The Dieline Founder Andrew Gibbs: On Identity Design for a Complex Event
Many years ago, our HOW colleagues worked with a local design agency to create a unique identity for the HOW Design Conference every year. In 1993, that collaboration created no small amount of controversy: Chicago designer Carlos Segura produced a conference brochure very much in the “grunge” style that was popular at the time: deconstructed type, seemingly unrelated imagery, overprinted layering. Segura’s work prompted discussion over the “obstructive” style, including a late-night debate during the conference itself.
(Michael Dooley wrote an excellent retrospective for Print this past June about the project and the controversy it sparked. “Exactly twenty years ago the How Design Conference distributed a promotional brochure that was just plain ugly. We know it was ugly because Steven Heller told us so. I mean, he really eviscerated the design, in an Eye magazine essay. It ‘obstructs comprehension.’ Its ingenuity is ‘undermined by its superficiality.’ And it’s ‘an artifact that is already ossifying into a 1990s design style.’”)
After more than a decade of creating the conference campaign in-house, the HOW planners this year collaborated with Andrew Gibbs, program director for The Dieline Conference and founder of TheDieline.com. We recently asked Andrew about the project, the process and the end result.
How challenging is it to design for designers? You do this with The Dieline, of course … how was this project different from designing an identity for, say, a conference of accountants?
I was aware of the 1993 controversy before we began the design process for this year’s identity. My team and I conducted a tremendous amount of research into the history of the HOW Conference, and went back to look at what had been done over the past 20 years.
I believe that designing for designers is the biggest design challenge of them all. Not only because designers are critical, we have to be, but because designers can’t be fooled. They know what good design is, and more importantly, what it is not. They know the value of design, and how to effectively use design as a tool to convey a vast amount of information.
Designing for designers also has a huge advantage: designers are much more receptive to design that pushes the limits and challenges the status quo.
How did the project of creating the 2014 HOW Design Live identity and website come about?
Well, the process actually goes back several years. When The Dieline partnered with HOW to launch The Dieline Conference in 2011, there was no such thing as HOW Design Live yet. It was previously just the HOW Design Conference. The first HOW Design Live was really the first ever creative gathering of its kind in the world. A design conference on this scale had never been done before. It was a gamble, but after the first year, we all knew we were onto something big: Not only did The Dieline Conference become the leading conference for package designers, but HOW Design Live became the largest annual gathering of creatives in the world.
Each successive year, we began tinkering with the format to find the best way to organize four concurrent design conferences, and give thousands of attendees the best experience possible.
Shortly after this year’s 2013 event, the 5 program directors and the HOW events team met in New York to begin conceptualizing what HOW Design Live 2014 would be. It was the start of a whole new direction. With the addition of a fifth conference: the HOW Leadership Conference (programmed by Debbie Millman), and three years of research, data and attendee feedback, we knew that 2014 would be a pinnacle event.
In our research, attendees made it clear year after year that they wanted to be able to see any session from any of the conferences that were going on. They wanted the freedom to create their own experience, tailored to their specific needs as designers.
It fundamentally changed the way we saw things internally. We were now able to see HOW Design Live as the “gathering,” and each individual conference as an equal part of the whole. We started referring to it as the Coachella of design conferences. One event, multiple stages, versus multiple individual concerts at the same location.
We democratized the traditional format of registering for each individual conference: Full access to all 5 conferences, priced based on how many days you attend. So, with all the changes in place, we all agreed that the identity and overall design language had to evolve as well. If we were creating the ultimate design conference for designers, it had to look like it. We boiled everything down to a one-line creative brief:
“The HOW Design Live 2014 branding will represent the evolution of the concept of the design conference itself, and must represent the premier aspirational, educational, and innovative design conference worldwide, designed by designers, for designers.”
With the quick 5-month turnaround—and, let’s face it: it’s not like you weren’t busy already—why did you jump on this project?
Quite simply, it is a project I had been dreaming of designing for years! It’s really one of those once-in-a-lifetime kinds of projects. As a designer, to be able to design on this scale is incredible, and to be able to create the identity for the biggest design conference in the world … well it’s just extraordinary. I was also in a very unique position to take on the project given the timetable and complexity: I am a partner with HOW Design Live, but an outsider to the in-house HOW team. I am a designer who designs for designers, and I have a talented team of in-house designers at The Dieline. We’re very accustomed to working on the fly, with short timelines, and we’re great at taking complex design problems and executing them across multiple platforms, print and web.
One of the huge challenges in the project, of course, is creating harmony and organization for an event that has 5 different components. How did you attack that problem?
Through design. We let design be the solution to the complexity and challenges. We knew there was an easier, better-looking way of organizing so much content and information. We started by choosing a vivid color scheme, starting with HOW red and Dieline blue. We gave each of the 5 conferences their own dedicated brand color and a streamlined wordmark, and really took it from there.
Our process was very reductive. We only included what was absolutely necessary. This lead us to really clean up the overall design language, and create a look that is fresh, bold, clean, and structured.
The new HOW Design Live logo itself was designed to represent all 5 events coming together, to create something bigger than themselves.
This project involved input and collaboration from a lot of different sources: the magazine’s editorial team, the conference marketing team, the different program directors—and, of course, the executives who watch over all this stuff. How did you manage all that feedback and commentary?
Luckily, I’ve been working with the HOW team for several years, so I was very familiar with the structure of the organization, and the potential problems that it could create down the road.
From the get-go, it was decided that for us to get to the end goal, in the short timeline that we had, it was essential to eliminate as many levels of “eyes” that needed to see and approve the work as possible. We knew that the more feedback, commentary and opinions that we got, the longer it would take, and the less likely we’d be able to create the kind of metamorphosis that needed to be made.
Instead of having to go through several levels of approvals in the organization, we were allowed to pitch our concepts directly to the head of HOW’s editorial, events and executive team. It dramatically sped up the design process and allowed for the big decisions to be made very quickly on.
Once we had the executive team on board with the design direction, we then brought the rest of the levels back in to help us produce everything.
Thinking about the website, how did you manage to organize all the various pages and parts into a cohesive whole?
Color, primarily, and also through design and structure.
We divided the website up into two separate main navigation/content areas: HOW Design Live overall event information, and information for each of the 5 events. This not only made sure that HOW Design Live and the 5 conferences had an equal balance, but really allowed us to organize the information logically and clearly.
On all of the HOW Design Live pages, you’ll notice that the photos and graphics are in full color, representing all 5 events as a whole. On each of the conference pages, all photos and graphics are monotone with each main brand color. That made it super easy to know exactly what page you are on, anywhere on the site. Even the schedule is color-coded now.
The 5 colors were the key to giving each conference their own unique own-able look. Each event can now stand on its own, and everything is cohesive across the entire site.
Visit HOW Design Live to see Andrew and his team’s work for the conference; while you’re there, browse the all-new event programs and customize your own HOW Design Live program.