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Distilling five days packed with graphic design advice, inspiration, tools and techniques is a tall order, especially when there were so many noteworthy moments. So, rather than give you a play-by-play here (in no particular order) are some of my HOW Design Live 2014 highlights.


Photo by Nicole Spiegel-Gotsch

Known for her book Designing Brand Identity, Alina Wheeler’s talk “Ready. Set. Reinvent!” was enough to motivate anyone considering a brand reboot. Wheeler shared past and present day stories of famous (and not so famous) “reinventions” including that of Parisian businessman turned famous French artist Paul Gaugin and RISDY students turned Airbnb founders Brian Chesky and Joe Gebbia. But it was her personal narrative, when she spoke about having been both “wildly successful” and “losing her shirt” that I found most compelling. She also spoke about reinvention from various perspectives, describing it at one point as “changing forward—answering that question ‘what do you do’ in a new way.” Throughout her talk, the qualities of fearlessness, adaptability and a spirit of adventure came through as requirements for reinvention. The quote she cited from Joseph Campbell summed it up nicely, “The cave you fear to enter holds the treasure you seek.”

By contrast, author and teacher Robin Landa’s, session, entitled “Build Your Own Brand: A 10-Step Guide” had the energy of a branding crash course! Quoting writer Pamela Druckerman, “More about you is universal than not universal.” Landa acknowledged that “capturing your own brand essence is challenging” before showing attendees how to meet that challenge with self audit exercises and questions such as “imagine you are a complimentary pair” or “what are your personality dimensions?” Referencing Simon Sinek’s Ted Talk on the Golden Circle Landa advised “Determine your ‘why’, not what you are or how you do it but the reason you do what you do.” The session ended with examples of “authentic brand voice,” criteria for a successful brand site and examples of how personal projects can support a brand.

Nicely dovetailing with Robin Landa’s session was Jim Krause’s “Learn by Doing and Have Fun Doing it.” Krause, the author of D30: Exercises for Designers presented seven of his favorite exercises from the book, which he described as “things you can do to keep work fun, up-to-date and evolving.” Low-tech and easy-to-do in small spans of time, Krause’s exercises are about reclaiming the joy of discovery and making things simply for the fun of it. Two of my favorite take-aways from his session weren’t even exercises but just plain old good advice: “Take it with you,” referring to his go-bag of creative materials and “Leave it alone,” because as Krause said “Doing too much of anything eventually makes you go crazy.”

If there were such a thing as a “scene stealer” at a graphic design conference it would be Bob Gill. From beginning to end, Gill hooked us. Speaking on “Design as Idea,” the former founder of agency Fletcher/Forbes/Gill (which would later become Pentagram) delivered the directive “Have some opinion!” Using examples of his own work, Gill talked about the design approach he had taken to each one, stressing the importance of not allowing culture or preconceived notions dictate a design stating “this is my thesis—jobs which do the job, communicate in an original way.” Responding to the question “How does one sharpen their mind to have clear thinking that leads to good ideas?” Gill replied, “We need practice solving problems.” One of the best moments of his talk was when came when he used the example of a doing a job for a dry cleaning business to illustrate his point, saying “if a job is for a dry cleaner… go to a dry cleaners! Stay in the dry cleaner until you have something truthful and exciting to say about dry cleaning!”

More inspiration could be found in Aaron Draplin’s session “The Art of Artifacts: How To Use Graphic Treasures from the American Underbelly in Your Work.” Draplin, who pays homage to the pure craftsmanship and functionality of “ephemera that predates digital” by preserving, sharing and incorporating it into his own work, provided a glimpse into his “junkin” road trip and the work it had inspired. In his words, “Where to find it, how to use it and proof.” Simultaneously irreverent (“always turn shit over”) and nostalgic, he pointed out what he saw in the pieces he collected—“killer typography, the power of simplicity, spectrum of color, thick lines” and “two-color greatness.” “Know how to look,” he urged. See some examples on his photostream.

Stefan Sagmeister closed the conference on a high note with his talk on happiness and design which focused on discoveries and pieces that had come out of four and half years of work on “The Happy Show,” his documentary film exploring happiness. Weaving together data on the role of income and friends on happiness, with personal anecdotes, he showed how his self-exploration informed his work resulting in pieces like “Confidence Produces Fine Results” and “If I Don’t Ask I Won’t Get“. And, as I tweeted post conference—despite his claim to the contrary listening to him talk about happiness DID make me happy (especially the group sing-a-long at the end)!


Photo by Nicole Spiegel-Gotsch

Lastly, no matter how well I plan there are always some sessions I miss. Fortunately whether you couldn’t make the conference, missed a session or want to hear a session again recordings are available at

Interested in attending next year? How Design Live 2015 will be held May 4–8, 2015 in Chicago.