August Jackson Design Directors Stephanie Kelly and Allison Le attended the HOW Design Live 2019 Conference, one of the largest annual gatherings of creative professionals in the world, convening designers, creatives, business owners, and marketing professionals.

Allison and Stephanie sat down with AJ’s VP of Creative Strategy, Neal Shaffer, to talk about their experience during insightful sessions with some of today’s most influential design and creative leaders. From managing mental health as a creative professional to tapping into empathy to drive the design process, here are the moments that impacted them the most.

Neal: First off, why were you interested in attending HOW Design Live?

Stephanie: It’s an opportunity for designers to be together in one room and learn from each other. And what’s interesting to me about attending conferences like this is learning about process. So often we see end products, but I love to learn about the storyline or thought process of how a designer reached that end point. The strategy behind it.

Neal: Yes, that start-to-finish journey is rarely understood or even seen.

Allison: That’s true. The process by which we create design is not a straight line. It requires a lot of deep concentration and hunting for inspiration. And the end product, that’s what our clients see and what is out there in the world. That always looks beautiful. And our job is to make that look easy. If that’s done right, it means we did our jobs well.

Neal: Numerous speakers at HOW brought up mental health. For designers and creatives, what do you think people need to understand about it?

Stephanie: As designers, we are professionals. Many of us have undergone professional training to become the designers we are today. But on another level, it’s personal. Part of us will always exist in that design. It’s a huge deal to make designs where pretty much everyone has an opinion, and it might not always be a positive one.

That’s a reality that was talked about during the conference. When designers and artists put our work out in the world, we aren’t necessarily inviting everyone to tell us what they don’t like about it. But that’s the risk of exposing yourself. It takes a certain level of balance and personal mental health to let those comments be absorbed as critiques, rather than attacks. It’s like, “Ok, this person felt this way, maybe this is how I can make it better.”

Allison: And that’s kind of the beauty of art in general – everyone can have an opinion on it. But it requires elegance and confidence on our part to embrace that criticism.

Neal: Definitely. Evaluating design work isn’t well understood. How do we get better at helping our audience understand the context of our work along the terms of a healthy evaluation?

Allison: So much of what we do as designers is instinctual. We’ve determined the visual answer based off strategic insights. But now we need to contextualize those visuals so that others understand our thoughts behind our decisions. That’s hard to do.

Stephanie: I’ve learned that clients will have an initial reaction to the design, but they appreciate the path of how we got there and the strategy behind it. Every little thing that we put together has meaning and has a reason for being there. And it becomes this grey area with finding the right terminology to communicate what we’ve created. It’s an ongoing challenge to try to translate our ideas, our process, and how we got to a certain point to people who may not be inherently visual.

Neal: I think that more understanding on both sides of the actual presentation process and explanation process is a critical piece of getting to more successful work. Which leads me to another trend from HOW Design Live – the concept of empathy and putting ourselves in the shoes of our clients, their culture and their people. In this context, why are designers talking about empathy?

Allison: I’ve always thought of myself as empathetic on a personal level but had never considered it on a professional level until it was brought up at HOW Design Live. I spent a lot of time thinking about that and how being empathetic helps me in my professional life, too. It’s true that as a designer you end up working for a lot of different types of people — corporate, higher ed, nonprofit – they each have their own needs. To be able to really feel what they need is vital because otherwise you’re just designing for design sake and you don’t really have a pulse on how your design could help or affect them.

One speaker asked us to consider our own political affiliations and then said, “What if the opposite political party came to you and asked you to design a campaign for them?” That is a true test of a designer. Can you put your personal feelings aside and design what the client really needs?

Stephanie: I thought that was a great example of how designers are different than artists. Designers are capable of putting themselves in their clients’ shoes and figuring out the best way to communicate their story. We live in a world where technology is infused into our lives, and I feel like people are craving more organic and analog connection – connecting more on a human level. Designers need that empathy to understand their clients in order to create that connection with their community. Instead of framing our work as business-to-business or business-to-consumer, distilling it down to human-to-human. When that connection is made, it’s a lot stronger and has a bigger impact on the audience.

Allison: Yes, the connections that we’re trying to make via design need to feel authentic.

Neal: Yeah, when you’re in this industry – and what makes it not art – is that we’re doing acts of creation and translation at the same time. Pure creation, that’s art. But designers are filtering in client directives. That’s part of what makes it harder and that’s why it’s not just off-the-shelf.

Allison: I like that… “creation and translation.” Absolutely.

Neal: Are there any other final takeaways or trends you observed that you’d like to showcase?

Stephanie: Allison and I noticed that the most impactful presentations were ones that had very clean and simple visuals. Slides served as a visual aid to what the speaker was saying, whether it was just one bullet point written beautifully to drive home a point or highly engaging visuals, the impact was far greater than for someone who was just reading off slides. It felt like they were actually talking to us. Less is so much more because it leaves room for the speaker to connect with the audience.

Allison: On a funnier note, I think in every single deck there was a Venn diagram. The first time, we thought, “Oh ok.” The third time, “Oh, that’s funny!” But by the twentieth deck, we were just expecting it… “There it is!” So maybe that’s the design trend of 2019? Venn diagrams!

Neal: (Laughing) Well, I think we’ve really explored the human dimension of all of this. Creating things that ultimately leave room for human connection and stripping the extraneous stuff that gets in the way of that. Thinking about all of the human decisions that go into the design we bring to life. I think these learnings really validate how we approach design at AJ – always thinking deeply about the work we make through the lens of the people with whom we’re trying to connect.