October 31, 2014

New designers guided at the Hike Conference

In October, 2014, a time machine landed in Chicago. Distinguished members of the design community spoke to the new generation of creators—designers, illustrators, coders, and strategists. Representing different design disciplines, these 15 speakers shared their viewpoints, marked by “moving forward through the rearview mirror”(1), at the Hike Conference for new designers. They reflected on their current state, informed by the precedence of experiences since their graduation from design school. Certain themes and truths arose as a pattern among the presentations held at the second Hike event, created and organized by The Secret Handshake.

Befriend yourself and others

When considering the ratio of importance between people and things, Bryan Innes, a designer at Twitter, places all the weight on the former. Specifically as it pertains to human beings and human relationships.

Bryan Innes, Twitter

Upon leaving the island of academia, the tendency is to hone in on the role of materialist, to start shaping a massive body of work, and extend an additive set of tools, from hardware to software to salaries to a library of references. Accumulating material is empowering, but is immaterial. To Innes, “People matter, not things.” This connects with author Ian McEwan’s description: “A person is, among all else, a material thing, easily torn and not easily mended.” We humans are fragile. Human interaction is easily prone to a brittle nature. More reason to pay attention and practice Innes’ people-matter-prescription of acting as a friend with co-workers, clients, vendors—and with oneself.

Each speaker shared their emerging itinerary so far, as a designer, from the world of school to the world of jobs, whether it was Alisa Wolfson’s arrival at Leo Burnett, where she established the Department of Design, to Alison Mendel’s arrival at IDEO, to Kim Knoll establishing Knoed Creative with her husband Kyle Eertmoed. Each discovered their individual path since graduating from their formal education. All experienced struggles, bouts with agitation and self-doubt, while initiating and building successful traction in their respective careers. With each chapter, they encountered people who influenced them. People helped each one to navigate the demands and climate of their livelihoods, spreading out, as they forged their name and reputation as a designer. They relied (and keep relying) on people who relied on them. People matter.

Mind your manners, especially your ego

The poet Maya Angelou said, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” She testified to the fact that people can hold long memories. To help ensure that pleasant memories are secured, the majority of speakers collectively presented a fundamental and lasting guide to etiquette:
  • Alisa Wolfson: “Be humble.”
  • Bryan Innes: “Don’t be a dick.”
  • Chuck Anderson: “Be careful how you treat people.”
  • Kim Knoll: “Don’t be ego-tastic.”
Attaching to Knoll’s point, ego is a major requirement. It feeds ambition. However, left unchecked, one’s ego can rise to acidic levels: self-awareness sharpens into self-preservation, which, in turn, can simultaneously assume a number of toxic directions: arrogance, suspicion, (passive) aggression. Self-awareness mutates into selfishness. Ego may have nothing to do with who you, in essence, are. It may just be the mask you wear.

The fact that each speaker showed their vulnerability, when sharing cherished nostalgia and lessons from their gradual career as designers, speaks volumes about their character. The audience of burgeoning designers was given the gift of insight to help make their future less tense and more perfect. Because their future is now, and we join in it.


Alison Medland’s telling of her journey was remarkable. Her formative years, as an undergraduate, conditioned her to be ambitious. During and immediately after graduation, she adopted, what I strongly felt to be, a Darwinian model to push her career. As she put it, “It was ‘survival of the fittest.’” This phrase (1864) was coined by philosopher and biologist Herbert Spencer. It was used by naturalist and geologist Charles Darwin in the fifth edition of his epic book “On the Origin of Species” (1869). He intended it to mean “better designed for an immediate, local environment.” Medland firmly set herself to getting better, to be the job.

Alison Yard Medland, IDEO

As a freshly-minted designer, she inserted herself in a work environment characterized by a “constant cutthroat grind.” She evolved into a “workhorse,” hot-blooded and competitive, with discipline and focus aggressively exercised. For the first half of her presentation, she exhibited the halo of an alpha female.

Then, her talk took an unexpected turn. She revealed her epiphany, that her work had totally consumed her to the point of alienation: “I distanced myself from myself.” The result: a sclerosis of the heart and mind. Her meeting of future husband, Kyle, proved to be a transition. Kyle’s curiosity, particularly his “noticing power,”(2) in the form of drawings, fed by musings, and photography, fed by sightseeing. It was not only Kyle’s presence that acted as a tonic, the brunt of advancing her life-redesign initiative was Medland herself.

I asked her afterwards if there was a specific method she utilized to contribute to her positive change, her answer was, essentially, self-examination. At the core of her unfolding self-awareness was a profound truth: “Graphic design is a tiny grain of what I do.”

Designers boost contrast in conception and execution. Medland’s school-to-world commencement demonstrated this aesthetic quality to the max. She reworked her worldview by restarting.

Alisa Wolfson, Department of Design, Leo Burnett

The cycle of starts was addressed by Alisa Wolfson, who reinforced, “Starting never ends.” Design is an iterative process. The same applies to life. It takes courage to start something new, especially when it’s done all over again.

This innate desire to start, the availability of this impulse, its frequency, presents a privileged opportunity to put one’s self to work. In the children’s book “Where the Wild Things Are” by Maurice Sendak, the story’s lead character, Max, exclaimed, “Let the wild rumpus start!” Starting celebrates living. No starting, no working. Without the start, no project approached, no art realized. Starting, and starting again, leaves the taste for not-getting-started in the dust.

Possible from here

Perhaps a percentage of the audience, mostly composed of newly graduated designers, saw a reflection of themselves in the speakers as they envisioned their future-in-the-making.

Before Hike Conference creators and organizers, Laura Helen Winn and Jason Schwartz, and their volunteer team launched their first event in San Francisco on April 4th and 5th, 2014, I had the privilege to interview them.

Regarding the practice of organizing gatherings like theirs, Winn said, “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.”

Kim Knoll, Knoed Creative

The Hike Conference gave attendees a huge advantage at the boundary between their undergraduate education and a dynamic frontier of professional practice—an advantage vetted by experience and one that keeps giving over time: perspective.

(1) Phrase from book “Forward through the rearview mirror: reflections on and by Marshall McLuhan” (1996).

(2) “Noticing power” was coined by design researchers Steve Portigal and Dan Soltzberg. Read my related post.

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See my photos of Hike, “A conference for new designers,” created by The Secret Handshake.

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Big thanks: to Chairs, Board, and Volunteers, who made Hike Conference’s first year happen; to Morningstar for hosting.

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Read more of my coverage of events related to design and creativity.

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