February 10, 2014

Laura Helen Winn and Jason Schwartz on Making Hike, the Conference and Workshop for New Designers

Identity design courtesy of Laura Helen Winn and Jason Schwartz

Big thanks to Jennifer Maples (read her Interview about creative strategy) for the introduction to Hike, a one-day design conference and workshop to empower new designers. Here, the event’s co-creators and organizers, Laura Helen Winn and Jason Schwartz, elaborate on aspects of making a gathering—in two cities in one year—from scratch.

On being a designer and event maker

How did you arrive at the idea of making the conference Hike?
[Laura] I arrived at the idea because I started doing small creativity events under Form and Future at Makeshift Society. The events took Form and Future’s designer interviews offline and in front of a real audience, and covered topics from chocolate-making to a panel of small business owners. It was a lot of fun. After a few months, my boyfriend asked me when I was going to put on the Form and Future conference. I laughed it off because it seemed too big of a project to do on my own. But when I met Jason through a mutual friend, I still had the conference notion in the back of my mind.

The first time we Skyped, I was asking Jason for advice about keeping my side project going. I had this half-baked idea to turn it into a magazine that I talked through with Jason. Even while I was talking about it, I knew it didn’t have legs. He told me to be focused and have a plan, but more importantly, to dream about making something bigger than I could even imagine. I remembered the conference idea, and my gut told me, “this is it.” So I Skyped with Jason for a second time and pitched him the idea of co-founding a brand new conference stemming from The Secret Handshake plus Form and Future. Even though I’m in San Francisco and he’s in Chicago, Jason was crazy enough to say yes!

[Jason] Laura and I had connected through a mutual friend in Chicago and once we started talking, it was natural that The Secret Handshake would want to collaborate simply based on our missions. Since we are located in two far apart cities, naturally we wanted to make this as hard as possible and throw a conference in two cities in one year.

What were essential activities/steps you took to start
and establish this event? And why were these 
activities/steps important?
[Laura] Like I said before, hosting events at Makeshift turned out to be a lot of fun for me. I really got into designing the experience, from the snacks to the ambiance to making everyone feel really comfortable, both the speakers and the audience. It felt like, ‘hey, I can really do this.’ Beyond that, the mission of Form and Future is the real important factor. I’m a new designer who can attribute my career to some talent, luck, and a lot of guidance from various mentors. That’s important because not every new designer has mentors, and it can be difficult to find satisfying work without people helping you develop your own point of view along the way.

The second Jason and I started working on Hike, I knew we were a good fit as creative partners. My weakness has been trying to handle side projects all on my own. The first thing he said was, “We need a board, we need volunteers, we’re going to need a lot of help.” It made me nervous to be honest, but I took a deep breath and said OK.

[Jason] Laura and I talked for a few months before opening up the conversation to peers and getting people involved. Because we opted for a two-city conference, we pretty much needed to create an established pocket of volunteers in both cities.

Jason and Laura discussing Hike Conference

There is a welcoming pattern of individuals making gatherings, such as Tina Roth Eisenberg who invented CreativeMornings; Rusty Meadows started Nearly Impossible that made its debut last November; Emily Ruth Cohen and Sheri Koetting made Evolve to debut during Spring 2014. Why do you think this is?
[Laura] I think it’s because sharing knowledge is inherent in the design practice. In order to become a designer, you have to learn about the designers who came before you and the designers who came before them. The thing I miss the most about art school is the class discussions we had about a reading or an artist’s body of work. Hearing people with conflicting opinions share their point of view, and occasionally reach an understanding of each other, is real magic. I guess I just want to keep that dialogue and magic going as I pursue my career.

[Jason] This falls into whatever the category the “gathering” falls under, i.e. inspiration, education, networking.

In the education space, schools are having a hard time keeping up with the pace of our skills, and students are graduating with tons of unanswered questions and needed skills. Think about how fast our industry changes versus others. Six years ago, the iPhone didn’t exist. Four years ago, tablets really didn’t exist and weren’t widespread. In the past two years, responsive experiences started to become widespread, and Apple made the first play for “retina” internet.

Schools can’t keep up with things changing yearly. By the time Seniors have gone through four years of classes, they may have missed huge changes to how we work that happened within the previous twelve months, because they already took that class three years ago.

It’s tough.

The real reason behind the scenes for all gatherings is really networking, even for education. People come to learn, but also it’s about getting thirty seconds of FaceTime with people from across the country you’re excited to shake hands with.

Were there principles and practices from your work as designers that translated well toward designing a conference? If so, what were some of those?
[Laura] Communication is key. Surround yourself with people who are smart, motivated, talented, and fun to work with. In my experience, the best design projects are those where people with differing opinions and specialties create something new together. In planning our own conference, we essentially have the opportunity to create our ideal project. Jason and I are also well aware of the challenges that come with design projects. I think knowing to expect common challenges, like miscommunication and people getting spread too thin, has helped us be prepared for the process of getting a bunch of people together to throw a conference in two cities in one year.

[Jason] OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder). Lots of OCD.

The first volunteer meeting at Smart Design in San Francisco

Compared to other events related to design disciplines,
what makes your conference different?
[Laura] What makes Hike different is that it’s a conference specifically for new designers. Organizations like AIGA do a great job of fostering the student design community and posting job boards, but there’s no Brooklyn Beta for design students. There’s no Build for design students. We want to make something really special that tailors to a very specific audience at a crucial point in their lives. Hike is about more than getting a job. It’s about finding your own voice, and taking action in order to build the life you want to live.

[Jason] One of the main issues I’m having with a good amount of conferences I attend is that presenters are showing a glorified version of their portfolio. I can see why that is inspirational, but I’m at a point where I’d just look at someone’s website and understand the who, what, when, where, why and how.

I want Hike to be fully functional. I want speakers to focus specifically on what it takes to create and develop personal brand, which extends into job hunting, résumés, portfolios and following a path that is right for you. This is the difference between benchmarking, “I like that designer’s work,” and, “Whoa, I never thought that was how an application process worked behind the scenes.”

I really want to lift the curtain for a peek into the other side.

How do you find, select, and invite your speakers?
[Laura] We brought Jennifer Maples on board for San Francisco content, and Kelly Knaga for Chicago content. These ladies are absolutely rocking it on finding speakers and planning the schedule far beyond what Jason and I could accomplish. Early in the project, Jason and I invited all of our volunteers to make a list of dream speakers. Most of our speakers have been invited by recommendations from people we know. There’s a level of trust that’s really important when inviting people to speak, whether or not they have a good reputation as being reliable and relevant. Jennifer and Kelly have done an amazing job at designing a speaker list that’s well-rounded, useful, and true to Hike’s mission.

[Jason] Our whole team wanted to find speakers that had substance to their presentations beyond just showing work. Each speaker will be going deeper into how they vetted the process, what they’ve learned, processes their companies use and how they look for people currently.

We also wanted to avoid usual suspects. You most likely won’t see the same speakers at Hike as other conferences.

What are must-don’ts in making an event?
[Laura] You must not be afraid of anyone or anything. You must not take anything personally. You must not tiptoe when providing honest feedback. You must speak up. You have to trust other people to carry your vision. You must not burn any bridges. You must only bring in people and organizations or sponsors who truly support you and your cause. Don’t take money from people who don’t align with your values. Don’t burn yourself out trying to handle it all–spread out the responsibilities. Don’t take that as an excuse to shove responsibility onto other people: own everything you do. Anything worth doing is worth doing well.

[Jason] No portfolio presentations (unless specifically that is focused on making a good and presentable portfolio.) No filler. No lies.

Provide more value to every attendee than the price of admission.

San-Francisco-and-Chicago-hosted brainstorming sessions to name the conference

Concerning events, like conferences/summits/workshops, what are their purpose or obligation in our society, the world?
[Laura] Like I said earlier, sharing collective knowledge is really important for the design community. Seasoned designers have a unique opportunity to shape the minds of young designers, and that’s really important. Christopher Murphy talked about this very thing in our interview. One day, his mentor told him that as teachers, they’re literally designing the minds of their students. It blew his mind to think of teaching that way. He takes his job really seriously, and I admire him for that.

It’s also amazing to me that the more time we spend on our devices, the more we treasure our time away from them. Services like Foursquare document the fact that you were in a physical place with your friends. That’s really special. Events that bring people together are important the way a long talk with a friend is important. Giving people the space to learn, grow, and reflect on their own lives and shortcomings. A safe space to examine yourself, and determine what you can do to be better and provide better experiences for the people around you. Reflecting on why we make rather than how we make is important, and I think the obligation of events is to support this kind of thinking, sharing, and growing in any given community.

[Jason] Additional viewpoints. There are a lot of designers who just work at one job with the same team for a sizable amount of time. Other perspectives are out there. There are other ways of doing things, for better and worse.
Who are your influences related to design?
[Laura] My own mentors and friends are the most influential. The funny thing about mentors is how they’re woven into your life at just the right time. Dan Saffer, the creative director at Smart Design, is a current influence. He demonstrates qualities that I aspire to in leadership: understanding the desires of the people he leads in order to help them become better designers. It sounds simple, but so many people don’t get to that level of understanding with their staff. Design is about relationships, so my influences are the relationships I have with other designers.

Ryan Freitas and Shawn Collins at about.me taught me how to be wrong, how to be right, and how to listen to feedback. Mandy Brown is always teaching me something, most recently not to quit my side projects. Marc O’Brien’s work inspires me to run as fast as I can towards the things I want to do in life in regards to design, even when I don’t know what they are yet. Jennifer Maples teaches me how to be a better adult. Linda Eliasen is a better illustrator than I’ll ever be. Xiulung Choy makes technology look fun and he values fine art. I could go on and on–I’m very lucky to have people in my life who support me and encourage me, whether they know it or not.

[Jason] Andy Warhol. Process and body of work. Dieter Rams (Braun), who possibly lead the most influential product design department in the last decade. There’s a reason why Apple does things the way they do. ;)

How important is it for you to follow your instincts?
[Laura] It’s very important for me to follow my instincts. My Meyers-Briggs personality type is XNFJ, in which F stands for Feeling and J stands for judgement. Essentially I use my own intuition to guide my actions. Most recently, intuition led me to work with Jason. Following my instincts is the reason I’m a designer in San Francisco today. It all started with a hunch that I should go to art school, because art had been my most consistent interest in life to that point. I learned to recognize through experience that when I followed my intuition, it led me to more satisfying experiences. Another way to think of it is being honest with yourself, about your own strengths and limitations, about what you really want. When you go against your instincts is when you get into trouble, and find yourself where you knew you shouldn’t be. When you follow your intuition, you learn to recognize when you’re exactly where you should be. It feels like home.

[Jason] Depends. I modify my instincts based on situation. I always have a gut feeling, however how I act on it is modified per scenario.

How do you get the word out about Hike?
[Laura] Talking! We’ve been sharing the news with our close friends, mentors, colleagues, anyone we meet, really. It’s an easy party conversation. “What do you do?” “I’m planning a conference.” People tend to have a lot of questions, and it’s fun to share the story.

[Jason] Help us!

How do you attract sponsors?
[Laura] Through the relationships and connections that we already have. It’s not so much attracting but just asking people, very plainly and nicely. Have I mentioned how important relationships are?

[Jason] Top secret. Actually a lot of the sponsors have been our friends and network. The board has some really great connections out there.

What is your definition of growth, as it relates to event-creation and management?
[Laura] My personal definition of growth is only as much as the community needs. On the local level, I’m in favor of keeping the events on the small side. I prefer when people can get to know one another without being overwhelmed by a thousand people. On the national level, Jason and I are interested in hosting the conference in more cities in the future. I’m from Tennessee, so it would mean a lot to me to host a Hike event in Chattanooga or Nashville. Events don’t have to be huge to be important. It’s the quality of the community and the willingness for people to participate that’s most important to me.

[Jason] We just want to fill enough seats that the thousands of hours were worth it to us. We’re not really focused on opening a Hike in every city, like CreativeMornings, or anything at this point.

How would you describe Hike’s culture? And why is it important?
[Laura] Hike’s culture is fairness and a lot of fun. It’s funny, because I haven’t thought of Hike having a culture until just now. I think Jason and I set the tone for the board and our volunteers with our personalities and the way we work together, which includes a lot of laughter and trusting each other. We make decisions quickly because we don’t have time to debate forever. It goes back to instincts: we agree on something and it’s settled, unless we later think of a solid reason to go in a different direction. We all have a common goal to get this thing off the ground, and we all trust each other to pull weight. We all need each other, and we all like each other.

It’s important because when I imagine the opposite—a group of people who have big egos and selfish motivations—it sounds like a nightmare to me. I only want to work with people who are better than me and who respect each other. We’re really lucky to be working with our group of volunteers. Once a week, Jason and I have a “holy shit” moment. Everyone on our team is amazing. We couldn’t do this without them.

[Jason] The entire day of the conference will not be speakers presenting to you. There is a focus on collaborative sessions where your input will be shared with smaller groups.

The board meets weekly on a Google Hangout. Special guests include Jennifer Hansen’s cat.

How can people learn and be informed
about the Hike conference?
[Laura] Through our website, hikecon.com, and on Twitter @hikecon. The full website will be up in early February with our list of speakers and more details about what Hike is.

What conferences/gatherings do you enjoy experiencing?
[Laura] I enjoy experiencing small local gatherings here in San Francisco. Jennifer Maples’ StrategyTNT, at Makeshift Society, brings in speakers who discuss design strategy and their careers. Joe Robinson hosts a Designers+Geeks event where I saw Aarron Walter from Mailchimp speak at the Yelp headquarters. Julie Horvath’s Passion Projects at Github are a big one. She brings women in to speak about side projects, from code to lettering and illustration. It’s been really amazing to see Julie grow the idea and community over the last year, and I can’t wait to see where she takes it this year. Julie is another design inspiration for me, in that her hustle is so fierce. If we all worked half as hard as Julie, I don’t even know what would happen. We’d spontaneously combust.

At a higher level, I enjoy events where I can really connect with everyone involved, from the organizer and speakers to the other attendees. It really helps me get out of my own work and remember that I’m part of a huge community of people with different strengths and passions.

[Jason] In 2013, I went to a lot of conferences. I’m starting to get a lot less hyped about events where speakers just show a glorified portfolio as their presentation. For me, I’d rather hear a speaker talk about life in general for 45 minutes.

I’m more hyped about shared creative experiences, like hackathons and passion weekends. I think the coolest ideas are coming from these, and that they are absolutely valuable for people who attend and learn new skills, see how others work and make some cool connections.

On creativity, design, working

Design writer Alissa Walker wrote an article called “Women in Industrial Design: Where My Ladies At?” Where are the Ladies in Design/Development/Strategy/Business, et al., at?
[Laura] We’re right here! *waves hands* A common explanation is that women are raised to be more passive and less aggressive than men, which leads to us shying away from the spotlight. I have to admit that it does feel weird to put myself out there and shout, “Hey, look at me! I’m making cool things.” But I think there’s more to the story than that.

Kai Brach of Offscreen Magazine just posted an explanation of the unbalanced gender line-up they’ve had with their interviews. It seems like there are a handful of women who become well-known for their trade, and end up doing a lot of interviews. I think they become our representation of women in the industry, and the rest of us can just keep on working. We’re so focused on cranking out work that we aren’t taking time to produce talks and answer interviews. I’ve got to admit that it feels strange for me to be doing it now, but I know that this is what it takes in order to share your message. I’m more passionate about sharing the Hike story than I am afraid of putting myself in this uncomfortable space.

By the way, it’s incredibly satisfying to see my company, Smart Design, mentioned in the article. Femme Den started in our New York office, and now there’s a contingency of San Francisco folks who are refreshing it and reviving the whole movement. My colleagues are starting a feminist literature book club, and expanding the concept beyond marketing. Smart Design is an incredible example of how a modern workplace should be: it’s pro-women, pro-work-life balance, pro-employee happiness.

So where are the ladies at? We’re right here, making an impressive amount of work for you.

[Jason] Our Hike board is all ladies but myself. They are out there. Most of our volunteers are also female.

My agency, Bright Bright Great, is also more female than male.

How do you handle disagreements while you’re working?
[Laura] We talk it out! Jason and I are very, very different, and that’s part of what I love about working together. When we disagree on something, we just talk about it until we reach a mutual understanding. We respect each other enough to listen.

[Jason] We are a small team (under 10), so that allows us the opportunity to talk everything out. Since we base all of our work on usability and functionality, the disagreements are usually about how to make something better, opposed to typical feedback like “I don’t like that.”

Disagreements become so much more clear when data and analytics are involved.

What part of your work is particularly trying,
and how do you deal with it?
[Laura] There are a lot of moving pieces, and often things get lost in translation. I’m taking on several different jobs at once: project managing, sponsorship, and contributing to marketing outreach. We deal with it by talking to each other a lot, and talking to our board members a lot. It takes a lot of patience, because it can be frustrating to not know what’s going on. Things flow more smoothly when Jason and I are checking in and carving out our responsibilities on a daily or weekly basis.

[Jason] Being the small team, my role is running the company (Operations), all sales (Sales Director), leading all creative (Creative Director) down to things like paying bills and emptying the trash. Time is the biggest factor I am up against.

To make sure that my day as well as my entire team’s days are as valuable as possible, we have pretty tight processes around we do everything. We use tools to allow us to succeed like Freshbooks, Basecamp, and other apps.

I think our processes are extremely smart. That affords us time to make sure our work is done.

What is your workspace like? How does it contribute 
to doing the quality of work you want to do?
[Laura] My workspace is wherever my brain, notebook, and/or computer are. Smart is incredibly supportive of the conference, so I end up conducting a lot of business there. Otherwise, I work from my bed, my kitchen, my backyard…right now I’m in a coffee shop. I moved three times last year, so I’m a very mobile person. I’ve learned that I only need a comfortable, spacious place to get work done. I’ve just got to be relaxed and focused, and I seek cozy environments that help me achieve that mindset.

[Jason] Bright Bright Great is a wide open space. Everyone sits together forcing everyone to collaborate on all projects even if designers, marketers, etc., aren’t on that specific project.

You can peek into our space here. We are also putting up lots of photos of our space on Instagram at brightbrightgreat and on Facebook.

What tools do you use and recommend to work on ideas 
and make them grow, to collaborate and get things done?
[Laura] I work almost entirely in my inbox and Google drive for collaborating. We use Basecamp to manage what our teams are doing, and set up different projects for each team: marketing, design, sponsorship, and so on. It’s not perfect, but we manage to get things done. I personally use IA Writer and Google Drive for any longer-form writing that needs to be done. The calendar on my iPhone is also very important.

[Jason] There’s a lot of tools out there. I recommend you have at least one to handle the following:
How do you stay creative? What are some
of your sources of motivation/inspiration?
[Laura] I stay creative by being really kind to myself. I work when I feel like working, and I take breaks when I’m not getting anything done. I don’t look at many inspiration blogs, they tend to overwhelm me. I’m inspired by all the I spend away from my computer. I love traveling, getting to know California, cooking meals, and film photography. Remembering to enjoy life is what motivates me to keep working on my dreams. If I worked all the time, I would get really burnt out. I worked a lot in college and made a lot of great work that I’m proud of. But in hindsight, I wish I had spent a little more time drinking wine and shooting the breeze on my best friend’s front porch.

[Jason] We don’t work long hours, which I know is not the norm. Everyone is required to put in a full work day at our office, but all of that other time is about being out in the world and getting excited for how many amazing things are out there.

Every person on my team must have at least one other creative skill that they are a master of. For example, design and photography, design and modeling, design and music creation. We get each other excited with our skills, and learn together, which is always fun.

What is your definition of bad design?
[Laura] My definition of bad design is anything that solves problems that don’t need to be solved, or aren’t actually problems at all. I was just talking about this with my boyfriend last night, about how bad design and all the money in Silicon Valley is laughable. But at the same time, sometimes really stupid ideas lead to amazing products that can have significant cultural influence. Twitter is a great example of that. The founders didn’t know exactly what they were making or why, and now people use it to connect with one another in ways that were unimaginable when the idea was first conceived. It was just a silly little thing.

If everything were designed seriously and with purpose, how would we know what’s actually good and relevant? We need bad design to really appreciate good design.

[Jason] Anything that doesn’t solve the problem posed. Because I am a hard-ass at work, we not only strive to solve the problems but end up with solutions that amaze.

If you were posed, “Laura and Jason, I have an idea 
for a conference. How do I get this real?” What’s your response?
[Laura] Find someone to work with. Don’t try to do it on your own. Understand why you’re making it, and be very specific about who your audience is. Most ideas are broad enough to encompass a whole spectrum of people, but you really need to define your target audience and understand them completely. By focusing on one specific group of people, you’ll find your own voice and direction is much clearer.

[Jason] Creating a conference is bigger than you, even if this is just your idea or brand. Working with a team of amazing people who you can count on and will share the load is really what it’s about.

Other aspects of your work that would be interesting 
to creative practitioners and aspiring product/business makers?
[Laura] I’ve said it twice, I’ll say it again: relationships. Cultivating relationships is the single-most important part of a creative career. You will be a much better person for seeking mentorship and connecting with your creative peers. They will teach you more than you can imagine.

[Jason] The reason why we are doing this in the first place is because of The Secret Handshake and Form and Future. This is interesting for the students and young creators, because the content is so strong. How did the best designers do it? What did they do to get to where they are today? How do they define success?

How do the cities of Chicago and San Francisco contribute to your work? And what makes each special for startups/business/creativity-at-large?
[Laura] San Francisco is obviously a huge tech hub, and that’s a big part of what people hear. It’s the “new Silicon Valley.” I’m more interested in the less-discussed side of San Francisco, the part of the city that still fosters artists and creatives and entrepreneurs who aren’t exactly tech-focused. Rena Tom, the founder of Makeshift Society, really opened my eyes to that part of our city. Personally, San Francisco contributes to my work by it’s incredible weirdness and beauty. There’s such a rich and conflicting history here, and it’s really interesting to live here right now. I hope the city can find a way to support its artists and residents without just catering to the ultra-rich.

[Jason] I am very pro-Chicago. I think it’s no where as visible as New York City, or San Francisco, but there are amazing things happening here, as well as amazing talent.

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All images courtesy of Laura Helen Winn and Jason Schwartz of Hike.

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Typeface of quotation is Avant Garde.

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For more conferences/summits/camps/meet-ups related to art, business, design, storytelling, technology, and more, see this list.

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Hike co-creator and organizer Laura Helen Winn emphasized the importance of having mentors. Read my reflection, “Mentorship keeps me awake and aware.”

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Read more from Design Feast Series of Interviews
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