Fan conventions are a thriving industry, full of eye-popping cosplay, celebrity encounters, and enthusiastic meetings-of-minds. But look past the party atmosphere, and you’ll see a robust design-thinking environment, said Georgia Tech College of Design faculty.
From city planning and geospatial analysis, to the cultural implications of costume architecture, to emerging connections between the maker community and industries like industrial design, there’s a lot more happening at a fan convention than anyone attending might realize.
Lucky for the College of Design, one of the country’s largest fan conventions takes place a mere mile away from our classrooms. Dragon Con, a pop-culture fan convention that happens in downtown Atlanta every Labor Day weekend, drew a record crowd of 85,000 this year. Many Georgia Tech faculty, students, and alumni were there, and we took the opportunity to measure the fan convention’s design-related qualities.
The Planning Perspective
Not every city can hold a convention like Dragon Con, said Catherine Ross, the Harry West Professor of City and Regional Planning, and the director of the Center for Quality Growth and Regional Development.
“The capability to accommodate a conference like this, for attendees from all over the world, that’s a really important thing,” Ross said. “It eliminates lots of places that don’t have hyper-connectivity in terms of international air access.”
Atlantans may take that accessibility for granted, she said, but Dragon Con’s attendance – which descends on the city at the same time as the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game attendance, the Decatur Book Festival attendance, and the Atlanta Black Pride Weekend attendance – is reliant on the city’s transportation systems.
“Dragon Con is a twenty-four-hour deal,” Ross said. “It’s not like you go to a game and then it’s over. It’s a series of activities and interactions that are non-stop. And Atlanta is able to be a twenty-four-hour city during this convention.”
The fact that visitors from Paris, France, or Tokyo, Japan, can arrive at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, take our heavy rail system straight downtown, stay in one of the five hotels that house all Dragon Con activities, then eat nearly any type of food they desire at a restaurant within walking distance, helps make the experience of this convention pleasant and worth repeating, she said.
But was the convention any good? Subhrajit Guhathakurta, the chair of the School of City and Regional Planning, and the director of the Center for Spatial Planning Analytics and Visualization has a charming answer.
“Thank you to @DragonCon and the @Atlanta_Police for the increased police presence this weekend during #DragonCon2019. With mass shootings a normal occurrence in this country, I feel safer seeing all the police around downtown, inside and outside the host hotels. #DragonCon”
His research center created an app called “Atlanta's Charming Neighborhoods,” which analyzes geotagged tweets in real-time. Through several filters and algorithms, the app delivers a “charm” rank to Atlanta neighborhoods. And this year, the Center put Dragon Con to the charming test.
“Atlanta showed that it can put on a fantastic party without a hitch,” Guhathakurta said. A view of the Atlanta Charm Map showed that the city’s most charming neighborhoods were around downtown during Dragon Con.
“The tweets were almost all positive. None that we could find indicated issues with safety. The score on walkability was high and no major issues with traffic were apparent from the tweets,” he said. “Mostly, people had a fabulous time.”
The Architecture Perspective
Dragon Con occurs in and around Peachtree Center, a part of downtown Atlanta real estate developed, designed, and constructed by School of Architecture alumnus John Portman. Two of the primary hotels that host the convention are Portman’s landmark works: the Hyatt Regency Atlanta and the Atlanta Marriott Marquis.
These two hotels feature hugely influential atrium design, which, said 2019 Ventulett NEXT Generation Visiting Fellow Vernelle Noel, are critical to the convention’s festival atmosphere.
“It’s about creative expression and play,” Noel said. “In moments of play and having fun, it’s easier to make creative, personal connections in spaces that are siloed. Portman’s atriums have the space to do that.”
Portman probably didn’t consider packing a Carnival-like atmosphere into his atria design, Noel said, but the hotels experience an architectural phenomenon during the fan convention.
“I’ve been thinking a lot about repair through the lens of restoration, remediation, reconfiguration,” she said. “I would place Dragon Con and its relationship with the hotels as one of remediation. The convention brings with it the past of the existing architecture, which hasn’t changed. The purpose of the buildings has not changed.”
“But the way they engage with people and the city at that particular time gives it a new function. Socially, communally, architecturally, spatially, in all these ways, it’s remediated. That’s really interesting,” Noel said.
Not only the buildings Dragon Con inhabits but the costumes paraded at the convention inspire architectural creation, she said.
Wire bending is a craft Noel studies for novel architectural implementations. She taught a class on wire-bending and computation last Spring Semester, with a final project that constructed a pavilion she designed based on wire-bending techniques. The pavilion was submitted to the International Association of Spatial Structures (IASS) conference exhibition and competition and was invited to IASS in Spain this October.
Wire bending is primarily used to make costumes for Carnival celebrations in Trinidad and Tobago, Noel said. Elaborate costumes are a medium for manipulating space, she said, not dissimilar to the way an architect manipulates space with a building.
“I think people always want some way to creatively express themselves. We have to, through costumes or through architecture, that’s a human need,” she said.
“Architects create buildings because it’s a professional practice. These other ways of engaging with materials, and how they create form and shape around a body is interesting. [Costuming is] a way of engaging with all that we learn in architecture, but not forgetting the body.”
The Industrial Design Perspective
This summer, Kevin Shankwiler, undergraduate coordinator for the School of Industrial Design, taught a vertical product development studio to junior and senior students. The course gave students a structured approach to learning creative methods for researching, analyzing, prototyping, and developing new product solutions.
As it turns out, he said, fan conventions and the maker art of cosplay are great ways to teach industrial design processes.
“I see cosplay as a tools and processes problem,” he said. “It's about understanding materials, processes, and expectations. It’s about understanding the level of quality that’s expected in a finished, professional cosplay, the processes for using those materials, and how you design for that. How you build for that.”
This was the fifth year that industrial design students created a BuzzRa project, a School tradition that applies interactive product design to a doll version of Georgia Tech's mascot. The School previously offered a studio which created cosplay for children who use wheelchairs. Their student work was featured in the 2016 Dragon Con parade.
Shankwiler brought his students to a top Atlanta cosplay and movie costume studio, GSTQ Fashions, to learn about cosplay from Catherine Jones.
“It was an eye-opening experience to understand moving beyond classroom prototypes and into a produced thing,” he said. “The level of care, of quality, and the materials and processes she used was a level above what they’ve seen in class. It was an extremely valuable visit.”
For the class, students took a deep dive into fan conventions. They analyzed convention environments, particularly that of Dragon Con. They researched convention attendees, cosplay, and built out concepts that brought design and making to cosplay and Dragon Con. Their class objective was to build a product that connected with the Georgia Tech community attending the convention.
The students created two iterations of the BuzzRa cosplay project, which they brought to Dragon Con 2019. Integrated into the BuzzRa cosplays were themes of convention culture (specifically the viral “Cult of Carpet” and dragon theme costumes), and Georgia Tech know-how (via articulated dragon wings that flapped, thanks to 3D-printed gears and mechanical engineering basics.)
At the convention, students experienced an unexpected bonus to their class project: the cosplays they saw on display inspired maker-specific relevance to their chosen major.
“I think students who participate in maker spaces and maker culture are a good fit for industrial design,” Shankwiler said.
“The maker concept is not new, there have been hobbyist artisans and craftsmen around for hundreds of years. We’ve had shop class in high school, sewing classes, and other types of making-oriented classes. But people branding themselves as makers is what’s new.”
Industrial designers take maker endeavors to a larger production level. “The BuzzRa project bridges the gap between the maker outlook and true, modern production-level design,” Shankwiler said.