A Newbie’s Day-by-Day Recap of HOW Design Live

By Maureen Adamo

It was amazing. I actually spoke words to Stefan Sagmeister. Not that he’ll remember them (please do see Turrell’s exhibit in Las Vegas if you ever get the chance), but that I could say them at all and that he heard them represents to me the hugeness of the opportunities HOW Design Live presents designers with every year.

This was my first year (and I learned there was such a thing as a Newbie), so I wasn’t fully hip to everything that goes on at #HOWLive. As soon as I hit the Georgia World Conference Center, I was overwhelmed with how much activity there was. It felt like I couldn’t even make a decision about which sessions to attend without inducing a state of FOMO paralysis. There was so much to take advantage of, I didn’t and couldn’t have done it all. I should have spent weeks (maybe just a few days?) in preparation for the non-stop networking, learning, session-trekking, slightly sleep-deprived, laughing, crying, dancing whirl that ensued after I landed in Atlanta.

Day One

Badge me

I’m in line to pick up my ID at 7 a.m. I figured other designers, like me, don’t like to wake up early and I’ll beat the rush — which proved true. I ended up walking the last block from my hotel with HOW champions Julie and Cami, and they’re the first people I met. HOW Champions are those super nice folks who were designated to make sure everyone is having an awesome time, and I loved that people were so invested in the conference right off the bat. I got to be Julie’s first hug, and Cami told me I should never eat alone. Noted.

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photos by Kate Awtrey, Atlanta Convention Photography

HOW Connection

The first person I introduce myself to is also from Las Vegas. Of course I’ll fly across six states and meet someone who works 20 minutes from my house. Stefan Mumaw led us all in an ice-breaker game where we made movie titles by forming groups with other people based on emojis we’ve randomly drawn and wear on our badges. It’s actually pretty challenging to get something good together.

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Front-End Frameworks and “The Death of the Web”

Life is Meals with Molly O’Neil was canceled due to uncontrollable circumstances, and I was bummed because I am especially interested in how designers can help build community and was hoping to pick up some interesting ideas. I chose to sit in on the front-end frameworks session to console myself. I felt simultaneously validated and challenged — which turned out to be a theme for the week — by Brian Lucid’s criticism of the sameness of the web and his plea for designers to push frameworks further instead of allowing them to dictate what the Internet should look like.

Keynotes: Adapting Creativity in the 21st Century and How to Build a Life

Tiffany Shlain invited us to contemplate open-sourcing our creativity, as well as shutting off our technology in a weekly media Shabbat. She also made the case for daydreaming through her video series The Future Starts Here. Then Jonathan Fields of the Good Life Project proposed that happiness has little to do with whether we enjoy our lives and find them fulfilling. Through experimentation, exploration and a summer camp for grown-ups, he developed a process that fast-tracks strangers to deep friendships, because the good life is actually all about connection to other people.

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There’s more?

It’s day one, and I feel like I’ve climbed at least a portion of Mt. Everest. I want to sleep, but I know my marching orders. I’ve heard several times now: You can sleep when it’s over. So I cast a longing glance at my fluffy white hotel bed (hotel bed!), then head out to the LogoLounge party at the top of the Glenn Hotel. I run into Justin Ahrens, and have the pleasure of admitting I missed his session that day (fail! remember how hard it is to choose?). I meet an art director from Denmark, and we discuss whether Scandinavians are born with designer DNA. It’s patently unfair to the rest of us.

Day Two

What Coca-Cola Can Learn from The Beatles

I won’t lie, I love a good Beatles homage. I was pleasantly surprised to find the Coca-Cola talk refreshing at 9 a.m. — no joke. Because aside from laying out a foundation for the artist as the cumulation of the experiences of the people, time, places and events around them  — like sponges that soak up pain, mundanity, confusion and joy and wring out solid gold self-expression — James Sommerville illustrated how anyone can model a brand after the band’s artistic methods, pointing the lens specifically at how the iconic soda is unifying its own brand through experimentation and collaboration.

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The Working Mind and Drawing Hand of Oliver Jeffers

Gary Lynch, whose official title is Vice President/Group Show Director of HOW Design Live, had said in the opening remarks the day before there would be a moment where it clicked for each attendee: “This! This is why I’m here.” I could feel that moment peeking around the corner during this keynote, because I was so in love with Oliver Jeffers’ storytelling. It didn’t even matter if it happened exactly the way Lynch had described it, because I was having such a good time watching how an illustrator moved into writing children’s books and later was responsible for sparking a whole slew of misdirected interior design trends.

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A Force for Change

I think this talk presented my first official Star Wars reference of the conference, but I could be wrong. From Debbie Millman’s epically quoted and noted “light sword” misnomer (I really can’t fault her for not being a super-nerd, sorry) to this session theme, I had no idea it was going to be one of the constants in this year’s conference. Regardless, Lee Maschmeyer invoked both John Ruskin and Darth Vader to propose that the dark side and the light side really need to get along. Like the great myth, creative souls (the light side) can’t run the show without strategy and business (the dark side), or vice versa. We need each other and a balance must be struck in order to save the universe. I enjoyed one question in particular, borrowed from Ruskin, as it applies to things we work on: “What substance will it furnish, good for life?” We must battle, and do it kindly, in order to make products and companies that work better for people.

The Things That Made You Weird as a Kid Make You Great Today

Victore march: There should totally be one. I’m a fan, and have been since I first heard the words “Give ’em hell.” Victore elected not to show his work and instead delivered his message with the same directness and force he shares every week with the designers who write from all over the world with Burning Questions. Fight for the light that’s inside you that’s yours alone. Embrace your inner weirdo.

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Pixels of Fury

To close out the day, a horde of design fans cheered on an amazing never-before tie in PoF history, as well as the creation of what I think was the world’s first, and most definitely illegal, Olympic branded premium liquor Molotov cocktail kit. Good job, guys!

Day Three 

Take the Fork Already

I can be an all-or-nothing kind of gal more often than I’d like to be, so it was a small revelation to me how Scott Boylston laid out the false choice we often believe we have to make when we consider whether to follow passion or profitability. Boylston pursued a professional path that landed him in academia at Savannah College of Art & Design, which eventually gave him the opportunity to fold his interests in sustainability issues into some meaningful and transformative projects that wouldn’t have happened if he’d chosen only one of the paths that lay ahead of him. So do both, he says. When life asks, “This way or that?”, say yes. In other words, when you see a fork in the road, take it. Scott presented the choice in the context of the Japanese concept of ikigai, which measures the fitness of work and its capacity to fulfill you by how much the world needs it, you can be paid for it, you’re good at it, and you love it.

Make Enemies and Gain Fans

I felt like I’d broken myself in to this HOW conference thing and it had started to fit pretty well, especially when I hit the SNASK talk. I don’t even care that the only piece of advice I can clearly remember is based on an accidental cell phone dial to a client during a late-night/early-morning bender: “Don’t mix rock ’n’ roll and professional.” [sic] They bring their own band, and then invite us all to a party.

The Crossroads of Should and Must

I had this book on my Kindle queue, and was again surprised HOW was so prescient for me. Elle Luna listened to her dreams, quite literally, of a white room, which she then found on Craigslist, rented, turned into an art studio, and in it painted all day until she found her way back to an art she’d let die while she pursued her “shoulds.” Speaking with a heart full of romance and passion, Luna asked us to question our own shoulds, those unspoken and automatic rules we are living by without much consideration. She said we need to follow our own passions and abilities, rather than conform to external pressures and expectations. But first, we need to know what it is we’re following and spend some time observing our thoughts and behavior. Even the expectations we think are coming from within ourselves might only be deeply ingrained societal, institutional or familial norms rather than the choices we’d like to live out in our lives.

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Ignite Your Passion Project

Do the side hustle: Four HOWies pitched their side gigs and got advice from design leaders at a panel hosted by Terri Trespicio (part of the Creative Entrepreneur program). It was awesome to see the “pitchers” get validation for their ideas, which included furniture-art, a pattern-making app, virtual reality education programming, and a community platform for designers.

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Day Four

Story building: Using Story to Connect Brands with Humans

I was a furtively sniveling mess in Stefan Mumaw’s two-part session on storybuilding. He told us, “You’re not designers, you’re empaths,” and our empathy was definitely tested as he presented essential elements of story structure through some particularly touching examples. Since it’s not our jobs, he said, to make people feel emotion, we have to understand the emotions they do feel and fit into them. We can do that by employing story in our work and creating characters people can root for, rather than merely delivering information about products. Because, as Mumaw said, information is everywhere; what people want is to feel. The session was packed with insights and exercises in creating story, and I can’t seem to talk about it without ripping the words right out of his mouth, because it simply can’t be said any better. We laughed, we shared, we pretended we weren’t crying.

Chip Kidd in Conversation with Debbie Millman

I was completely affected by Chip Kidd’s decision to share his first-ever book cover with the world. It was done in colored pencil. Since I know the future, I can jump ahead to say that he and Debbie Millman make quite a fearless pair (see next paragraph). I’m saying this, because I imagine putting one of my first design pieces up on a wall, and the idea incites nothing but terror. Maybe that’s because I don’t have a 30-year body of work that is so well-loved and pervasive that I can’t throw a bookend without hitting one of my projects? I’ve listened to a couple of the other interviews Millman has done with Kidd, and I am consistently blown away by the openness and absence of ego in his work. Again, in this live, on-stage rendition of a Design Matters talk, Kidd presented the client not as an antagonist, or comic-book villain who wants nothing other than to destroy good design, but as a person who should be able to see themselves in the work that we do. When Cormac McCarthy rejected a book cover idea for the first time in their long partnership, Kidd’s impulse was to get closer to the problem rather than to read it as a personal dis. Because of his care for his client, he learned  what was at stake was an emotional portrayal of a dark time in the writer’s life. It’s a perfect example of how, as Kidd stressed, design isn’t personal, it’s our job.

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Neenah Closing Party

The Southern theme was for real, with line dancing, country gentlemen, Pantone peaches, and a real live chicken-and-waffles costume. I cashed in my drink ticket, colored on a wall and went back to the hotel to try to get more than four hours of sleep.

Day Five

On Rejection: A Cautionary Tale

Words fail. Again, I imagine standing up in front of an audience and recounting, blow by blow, the people who haven’t liked me and who thought my work was no good, the things I really wanted and fell short of getting, and I feel like vomiting. Debbie Millman’s keynote was kind of a perfect penultimate endcap to the conference, which for me, ended up being about vulnerability and finding ways to be more human. Our jobs, while not necessarily more difficult than any other, are tough. It can seem like it’s getting harder all the time. While Millman says designers need thick skin — and we do, the same way we need to not read personal rejection into client feedback — it takes work to develop an objective separation from the things that come out of our minds and through our hands from the hands and minds themselves. It’s easy to be hurt, and it can be a form of permission to give up. No is a word we’ll hear many times over and, once we get past disappointment, Millman held out the hope that we should see in each rejection the glimmer of our bigger yes. The yes that gets to connect all the dots looking back.

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Why Beauty Matters

If ever our role as designers were to be validated by the booming voice in the wilderness, this talk. From stunning vinyl covers to soulless apartment complexes, Stefan Sagmeister weighed form and function, blaming a solitary pre-bauhasian architect, Adolf Loos, for everything that’s gone wrong in design today. Function can attempt to exist independently of beauty, but it falls flat. Because we, as humans, don’t like ugly. Furthermore, we have an innate ability to recognize what is beautiful without accessing higher reasoning or education. And, critically, often what’s built in pursuit of pure function fails to be functional at all. In the things we create, beauty helps inform and enlighten, and encourages adoption, use and preservation — even if it’s a little misguided sometimes. Are we to take as our mandate, going forward, one man’s ideas that have dominated production for 100 years and have resulted in stale, regionless, peopleless, thoughtless, joyless expression? Sagmeister believes we should strive for more.

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See you next year?

The conference behind me now, I’ve taken away so many actionable ideas: from immediate changes I’m making to my client presentations (thank you, Ken Carbone and Michael Janda) to the beginning of long-range explorations of how my business should operate and what I want to see happen with my career. I met people from across the country, across disciplines and industries, and I’m really looking forward to getting to know more and more people who are doing interesting and valuable work in places I had no idea existed.

Our job as designers is to take people someplace different, from the world that is to the world that could be. We tread this line between the real and the possible, and we fall in love with it. It’s easy to forget our love, though — why we have it and where we left it. I’m glad there are leaders who share their time and experience to remind us there is great beauty and weirdness in the world and most likely a place in all of it for our own voice, if we work to find it.

So, remember: Don’t mix rock and roll and professional. Or do.

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