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Chalkboards, Cupcakes, and the Soul of Design

Recently I traveled to Boston to attend HOW Design Live 2014, which in the words of its organizers is, “…the biggest annual gathering of creative professionals, anywhere.” At the conference I heard many inspirational speakers, learned about the new Adobe Creative Cloud software and design process, and grew my understanding of how to build and lead an amazing, creative team.

The conference was loaded with heavy-hitting keynote speakers, three of whom I personally connected with, and whose stories I thought I’d share. Their stories shared a common thread: follow your dream and engage with art outside of technology. I hope you find their stories as inspiring as I did.

Dana Tanamachi-Williams is a self-taught designer from Texas, best known for starting the chalkboard typography craze in America. Think Starbucks chalkboard menus. While working as a designer in New York, Dana began drawing frames and typography on her friend’s chalkboard wall in her spare time. Her creations were so unique that friends began snapping pictures of themselves in front of them, which they then posted on Facebook.

She soon had an extensive portfolio of unique artwork and typography online which, thanks to social media, landed her a job with Louise Fili Ltd., a prominent NYC graphic design firm. She continued to pursue her true passion: creating unique and engaging typography. Her day job funded the pursuit of her dream, and her anonymity allowed her to take risks and make mistakes. Eventually she was able to start her own business and devote herself full-time to her passion. Dana’s story reminded me of two very important things: stay true to your dream and continue to hone your non-computer based, “hand” skills.

Next is Bob Gill, an iconic American illustrator and graphic designer. Bob is one of the founders of Fletcher/Forbes/Gill design studio, precursor to the present-day megalith, Pentagram, one of the largest and most successful design firms in America. Inspirational and unforgettable, Bob stood on the stage and told the crowd, “You all suck. You are not designers. What is wrong with you? Sitting there behind your computers, hiding behind technology!”

Not only was he hilarious, but quite frank. I loved his perspective: in order to achieve great design, you must live in the shoes of your client. “If you need to create a logo for a dry cleaner, what do you do: sketch, wordlist, mood board? No, you go to the dry cleaner and you sit there. What do you do? I don’t know, but you sit there, you talk to people, you learn about the process, you smell the smells, you experience first person the soul of dry cleaning. You do this until you have an idea. Great design doesn’t have a timeline.”

Bob also spoke of how what you stand for attracts the clients you desire. If someone doesn’t agree with your process, or your ideas, it’s ok to let them go- that’s conviction. If they don’t like what you bring to the table, then they don’t trust your expertise, which makes them a poor fit. Bob’s keynote inspired me to get back to basics – to search for the root of the problem I’m trying to solve, not the solution to a perceived problem.

Lastly, there was Johnny Earle, a.k.a., Johnny Cupcakes. A self-made millionaire by 26, Johnny is the founder of one of the fastest growing and most iconic brands in America. After dropping out of college, Johnny began touring with his death-metal band, while peddling t-shirts from a raggedy suitcase on the side. Selling under his nickname, Johnny Cupcakes, his t-shirts featured a cupcake and crossbones logo, along with a silly expression or funny design. It wasn’t long before Spencer’s, Target, and other big-box retailers came calling.

Opting not to sell out to the “big boys,” who would likely dilute his brand, he opened his first retail store. His bakery-themed store skyrocketed his sales and brand recognition. Going to great lengths to control every aspect of his brand experience, Johnny hangs vanilla air fresheners in his stores to evoke the smell of a bakery, and packs his t-shirts in rolling pin containers. Basic packaging or cheaper display cases would have saved him money, but it was the vintage bakery displays and rolling pin packaging that fueled his success and cemented his brand.

Dana, Bob, and Johnny confirm that doing what you love and demanding the highest quality of work pays off. Love covers a multitude of sins, as does having a passion for what you do. And cutting corners only results in a weaker vision and negatively impacts your brand. The moral of these stories: follow your passion, and invest in quality design and experience…no matter the cost.

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