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Innovation Requires Taking Chances: Notes from #PHXDW

By: Kailen Campbell

In 2009 a passionate entrepreneur brought Design Week to Phoenix, and now the event known as Phoenix Design Week attracts hundreds of creative professionals from across the Southwest. It’s a true showcase of Arizona’s talented and tenacious design community.

This year’s theme was “Flux,” which focused on adaptation and making sense of the constant change and information that surrounds us. The theme shed light on the role of creators and innovators to bring structure, form and function to chaos—something that resonates with us at Tallwave. This year’s speakers covered a range of topics from time management to zeroing in on what’s important, and keeping up with a quickly evolving industry.

One of my favorite speakers from the conference was Sean Adams, the executive director of the Graphic Design Graduate Program at ArtCenter, and founder of Burning Settlers Cabin studio. Sean was the "break the rules," "take chances," and "be willing to fail big" guy. He was the type of guy who urged us to be brave enough to do the wrong thing occasionally and be brave enough to do things outside the box, even if it means receiving “ransom note hate mail." Essential traits when you’re trying to innovate or disrupt an industry.

Here are a few inspirational highlights from his talk:

Fill a need

In high school, the school library was limited and had absolutely no books on design. He recalls having only books about Adolf Hitler for inspiration and joked that many of his early design work projects had a darkness to them. Now he works for Lynda.com, an online learning platform, that allows the right resources to reach those people who don't have access to what they need. It’s amazing how what happens to us at a young age shapes our decisions and our career choices.

Forge a new path

At one point during his career, Sean and his team decided to "break the rules" and produce a creative table book for a client that highlighted findings from a sociological study. The fascinating part, was the design team made up every single bit of the results, never actually doing the study. On the first page, the book referenced how it wasn't a real study. Yet, people seemed to skip the intro when reading the book and it was later referenced by many magazines and books in the years to come.

Hit reset

He talked about how change begins with honesty and if you aren't happy, you have to make a change. Be honest with yourself. Learn what makes you happy—even if it’s not what you've been doing your whole life. After many years owning his own firm, he moved on from the business because he wanted to do something that allowed him to care more about others and help young designers. In his words, he wanted to "send the elevator back down".

Think holistically

Sean discussed the importance of leadership in design. Think holistically about every project, and elevate design presentation skills. He suggests starting every project with research and explaining the problem to the client, then strategizing, and then designing. "Don't bandaid when surgery is needed."

Build the foundation on strategy

When presenting, don't talk to clients about color and font. Tell them why you did what you did and what the intended result is. Talk about the strategy, not the aesthetic.

Start with seven

He suggested at the start of each project having clients commit to a list of seven words that they sign off on that represents them. Throughout the project, reference those words as criteria for your design suggestions.

Have empathy

He reminded us to always remember everyone is fighting their own battle, so have a little kindness for other people. In other words, have empathy. Incidentally that’s how we start every product development project at Tallwave, by first empathizing with the end user.

Be different

Finally, Sean encouraged us to "Embrace your weird" because the very things that made you weird in high school are what probably make you special today and allows you to create really wonderful, personality-rich design work.

Sean’s words hit home, because this is really the underpinning of design innovation—whether developing a product or a brand identity. True innovation requires holistic thinking, forging a new path, having empathy—and being a little weird.

Written by Kailen Campbell

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