HOW Design Conference: Networking & Advice for All Designers

Since its inception in 1991, the HOW Design Conference has been known for a couple of things: Access to speakers. Networking. Real-world, practical advice mixed with creative inspiration.

A lot has changed with the event since those early days—it’s gotten larger, more inclusive. And it got a little complicated and, for some attendees, hard to navigate.

For 2014, the program planners took a new approach to creating the event, with an eye toward keeping that connectedness and reducing the complexity. We recently sat down with HOW Design Conference program director and HOW content director Bridgid Agricola to talk about plans for 2014.

HOW Design Conference keynote presentation

The HOW Design Conference got its start back in 1991, and it’s been going strong and growing ever since. What’s the core element of the conference that hasn’t changed over the years?

One of the things we talk about a lot is the networking—bringing together thousands of designers in one location so they can talk about the challenges they face and make connections that last beyond the event. That’s the big difference between a conference like this and watching training videos at your desk: You meet people face-to-face, people that you can continue to connect with.

Another constant is the mix of inspirational content and tactical, practical information: What’s next? What are the leaders doing? That, in combination with tactical information they can take home and apply to their work.

You and the 4 other program directors kind of shook things up in your approach to creating the event for 2014. How would you describe that new approach?

The biggest mindset change was starting to think about bringing advanced content to the overall design conference program. We listened to our audience and heard that more and more of them are veterans in this field, so we wanted to help that audience in particular to learn and grow. There’s still material for younger professionals, sure, but there’s a whole secondary level of advanced content that’s new.

And we really tried to identify who in the design industry are really shaking things up, who are doing the work that we think is representing the trajectory of the field as a whole. In the past, we’d see a standout project and invite someone to present a case study about it. For 2014, we’ve taken a more forward-looking approach. What are the trends shaping the evolution of our industry? How can we help attendees prepare for what their clients and colleagues and future employers will be asking of them? How can we address those issues from a tactical and inspirational perspective? Those topics became the general session that everyone will attend.

Let’s talk a little about those general sessions: the inclusive sessions in the morning and afternoon where everyone from across every event will come together. This is very new for 2014, right?

Yes. It’s not just the opening and closing keynotes that everyone attends; these general sessions will provide a shared experience that we think will connect everyone with a common language and a great opportunity for networking. We looked across the whole event and positioned these general sessions so they complement the other presentations that are going on in a given day.

All of the programming partners came together to decide those general sessions—as a team, we feel these sessions are especially inspiring and we want as many people as possible to attend.

It’s kind of like a big jigsaw puzzle, right?

It is! This is the first time that all sessions are starting and ending at the same time across all events—so people who are popping from one program together won’t miss pieces of sessions like they have in the past. See the full HOW Design Live program here.

And they’ll have the opportunity to choose from a variety of sessions that span the events. So, if I’m a freelancer and I’m interested in the Creative Freelancer Business Conference program, I can look across the other sessions happening in a particular time slot, and maybe see a session on interactive design that I want to attend. We’ve never organized the entire program so that someone could attend absolutely any session without missing anything.

In the past, separate events would have their own networking events. Now, everyone has access to happy hours, the resource center opening reception, the opportunity to connect with creative professionals from across the whole event.

If someone who last attended the HOW Conference 10 years ago were to attend again in Boston, how would their experience be different? What would feel familiar to them?

The most important that we try to foster at every HOW event is that sense of supporting and inspiring designers. This brand is so focused on providing designers with the resources they need to move their careers to the next level. It’s an environment of support—you can come to HOW and share your frustrations and challenges and talk with other people who face those same challenges. There’s this whole community of designers who get those issues.

For more seasoned designers, it’s a way for them to give back to this community. This event wouldn’t be the same without people — both speakers and attendees — who come to share their wisdom and support the industry, to pay it forward. You’re shaping the next generation of designers, they’ll be the people you’ll be hiring. You can help prepare them with the skills they’ll be required to have.

What’s different? It’s the largest gathering of designers annually—and if you attended 10 years ago, it was probably a much smaller event. The HOW Conference is your best opportunity to connect with your peers, to take a look ahead and understand what’s coming, what your clients and employers career will be asking of you. It’s the only place where you can get 5 days of design across 5 different events, all designed by designers— and I think there’s a lot of value in that.

As a designer, what are YOU most excited about?

I’m really excited to see DeeDee Gordon in conversation with Malcolm Gladwell. I’ve seen her speak online, and I’ve always wanted to hear more from her. There are a lot of people on this program that I haven’t seen anywhere else. Personally, the No. 1 reason why I attend design events like this is to get that recharge of creativity, to remember why I wanted to be a designer in the first place.

I’m also interested in the sessions that are focused on marketing. As more and more designers are tasked with marketing work—and I know I have been—we have to learn how marketing strategy drives design and communication.

If you could use one word to describe the state of mind of an attendee at the end of the conference, what would it be?

I hope that they’ll feel recharged, like they’re just buzzing with information.

HOW Design Live 2014

Learn more about the program of outstanding speakers that Bridgid and her team have developed for the HOW Design Conference. Register for HOW Design Live before February 11 and save $300 off the price of a Big Ticket.