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RapidBlog: AIGA West Michigan takes design-centric spring break

From Grand Rapids to Iceland, local designers traveled for good food, design events, and creative inspiration. Gwen O'Brien was along for the ride, and she shares what one design community can learn from another about politics, education, and sustainability.
What happens when you get a group of local designers traveling together to a remote country for a design conference? The trip of a lifetime—Iceland!
AIGA West Michigan, the local chapter of the Professional Association for Design, first traveled together for a long weekend trip to NYC last year, and it was that trip that planted the seed for an even more ambitious adventure which we called Spring B’Reykjavik.
AIGA WM Design for Good Director Kate Hunt had been to Iceland previously and heard about Design March—Reykavik’s nearly weeklong festival celebrating all types of design (from architecture to food to furniture) featuring work by local design professionals and students. It also included a day filled with Design Talks, which brought together rock stars like fashion legend Calvin Klein, Robert Wong, Chief Creative Officer from Google Creative Lab, and Mikael Schiller from Acne Studios, among others.
Thanks to Iceland’s remote location, just getting there took a bit of effort. Most of us traveled from Grand Rapids to Chicago, then Toronto to Reykjavik. We were greeted by an almost lunar landscape filled with glaciers, mountainous vistas and lava rock formations. Their efficient and affordable Flybus ferried us to Kex Hostel—our uber-hipster lodging in downtown Reykjavik, right near the water. We arrived extremely tired but had a bite to eat and headed down for a soak in one of their local geothermal pools. (Because of the high concentration of volcanoes in the area, Icelanders use geothermal energy for almost 90% of their heating and hot water needs.) The best part was sitting in a hot pool, outside, with the snow gently falling on our faces. Icelanders know how to embrace the cold!
As a vegetarian, I thought that it would be difficult to find healthy choices, but that simply wasn’t the case (unless you had your mind set on one of their famous hot dogs—Icelanders love hot dogs.). Gló Restaurant was my spot to sneak away to when I got the chance—the restaurant offered green juices, raw food, and super fresh vegetarian dishes.
Before Design March started, we toured the Golden Circle, looping from Reykjavik into central Iceland and back. The big three stops included the national park Þingvellir, the waterfall Gullfoss (meaning "golden falls"), and the geothermally active valley of Haukadalur, which contains the geysers Geysir and Strokkur. Though Geysir has been inactive for a long time, Strokkur, on the other hand, continues to erupt at 5-10 minute intervals. We climbed to the top of one mountain for some big photo ops before heading back down. At the end of the tour, we capped it off with another round of bathing with friends at an area spa.
At the opening ceremony of Design March, a couple of us had the pleasure of meeting the President of Iceland, a man that everyone in Iceland seems to know on a first name basis. (Little known fact: Iceland is super progressive on many things, but particularly women’s issues. Iceland has the honor of having the world’s first democratically elected female head of state, Vigdís Finnbogadóttir, and ranks first globally for equal pay between women and men—five years running.)
Later in the week, Elysia Syriac, AIGA Colorado President, invited AIGA WM board member Kelly O’Hara and me to speak with a group of local design educators, “Inspiring the Next Generation of Designers,” at the Fulbright Commission. Not surprisingly, all of the educators were women, and they were facing very similar challenges to what we have been dealing with in Grand Rapids—the drain of talent, narrow focus of students, struggle to preserve quality craft, and communication issues across schools and between teachers and students. With so much solid design and rich history, I was surprised to hear our struggles were so similar.
The rest of the week was filled with walking tours, fashion shows, gallery tours, design center visits, a backstage tour of Harpa, a designed Order-to-Effect dinner, lots of food, dancing, horseback riding, visiting the Blue Lagoon, and touring local design hot spots.
One highlight was an invitation to the U.S. Embassy in Reykjavik, where we were greeted with a cardboard cutout of President Obama! We all took selfies and promptly posted them. We also had the chance to mingle with some of the speakers from the Design Talks, including Robert Wong, who confided that Google’s ads are all about eliciting an emotion. They want the audience to feel and connect with them.
Overall, it was an amazing trip. It was unique because we’re all designers, traveling without our significant others, with the commonality of being involved in a really kickass AIGA chapter, talking design across the world. We came with an open mind and a very Icelandic attitude of “Þetta reddast” or “Don’t worry. It’ll be all right.” And it was. Fantastic!
Kudos to Molly Crist at Onward Travel, who organized the trip on behalf of AIGA West Michigan, and my other travel companions, including Kate Hunt, John O’Neill, Kelly O’Hara, Maria Bologna (AIGA Detroit), Brian Edlefson, Rich Evenhouse, Kara McNabb, and Abby Peters.

In addition to opening Plenty with Dottie Rhodes in 2003, Gwen O'Brien is also the president of AIGA West Michigan and past president of Kendall College of Art & Design Alumni, where she earned a BFA in Graphic and Interior Design. Gwen was invited to take part in AIGA’s 2011 Alabama Design Summit, the inaugural committee of Design Michigan, and West Michigan Design Archives. In her rare moments of downtime, you can find her cooking, learning photography, and rocking out to Duran Duran, because there’s no shame in 80s music.

Images courtesy of Gwen O'Brien and Kate Hunt.
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