Since the start of my career, I’ve made a goal to attend a design conference at least once a year. Bluewolf, where I was working at the time, had set aside a budget for education. So being the avid learner and resourceful person that I am, I set my eyes on the large events. They sent me to AIGA Design Conference and Brand New Conference.
This year, I took the leap from a full-time permanent role to contracting and freelancing with different companies. While it’s given me the opportunity to meet talented designers and expand my knowledge, I didn’t have flexible time off — except in December. One day, I saw an email from Dribbble promoting their upcoming design conference… in December! Despite the small scale of the conference, I noticed Paula Scher was one of the speakers and immediately signed up. So, I decided to make December my mini-sabbatical month — filled with inspiration and passion projects.
On a beautiful sunny day in downtown Los Angeles, my friend Eileen and I lined up outside the Ace Theater to get our conference badges. The Ace Theater is a jaw-droppingly gorgeous historic venue from the 1920s designed in the Spanish Gothic style. I couldn’t help but roll my head around to scan every single detail of the immense, ornate ceiling as I sat in a red velvet chair sipping my coffee. Then the lessons began.
1. Stop being an impostor, start being you.
Susan Kare is a prolific designer, well-known for her interface and type design in the original Macintosh. At the time, designing for digital was new territory. But when Apple approached her with the problem of designing in 8-bit, she welcomed the challenge. Her advice was to have confidence in your skill mix. She knew that with her background in the arts and tendency to iterate, there was no problem she couldn’t figure out.
Meg Lewis, too, is a joyful, quirky designer who has made a career out of embracing her unique set of skills. She echoed this lesson by illustrating a diagram that connects all the things she’s good at and enjoys. She encouraged us to do this exercise so we can understand our own strengths and values. Don’t mold yourself to fit a role, create a mold that works for you.
2. Accessibility is a necessity
Accessibility has been a hot topic within the product design community. Pablo Stanley shared 7 tactical tips on how to design for accessibility through an amusing series of comics. (I was cracking up his entire talk!) At the end of the day, it’s not just about designing for accessibility, it’s designing for everyone.
3. Nothing’s new, so don’t be afraid to emulate.
This one’s big, especially for budding designers. As creators, we’re often told that we need to find our voice, establish our style, discover our uniqueness. Style then gets perceived as so individual, that designers are hesitant to try new styles because we’re afraid of being unoriginal. So we end up not making a move at all.
Susan Kare reminded us that nothing’s new. If you study art history, you’ll notice that there’s usually an antecedent to what’s happening now. David Hogue talked about how “exposure produces awareness, and breadth enables connections.” So trying different expressions and exploring their realms allow us to synthesize and combine things to make new things.
As our career develops, it’s important that we try on different styles, masks, outfits (whichever metaphor resonates with you). Only from this shameless experimentation can we figure out our likes, dislikes, to discover our unique blend.
4. Your design career is a marathon, so don’t injure yourself in the first ten miles
Work-life balance is hard for designers. The line between work and play is blurry because sometimes work is play and play is work. Peter Deltondo noticed that when designers humblebrag about overworking and burnout, they’re actually perpetuating bad behaviors. Pretty much anything #agencylife. Iconic designer and partner at Pentagram Paula Scher complemented Peter’s point in her diagram of power. In her diagram, she outlined the patterns of a design career across 7 decades. 7 decades! It goes like this.
20’s = peon/wunderkind 30’s = pro 40’s = aging pro 50’s = POWER 60’s = waning power 70’s = total decline 80’s = lifetime achievement awards and/or death
Many of us may feel the pressure from awards — like 30 Under 30 or Young Guns — but realizing that your career spans at least 70 years places things into perspective. I would hope that I’m not at the top of my career at age 30.
5. Modern branding is fluid
Branding as we know it is a rigid set of guidelines, usually in the form of a printed manual. When asked about scaling brands, Tim Belonax shares that the Pinterest creative team has a dynamic set of guidelines. If they need to tweak their brand, it’s easily updated and shareable via their brand site.
Leah Pincsak leads design at Atlassian, a brand known for their beautiful illustrations. The pace of technology caught up and now illustrations saturate the tech space. What started out as their differentiating factor became the norm. Leah shares that Atlassian has a “house” style — a core brand. To keep things fresh, they test ideas and push the brand in certain ephemeral contexts like events and conferences. If something sticks, they incorporate it into their house style.
Paula’s branding work for the Public Theater had to also evolve because other New York organizations began copying them. Now, she creates new guidelines for the Public Theater every season. Branding has become more dynamic and fluid because of our fast-moving world.
6. Go beyond the brief
When the New Jersey Performing Arts Center approached Paula Scher, they asked for flags and wayfinding. Being her hilariously blunt self, she said the building was so ugly that banners were not going to help. So instead she proposed they paint the whole thing and impose type over it. “Go for what’s creative, not just what’s possible,” she declared.
Joshua Sassoon, Product Design Lead at Thumbtack, made a similar move. Every year for the company’s vision story, his team delivers a presentation deck of UX flows. This time, his team wanted to elevate their aspirational vision. They needed a more engaging way to tell their story. So, they scripted, directed, and produced a video, without anyone on the team having prior video experience. They challenged assumptions and defied conventional thinking by thinking story-first. It resulted in an impactful experience that connected with everyone across the company.
7. Work for free
This advice is from Paula, so hold your horses and hear me out. Paula has strategically worked for free throughout her successful, long career. Keyword, strategically. She sees these opportunities as a way to test new ideas, experiment with new mediums. She treats them like R&D. Another reason she donates her design expertise is to effect positive change in her world through causes she cares about. So as long as a prospective client is respectful of your boundaries and you are clear on your goals, it could a win-win relationship.
I came into Hang Time with rough possibilities for my Sabbatical passion projects. I walked out of that theater with a wealth of inspiration and a million other ideas. The small and intimate vibe meant I got to connect with badass, kind, and genuine people. Us designers, we aren’t normal. We see the world differently. Now that design is so ubiquitous, people may know what design is, but not what good design is. So it’s our job now to teach them how to see why something is better. But first, we must understand what good design is ourselves. We gain this clarity by having meaningful conversations, engaging in our creative community (at events like Hang Time), and lifting each other up.
Find these tips useful? Did you have a different experience of Hang Time? I love hearing ideas from the community, so feel free to comment below