The Softer Side Of Conferences

Last week I attended the 15th Information Architecture Summit in San Diego, California. Besides being held in what has quickly become one of my favorite spots in the country, the conference had an incredible line-up and more importantly, an incredible community of attendees.

As I sat through talks and joined in hallway conversations I noticed a familiar trend in what was being discussed. More than being about new techniques and tools, I felt as though I was hearing admissions and confessions from both speakers and attendees alike. For as much as any presenter seemed to talk about some new concept, there was a human story about the challenges they went through that helped them find it.

There were talks on imposter syndrome, management, team dynamics, collaboration, working with difficult people, and more. Even the talks that were more future-looking or that seemed more “design” or tech-focused felt somewhat confessional.

For some audience members the stories shared were intended to help them (hopefully) avoid the speaker’s experiences in their own endeavors. For others the intention was more to build understanding that they, the attendee, are not alone; that others have gone through what they have. That yes, this work and the work of any creative professional, is frustratingly hard at times, because we work with people, and people can be irrational, emotional, crazy-ass animals.

The conversations in the hall at the conference continued this same trend. And from there they moved into life outside work, so-called work/life balance.

The conference felt to as much a support group as it did a learning environment.

It’s something I’ve seen in many of the conferences I’ve attended but has always seemed strongest in those held by a community organization rather than a business. And for some reason, I felt it stronger this year than I have in the past (this was my 6th summit).

Many others have observed the same thing, and what I’ve written so far may seem obvious and inconsequential. But I’m writing this for a reason. Because the older I get the more I see this side of conferences as being the more important side, the more valuable side to an attendee. And that’s a challenge because the majority of where attendees registration fees are being paid from are organizations who don’t see or care about this aspect. Businesses and organizations send designers and creative talent for two main purposes: learn new skills and make new professional connections.

But the thing about working in any creative industry, about being a “creative” is that it IS NOT just what we do. It is who we are. It is a part of how we feel, think and perceive the world. It draws on impulse and emotion as much as it does intellect and skill. It is all together exhilarating and exhausting.

We need the support groups and confessionals that these conferences bring. This isn’t something that many employers understand or even want to. They want a return on their investment, and to them that comes from new skills, productivity or opportunities, not someone’s “creative soul” feeling healed.

So while employers may not see this, conference organizers should,and I know many that do. Think about your attendees and why they’re coming. Understand that attendees are in a position of needing to satisfy their employers goals but also have their own, more human needs(even though they may not realize it).

Design your conference to give people opportunities to genuinely connect. Alcohol and happy hours are great in moderation, but find other, more subdued ways based on community and communication as well. Choose experienced speakers who have a history of telling personal stories and making themselves available to attendees off of the stage. Choose new speakers who want to share their experiences, not for the spotlight, but because they want to find others who have had them too. And help your attendees sell your conference to their bosses so that they can attend. Guide them in crafting justifications, and find ways to continue to add value even after the event is over.

I know it seems like a lot, but I’m lucky enough to know some organizers who’ve done exactly these things, and I’m even luckier to have gotten to attend some of their events. It works. And it truly makes for a better industry, community and individuals.

On Art, Design & The Difference Between Them

Like many designers and artists, I’ve run into frustration with finding inspiration and motivation at times. Having spent a lot of time thinking about my creative process and the processes of other creators in order to better understand these frustrations, I’ve learned a lot about my own identity and beliefs around art and design.

These beliefs have helped me in determining where I should focus my efforts and spend my time. In order to help me clarify my thoughts and maybe help others who are dealing with similar frustrations, I thought I’d share some of my observations and how they’ve impacted my work in a series of posts.

For this first entry, let’s start with the difference between art and design.

It’s easy to find or get involved in conversations about what makes something a work of art as opposed to a work of design. And there is a wide range of nuanced interpretations of these differences. I won’t bore you with a long explanation of various ways I’ve thought about the question, rather, I’ll jump to my thoughts.

The difference: expression vs communication.

Art is about expression. Art is about the creator externalizing an idea or emotion in some form. How it is received or interpreted by an audience is immaterial. It is only the act of putting something out that is the art, the expression. Therefore, how an artist chooses to express their idea is completely up to them. They can use whatever techniques, mediums, or other approaches that they wish. Art is inherently personal in that in order to express something an individual must feel it and their own sense will inevitably carry through into whatever they create.

Design is about communication. Design is a conversation and very much dependent on the recipient of the idea clearly understanding and, in most situations, acting upon the information being presented.. The creator must make decisions based on what will or will not work to convey their “message” to the recipient.

Whereas art is impulsive, happening without analytic thought, design is methodical. In a broad sense it is the act of composing and constructing something to achieve a specific set of desired objectives when “used”.

All creative endeavors exist on a spectrum.

So now you’re thinking, “But I make art, and I put some serious thought into it.”

Of course you do. I bet most artists think seriously about what their creation is or should look like, feel like, sound like, and so on. But those thoughts have to do with what the audience perceives; What you want them to take away from your creation; what it communicates.

Creations are not binary. In other words, they are not explicitly either a work of art or a work of design. Rather creations exist along a spectrum with one end being pure art (pure expression) and the other, pure design (pure communication).


Damn. I really need to find a better way to illustrate this, huh. But hey, rainbow gradient FTW!

Examining this spectrum it becomes obvious that very little of what we create ever exists at the very end of either side of the spectrum. More often than not, artists who have managed to establish a career for themselves are strongly considering their viewers and making decisions based on how best to evoke a feeling or thought in them.

And even the most empathic, considerate designers will have their own perspective of how things could or should be, and it would be impossible for every decision they make to be 100% unbiased to those views.

Think about your own creations - how did you decide what to make or how to make it? Was it impulsive, something you just felt should be? Or was it something more methodical, a deliberate set of decisions meant to produce a reaction of some sort in someone else? More than likely there was a combination of both types of decisions throughout your process.

It is this difference between expression and communication that makes pure art impossible to judge. How can anyone judge the quality of another’s expression? Rather what happens in the art industry is the judgement of an artist’s ability to evoke thoughts within a viewer, and this has more to do with communication, whether the artist was actually attempting to deliberately communicate or just expressing themselves (this is my big issue with art criticism in general).

Let’s talk about education and craft.

Based on this understanding most art education isn’t really about art, but more about design and craft. When learning to draw, a student learns about composition, about capturing form, about light and shadow and all of this is through the lens of the effect on the viewer, about how a drawing communicates with the people looking at it. Similarly, in learning music, one learns about structure, harmony, melody, dissonance, again through the lens of their impact on the listener.

Things of this nature, however, are not arts, they’re crafts. A craft is  a combination of the techniques and medium with which something is created. The craft defines the tools and techniques used to create something.

Craftsmanship is then the degree of detail and precision with which these techniques are applied in order to produce quality in the objectives of creation. Because craftsmanship is evaluated by a viewer/user with regard to their experience with the creation, I see craftsmanship more as a component of the design-based creation than artistic-based.

A drawing student, a music student - any art student - can go on to apply their learnings in a work of art - something whose purpose is only to express something within the creator. Or they might create something that is purely meant to produce a specific effect in the audience, like drawing an image or writing a song for use in advertising a product. But more than likely, what they’ll create will be a little of both. Some elements of their creation will be a conscious or unconscious catharsis and some decisions they make will be based on how best to communicate with the audience.

Figuring this all out changed the way I work.

In figuring out my own thoughts, I’ve found why some projects are exciting to me and some aren’t. For example, when I began to try to establish myself as an illustrator, I looked for clients to draw for. I love drawing and I thought for sure this would be a way to make a career out of something I love. But I found that I struggled frequently. I thought at first it was about control, but even on the projects where the client gave me near total control I struggled.

What I learned by looking at my work was that I needed the things I was drawing to truly express something I felt. It was more about what was being expressed than control over what was being created. For this reason, I don’t do a lot of illustration for clients. And when I do, I have to make sure that it’s something I really feel strongly about.

I think it’s valuable for anyone involved in creative work (or recreation) to come to their own understanding of what things are or aren’t and why they create them. Take a step back, look at your process and patterns. By having a clearer picture of your own thoughts on the various aspects of creativity, you may find you’re able to be a stronger, more focused creator.

What are your thoughts on art and design? Have these thoughts had an influence on your art or design work?

Separating Collaboration and Coordination (Thought For The day)

Collaboration is not merely the act of multiple people working to produce an outcome. However many teams and organizations approach it as such. Collaboration itself is more specific. With in it there are a variety of principles and considerations. Looking at how many organizations approach the idea of collaboration, i think it’s important to distinguish between collaboration and coordination.

Collaboration: the act of making decisions as a group in order to build a shared understanding while respecting and utilizing individual areas of expertise and skills.

Coordination: the act of aligning individual work efforts to produce outcomes that will eventually be assembled into or utilized in the formation of an end product.

Most, if not all projects will (or should) involve both collaboration and coordination but understanding their differences and how they relate to the progress and momentum of your team is a critical first step in any teams  efforts to improve how they work together.

Your bio, ten years from now.

Here’s an interesting activity. Many of us, at one time or another have had to write some kind of bio for ourselves. Something that quickly distills who we are, what we do, how we think, yada, yada, yada…

It can be painful. I know that I hate it. And I think that for many of us that pain can come from worry or recognition that who we want to be is not who (we think) we’re perceived as. Perhaps it because we act differently than we wish we did or we haven’t yet done the things we want to do.

So try this: write a bio for yourself ten years in the future. What will you be working on? What will you be known for? Will your thinking have changed?

Now, how useful this will be to you, I have no idea. But I think it’s interesting to give some life to the character we have jumbled up in our minds about who we’d like to be. Maybe it’ll help set goals. Maybe you’ll look at that character and say, “”Holy shit. Why would I really want to be like that?” Or maybe you’ll realize that your pretty rad just as you are now and you don’t need to worry so much about being someone else.

Talk isn’t cheap. (Thought For The Day)

Actually it’s pretty damn expensive. Often, conversations take a lot of time to reach a productive conclusion. And in many cases they never do.

It’s not that talking is bad. It’s necessary. But what’s important is that we take the time to think about how we talk to each other and what we talk about.

Is the meeting or the phone call you’re about to have going to be productive? How so? What are your goals for it? Do you have the necessary materials, done the appropriate things or thought about the relevant topics before going into it? Or are you just hoping that your conversation will magically solve the problems or questions you have?

Today’s thought brought to you from The Department of Duh

Stop doing “Stop doing…” (Thought For The Day)

One thing I LOVE about design: there are so many ways to think about and approach it.

One thing I DON’T LOVE about design (or specifically, the rhetoric around design): the arguments that “approach A is better than approach B.” or that we should “stop doing X…”

Context is everything, and chances are most tools have their time and place in some effort somewhere. Just because in your own work they haven’t been needed or used doesn’t mean that in someone else’s they haven’t been useful or even vital to making progress.

Instead, I think the smart designer is the one who understands the overal principles of design, the design process and creativity/creation. They have a philosophy, approach and tools that they often utilize but are familiar enough with other approaches and tools to understand their benefits and uses. They recognize when a particular design challenge’s context would benefit from their inclusion.

To be clear, there is nothing wrong with our community critiquing the tools and approaches we employ. But recognizing that our own context affects those critiques is important. And to dismiss something outright in this way is often nearsighted, as is positing an alternative as entirely superior.

As designers we of all people should be aware of the subtleties of context. The usefulness of a tool lies not just in the problem we’ll solve with it, but in the environment where that solving will take place and the people we’ll solve it with.

Yes, you bet your sweet bippy I’ve read One Size Fits None. It’s a great read. Much more practical, pragmatic and less ranty than my outburst here.If you haven’t read it, you should.

And, as the title suggests, I’m fully aware that this article teeters on the edge of doing the very thing it says shouldn’t be done by saying we should “stop doing something…” I’m just waiting to see who, if anyone, will be the first to school me on it.

Who I am & who I will be.

Note: There are no keen design insights to blow your mind in this post. This is merely a personal post that I’m making public for various reasons including accountability. Unless you’re a good friend or for some creepy reason have taken a keen interest in my life, it’s likely to not be anything you care about.

I’m damn lucky. I’m 32 years old and I’ve already accomplished many of the career goals I set for myself over the past 10 years. I’m a Design Director and part of an amazingly talented design studio (Mad*Pow) that is hell bent on making people’s lives better by improving the experiences they have when dealing with their health.

I get to travel all over the country and talk about topics I’m passionate about. And I get to work from my home which allows me to stay very involved in my kids’ lives and keep my family firmly rooted in a location that I can’t ever see myself leaving.

On top of that, thanks to the encouragement of my family and good friends, I’ve started a teeny, tiny career as an illustrator, an interest that at one point I thought I would need to abandon forever.

I’ve done a lot. And over the past 3 months I’ve been asking myself, “what’s next?” In the year leading up until now I was able to set very clear goals for myself and then work towards them. But for the first time in a long time now, all of my goals are fuzzy and there are so many of them that it makes it difficult to focus. I’ll admit that much of my previous success stemmed from being in situations that I disliked, and so my drive was based on making things better for me and my family. But right now, I can’t find a damn thing wrong with our situation. It is everything I want it to be.

I’m not bitching, mind you. Nor am I trying to brag. If you find yourself cursing at me under your breath or visualizing your fist firmly planted in between my eyes with my face caved in around it, I understand. It’s probably a good idea for you to stop reading now.

So back to my question. What do I do now? I still don’t know, but I have narrowed it down or at least i’ve organized my ideas.

My life as a Mad*Powian.

I’m sure some of my friends thought based on the premise of this post that I’m announcing a major career change or a move to a new organization.


I will remain a Mad*Powian for as long as it makes sense to them and to me. I can’t imagine a better fit. They have been supportive of allowing me to explore and pursue my interests to whatever extent they can, and that’s what I need right now.

Focusing on helping people create, understand creativity and work together.

These topics have been the focus of a lot of my thinking over the past 3 years. I am in love with the “creative process” from conceptualization to creation, regardless of medium. I love observing it, reading about it, and sharing my own observations on it. Some people believe it to be a miraculous occurrence while others believe it is a concrete process that can be followed. I believe it’s somewhere in between. And I plan to continue to study it as much as I can and share what I learn.

Almost hand-in-hand with that goes my interest with helping people work better together. As both an in-house designer and as a consultant, I’ve found helping teams come up with, share and make decisions about ideas to be my favorite part of my job. It almost doesn’t matter what it is we’re designing, it’s seeing teams work to create something together that I find satisfying. This is what has driven me to be such a strong component of critique, something that I feel is vital to collaboration and teamwork. It is also the cause for my focus on studying and sharing ideas on how best to create and facilitate environments for collaboration.

Going forward I plan to remain and even increase my focus on these two topics. Don’t get me wrong. I’ll continue to stay involved in the technical aspects of design, but this will be where my focus stays.

Focusing on education.

While helping teams work together in the context of a project is great. I’ve found that I prefer to help them understand the aspects that make for strong collaboration at a broader level. Organizations suffer from a number of challenges to collaboration; everything from their infrastructure and org charts, to project management, to deep rooted cultural issues. I’ve seen first-hand how taking time to step back and understand and address the challenges teams face can make for a more productive, creative and happy staff.

Mad*Pow has been very supportive of my desires to play more of an education role. Through them I’ll be looking to take that even further and looking for outside opportunities as well.

Focusing on storytelling

And now back to one of my first loves, stories.

To all you designers who just did an eye-roll thinking about the whole story-telling in design thing - hold on a minute.

Yes. I do think that storytelling is an important part of design and I’m sure I’ll be sharing my thoughts on that soon enough, but that’s not what I’m talking about here. I’m talking about telling actual stories.

When I first started college I had every intention of being an animator and filmmaker. That changed for a number of reasons, but the interest never went away.

Now that I’ve proven to myself that here is the possibility of me having some form of art career, it’s time to decide what I want to do with it. And that’s telling stories. Until now I’ve focused mostly on stand alone illustrations. Single pieces that illustrate one concept or emotion. But longer stories have been stuck in my head for years and I plan to start telling, or more specifically, drawing them.

On top of that, I still love film and filmmaking, and I see a number of opportunities to combine it with my interests in creativity and collaboration. And if I can find ways to weave storytelling and film into my work with Mad*Pow, you damn well believe I’m going to pursue it.

So that’s it. That’s me in a nutshell. Clear goals? Nope. Not yet. But I think I have a better understanding of where those goals could lie when they emerge. For right now, I can just enjoy what I have and do my thing.

Like I said, I’m damn lucky.

On keeping people in the loop (Thought for the Day)

If you’re someone who has decision making authority on a project and are likely to use it, then you aren’t someone who just needs to be “kept in the loop” you need to be actively involved.

So make room on your calendar. You’ve got work to do.

On emotion and experience (Thought for the Day)

If you aren’t at least considering people’s emotions, you probably aren’t designing for an experience.

Good Collaboration Requires Continued Communication

In order to maintain a collaborative spirit and culture in your team members it’s important to remain in communication with them even after their tasks are done or their roles and responsibilities lead them away from the project.

Ending communication with collaborators too soon can lead to weakened collaboration in future efforts.

Now in most ideal situations, people would be involved in some capacity during an entire project. But being realistic, it’s important to recognize that that’s not always possible in the environments some of us work in.

But just because someone’s work leads them away from the project, does not mean that you should stop communicating with them about it.

Over the life of your project, your designs will need to change. New constraints and information will arise and you’ll have to rethink some of the decisions you’ve previously made.

If those decisions were made with the help of people that are no longer actively engaged in the project (not because they don’t want to be) it is still be a good idea to consult with them on how and why the decision may need to be changed. They may have additional insights on what changes should be made given the new information. Or at the very least they’re made aware of the changes and the rationale for why they’re being made, so that at the end of the project, when the product is released, they aren’t left wondering where their contributions went and why they were even involved in the first place.

And this gets at the core of a good collaborative environment. Participants have to feel like they’ve contributed. Like their thoughts, ideas, and insights added value and helped shape the final result. By dropping communication with team members too soon, you run the risk of those members not seeing their value or questioning why they we’re even asked to help in the first place. And next time they’re called on to collaborate with you, they may not feel as willing to do so.