Stop Being Serious and Go Play

Stop Being Serious and Go Play

The HOW Design Conference is my home away from home.

HOWLive - Neenah Closing Party HOWie Group
Image of the HOWies from HOW Design Live on Facebook

If there was an utopia for designers, HOW would be it. If there was a Christmas morning for designers, HOW would be it. If there was a place where a creative could go to feel at home and normal, HOW would be it.

It is amazing to think that I have been fortunate enough to attend 5 HOW Design Conference and at each one, I learn something new. I learn something new about myself and the design world. It is an amazing place to be! San Francisco wasn’t too shabby either.

I have for you here my HOW Design recap. The sessions below are ones I got a lot out of and want to share with you. I also displayed my portfolio at HOW and have comments about that experience. This year, the conference only used the #HOWLive hashtag and didn’t have separate tags for each session, so if you have time, get on Twitter and view the tweets! Lastly, you can view the image gallery of all my notes from the conference. Enjoy!

Session Reviews

How to Steal Like an Artist

Austin Kleon

  • Steal like an artist – so many ideas come from other artists. Nothing is original.
  • The artist is a collector – I have so many things that I will do something with one day. And that one day will be a creative masterpiece!
    • Create a “swipe file” = a file of “stolen” ideas
  • Don’t wait to know who you are to get started – just show up and do what you do.
  • Write the book you want to read and create the art you want to see
  • Steal the thinking behind the style. Don’t outright copy, but understand the process and expand on it to make it yours.
  • Side projects are important! Avoiding work is a way to focus the mind
  • The secret for becoming known: do good work and share with the world
    • Give your secrets away, be an open book, and open your process.
    • Share everything!
  • Geography is no longer our master. We can collaborate with people from everywhere
  • Be nice. No one likes a meanie.
  • Be boring. Take care of yourself. Some routine is ok. If you have to get up early, its ok to be boring and go to bed early.
  • Do not look for validation from external sources.
    • This is something I very much need to work on!
  • Creativity is subtraction.

Really fun to listen to and he made me feel better about taking an idea, twisting it, adding to it, taking pieces away, and making it my own.



Jessica Walsh

  • I loved how open she was about her work! I actually saw the staff photo she was in before the conference and didn’t put the pieces together on who she was until I was sitting in her session. 
  • Play prepares us. Play shares the brain. Play is a state of mind. Play makes our brain grow. Power of play in the workplace makes creativity more productive.
  • The opposite of play is not work, it’s depression. 80% of people are unhappy with their work. Play more.
  • Have confidence to fail
  • Play can be serious
  • Persistence is key
  • Creativity is making connections between intrinsic motivation
  • Do what you love wholeheartedly and the money will follow
  • Get comfortable with the uncomfortable
    • Jessica shared her story of how she became to be and one of the things she showed us was the staff photo where they are all nude. That’s one way of being comfortable with the uncomfortable!
  • Idea generation is the most playful part of the creative process
  • Play by your own rules. Creativity thrives off of constraints. Make your own rules so you can break them.
    • Jessica showed us many projects she worked on where the group set their own rules before beginning the project. It definitely makes you think of things differently. This is something I would love to try for my next project!
  • Get off the computer!
    • How many times have you heard this statement and haven’t actually done it? I know when I would work on my typography after work, I felt more creative and more open. Drawing for even 2 minutes a day can help clear your mind. Plus, looking at a computer screen all day isn’t great on the eyes. Everyone has time for a 2 minute break.


Creatively Recalculating your Daily Design RoutineVonster on stage during his session

Von Glitschka

  • The only way to believe this happened is to see the photo. Yes, he did deliver his entire talk in a bunny costume. And yes, it was amazing. 
  • One of my favorite things from this session: On a tombstone, you are a dash. Your life is what happens between the dates. The dates don’t matter, the dash does.
  • Step out and try new things. Set your favorites aside.
  • BREAK ROUTINE. Take a different way to work. Try a different meal. 
  • Routine > Comfort Zone > Hard to stay inspired > Lack of creativity
  • “You can’t depend on your eyes when your imagination is out of focus.” – M. Twain
  • Imagination is more important
  • Creativity is how you think
  • If it intimidates you, that means you have potential to grow. Go for it!
  • Creative fear is like a lion’s roar – you can’t think, you stop in your tracks, and you don’t move
  • Change your perspective
  • Daily doses of creative curiosity will neutralize “routine”
  • Leave your work environment to ideate
    • Exploring creativity outside of work allows you to be curios without qualifying it
  • DRAW
  • “Confidence is the prize given to the mediocre” – Robert Hughes.
  • Observe the moment


Creative Bootcamp: Generate Ideas in Greater Quantity & Quality in 60 Minutes

Stefan Mumaw

  • Creativity is a SKILL, not a TALENT
  • Can the critic. Say something stupid and be ok with it…it may lead to something great.
    • No, really, do it. You hear it so many times in every aspect of life. Today it is time to actually silence the critic.
  • To be novel, forget what you know – get stupid to get smart
  • Walk in stupid every morning
  • We secretly need restriction – we need the box to work in. The more restrictive the problem, the more creative the solution
  • Time is the greatest restriction
    • Maybe this is why I love to procrastinate
  • Most of this session was working on creative exercises. I absolutely loved it! You can see some of the fun ideas in my notes


Shitty Typography on a Cat & Other Ways to Design with Humor

Heather Bradley

  • Why should you be funny?
    • Its memorable
    • Its convincing
    • Its crowd pleasing
  • Creativity = playfulness > playfulness = fun/funny – you are funny!
  • Stop being so serious
  • Avoid excessive repetition, staleness, and being out-dated
  • Humor is a spectrum
  • Don’t forget who you are
  • Be punchy
  • Personify your subject
  • Crop your work unexpectedly
  • Be frank
  • Make surprising juxtapositions
  • Quit being perfect
  • Seriously f*** it up!
  • Trick the eye
  • Bring on the “squee!!” (cuteness)
  • Mess with cliches
  • Be sneaky


Selling Creativity

Mary Zalla

  • Create a diverse group if you want great ideas/opinions
  • Peer pressure will change ideas
    • She told us a story about a group of people that all answered B to a question when the answer was clearly A. Since the entire group answered B, the last person in the room answered the same simply because they didn’t want to challenge the group.
    • Sometimes having people in a one/one situation is better
  • Value your imagination over your personal image. Have courage with your work
  • Constantly focus on the outcome
  • Creativity takes guts – it is not for the faint hearted
  • Creativity and Courage are brothers
  • Courage is action upon reflection
  • Fear is like alcohol – it impairs judgement
  • You cannot lead with fear
    • Another situation was where a boss walked in a meeting, told the group what he thought about the situation at hand and then asked the group what they thought. The group always agreed with the boss because they did not want to challenge them.
    • A great leader asks the group first, listens, and then offers their opinion.
  • Determination – you can’t freak out forever. You have to get over your fear and move forward
  • Creativity requires tenacity
  • New ideas can be threatening – you cannot be threatening
  • Familiarity is calming – create work that takes advantage of this


Obsessive Creative Disorder Development: Keeping Negative Thoughts & Anxiety Out of your WorkflowObsessive Creative Disorder - slide

Stephanie Voss

  • This session was one of my favs! I LOVED everything she had to say. I could relate so well.
  • She created a 4 step process to deal with worrying: E.F.I.T. (eff-it)
    • Empower Yourself
    • Focus
    • Is not if
    • Trust
  • Everything we do is meant to be shared
  • The person we are waiting to give us validation is ourself
  • Focus on what you can control
  • Cool kids worry
  • Obsess constructively 
  • You can’t prevent worry, but you can learn how to use it to your benefit
  • Stop defending your work as if it is something fragile
  • Trust yourself to make it better
  • “What if we made it like this?”
  • We always worry that our work has to be amazing but if its good enough and the clients are happy, does it really matter?
    • A story she told was about an amazing mom that went and played with her kids and took care of everything but felt awful that she didn’t have time to make homemade cupcakes for treat day. She was so worried what everyone would think – would they think she was a horrible mom? But really, the store bought cupcakes were just as good and the kids enjoyed them just as much. So, did it really matter they weren’t homemade?
  • We all need revisions – we are all works in progress
  • Empathy can be a positive thing
  • Focus on the details that matter
  • Its ok to be excited about something scary
  • You don’t have to be in a constant state of frenzy and always trying to look busy to be great at what you do & productive
    • No one says, “I really like how you freaked out the other day.” Keep it cool
  • Anxiety is your Drive!
  • Give yourself permission to succeed – its ok to be amazing!
  • Trust is the freedom to believe in our ideas
  • Designers have super powers – we can spot a mistake a mile away, we worry about things like em dashes, and can feel absolutely amazing about an idea
    • Trust your super powers, thats your design genius!


Battle Ground to Higher Ground

Cami Travis-Groves

  • Have you ever been in the middle of an argument and you both realize you have hit a stalemate? How do you come to an agreement without one person giving up their side?
  • Recognize the emotion and problem – ask, “What is the solution we can both live with?”
  • Identify the emotion > Restate the issue > Ask for a solution
  • If need be, ask for a breather and come back to the problem
  • Listen with the intent to understand, not with the intent to respond
  • By recognizing the other person’s feelings, you start hearing the problem & can figure out a solution faster
  • Higher ground is where you can resolve conflict gracefully

Good stuff in this one! I loved how she had demonstrations during the session, too. Two people would stand up and argue a point and use these steps to reach a conclusion that both parties can live with. It has always bothered me that more often than not, one side has to concede. That side is never fun to be on…it makes me feel like my idea doesn’t matter and my side is less important. With this route, both parties reach an agreement without making the other feel less.


What Movies Can Teach You About How to be a Better Designer

Justin Ahrens

  • If I could spend a day job shadowing Justin, my life would be complete. I remember his session from last year’s HOW and he did not disappoint this year! 
  • Live in a way that fuels your work and work in a way that fuels your life
  • What inspires you?
  • What story are you in? You have to figure out what story you are not in to figure out the one you are (He related this to a scene from Stranger Than Fiction – Dustin Hoffman asks Will Farrell a series of odd questions to eliminate story lines)
  • The most simple things can become beautiful
  • Create enough space to be inspired
  • Slow down. Create space to stop and pause
  • Movies are creative soulfood
  • Do you explore stories?
  • Feed yourself inspiration
  • Designers are storytellers and we welcome a response
  • Your goal must be a good story well told
  • “If your company was an amusement park, what would be your main attraction?” Tell the story
  • Its not what you’re looking at, its what you see. See differently
  • The universe is made of stories, not atoms
  • If we don’t know the story, how are we supposed to design for it?
  • “Stories are the currency of human contact” – Robert McKee
  • Storytelling is the most powerful way to put ideas into the world today

Throughout his presentation he showed us movie clips. Something that inspires Justin is movie titles and I have to agree. Some of them are so amazing! I think my favorite opening is still Casino Royale. Incredibly well done. This session was so much fun to sit through. I was in awe of everything and felt like a little kid watching all the movies. I’m inspired to see the world differently and discover story.


How to Avoid Work

James Victore

  • When your work is a gift, you no longer have to worry about satisfying others – your job is not to make your boss happy
  • Stop trying to be a “designer”
  • “Pleasant arrangement of shapes on a page” that’s graphic design
  • There are no shortcuts. Make it nice or make it twice
  • Your work is a gift and the world is waiting for it
  • “I would have done good work but I had to pay rent.” <– F THAT! If you have a client simply because you need the money, you are a slave. Simple as that.
  • Eviction notices were the cost of his freedom
    • I find this exhilarating to think about. Serious respect for people that can let go and do this. I plan on making this my goal. I want to stop caring about money and start caring about making work I am proud of.
  • The past is quick sand of the future. Let go kitty!
  • Who cares if its ugly! Practice making something
  • Trust is INSPIRATION
  • Ask for what you want
  • Say NO. The worst thing you can do is give a client exactly what they want. YOU ARE THE DESIGNER. Stop being a people pleaser! 
  • Complaining is not conversation. Quit your bitching and quit your job.
  • Praise in public and criticize in private
  • Your studio is where you create. Step outside to develop ideas and let your imagination run wild.
  • You have no friends. You have no enemies. You only have teachers.
  • The universe will protect you, but you have to trust in it. You have to take the leap.

Good stuff here, too! He was so authentic and open, it was refreshing! There have been so many times where I see something I create and think, “Thats not to the level it needs to be, it needs more.” I need to accept the fact that everything does not need to be perfect. Everything does not need to be “designer-y.” When I am trusted, I am inspired…but this also means I need to trust myself.


Idea Execution: How Ideas Are Brought to Life

Scott Belsky

  • There were so many things I wanted to write down during this closing keynote! Great talk and made me want to explore Behance even more. 
  • We live in a world of a reactionary workflow. We can react to the world all day and not be productive on what matters
  • Measure the value of meetings in action steps. If there are no actions cancel the meeting & send an email instead.
  • Spend energy on getting organized
  • Organize with a bias to action
  • Creativity > Organization and Execution > Communal Force > Leadership Capabilities = Make Ideas Happen
  • Creativity x Organization = Impact
  • Prioritize projects visually – put your projects on an energy line (Projects on high, extreme, slow, etc)
  • UNPLUG. We need 2-3 hour windows of non-stimulation
  • Make ONE change – keep pushing yourself forward. Optimize to surpass your horizon of success
  • People leave organizations because they don’t feel fully utilized. Silence is visionary. Ask and listen to your coworkers
  • We expect to be fully utilized & constantly optimized. People leave a job after a year because they stop learning, not because they cant keep it
    • Something that is very common now. Most will see that someone spent a year at a job and view it as they are unreliable – this is old thinking! In this fast pace world we live in, work must keep up. If we cannot be stimulated at our job, it should not be looked down upon to seek other options. If anything, it should be celebrated that you want to expand your skills and keep learning.
  • Seek competition. Pace yourself with others
  • When working with multiple constituents, find what you hold most dear and lead with that. Don’t become burdened by the consensus.
  • We often have to be told how good something is to take a second look. Overcome the stigma of self marketing
  • Be the bureaucracy breaker – ask annoying questions
  • We have little tolerance for the friction of bureaucracy, old boy networks, & antiquated business practices
  • Make your boss make a decision – “we need to make a decision by ____”
  • If you tap the credible mass rather than the critical mass, you foster creativity and give it a spotlight
  • We seek work that is, first and foremost, intrinsically rewarding
  • If everyone thinks you’re crazy, you’re either crazy or really on to something
  • The new networking is sharing. Share ideas liberally!
  • Nothing extraordinary is ever achieved through ordinary means

This was a great way to end HOW! This session made me want to question everything. I want to be more organized. I want a place to easily share everything. I want to make decisions and get things done. I do not want to keep pushing ideas around. This is my year that I will grow in the design field and accomplish things I never thought I could.


Session Notes

Special thanks to Crystal for creating such an amazing iNote this year! It was so fun being apart of the process and seeing the final piece. Well done and cannot wait to see what you have in store for 2014! View the entire iNote >>


Portfolio Review

For the past 3 years I have shared my portfolio at HOW and received great feedback. It is tough, there’s no doubt about that. You have to have tough skin to go through something like this. You’re not showing your portfolio to your great aunt at Thanksgiving, you’re showing it to some of the top designers in the country. Hello intimidation!

A few people came by and looked at my work and gave me simple feedback. Most really liked my case and my logo design. My websites also got great reviews.

Then someone stopped by that really tested my personality. They mentioned they would be rough on me but better to be hard on me now then me not get a job. That comment right there sent a twinge through my spine but, we continued. Many of the things they talked about could have been great points if the delivery was better. I remember hearing, “You are not your work,” at a previous HOW conference and I really tried to keep that in the back of my mind during the review, but there comes a time where criticism isn’t always constructive. There were moments were I felt my intelligence were criticized rather than my work. I was actually asked, “Do you think I’m stupid and can’t read?” Ouch.

That review hurt. I’m not going to deny it. I was crushed. I really thought I improved from last year. I was kicking the dirt for awhile but then I had another reviewer come my way.

This person was excellent and our conversation was wonderful! This is the review I need to focus on. They loved my websites and were head over heels at the fact that I knew how to theme in both WordPress and Drupal. They lifted my spirits back up in the design world and I greatly appreciate it. We exchanged business cards and I hope to keep in touch with this person in the future.

All in all, the Portfolio Review is definitely a growing experience. As stated before, if it intimidates you, you have potential to grow. I plan on signing up for it again next year in Boston and keep improving.


Until Next Year

Well, folks, thats it! If you have read through this far, THANK YOU! I sincerely enjoy the experience I have at the HOW Conference. Between the sessions, parties, the host city and the people I get to hang out with, I couldn’t ask for a better 4 days. I cannot wait to see what Boston has to bring next year.

HOWLive - Neenah Closing Party (Image from Julie G.)
Image from Julie G. – @julieofthewolfs & the Julie of Hugged by Julie stickers. Me & Julie at the HOWLive Neenah Closing Party
Image from Crystal (the amazing creator of the iNote) – Me & Crystal at the HOWLive Neenah Closing Party


3 Replies to “Stop Being Serious and Go Play”

  1. Thanks so much for sharing! What a great idea to blog your session notes. Not only for you to remember, but for others (like me!) who would probably not go to this conference. I picked up a few things that I think I’ll use. Thanks!

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