DesignThinkers 2016 Conference highlights

On November 3 and 4, 2016, dozens of prominent speakers from around the globe inspired hundreds of attendees in Toronto. Now in it’s 17th year, the Association of Registered Graphic Designers’ (RGD) DesignThinkers conference is the annual hub for creative innovation in Canada. The theme of this year’s conference was “confessions” with designers confessing their secrets, guilty pleasures, and indulgences throughout the conference. “I am anti-grid” and “my code is cleaner than my house” were a couple of gems confessed. Beyond the outstanding level of attendance at the event and creative insights shared throughout, this conference contained the most beautiful presentation slides (ever!). Looking back on two days worth of ideas, three key themes emerged:

1. Overcoming Fear Is Required to Innovate

Designer and author, Stefan G. Bucher, shared his thoughts on fear in the creative process. He confessed that even elite, master designers experience fear. Fear of not being good enough, fear of failure, and fear of being an imposter, to name a few. He argued that “fear kills kindness” and kindness is a necessary ingredient for prioritizing work for the right reasons (versus chasing lucrative projects). Overcoming fear happens through a consistent process of making things all the time. His work on his project enables Bucher to practice what he preaches. Check out this documentary trailer about the project:

Furthermore, Bob Hambly (Partner of creative firm Hambly & Woolley), discusses overcoming fear from the client’s perspective. He argued that clients are most fearful of the unknown, of failure, of being different, and of losing control. Designers must help their clients overcome these uncertainties in order to allow creativity to happen, and it’s especially true when clients have never worked with designers before. Hambly suggests six strategies to make this happen: let clients know your process to help them understand your strategy (because it may be unconventional, non-linear, or even appear “flaky” to them), let them know the level of research you’ve done about their company, discuss clients’ aspirations and future plans to build a true partnership, overcome objections to the work by clarifying opinions and concerns, let clients feel part of the creative process by offering an opportunity for their input, and lastly, listen and adapt, which helps establish true collaboration.

2. Diversity Breeds Innovation

As part of an integral team at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, Ashleigh Axios holds the important role of Creative Director and Digital Strategist at the White House. The small digital team of 20 employees includes designers, writers, videographers, coders, and editors responsible for ‘connecting people with purpose’. Axios works directly with the Obama family and senior staff to externally communicate important information in a relevant way. In her presentation, Axios referenced a Harvard Business Review article entitled How Diversity Can Drive Innovation. The article argues that ethnic diversity is only a small piece of the puzzle and that diversity falls into two categories: inherent and acquired. Inherent diversity represents what you’re born with (race, age, gender, etc.), whereas acquired diversity is built over time and represents the unique experiences that someone brings to the team (education, interests, travel experiences, etc.). Leadership teams that possess at least three inherent and three acquired diversity traits are said to have two-dimensional (2-D) diversity. These companies out-perform and out-innovate their competition, as research shows that they are 45% likelier to report growth in market share over the previous year as compared to companies whose leadership team is not 2-D diverse. Read the full article here:

3. Human-Centered Design Accelerates Innovation

Silicon Valley designer and innovator Dan Makoski argued that ‘human-fuelled’ design is imperative to building an innovation culture. This requires authentic participation of “non-designers” in the design process, which generates powerful insights that may never be explored otherwise. “Letting people into your process can accelerate innovation,” Makoski explains, and he understands this first-hand. Makoski and a team of creatives once drove across the United States in a van covered in velcro. People could stick different pieces to the van (representing the pinnacle of modular design) and it acted as the ultimate co-creation toolkit for developing tech hardware. He travelled to various hack-a-thons, resulting in the creation of a yet-to-be-released modular smartphone that aims to revolutionize devices of the future.

Check out #rgdDT on social media to view other highlights from the conference. Next year’s conference will take place as two separate events in Vancouver (May 30 & 31, 2017) and Montreal (October 19 & 20, 2017).


Diana Varma is an Instructor at the School of Graphic Communications Management at Ryerson University and the Owner of ON-SITE First Aid & CPR Training Group, a health & safety company that provides training to the Graphic Arts Industry.