What I Learned: HOW Design Live 2013


Last week, I went to the HOW Design Live conference in San Francisco for the first time ever. Going into it, I had this grand idea in my head that I was going to learn life-changing things, have career-changing experiences, and generally have it All Figured Out by the end of it. I was going to come back to Seattle with notebooks full of inspiration and information, and I was going to dive into my freelance business with a renewed sense of drive and purpose.

None of that happened.

What did happen was probably better, though. Over the course of the week, through several inspiring, informational, frustrating, and deeply revealing sessions, several themes stood out to me. Themes that I'd never considered. Themes that will make me a better design professional without ever opening a new file in Photoshop. So here's what I learned:

Words of wisdom from Austin Kleon, opening keynote speaker.

(photo: steallikeanartist.com

Get away from the computer and make shit.

Build things with your hands. This was a common theme throughout the sessions I attended. Whether it was Jessica Walsh  inspiring us to get away from the computer and play more, or Von Glitschka imploring us to explore creativity outside of work, the message to me was clear. Spending too much time in front of my computer is completely hampering the progress I could be making in creating things. The best creative moments come from the moments when you're aren't working. It reminded me some something I was told by a professor years ago; I asked him what programs I should be learning to be a better designer, and he handed me a pad of paper and a pencil.

Facebook isn't making me a better designer. Staring at Dribbble for hours on end isn't either. I picked up a ton of sketchbooks at in the Expo Hall, I'm going to start filling them up. I've had a few ideas of things I'd like to build-starting today, I'm going to start trying to build them. I've also wanted to learn how to mix records and DJ; I'm going to start that too. I'm going to start consuming less, and building more. 

Find a hobby that has nothing to do with my job.

This kinda ties in with the first point, but I've never been super great at taking a break from work. I'm typing this on a Saturday, on a rare, beautiful sunny day in Seattle. When I was freelancing, I always felt like I needed to be chasing down work, and I never allowed myself to take up a hobby. I always felt guilty for doing stuff that wasn't working. An hour spent playing video games was an hour I could be working. It wasn't healthy. So now that I've officially gone back to working for The Man, I'm going to start enjoying my evenings and weekends, and explore a passion. I don't know what it is yet. I'll keep you posted.

Nobody's got it figured out.

I'm notorious for convincing myself that I was a fraud, and that nobody had caught me yet. Even coming into HOW, I was petrified of trying to explain to someone what I do for a living, because even after thirteen mostly successful years, I felt like a fraud. Until (New York Times best-selling author) Austin Kleon told me he went through the same thing. And (award-winning illustrator) Von Glitschka said the same thing. And (worldwide famous entrepreneur who doesn't actually make cupcakes) Johnny Cupcakes said the same thing. And just about every designer, illustrator and writer I talked to this week said the same thing. 

We're all pretending to be good at this-so stop stressing about how good you are, and go do work. Fake it til you make it.

Find my creative lineage.

Austin Kleon, in his keynote, talked about his experience of building out his design lineage, of artists and creators that inspired him. I've talked to numerous artists and designers who could list all of the people that came before them that inspired them in their career. I've never really done this. I know that Calvin and Hobbes and Bloom County were big inspirations for me as a kid that made me want to start drawing. A Tribe Called Quest changed my life as a teenager. I secretly want to be Questlove in my next life as an adult. But I've never really explored how all of these inspirations tie together to make the person that's sitting here typing this. I think that will be enlightening–creating my design family tree.

Stop networking and build relationships instead.

I have a stack of business cards from HOW nearly 4 inches high, but I couldn't tell you anything about 90% of the people on them. Handing out business cards is an odd ritual at conferences. I remember at one point during CFC, I reached out to shake someone's hand, and they were too busy stuffing a card into my hand to look me in the eye and actually introduce themselves. It was at that point I realized collecting business cards like Topps' trading cards wasn't going to get me anywhere.

Lunch with the #hownewbies.

(photo credit: Duane Smith)

I don't understand why HOW didn't set up their "networking" events at a bar instead of the cold, clinical walls of a convention hall. Inside HOW, the conversations took on more of a "what can you do for me" sort of tone, but outside of them, I got to know the people behind the business card, and that was far more interesting to me. I walked out of the networking event and bumped into Kristin Kieffer, a local designer I had met during one of the morning sessions. She had an hour to kill before catching her train home, so we went to a bar, and just talked, and had a much more personal experience than we ever would have had at the conference. Later, I met up with a bunch of first-time HOW attendees I connected with through Twitter, and that completely changed the path of my HOW experience.

 #hownewbies (photo credit: Josh Beaton)

Meeting the HOW Newbies changed my conference experience from a isolated classroom learning thing to almost a summer camp-like experience. Not only did I now I have people that I could share war stories with, I had people I could go to sessions with and immediately discuss what we learned (Paul Rand's favorite flavor of ice cream for example), either in real-time or on Twitter.  Instead of retreating to my hotel room for room service and crappy movies, I got to talk, drink, and laugh with fellow creatives-something I don't get nearly enough of here in Seattle. Now, when I look at their business cards, I see not just names, but the people behind them. They're people I'll actually WANT to connect with again. They're people I look forward to seeing again. They're friends. And that's far more gratifying than just collecting business cards. #hownewbiesforlife

So that's my first-ever HOW Design Live experience. Would I go back? Absolutely? Would I recommend it? Sure, but with caveats. Don't go into it expecting to learn the latest and greatest Photoshop techniques. You can certainly learn that, but the sessions I got the most from weren't the ones that explained how to do things, they were the ones that explained why we do things. I can't wait to get my audio sessions downloaded and listen to the sessions I missed, and relive the ones I did.

See you in Boston next year!