SVA’s Stefan Sagmeister, Debbie Millman Add Inspiration to HOW Conference

May 19, 2014

Some 3,500 creative professionals converged in Boston last week for inspiration, training and bonding with peers from across the country and around the world. Among the people charged with inspiring attendees at the annual HOW Design Live conference, held this year in the Massachusetts capital from May 12 – 19, were nearly 40 SVA faculty members.

The vast majority of them were represented by their SVA subway posters, on view as part of the exhibition “Underground Images: School of Visual Arts Subway Posters,

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1947 to the Present.” Presented here for the first time in the U.S., the show made for a “hall of fame” of design and illustration, with work by faculty members Gail Anderson, Ivan Chermayeff, Milton Glaser, Stefan Sagmeister (the conference’s closing keynote speaker), James Victore and 23 others. Curated by SVA Executive Vice President Anthony P. Rhodes, who has been creative director for the posters since 2007, the exhibition drew visitors from various corners of the design profession.

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On stage at HOW, four faculty members at the forefront of curation, interaction design and branding shared recent work. One of them was in town for just a few hours, before heading back to New York for the much-anticipated official opening of the 9/11 Museum in New York: Jake Barton, an advisor to the MFA Interaction Design Department, whose firm Local Projects was responsible for the museum’s exhibition designs. Barton paraphrased the challenge that he and his team faced with the project, which was begun eight years ago: “How do you make an experience for survivors and people who know nothing about 9/11?” The solution was to view the museum as the repository of memories, and view technology as a tool for human connection rather than an end in itself.

MoMA Senior Curator Paola Antonelli, who teaches in MFA Products of Design and MFA Design Research, Writing and Criticism, wowed the audience with an array of projects in which designers and architects (acting more like artists or scientists) sought to “make restitutions with nature.” They included cheese made with bacteria from human armpits, meat created in vitro and a mushroom-based material that could replace Styrofoam. “There’s a lot of power in speculative design,” said Antonelli.

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MPS Branding Chair Debbie Millman, president of the design division at Sterling Brands, sat down with author and squidoo.com founder Seth Godin to talk about the “reptilian brain,” writer’s block and fear of failure that holds back millions of creatives from doing their best work. Godin shed light on the deep roots and usefulness of fear, while urging the audience to use their anxiety to take risks. Making reference to Gene Kelly’s memorable dance sequence in Singing in the Rain, Godin told Millman, “When you put the umbrella away, that’s when effort turns to impact.”

MPS Branding faculty member Scott Lerman, founding partner at Lucid Brands, shared lessons from his firm’s work with clients across the public/private spectrum, from Harley Davidson, 3M and the MTA to the Department of Homeland Security and TSA. Branding’s role, he explained, is to drive customers through a series of gates, from awareness to loyalty. He went on to show how it’s possible to define a character, and express a brand, in just three words. With a slide that grouped modern-day celebrities according to their defining attributes, he drove home the point: Mother Teresa and Charles Manson were both charismatic and visionary, but only Mother Teresa was also selfless.

Closing the program was MFA Design faculty member Stefan Sagmeister, who showed work from his traveling exhibition “The Happy Show” and clips from his forthcoming documentary feature, The Happy Film. Of his learning curve on the film project, he told the audience, “If it comes to watching a film, I’m very sophisticated. If it comes to making one, I’m a real idiot!” With trademark deadpan humor, Sagmeister suggested that most people are “pretty awful” at figuring out what will make them happy, but reminded the audience, “Worrying solves nothing.”

Images: “Underground Images,” installation view; Debbie Millman interviewing Seth Godin, photo AJ Mekky.

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