I’ve been wanting to go to HOW since I found out HOW existed.
I think it was the first time I saw Paula Scher speak at Syracuse University in 1999, and she went on about Pentagram and painting her crazy maps… Or it was when the Communications Design Head, Ken Hine, introduced me and my sophomore class to Tibor Kalman, The Eameses, Buckminster Fuller, and all of the other amazing creatives who have done their part to shape our industry and inspire my career…
These simple little moments during my college years are what now drive me to a diet of cocktail foods, drink tickets, and a library of signed design books (a.k.a. networking).
Inspiration is what led me to be a part of the founding AIGA SU chapter, which enabled me to meet decision-makers and become a part of my destiny. By organizing tours of Manhattan design studios for my fellow classmates, I was able to talk to designers at Landor about what it’s like to be part of a company that pioneered consumer research and hear how a lot of their award-winning snack food packaging design ultimately ends up in the trash. I talked to Sterling Brands about the newly launched Burger King logo redesign and the process behind the “sizzle.” I was hooked. I had found a way to meet all my design idols in an informal setting and have a legitimate reason to ask them to bend their ear.
Ever since then, I’ve dedicated my life to local design organizations. I’ve also campaigned (with an incredibly irresistible argument) each of my employers to give me a free ride to HOW. I’ve written detailed emails and budgeted specific trips to Vegas, to Atlanta, to Boston, etc., because I looked at HOW as THE event to top all events…The Woodstock of the design industry…The cat’s couture pajamas…
And this year, I won.
As I flew into Austin for the HOW Conference this past June, I couldn’t help but feel overwhelmed—I had put HOW on a pedestal! How was my experience ever going to live up to the hype I had created over the years? Because I was flying solo, I had spent the week before the big event canvassing Twitter for speakers and attendees to follow, and scheduling meet-ups on the message board in the hopes that I wouldn’t be the loser in the corner at all the after-parties.
Side note: Twitter is revolutionizing conferences and trade shows. Attendees twittering session updates and after-party locations, sponsors announcing prizes at their booths, and the ability to follow speakers after the event… It’s incredible and, like the cellphone. I’m wondering how we survived without it for so long.
Like any conference, there were good sessions, there were great sessions, and there were sessions where designers basically touted their portfolio and complained about their clients. I got to see them all. I think you’re lucky if you attend a conference and feel moved by just one session. At HOW, three sessions literally changed my life.
Michael Osborne: Design for Change
My conference experience began and ended with Michael Osborne. Design for Change was the first session I attended, and I was fortunate to speak with him privately at the shipping center on my way out of town on Saturday afternoon.
Michael is a Vietnam vet and, frankly, total hippie known as the “heart guy” for his work on the Love stamps for the U.S. Postal Service and the Hearts in San Francisco. He talked about events in his life that led him to working with non-profits.
He moved us with his beautiful letterpress examples based on rubbings from the Vietnam War Memorial in DC. He inspired us with amazing work he did with AIDS in Africa that came about as part of his master’s degree studies at the Acadamy of Art SF, which triggered a seemingly natural career move into non-profit design for social change. And he tore through our hearts when he talked about the non-profit he started in the corner of Michael Osborne Design (MOD) studio in honor of his son, who died in an accident at age 24.
Michael’s passion for design, paired with his ability to talk openly about his intense emotional life experiences, allowed me to walk away with the feeling that design, like art, can come from the heart — and all we have to do is start with an idea that matters.
Please note: Michael is speaking in DC on November 16, 2009, and I highly recommend you don’t miss out. I can’t wait to see him again.
Nancy Duarte: Visual Story-telling
I registered for this session in hopes that it might solve my frequent account manager/designer struggle to make Powerpoint presentations “look pretty” for clients in an hour. I walked away on a newfound mission to revolutionize the presentation process and dedicate a portion of my workload to creating thoughtful, aesthetic visuals for our current and future clients.
Nancy — a woman whose business is built on wowing people with Powerpoint — rocked the socks off this presentation. She is a storyteller in the most genuine of ways, and she left me with some key nuggets, including:
- Don’t fight your strengths. If there’s one thing you can do, that you can be the best in the world at, that’s what you need to do.
- Forget Powerpoint, Keynote, or whatever you use. Like the Adobe Creative Suite, they’re just tools to get the job done. Stop fighting the program and tell your story the best way you know how.
- Leave your mark. Transparency and authenticity are the two things people want right now. Let’s give it to them in an original way.
- We’re all natural born storytellers. What started with Barbie dolls and G.I. Joe action figures can translate to how you build relationships with your clients. Be human. Make eye contact.
- Make people feel conflicted. Al Gore used a presentation to create a tipping point that changed our world. With the right visuals and supporting research, we can, too.
I went immediately from this session to the HOW Bookstore and purchased a copy of Slide:ology, The Art and Science of Creating Great Presentations to get signed and bring back to my team. If your team has similar presentation struggles, I suggest you buy it, too.
Marc English: Frontiers Are Where You Find Them
This was the last session I attended before the closing reception, and it was the perfect finish to an amazing three days. His presentation was totally outrageous. An exact opposite to Nancy Duarte: the Powerpoint was a mess and his speaking style was atrocious, but Mr. English put on quite a show for the standing-room-only session.
Marc English began his performance by sauntering to the stage in a cowboy hat with a guitar, spouting off random thoughts without a fluid storyline — like a true designer with Attention Deficit Disorder. He told stories of frequent travels and how he included his discoveries into his client work.
Similar to Stefan Sagmeister’s TED talk on the Power of Time Off — sans the seven-year plan with retirement in mind — Marc English discussed how he lives his work and life so equally that there’s no defined separation. There was a harmonica interlude and a sparkle finish where he and his team showered the audience with glitter.
While disorganized, borderline offensive, and overly preoccupied with the audience’s perception of him, I managed to walk away feeling inspired to make changes in my work/life balance:
- Live your life. What are we going to learn sitting at our desks 50+ hours a week? We all need to get out and live our lives. And, of course, figure out some way to write it off at tax time.
- Speak up. Basically anyone can package him/herself as a speaker and sell it to the conference organizers. Look into it. If you have a unique idea that might inspire attendees, practice your stage presence, and write a pitch. What do you have to lose?
- Stop and smell the roses. Seriously. We need rests to truly appreciate the moments before and after.
This was not a note-taking session. My only documentation from his lengthy performance is through my cryptic Twitter feed that I managed to fire off as he talked. Then there’s an accidental video that demonstrates my ineptitude with iPhones, and gives you a glimpse of Marc’s sense of humor as he poses with one of the session stragglers who, like me, hung around to soak in more of his positivity and passion for life.
He is quotable. He is inspiring. He is my new hero.
Please note: If you’re ever fortunate enough to see Marc speak, make sure you go to the bathroom before the session. He WILL run over in time and he WILL heckle you if you try and cut out early. But trust me, you won’t want to.
So that’s it.
These takeaways, coupled with some other fun presentations, a few incredibly self-serving presentations, and great live music was my HOW Conference experience. Overall, it was the reminder that we should never stop learning. We really owe it to ourselves to stop working every so often and be reminded why we love what we do.