making processes. He did it, too: literally three days after he was called, here's Obama standing in front of the logo:


The second story was actually more remarkable. It was the story of how he got an email from a guy named John who wanted a logo for his small farm in Illinois for a modest fee. He made the logo, and the two became friends, talking for months via phone and email, before Draplin realized the John was filmmaker John Hughes. He designed several more things for Hughes, including fake business cards for characters from his films (Buck Russell, Del Griffith, etc), which Hughes would leave in taxis and at restaurants for kicks. Most designers, he said, would have turned down the original gig because it didn't pay enough. 

"Say yes more than you say no," he told the audience, the great applause. 

Less rapturously received by the crowd, but no less interesting, was an afternoon panel titled "discovering new music with science," featuring Jason LaCarrubba, a software engineer with Spotify, and Peter Szabo, a the west coast director of ad sales for Shazam. The panel moderator, however, was Dave Allen, the director of interactive strategy at local ad agency North, but better known as the bass player for post-punk band Gang of Four. Allen has spoken out on online music issues before, and he wasn't shy to again, spending most of the session interrogating the men on why their companies weren't doing more to get artists like him a fair share of royalties. Allen said thousands of Spotify streams of his songs had netted him a grand $17. 

Personally, I found the whole exchange thoroughly entertaining, though the rest of the room seemed to be very divided:
Perhaps yes, these questions were better levelled at the company executives, but tech conferences so frequently turn into mutual masturbation sessions, and this proved that bringing in someone from outside the echo chamber can generate great, controversial discussion with appeal for a much broader audience.

The day ended with a "startup crawl," with startup offices across downtown/the Pearl opening their doors to the general public. I confess I only made it to one office, but it sounds like the highlight was at Twitter-based commerce system Chirpify, which had announced earlier in the day that Greenday would be selling its three new albums via the service that evening, and was projecting the sales in real time on its wall. Reportedly, it was selling faster than one every 10 seconds for the first hour. 
 
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