Few things—except, perhaps, Apple computer products and Moleskine notebooks—have been embraced by designers of all stripes so quickly and universally as Pecha Kucha Night has. In just four years, the presentation and networking event has spread from its first meeting in the Tokyo office of Klein Dytham Architects to well-attended, routinely held gatherings in more than 100 cities around the globe.
Appealing to the attention-deficient intellectual in everyone, Pecha Kucha Night (PKN, for short) speeds up and democratizes the normally slow and autocratic essence of the speaker's lectern. The premise that creators Mark Dytham and Astrid Klein devised for Pecha Kucha—Japanese for “the sound of conversation” and pronounced peh-CHAK-cha—is simple: Give people a venue to talk about their work, and give them time to do it. Just not a whole lot of time.
Conceptually, the event owes itself to one of the most banal computer-era practices: the PowerPoint lecture. But two rules, which are strictly enforced, make PKN something entirely different. Rule No. 1: Presenters must show 20 slides; no more, no fewer. Rule No. 2: Presenters have only 20 seconds to talk about a slide before the next one appears. Thus, unlike standard conferences and lectures, where speakers may wantonly disregard suggested time limits, PKN presentations move forward, with or without the speaker.
And they move quickly. At six minutes and 40 seconds long, even a boring presentation becomes tolerable. The format's unforgiving cadence can disarm any speaker, no matter how polished, which adds to the informal spirit of the event.
Considering the global sensation it has become, PKN had modest, almost accidental, beginnings: Klein and Dytham, partners in life as well as in business, started it as an improvised way to occupy a new events space.
Founded in Tokyo in 1991, Klein Dytham had maxed out its office space, known as Deluxe, by early 2003. The architects moved into a larger building and aptly dubbed it SuperDeluxe. But it was not just business as usual spurring the growth. True, the firm was expanding dramatically, but its off-hour get-togethers had become the stuff of local legend, with up to 400 people showing up for parties, events, and fashion shows. So, as part of the move, the firm acquired a large space specifically for multimedia events. Dytham explains: “We went from having four to five events each month to the potential of having 30 events per month, so we had to invent an event for our event space.”
Enter Pecha Kucha.
After a trip to Costa Rica, Dytham wanted to show people the photographs he took, and he wanted to give others an opportunity to participate and give their own presentations. “But,” he notes, “you can't give an architect a microphone on something they're interested in, because you'll end up sitting there for a very long time.” So he and Klein chose to limit the number of slides and the time allotted for each slide. The event was set to happen on the 20th of the month, so, as Dytham says, “Why not use 20? For the number of slides and seconds spent on each one.”
At 8:20 p.m. on March 20, 2003, 140 people showed up at SuperDeluxe for the first-ever PKN. The event quickly took off, and Klein Dytham has held 10 per year ever since, with attendance now hovering around 300.
But Tokyo was just the beginning. When Klein visited Bern, Switzerland, in November 2004, she organized a Pecha Kucha event there, successfully establishing a European outpost. Then, in the summer of 2005, London's Institute of Contemporary Arts held a PKN, which became the fastest-selling event in the institute's history. San Francisco–based architect Paul Jamtgaard, who had attended one of Klein Dytham's nights in Tokyo, organized one in California in collaboration with designer Alberto Villarreal. By the end of 2006, PKN had spread to more than 20 cities. It has now gained traction in more than 100, from Buffalo to Bangalore, from Portland (Maine and Oregon) to Prague, in venues as diverse as schools, churches, prisons, swimming pools, and supermarkets.
Intended to provide young designers with a venue to show their work, it has been taken up quickly by architects, landscape architects, and urban, graphic, and industrial designers. At times, luminaries have been invited to participate; architects Rem Koolhaas and Toyo Ito and product designer Tom Dixon are among the initiated.
Organizers speak of the event with a sort of evangelical conviction. There is no direct financial incentive—though the networking and educational value is certainly worthwhile. It seems to be done mostly as a labor of love.
“One of the key, key things is that we see this as a social network, a real proper network,” says Dytham, who compares PKN to online networks. “You come to a physical space to meet designers and architects, you can hear people laughing, and someone's got a beer in his hand when you're presenting.
“Things go from boring to alive,” he says.
However, “if someone wanted to, they could come along and do 19 slides, 19 seconds,” says Dytham. To prevent this, he and Klein give those who organize officially sanctioned PKN events a space on the event's website, www.pecha-kucha.org. Organizers agree to use the official name and graphics for PKN in new cities. That, along with the networking potential of the event itself, has thus far been enough to maintain control of the brand. Everything is organized through the Klein Dytham office and settled over a handshake, a phone call, or an e-mail.
November was an important month for Pecha Kucha, and for Klein Dytham. For Tokyo's Design Week—held the first week of November—more than 2,000 enthusiasts crowded into a space at Japan's National Stadium for the biggest PKN meeting in the firm's history. Not ones to slow down, the architects also announced a 176-page selfpublished book, Pecha Kucha Night: A Celebration.
At the beginning of 2008, Klein and Dytham will be rolling out the Pecha Kucha Night Foundation. “We're in over 100 cities now, so there's a lot of power there, just in terms of numbers,” says Dytham.
“Since we've started,” he explains, “there have been three-quarters of a million slides shown at PK nights around the world. We'd like to use that power for something helpful.” Nothing has been finalized, but the architects are considering charging a slide tax, whereby presenters would pay $1 per slide. Proceeds would then be disbursed to as-yet-undetermined causes.
But Dytham and Klein would be the first to admit that PKN is not something to be read about in a book or magazine or browsed online. In keeping with the event's social spirit, Pecha Kucha Night is meant to be experienced firsthand. And chances are, you won't have to travel all that far to find one.