Creative Instigator Stefan Mumaw Returns to HOW Design Live

For first-time HOW Design Live attendees, it’s kind of a rite of passage: Attending Stefan Mumaw’s HOWConnection kickoff session, a crazy mashup of activity and energy that takes the ‘work’ out of networking. Mumaw will present the latest iteration of this wildly popular session in Chicago on Day 1 of HOW Design Live 2017. We recently queried him about his own experiences, and about what he gets out of HOW as a veteran attendee.


Stefan Mumaw leading HOW Design Live 2016’s HOW Connection

So, 2017 makes how many HOW conferences for you? Was your first experience as an attendee or as a speaker? What was that like?
My first HOW experience was an an attendee, in San Diego in 2004. My first speaking experience was a few years later, in 2006 in Las Vegas. As I count them up, this will be my 13th conference, 11th as a speaker (suck it, Jim Krause).

My first HOW Conference experience back in 2004 was incredible. It was the first time I can remember thinking, “I’m not alone. There are other freaks just like me.” There’s few feelings that impact a person’s life quite like the feeling of belonging. Right or wrong, so much of our self-worth as designers is wrapped up in what we do for a living and how we perceive the world. To know that there are others who see the world the same way brings a certain peace that only community can give.

What would you tell your first-year HOW attendee self that you now know about the event?
Take off the mask. I was so concerned with looking the part, especially as a speaker, that I missed opportunities to get better, to improve both intrinsically and extrinsically. I wanted everyone to think I had it all together because that’s how I viewed the other speakers. But the truth is none of us have it all together. We are all just trying to find joy in what we do, be respected for our opinions, and get opportunities to do work that we find worthy. Stage or seat, it doesn’t matter.

I wish I would have taken off the mask earlier, I wish I would have struck up random conversations earlier, went to lunch with strangers, asked others what they thought, begged for feedback. I would be so much better right now if I did.

Your speaking roles aside, what do you get out of attending HOW year after year?
I get to be with people who I don’t deserve to hang with in any other context and talk shop as if I do. Social media kind of keeps the fire of friendship alive, we see each other’s lives and stumble across happenings with each other periodically, it’s like we have the skeleton of a relationship that gets its skin when we see each other at HOW. It fills in the missing parts of our relationships. We go from comments to conversations, from memes to meals. In just five days, HOW creates longing for the folks I am privileged to call friends. These people are so much better than I am, personally and professionally. I admire them so much, and I get to be with them at HOW each year. That’s rare and special. And no one throws a design party like HOW throws a design party.

Let’s talk about your HOWConnection kickoff: There’s a method to the madness, right? It’s not *just* about having fun and being silly; there’s a purpose. Tell me about what you hope folks get out of that experience.
I hide the purpose because if I make it ‘the thing’, people won’t come out and play. The term ‘networking’ is a corporate word that usually stands for ‘self-serving interaction’. In most networking events, the goal is that I, as an attendee, want to create relationships that benefit me. And everyone else in the room is doing the same thing. That’s not HOW and that’s not HOWConnection. It’s not a networking event, it’s a mask-removing event.

By pure percentages, half of the people attending HOW are introverts. They like interaction but measured interactions with chosen people. Extroverts don’t care, they find energy by being around anyone, stranger or not. HOWConnection is meant to serve both by using the creative talents in the room to give people a reason to interact in as measured or as indiscriminate a way as they desire. And to be as silly and absurd as you can with over a thousand people in a room. I believe there’s power in absurdity, it’s innate to who we are as big children who chose to create for a living. We are more creative when absurdity is part of our process. It gets stripped away when business is involved, I’m aiming to bring it back. Meet someone new, have an experience together, either never forget it or agree to never speak of it again. Either accomplishes the goal: The mask is off and the real growth can start.

I think the HOWie community is kind of like a sheepdog — loyal, loving, nonjudgmental, always ready to greet you with big, sloppy kisses. Beyond all the good stuff you learn from the speakers and sessions, how does the conference spark meaningful connections among the people who attend? What are the benefits of being enveloped in a larger creative community?
The misconception is that thousands of creatives gather at HOW to hear from expert speakers about relevant creative topics, but the reality is that thousands of creatives gather at HOW to hear from each other about their relevant creative experience. That’s the power of the conference. It’s not who is on stage. It’s you. You have experiences that matter, things you’ve done right and done wrong, things that have worked and things that have failed. The speakers are just an excuse to get you all in a room, to sit you down next to a someone who you don’t even know but could have the answer you’re looking for. All you have to do … is ask.

The magic that is HOW isn’t HOW at all, it’s all a ruse to get you together. HOW is that devious friend who wants to match you up with one of their other friends so they trick you into being in the same restaurant at the same time together. It’s quite villainous, really. And I’m thankful for their villainy. I’m better because of it.

Ready to share your creative experiences with Stefan and thousands of other designers? Make plans today to join the crowd at HOW Design Live 2017.