HOW Design Live 2017: A Recap (Part 2)

Editor’s Note: This is Part 2 of a full recap of HOW Design Live by Maureen Adamo. Check out Part 1 here.

HOWies, as conference attendees call themselves, share a language designers really don’t get to use all that often. Creative folks can work a little to get some of the design-speak to rub off in client communications, or maybe help a significant other understand a frustration with the Google clip art they used to make the logo for their Meetup group. Though there’s always a ceiling there, and you can really only expect a fellow designer to dig into the conversation about why you never ever use that typeface.

The HOW Design Live 2017 conference presented designers with a chance to use that language in a dialogue largely focused on four themes: honesty or authenticity, seduction or the role that love plays in communication, change and the technologies that can revolutionize design in the coming years, and the boldness designers can bring to their work and life to create bigger impact in the areas that matter to them.


Design Thinking is Bullsh*t

Natasha Jen, Pentagram

“The ultimate operating system will be our minds.”

OK, so, as someone who’s dabbled in work with startups and played around the think-speak that comes with the territory, I admit there have been aspects of the design thinking philosophy that felt pretty good on the surface. Like, finally, people are beginning to see design is more than a pretty face! But there’s always been this tiny bit of unease with it that I couldn’t really pin down, and Natasha Jen helped put that to rest.

Design thinking is not design. It sounds a lot like it, though, with the ‘d’ word right at the beginning, so the confusion is understandable. Have you ever tried to ferret out the actual definition? It’s incredibly self-referential and circular and Natasha Jen throws out all the cliches and bywords that never communicate anything concrete: solutions, alignment, co-creation, traction, ideation, deep design (???), radical innovation and user outcomes, among others. Design thinking, she says, is literally trying to think like a designer. “Design thinking packages a designer’s way of thinking for non-designers in a strict methodology so that anyone can solve design problems.” 

Jen goes on to say that real designers surround themselves with evidence, since they’re always studying artifact and interaction. She says design is too complex to be distilled into a single methodology, and goes on to imagine some pretty radical futures for what design looks like when it’s actually designed, forecasting that the next great interface will be no interface.

5 Things Keeping You from Being a Great Creative Director

David Lesué, Workfront 

“‘A’ players hire ‘A’ players; ‘B’ players hire ‘C’ players.”

David Lesué immediately apologized for the assumptions baked into his conference title. A) Who says you’re not already a great creative director? And who says he can tell you how to be a better one? B) It’s not really what he meant to say anyway. A more accurate description for his talk, he said, would be something like “Five misconceptions about being a creative director and five replacement beliefs.” It’s not as sexy, but it’s real.

With such a straightforward premise, the question begs to be answered. What are these misconceptions and beliefs?

  1. Great work speaks for itself

    Lesué says not so, that all work needs translation. Clients won’t naturally understand the work, because it wasn’t made for them, it was made for their audience. Concepts and ideas need to be explained so clients won’t pass on the best solution because it doesn’t feel right to them.
  2. Process kills creativity

    Think this instead: Just enough process unlocks creativity. You can figure out how to automate what he called the “roadie work,” the drudge production and organizational tasks, with good habits (like consistent file naming and project/task intake) and task management so that you have more time to pursue higher level thought.
  3. It’s my job to the best

    Nope, it’s your job to make your team better. You can’t be afraid to hire people who show more skill as a designer, or a whatever, than you have. The focus as a creative director is on building the best possible team.
  4. The client is always right

    High five, yeah? Instead of deferring to clients indiscriminately, Lesué says you get what you put up with and that you’re constantly training clients on how you’d like to be treated. An example: Lesue’s team works in a consistent cadence, so clients are familiar enough with the group’s flow to know any project requests have to be made ahead of their weekly planning session to make it into the schedule in a timely fashion.
  5. If it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing right

    Instead of sweating every last detail of every project that hits your desk, be uncompromising when it matters. Another example: Lesué doesn’t ask his team to hit home runs with they’re asked to clean up the company dodge ball team logos that have been designed by other departments.

How to Cheat: Creative Domination Through Villainy

Stefan Mumaw

“We’re given a box to work in. We must learn to circumvent the rules and cheat.”

Stefan Mumaw donned a black ensemble, complete with mustache and eye patch to teach designers how to be wickedly creative. He presented three steps, with exercises. First, you need to think like a villain. “Villains know the rules so well, they know how to get around them.” Second, you should live in the leading, which can be translated as, “What does the creative brief not say we can’t do?” And third, you need to understand the end game. A simple way to cut to the heart of a project’s goal is to ask “Why?” And Stefan suggests asking it three times. When you get to the third answer, you’re probably dealing with the really important objectives and the hows and whats you started with can then be bent to your evil designs.

Make What’s Important to You Important to Others

Jeff Greenspan

“We need to steal back, and we need to steal everything.”

Jeff Greenspan was tired of the media monotone and lack of good questions around the Edward Snowden issue. He decided to create a conversation the media could pick up on by installing a 400-pound bust of the outlaw on top of a park monument. We, too, can provoke debate over issues that matter to us. Though Greenspan highly recommends you have a lawyer on standby; the guerrilla installation almost landed the stunt’s co-creators in jail.

Using his training in advertising and communications, Greenspan launched other projects — some with less serious ramifications to his freedom — to continue to challenge assumptions prevalent in mainstream conversation, including issues of privacy and white-collar crime, with art. (Not all his work of such enormous gravity, he’s also the originator of the Hipster Trap.)

When attempting cultural subversion on your own, Greenspan says you need to be clear about your project’s goals and not be beholden to how you think events will unfold. Some things will fall into place in fortuitous happenstance, as he described in his Snowden project, that would have been impossible to plan for and can strengthen your statement if you’re able to go with the flow.


Speak to be Heard: Communicating Your Best Ideas

Eleanor Handley

“We come into the world knowing how to use ourselves, and somewhere along the way we constrict ourselves.”

You’re already good at communicating. You just forgot how to do it. Kind of like how we were born weird and open and passionate and creative, and then life happened and we pretended to be different people. To help us start using our voices again, Eleanor Handley reminds us that how we sound is more important than what we say — a concept any Eddie Izzard fan would be familiar with.

Spoken communication is more physical than we allow for and she offers three rules: It comes from using more of ourselves, not less (don’t confuse being authentic with being small), great communication comes from focusing more on the other person, and you do not need to feel confident to project confidence. So there’s no reason to delay your public speaking career until you feel like a big enough badass, ok?

Handley says since we have most control over what we do, more so than being able to stop a particular thought or feeling in the moment it happens, we can work to improve communication with specific actions and habits. Do some deep breathing exercises before a presentation, make sure to warm up your vocal cords (you can pretend you’re talking into a cell phone to sneak this into your schedule, if you need), and remember to pause anywhere there is a natural stop in your speech, like periods or commas between lengthy phrases. The silence isn’t as long as it feels like it is to you, and it gives you a moment to breathe and think about the words that come next.


Master the Art of Seduction

Pum Lefebure, Design Army

“Pum, don’t think of yourself as a designer. Think like a seducer.”

As a perfectionist in recovery, it took me a while to realize how true it is that our vulnerability is what allows us to connect. So, I was immediately pulled into Pum Lefebure’s talk when she described a scene in which she was watching an H&M ad she created and acted in. She was gazing into her own giant face on the glowing screens in Times Square, then looked at everyone around her and realized, “Nobody cares!”

The market is beyond noisy, so she told herself she needed to launch an all-out campaign of seduction. She says the journey to purchase has now become the journey to fall in love and brands should learn how to flirt, romance and seduce, because consumers are looking for more than a happy transaction. When it’s done, she says, good design has to entice all the senses.

Change. Change. Change.

Alina Wheeler

“He was always leaving the earth, always going other places.”

An obsession with David Bowie is a unique kind of gift, especially when you’ve studied the man and the magician to the extent Alina Wheeler has. The session she presented was an electrifying homage to his genius and his legacy, imparting his life and art as one who has gone before to show us the way. The musically-punctuated presentation rocked through Bowie’s many personas, encouraging designers to become masters of their image, inviting the continual reinvention of identity and passions. Possibilities are endless, Wheeler and Bowie say, and nobody does it alone. Build creative collaborations, and use them as fuel for your own fires. Always keep moving and know when to come, know when it’s time to go. And because the legend made what he loved up until he knew it was time to go, he lived it well: “It’s never too late to become what you could have been.”

What Happens Next

David Carson

“If you want kid art, have a kid do it.”

I wish I knew for sure what David Carson thought was next. I heard his presentation went 45 minutes over time, and I had to duck out at the 15-minutes-over mark. Without having the benefit of that last half hour or so, it seems the thru-line of his commentary, as he playfully walked through slides on his extremely unorganized laptop, was about the honesty, transparency and humor with which he does his work — which is also the way he seems to view the world. He shared found art he had captured and unabashedly enjoyed (a wide array of visual puns and tomfoolery) as well as his advice on how designers might have careers as long and illustrious as his (comparison mine). Every image was perfectly captured with philosophical design epigrams: 

  • “It’s important to put things where they don’t obviously want to go.”
  • Just do it, but don’t always center it.”
  • “Never snap to guides.”
  • “My Helvetica poster was done in Franklin Gothic.”

And some of his direction was a little more … direct:

  • “Be open to things you’re not expecting while you’re working.”
  • “Don’t mistake legibility for communication.”
  • “The time you spend on the work is proportional to the time consumers will spend with it.”

It was especially amusing, as I listened to him describe his pieces, to remember all the conversations I’ve had in which the desired outcome was essentially the reverse-engineering of something David Carson has done. And when you hear Carson talk about his process and how he arrives at his destination, it’s just not possible to do what he does backwards, sideways, bent over or upside down. What he does is who he is, and that’s essentially what he’s asked us to do, too. Carson asks us to put ourselves in the work and get more personal. He says, “Nobody can pull from who you are like you can.”


This year was amazing and was again so much more than I could absorb with one set of eyes and ears. The Draplin pop-up shop returned to the exhibit hall mid-day Thursday to much fervor and excitement. The whole HOW community banded together to make sure Justin Ahren’s Wheels4Water fundraising campaign exceeded the week’s $10,000 goal, providing clean water for more than 250 Ugandans for life.

And when it comes to the big ideas, the message to take home, it seems like thoughts on strategy and technique, seats at the table (though we still want those, please), ROI, etc., were upstaged by a not-too-overwhelming, but sincere plea. At varying degrees of intensity, the experts, design leaders and visionaries I could cram into five exhilarating days of reconnection, was for more. Our design leaders and legends want more from us. They’re asking designers to be the more that we want to be. The more that has a voice, the more that gives and shares and grows, the more that boldly goes into the future designers are innately equipped to know how to get to when things get complicated. At the very least, it’s a vivid enough dream to wake us every day for the next year with the question, “What would be great? What would be amazing?”