Design Revolutionary: Sam Harrison

I’ll confess to a deep admiration and fondness for Sam Harrison, whose speaking and writing have helped thousands of design pros achieve creative heights. After many years as a breakout and general session speaker at HOW conferences, a contributor to the magazine and the author of two HOW Books (IdeaSpotting and IdeaSelling), Sam is taking the stage in Boston as a keynote speaker. He’ll ignite the creative spark among attendees from all four big HOW events—the HOW Design Conference, the Creative Freelancer Conference, the Dieline Packaging Design Conference and InHOWse Managers Conference.

You can’t leave a Sam Harrison presentation without feeling energized, inspired and ready to rock the world.

Sam’s a busy guy, and we recently traded e-mails about the experiences that led to his role as a creative guru and about what he’s up to in the weeks before Boston. We’ll share part 2 of our interview later this week, so stay tuned!

And be sure to gallop over to to register this week to save $200 on your Big Ticket—the Early Bird deadline is March 30. 

Tell us what’s keeping you busy these days … what are you up to?

I’m doing lots of talks and workshops around the U.S. and in Canada—mostly on finding inspiration, boosting creativity and selling ideas. I’m also coaching individuals and teams on their presentation and speaking skills. And I’m in the early stages of my next book, which will dive into choices to make for creativity’s sake.

I’m also involved with a couple of organizations that help special-needs children. They do remarkable work, so I’m exploring ways I can contribute more on an ongoing basis.

You’re so well-known as a speaker, author and consultant. What was the career path that led you to your current roles? In other words, what in your previous work helped you develop that the expertise that you now share in speaking and writing?

I spent years in brand communications, product development, event marketing, product licensing and direct marketing. I’ve worked on all sides of the business—freelance, agency, in-house, consulting and academics. And I’ve pitched hundreds of ideas to managers and clients. So my experiences come in handy when I’m preparing creativity-related content, coaching presentation skills and talking with people in the field.

My love of creativity—as well as my enjoyment of speaking—comes from my mother. She was a theater major, tap dancer and banjo player. When I was a boy, she would round up all of us kids in the neighborhood twice a week for what she called an Expression Session. We would crowd into her music room for songs, poems, dancing and skits. At first we hated being yanked away from our ballgames, but we gradually took to the sessions. And I developed an everlasting passion for all things creative.

In your book, IdeaSpotting, you explored creativity from all angles. What do YOU need to have at hand in order to be fully creative? When you’re fully in the zone, what does that scene look and feel like? 

That’s a great question. Just last night I was reading an interview with Téa Obreht—you’ve probably read her novel, The Tiger’s Wife, which, by the way, she started writing when she was 23 years old. She’s just an amazing young storyteller. In the interview, she says whenever when needs inspiration, she reads Pablo Neruda’s poetry, and it fires her up.

As I read her answer, I thought, wow, I sure wish I could rush to one single tool or talisman for inspiration. But in my case, the creative fuel I need varies depends on the work at hand, my energy level, the time of day—all kinds of variables. Sometimes getting out of the office and working in a park or coffee shop will do the trick. Sometimes it’s walking through a gallery or museum. Sometimes it’s scanning a favorite website, like McSweeney’s or Transom. Sometimes it’s talking with a creative friend or listening to music or going to a movie. Sometimes it’s getting really quiet.

Most creative people I know are the same way—they need a variety of methods to kick-start creativity and spark ideas. That’s why I offer lots of inspirational options in my writings and talks—so people can build the toolkits that work for them.

So much of your work involves giving your energy—in speaking, consulting, meetings. So how do you recharge your batteries?

Well, in some ways it’s like physical exercise—pouring out energy in talks and workshops actually generates energy inside me. I always find energy to do things I enjoy and am passionate about. But ask me to clean gutters or scrub porch floors and suddenly my energy gauge drops to empty.

But as for recharging, I need to balance my on-the-go activities with doses of peace and quiet. We’re fortunate to have a little cottage in the North Carolina mountains, so we often escape there to relax and read, hike and hide out.

In my daily life, I sometimes get a quick recharge by simply turning off all technology for an hour or so—computer, cell phone, Kindle, anything with a screen—just to allow my mind some room to breathe. I also try to view waiting in lines at airports, supermarkets and other places as free time—to look at those moments as an opportunity to slow down rather than get impatient and riled up. And I take lots of walks—on city streets, in airports, in nature.

The poet Wallace Stevens once wrote, “sometimes the truth depends on a walk around the lake.” Sometimes my well-being and storehouse of energy depend on the same thing.

You visit and speak with so many designers, students, instructors, clients … what’s your take on the state of the design profession these days? What are you hearing from the folks you’re talking with? 

I can only speak about North America, and I can’t do that in any scientific way. I do engage with creative professional in a variety of industries, and designers definitely seem the most optimistic and the job picture in design appears the most promising.

I see more and more designers expanding their reach—not just design entrepreneurs but also in-house designers—taking responsibility rather than waiting for authority to try new things and offer different solutions. Today’s designers pay more attention to ease of use and are more focused on developing seamless systems.

But I still encounter a number of business leaders who are skeptical about design’s scale and substance. They continue to have a narrow view of design. So designers need to keep explaining and demonstrating the value and scope of design— like my friend David Butler did at Coca-Cola a few years ago with his “design with purpose” manifesto. David downplayed the word design within the organization and talked up the value of making the company’s systems and products better. By doing so, he helped change Coke’s cultural mindset about design.

From a global perspective, the U.S. doesn’t give design the financial and political support it receives in some other countries. For example, I recently read that in the last 10 years China has increased its number of design schools from 20 to 1,ooo. That said, the U.S. is still the design leader because of its diversity, freedom of movement, entrepreneurship and innovative spirit.

… and that’s a great point at which to end Part 1 of my conversation with Sam Harrison. Keep an eye out for the continuation of our discussion later in the week.

Oh, and did we mention the Early Bird registration deadline on March 30? Sign up for HOW Design Live to catch Sam and all the other amazing speakers.

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