HOW Design Live 2017: A Recap (Part 1)

by Maureen Adamo

HOW Design Live, the yearly gathering where designers can talk kerning, clients and the increasingly commonplace insanities of #creativelife and everyone totally gets it. As Stefan Mumaw likes to remind attendees in his networking event at the conference opening, “These are your people! This is your tribe.” And it’s true. The person next to you totally does understand where you’re coming from, whether you actually come from Miami, New York, Portland, LA, or the middle-of-nowhere-Kansas.

The themes of passion, productivity and voice took center stage from the get-go, creating a strong image of a world in which the designer-as-creator can thrive. If designers can relearn how to be themselves, if they can reach for more authenticity, it seems the experts and design leaders who spoke at HOW Design Live 2017 would be proud. In their words: Shake it up, get loud, be real, come back and play again tomorrow. As Sonja Rasula typified in her short presentation on embracing your inner weirdo, designers shouldn’t be afraid to bang the table sometimes, get passionately involved and be present: “NO! This font is better!”

This year, the conference programs were personalized — no cover alike for the more than 3,000 attendees, and each featured an inspirational quote from a past HOW speaker or thought leader. In the same spirit that the conference was framed by powerful words, I want to share the experience with a few insightful phrases I gleaned from this year’s speakers, starting with Tuesday’s and Wednesday’s sessions in the first of a two-post series.


Web Design Tools and Techniques for Print Designers

Jeremy Loyd and Ben Callahan, Sparkbox

“Every time you improve page load speeds, conversion goes up.”

Perhaps a dry start to the week, but wannabe slashies looking for a solid foundation in the crossover from print to web got a high-level overview of the techniques and processes Jeremy Loyd and Ben Callahan use in their work at digital agency Sparkbox. The masterclass session held an hour-and-a-half’s worth of info on everything from how to get projects started on the right note, with examples of kickoff exercises and research techniques (they use a lot of Google forms), to how they use a handful of tools and workflows to keep team members and clients on the same page, minimizing downtime incurred in rework and handoffs. Big ideas: Communicate the look of the project early and quickly, inform development with reusable templates and modules, and try pairing designer and developer in discrete work sessions to blast through snags and build a stronger team.

They offered collaborative notes on the conference at As of now, there are only a few sessions outlined, so any latecomers can add notes and help fill it out, or check back later to see what’s been updated.

Brian Collins

“Instead of minimum viable product, how about maximum f*#&@g love?”

This was such an amazing keynote on which to launch the conference and absolutely set the standard for all who followed. Brian Collins learned branding from his young exposure to the Catholic church, although it was essentially what could be deemed the bad old days of branding, perhaps. He experienced revival, in a close to literal sense, in seeing how religion was transformed into human connection, love and joy, when he encountered the uninhibited passion of the Chicago Mass Choir. Oh, and surprise! He brought them onstage — twice — and the whole world was filled with music and light. The lesson? We’re not designers of information, rules and regulations, systems or elitism. We’re designers of inspiration, of emotion, of hope.

You Gotta Make a Lot of Stuff Before You Can Make Stuff Like Yourself

Timothy Goodman

“I’d rather letter my own words horribly than someone else’s beautifully.”

For those who hadn’t been following the trajectory of the 40 Days of Dating co-conspirator and co-author (hello, anyone?), Timothy Goodman walked through how he became the guy who gets paid to Sharpie on walls. He said yes, took on editorial illustration to find his voice making tons and tons of work, cold-emailed a mentor or two when he got in over his head, and finally — the finishing move — politely ignored their advice when he saw the path to creating work that was uniquely his. Also, he’s over our collective obsession with hand-lettering other people’s quotes. Use your own words. 


Out of Juice: How to Replenish Your Creativity Well

Terri Trespicio

“Commit to one thing instead of half-assing everything.”

The same time I was thinking it, my neighbor said it: “Yeah, that’s so me.” 

Designers do have reputations for being a little distracted. There is so much shiny newness to elicit our attention and we’re ravenous consumers of culture, media, projects, hobbies and on and on and on. Which is great, because this informs our work. But it also can leave us a little empty when it comes to our own agendas, unable to leap at opportunity when it’s presented and broke when it comes to minting the currency of our craft, great ideas.

Pointing toward the work of the totally unpronounceable Mihaly Csikszentmihaly in his book on the subject, Trespicio thinks of creativity as a system, one that is used to transcend traditional ways of thinking, patterns or rules. It’s not a realm of mystery or exclusion, and as knowledge workers, everyone in business is entitled to think of themselves as artists.

In this light, she lays out some ground rules for how to keep the well overflowing, beginning with taking care of your vessel (that’s you, the physical body) with good sleep, diet and habits. I loved it when she said your mind is like a freshly fallen field of snow when you first wake up. If, like me, you’ve been searching for a metaphor to communicate the pristine quality you value in your late and early hours of the day, this one is perfect to try out on those who haven’t been getting the message about how disastrous you find morning headlines to be to your work. “Why would you let Matt Lauer trample on your snow?” Trespicio asks. Also, dream a little so you have some ideas in your back pocket in case anyone ever needs you to jump flat-footed into a project, like they do. Idle time is especially useful in cultivating those ideas, which Trespicio also finds incredibly important.

Slay Your Zombies, Slash Your Zigzags, Show Your Zing!

Sam Harrison

“Ideas happen at the speed of trust.”

If my back-to-back attendance of rut-busting creativity sessions means anything, it must be that it seems like it’s getting harder and harder to keep the juices flowing as everything else we’re asked to do takes greater precedence over doing our best work. You, too? Sam Harrison brought his wisdom to bear on my problem (and Terri was also in attendance at this session, so you really can’t get too much help in this area) with a prescription for keeping our minds loose and open: become unfamiliar with the familiar (take a peek at The Boring Conference to see what he means), avoid contempt for any idea before you start, don’t be afraid to play around with nonsense, leave technology behind every once in a while, stop self-limiting beliefs — and, for heaven’s sake, stop trying to be perfect. Perfectionism will hold you back; “Trying to make things perfect keeps you in place while others move forward.”

Malcom Gladwell, with DeeDee Gordon

“Do you want something bad now, or good a few weeks from now?”

Malcom Gladwell, who self-professedly has zero clients, proceeded to speak on behalf of designers and creative teams who deal with clients every day. While I think everyone in the room wanted to stand and slow clap when he said deadlines kill creativity, I immediately felt the cosmic vibration of every creative director in the world groaning in my head. And it was fantastic to hear him expound a tiny fable of the tortoise and the hare, in which the faster worker does get the job done speedily, but at a significant cost to quality, while the tortoise, who takes his time, submits a superior project in the end. The voice in my head this time was my own, though, and it said, “If only!” And I mean, if only we weren’t all feeling the pressure to be hares.

Gladwell says our world measures success by whether things are done on time, but asks what time has to do with creativity? To that end, he suggests we build diversity into our teams by working with people who are not only culturally diverse, but also diverse in performance traits. We shouldn’t be teams of only hares, or only tortoises. 

I didn’t attend sessions in which this happened, but I got the sense from the #howlive Instagram posts (which were awesome) that his proposal attracted immediate commentary from other speakers who followed. And I think that was partly because it’s a very attractive idea that we can fight for more time, push back against clients and managers for the weeks or months we need to do better work — our best work, even. However, I could also feel the controversial thread of thought snap in the air a bit, because deadlines can often be the beauty queen in the creative pageant, and maybe we’re too comfortable with how often we say when the project is wrapped, “We did what we could with the time we had.” Maybe we’re letting all that pressure to be hares go too far?

Gladwell was hardly the only speaker to address how shortcuts and compressed timelines are affecting design, though. Pentagram’s Natasha Jen dropped the mic on the popularity of the concept of design thinking, describing it as a form of shorthand aimed at non-designers, which raises the question, “Why are non-designers being asked to design?” Jeffrey Zeldman, of A List Apart, looked at the sameness of the web, and pointed to web frameworks as a culprit, because they present fast and easy ways for non-programmers to learn how to make websites. He asked, “Which one of two possible websites are you designing?” Oh, and let’s not forget David Carson, who’d really like us to stop using flush-left, all-caps headlines for quick and easy, go-to typesetting. These people are asking us to spend more time on the work, not less.

So while it may not be an easy or popular notion, questioning our use of and practices around time and the deadline could be of value, lest we become design thinkers, rather than design doers. 

Stay tuned for Part 2!