HOW Design Live: My Career Changing Experience

Do you remember the first time you discovered HOW? I do. The year was 1988. I was enrolled in the visual design program at the School of Design at North Carolina State University. I had just gone through a particularly grueling typographic critique in Austin Lowrey’s studio. At the end of class, I stood baffled next to my drafting table staring out the window at Watauga Hall across the street. I wondered where in hell all my natural abilities had gone because they had clearly escaped.


Ed at the 2016 HOW Design Live conference

Then I heard a few footsteps and a soft-toned voice just over my shoulder say, “Mr. Roberts, if you thought about typography as much as your clothing, your design work would improve.” Ouch!

I know this sounds harsh, but you had to know Austin. I believe my instructor was trying to make two points in his statement. The first was a genuine dig because, unlike many of the design students enrolled at the school (who were encouraged not to work), I didn’t have the luxury of my parents’ credit card at my disposal to fund my daily existence. I had to work a few part-time jobs to pay my tuition. And one was a clothing store where Austin shopped from time to time.

But his second point came from him spending the entire semester trying to teach a knuckle-headed graphic design student—who knew it all but lacked focus—that natural ability could only take a fledging wannabe designer so far.

How I met the HOW brand in 1988

Austin wanted me to learn the importance that research, context and instinct play in appropriately solving a design problem, no matter how conservative or avant-garde the outcome. I knew (and he knew) that I had reached the furthest edges of my own natural abilities. I needed more, much more. That’s when I discovered a copy of HOW magazine sitting on a fellow classmate’s desk.

I must admit that I was conflicted leafing through the pages of HOW for the first time. I had watched so many design students fall prey to the seductive work featured in similar periodicals. Many of those classmates chose to mimic the work of the famous designers featured, instead of being inspired by them. All I knew was that I hadn’t enrolled in design school to become a knockoff artist. So, with this insight and a desire to grow as a commercial artist, I began really reading the articles in HOW along with those in other design publications, attended local gallery openings and met with seasoned professional designers regularly. I tapped into an equal mix of education and inspiration. This is what you did pre-internet and before design conferences were commonplace. That was also my first encounter with the newly emerging HOW brand.

Reevaluating my career trajectory in 2005

Almost 20 years later, I was sitting in a food court near the Hynes Convention Center in Boston eating lunch with a couple of fellow AIGA Design Conference attendees. I was eavesdropping on another conversation a few designers were having at the table next to ours about a session they attended earlier featuring Michael Bierut.

During that time in my professional life I was completely frustrated with the direction of my career’s trajectory. I had marginal success working in small boutique design firms and ad agencies, but got extremely exhausted with the super late nights and weekend grind. I also didn’t like the fact that making money seemed to trump producing great work at those firms. A year earlier I decided to take a job within a local government agency leading a small creative team. I had made the transition in-house, but I was sinking fast. I needed some encouragement and practical tools to succeed as a new in-house manager. I wasn’t getting the professional development I needed and I searched for resources that would help build my managerial skills.

The conversation at our table piqued my interest when the folks I was eating with started talking about how great the HOW Conference was that year. “HOW? Like HOW magazine, HOW?” I asked. They both said yes, and then they went on to talk about the down to earth and energetic vibe that permeated throughout that entire conference.

They also mentioned that each session was relevant to their jobs and provided them with implementable takeaways when they returned back to work. Unfortunately, I was the only one at the table who had not attended the conference. The discussion reminded me of how much I enjoyed reading HOW during my college days. I was definitely intrigued.

Attending my first HOW Live in 2011

Being somewhat of an introvert, just before leaving Raleigh for the conference in Chicago I promised to make an effort to step outside my comfort zone and network when I got there. GOD! Networking! I hate that word and the act of doing it so much more—especially when you’re alone at a giant industry event. I registered for my first HOW Design Live Conference because I remembered how intriguing that conversation was several years back in Boston. I realized that that feeling of wonder had never left me.

I selected many of the In-house Management sessions hosted by “Corporate Creative” author Andy Epstein and also registered to have lunch with one of the speakers. My first day in Chicago started like all the other first days when I attended conferences. I got up, went to a session, and when it was over I went back to my room to check emails and work. For years this was my routine, but I quickly realized that HOW Design Live was a totally different event. As I walked back to my room, people who saw my conference badge would smile and stop me to chat.

I remember that attendee after attendee between sessions, during lunch and when I was headed back to my room in the evening would ask which speakers I enjoyed and recommended I check out other speakers like Zing! author Sam Harrison. Each person I encountered on that first day through the last showed the exact same zeal for HOW Design Live as those fellas did over lunch in Boston. It was a really nice experience and the polar opposite from the experiences I encountered at other conferences.

Things really changed for me when I met Andy Epstein. I attended a lunch roundtable he hosted with eight or nine other in-house managers and creative directors. After the roundtable Andy signed my copy of his book and suggested I check out the InHOWse Designer blog on He said that he appreciated my comments during the roundtable and suggested that I read some of the blog posts and share my thoughts with that community. When I returned home I read a few posts and made several comments. About two months after the conference Andy reached out to me and asked if I’d be interested in writing a regular column on the HOW blog.

Fast forward to 2015

To say that my first experience with HOW Design Live was career changing would be an understatement.

As I sat on the flight headed back to HOW Live 2015 in Chicago, it was with a whole new outlook on my career and the conference. I had spent the last four years writing about creativity, strategic thinking, managing creative teams, and workflow processes in my In-house Observations column on and The Creative Group Blog. I also wrote four articles that appeared in HOW magazine and presented two national webinars. My in-house team was producing the best work of our careers. I was doing things I never thought I could ever do in a million years.

I sat on that plane headed to Chicago absolutely nervous. The last time I was in Chicago was my first time attending the HOW conference. This trip was different. I was returning to Chicago after spending the last year planning the HOW Design Live Conference In-house Management track. Andy Epstein had recommended that I take on the role of In-house Management Program Planning Partner a year earlier. This would be the most visible, prolific project I had ever taken on professionally. I had no idea if anyone would come. All I knew was that I worked just as hard planning this conference as I had in building my in-house department and team.

I can remember talking to my senior designer about a project we were working on together one minute and then breaking for lunch the next minute to call Michael Bierut to talk about the flow of his HOW Design Live session. I can also remember sitting on my back porch in North Carolina exchanging emails with Mimi Valdes who is Pharrell’s Chief Creative Officer or talking with White House Creative Director Ashleigh Axios. What unforgettable experiences! In the end, I truly wanted each in-house manager who attended to feel welcomed and leave believing they had gained the tools they needed to fix the problems they encountered at work. The same problems I’ve encountered. I wanted them to be inspired.

As I sat in the front row of the grand ballroom waiting for the room to be partitioned for Alex Center’s presentation, I looked around and couldn’t believe my eyes. There were over 1,000 people pouring into that ballroom just to hear him speak. At that point the lights dimmed which was my cue to go on stage and introduce Alex. As I walked to the podium all my nerves disappeared, I knew HOW (which has been present throughout my educational and professional career) was the catalyst in making significant changes in me.

If you’re looking for an event that will educate, inspire and potentially be career changing, seriously consider attending the 2017 HOW Design Live Conference May 2-6 in Chicago. I hope your experiences will be even better than mine.