A Deep Dive Into the Creative Process at HOW Design Live

Three of our team members recently attended the HOW Design Live conference in Chicago. Presenters included Debbie Millman, Timothy Goodman, Chip Kidd, Elizabeth Gilbert, Lisa Congdon and Beth Comstock, among others. We learned much about our craft, creativity and honing our skills. Topics covered everything from purpose marketing and communicating our best ideas to how design can change the world.

Most sessions ranged from 45 minutes to two hours, and our team divided and conquered to soak up as much expertise as possible. We also made sure to take in the sights of the city in the evening once the day’s sessions had ended. We loved sampling Chicago’s famous deep dish pizza, hot dogs (no ketchup allowed) and popcorn (Chicago mix, please). Chicago is a rad city and one of the DW attendees used to live a little south of the Windy City, so he was able to act as tour guide.

We learned too much at HOW to cram into one blog post, but here are some of our favorite nuggets from the conference:

How Stories Connect Us

There’s no doubt stories carry power. They permeate our media — books, movies, video games, songs, you name it — and help us learn truths in ways that nothing else can. They make us laugh, cry and can change behavior. They make sense of the human experience and give us a glimpse into worlds we might never experience otherwise.

For many centuries, stories were told orally to preserve a culture’s history. They were painted on cave walls. Today stories are used for education, entertainment and much more. Stories help us connect with each other. When telling a story, we should offer something that others can easily identify with. This is often something that shows vulnerability and makes us more human. Stories don’t always have to have a happy ending, nor should they.

Many of the stories being told today — on Instagram and through other social media — are too contrived and over-curated that they make people feel bad about themselves. They present an idealized, perfected version of someone’s life. They show the subject in the best possible light, covering up the warts and imperfections that make the person human and relatable.

Many of today’s best stories include an element about overcoming an obstacle to find redemption. They have tension and take the reader on a redemptive journey. Most popular stories today (think Star Wars, Avengers, etc.) follow this formula. No matter where you go in the world, stories generally contain the universal elements of hope, love, belonging and purpose. These are what bond us to each other. They help us find our place in the world. And the more we can work these ideals into our marketing, the more effective we’ll be.

Successful Design is Often Invisible

The success of a design can be measured in many ways, including media attention, client happiness and gold medals. What most people don’t realize is that our lives are surrounded by design that we never even notice, and that it is often some of the best design.

Let us give you an example of bad design and how it can negatively affect your experience at the airport. Imagine for a moment you’ve printed your ticket and have started looking for security, but you’re not sure where it’s located. You spend time walking around looking until you finally just ask for directions. You get through security and must now find your gate. But after a quick glance around, you don’t see any signs. So you’re forced to wander yet again and running short on time. You’re frantic and frustrated, and by the time you find your gate, you’ve almost missed your flight. This is glaring design failure. Now, as you sit in your seat preparing for take-off, you feel consumed by the frustration of trying to get to your plane, rather than excited anticipation for your vacation. If the airport had clear directional signage to seamlessly guide you through the sea of people, terminals and gates, you wouldn’t even think twice about it.

Design is all about creating experiences. When the design is good, you rarely even notice it. But when it’s not, the experience you have is generally much more memorable — and negative.

Future Forward

As expected, HOW was an overwhelming sea of inspiration and creative soul searching. At the start of the conference we were a little unclear on the connection to the 2019 theme, Future Forward, but quickly realized after attending environmental segments run by the Dieline. If you don’t already know, the Dieline is a keystone platform dedicated to showcasing the best of packaging design — and, for the last few years, sustainability in packaging. Like many designers, we love packaging, but unfortunately packaging is undeniably responsible for a large portion of the plastic crisis we currently find ourselves in.

As expected, this session discussed lots of sobering facts about the current state of our planet. And the unfortunate truth about plastics is that the vast majority of them, even plastics that are recycled, aren’t actually recycled. Instead, they are shipped overseas, resulting in mass amounts of plastic waste.

Here are some of the unfortunate facts that were shared:

  • 54% of plastics are single-use only.
  • 40% of all plastic is used for packaging.
  • 91% of plastic isn’t recycled; currently = 6.3 billion pounds of plastic waste. This number is expected to double by 2025.

They also shared the design lifespan scale with us:

Obsolete—Short Life—Current—Long Life—Eternal

According to this scale, items designed on the obsolete end are made to disappear and leave absolutely no trace. Good examples of obsolete design include package free, edible and completely biodegradable solutions. On the other end of the scale are items designed to last forever. A good example of eternal design would be stainless steel water bottles that can be endlessly refilled.

Currently, the world is in the middle of this scale, which means we’re not taking advantage of benefits at either end of the spectrum. This results in a lot of useless waste that lasts a really, really long time.

Creating beautiful design is no longer enough. The time has come where designers have to think about how they use plastic. A new chapter in design history has begun, and we’re all responsible for what we put out into the marketplace.