Hopscotch Design Festival
Sept. 3 and 4

If you’re a hardcore design head—architectural or digital, graphic or urban—then the new Hopscotch Design Festival, a collaboration between Hopscotch Music and Raleigh design firm New Kind, is a no-brainer. Following the music festival’s example, it brings more than 25 events with 36 local and national design leaders—from fields as diverse as video games, music and sustainable transit—to a walk-able spread of venues in downtown Raleigh.

But for the casual observer, who is asked to pay $150 (or $75 as an add-on to a Hopscotch Music wristband) for two days of design talks in the middle of the work week, the attraction is less obvious. And while most people know what a music festival is, what is a design festival anyway?

We reported on the origins of Hopscotch Design when it was first announced in March. Now, as it prepares to kick off Wednesday and Thursday (tickets are still available), we sat down at The Federal in Durham with cofounders Greg Lowenhagen, the majority owner of Hopscotch, and Matt Muñoz, chief design officer of New Kind, to answer some of our lingering questions.

INDY: What was the rationale behind adding another festival to Hopscotch?

Greg Lowenhagen: We had no grand design to add anything, but you’re always curious about what you can do next. I was meeting with city councilors and starting to take a more city-wide view. When I heard from Councilwoman Mary Ann Baldwin that Matt [Muñoz] and Jonathan Opp from New Kind were thinking about doing a design day or two, we met for coffee and started talking about it. If we were going to do something different, it had to be something personally interesting because of the time and effort it takes. And the secondary thing is, does it work financially, is it going to hurt us, is it too odd of a brand fit? All of those answers came out to, “Let’s do this.”

INDY: How did it fit the brand? Hopscotch is a young music festival, and if you’re going to add a sub-festival, the most obvious candidates are things people are already familiar with—a film festival or even a tech fest, which people have the SXSW precedent for.

GL: Those have been pitched to us. But when I think of Raleigh I don’t think of film. It’s done really well elsewhere, including here in Durham, which has Full Frame. And we have a nice tech component to Design and that will continue to grow. But there’s the Internet Summit in Raleigh. As you mentioned, SXSW has Interactive, which is the preeminent one nationally. There are a lot of tech conferences. I think people might be tired of talking about tech in its own column.

I like the Design piece because it’s broad, the way we program Hopscotch; it offers the ability to learn a little bit from a lot of different people in different fields who are really good at what they do, whether it’s architecture, graphic design, music, film, food, manufacturing. What are they making; how are they doing it? That’s really relevant in growing global cities—in Asia, in the Middle East and here. Raleigh’s one of those, Durham’s one of those, Carrboro’s one of those. We think Hopscotch Music really fits because it’s community-based first. Design is an integral component of cities here and it’s becoming more so, and we want to produce an event for those folks.

Matt Muñoz: There’s such an amazing design community around here. It’s not always about being a professional as an architect or graphic designer or urban planner. It’s people who have a way of thinking about their vision and putting it into action. Entrepreneurs, start-ups. The mayor’s State of the City address was about how Raleigh is on the top of so many lists because of intentional, thoughtful design. That’s one of the fundamental ways we think about design: It’s creation with intent. We wanted to bring people who are doing those things together to cross-pollinate ideas.

INDY: I definitely see how the concept of design fits Raleigh. What I’m curious about is how it fits a festival model. What makes this a festival for a general audience and not a trade show for specialists?

MM: With a trade show, it’s usually a conference environment. You’re in one location and you have very specific trade-oriented things you’re doing. This is sort of a mash-up. There are elements of a design conference, because we’ve got speakers. But play is such an integral part of creating something. It can open the mind up. That’s why the Hopscotch Music model is such an interesting, unique thing. You can jump around, discover new music. It might be bands on the international stage or bands in your back yard. But it’s this really casual, bouncing-around experience. We thought, “How can we create something that provides the same level of inspiration, networking, parties, fun?”

GL: What makes it a festival is what makes Hopscotch Music a festival. It’s an opportunity for somebody, whether they’re a professional designer or a casual architecture fan or a tech dabbler, to see all these people in one place. If you’re out in San Francisco, you might catch a couple of shows or a talk. The music festival costs $150 for three days, and there’s a chance that you might see more shows than you see in the next six months or year. This is the same with Design. You can’t dedicate a ton of time to TED Talks online, but here you have the ability to see an amalgamation of these folks over two days. It isn’t just academic, it’s a social thing.

INDY: I did wonder if TED Talks were a good point of reference here—big ideas talks?

GL: I watched 30 of them on Netflix that were design-oriented this year, but I did it in my bedroom. Doing it at CAM with 200 other people, or with 40 people at a cool, intimate space like Flanders Gallery, and being able to talk to people when it’s over? It’s just different from reading their book.

MM: It’s not a formal conference where it’s like, “You can’t come into this room.” You’re going to be walking around on the same streets as the speakers whose ideas you’ve just fallen in love with. You’re able to talk to them and ask them questions. We’ve got Elle Luna on Twitter communicating with attendees in Raleigh, already talking about getting together. That’s not the usual conversation.

GL: That doesn’t really happen at music festivals either. There’s a conversational piece to this that’s really cool. I think there’s going to be a certain informality. The simple answer of why we don’t call it a conference is: What does a conference connote in your mind?

INDY: Boring.

GL: Boring. But this is going to be fun. There was no consideration of ever calling it a conference or expo or summit. It’s a festival, people gathering in venues.

MM: But beyond being a festival, it’s about ongoing education and discovery and curiosity. One of the things we’re still working on is, for example, AIA architects getting credits for coming. It’s serious play.

INDY: Did you ever consider putting it all in one space or bundling it with Hopscotch Music entry to get people in for the first year?

MM: That was a part of some earlier conversations. But one of the elements of the Hopscotch experience is that you’re jumping around, so that was quickly off the table. And we’ve done some add-ons where you can buy a Design pass for $75, but that’s as integrated as we could get it for the first year.

INDY: Any sense of who is buying these tickets, whether its predominantly people who are in the design world or laypeople?

GL: There’s no metric for that yet. My sense is that, as you’d expect, a lot are designers, but there are indications that there are lots of other people too. We set the capacity at 600 each day. We have already hit our target for how many people we thought might add Design for $75. They could be designers who also have music passes, but I get the sense they might be, as you said, laypeople—non-designers who are interested in experiencing another piece of Hopscotch.

INDY: Is it important to you to reach laypeople or is it OK just being for designers?

MM: We’re OK with however it settles out this year, of course. But whether you’re a teacher creating a classroom with round desks to have more conversation, or a fashion designer, you’re both doing the same thing. There’s a certain amount of courage and creativity and grit that goes into creating an idea.

GL: I think that’s where our growth will come first—the design community, people who are on teams at local firms. But I think eventually it does reach a wider audience because it’s going to be interesting and spread word-of-mouth, the way Music did. Part of the charm of Hopscotch is freedom of choice. You spent your hard-earned money for your wristband and feel empowered to say, “Cool, they gave me 12 different choices for this time slot.” That’s the beauty of it. I think with Design, it’s going to work the same way. We’ll see this week.

MM: You choose your own adventure; we’re just providing the grid. Our partners, like Joule and Morning Times and Five Star—you go to these places and bring your badge and get drink specials, so we start to create some gravitation to these spaces for this community, and the conversation continues.

GL: The diversity of interest in Music attendees has led us to believe there’s the same diversity of interest in Design attendees. We don’t funnel you toward one stage and you don’t have to sit through something if you’re not interested. Large festivals usually pen you in and you’ve got to buy their beer and food. Here, you can get up halfway through a talk, or catch parts of three in one time slot. But three rooms won’t be empty while one has every attendee in it.

MM: That freedom of choice also extends to the speakers. We haven’t told them what they have to talk about. We’ve chosen them because we think they’re a cultural and intellectual fit. We want to know what they’re working on now, what they want to share with people.

INDY: What kinds of things can people expect besides talks?

MM: You’ve got the interactive Hopscotch Lab. And we partner with the Jamie Hahn Foundation for a “Designing a Better Food System” lunch after two keynotes on Wednesday morning.

GL: We’ve got a concert on Wednesday at Lincoln Theater, Lost in the Trees and Gross Ghost. That’s just a Wednesday-night cut-loose party. After a full day of listening, learning and talking, at some point, you just want to have a cocktail and get a bite to eat.

INDY: In assembling the lineup, did you start with a big wish list, or start with a few people you knew and chase the connections out from there?

GL: Exactly like that. We wanted Rob Cotter from Organic Transit, Pierce Freelon and Apple Juice Kid from Beat Making Lab, Matt Tomasulo in Raleigh—a leader crop doing very interesting things in their fields. But wouldn’t it be neat if they were with people from San Francisco, Austin, Dublin, Chicago, L.A., who work at Pinterest or IBM or do films with Wes Anderson? One difference between booking Music and Design is that Music is a very totalitarian process. [Laughs] We’ll take some suggestions, but we’re pretty close to the vest. With Design, from the outset, we had an advisory committee of influencers in the community. We asked, “Who would you like to see? No guarantees, but we’d love ideas.”

INDY: What binds all these people from different fields together?

MM: Rob Cotter says, “How can we have light sustainable transportation devices?” That doesn’t exist out there, so he’s created it. Matt Tomasulo sees an empty space and says, “What happens if we turn a shipping container into a biergarten?” and it wins a Sir Walter Raleigh Design Award. Sarah Miller Caldicott, who’s channeling Edison, her great-grandfather, is figuring out how to bring people together to invent. They’re all asking, “How do I make this vision happen in whatever field I’m passionate about?”

INDY: What would a win look like for Hopscotch Design, attendance-wise?

GL: We’re probably not going to hit the full-on 600 sell-out cap, but we’re real happy with the numbers right now. We were right, barring any catastrophe in the next week, that it was a measured fiscal risk. It’s definitely not going to damage Hopscotch Music Festival in any way, which was key to me from the beginning. Our expenses aren’t crazy, and if we did sell out, we’d make a good bit of money this year. As it stands, we’re breaking even for certain.

MM: And people are excited about it.

INDY: How do you know they’re excited?

MM: They’re telling us on Facebook and Twitter. We’ve gotten emails from people saying, “Hey, we are so excited to meet Doug Powell, he’s working at IBM and we’ve run a big corporate office, any chance that we could meet?”

GL: Excited to the point where they’re sending me emails for next year’s speakers. You know when you’re getting emails to the “info@” address that there’s interest out there.

INDY: The pitch to design heads is crystal clear to me. What’s your elevator pitch to the layperson, and what are you doing to communicate it to them?

GL: You can’t see this assemblage of thinkers, makers, storytellers and doers in all these different fields under the umbrella of design assembled anywhere else in North Carolina. There’s life lessons for CEOs, midlevel executives, college students, everyone. If you’re a banker, it could still matter to you. Does that mean everyone’s going to come? No, but if it interests you enough once you’ve looked at who the speakers are, you should come.

MM: It’s for the layperson with a particular mindset. “I’m creative, I care about doing things that excite me.” Those people are a sponge for everything, and to them, this is like the best thing ever.

INDY: So you’re casting a broad net, but it’s one that’s going to catch a certain kind of person.

MM: That’s exactly right.

GG: Something I learned in year one of Hopscotch Music is that it’s a mistake to pigeonhole what people are interested in, because you’d be shocked at how diverse people’s interests are. I really have no idea who’s showing up next week, I just know there’s going to be several hundred of them and I expect them to come from all different walks of life.

Look for more in the INDY‘s Hopscotch package in the Sept. 3 issue.