23 October 2018

Thoughts from Phoenix Design Week 2018

A few thoughts and highlights from this year’s Phoenix Design Week conference Beyond Design. But first, the rad intro video by the folks at Magnetry in Phoenix:

Marshall Shore, the hip historian, emceed beautifully and shares my love for Arizona. As someone who usually dresses to blend in, I can appreciate his dramatic sartorial choices. Those jackets! So great.


Armin Vit, Under Consideration, Brand New

The thing I found most fascinating about Armin’s talk was his utilization of unconventional materials. When creating custom conference materials he and his wife, Bryony Gomez-Palacio, explored mold-making, cement curing, and screen printing on vinyl records and highly reflective materials. They made a lot of their materials tirelessly by hand. My favorite quote by Penn Jillette comes to mind here. He even admitted it can be hard to collaborate with others (besides his wife) because not many can match their pace and obsession.

Process-wise, he’s not a great sketcher. He moves quickly from a “shitty” sketch into the domain he’s mastered, Adobe Illustrator. Sometimes it makes sense to jump right in. He has an interesting approach to file setup, working from the top left corner of an artboard down and to the right as he iterates. This creates a neat timeline of thoughts and trials, keeping the latest version always on the bottom right of the file. Here’s a sad, quick recreation of that:

I’m a fucking beast at Illustrator. I own it. Except actually I rent it from Adobe.Armin Vit

Anne Yoachim, Tulane School of Architecture

Anne’s work is fascinating: designing for specific communities in New Orleans and implementing physical solutions in real spaces. Her team worked on visual communication surrounding Hurricane Katrina, set up a community book center for underserved youth, and started a community bike shop where kids can learn to build and fix bicycles together.

With her work in the community as examples, she encouraged us to examine the relationships between all the roles we play. What are the biases we benefit from and inject into our work? What power dynamics are in place?

Design is a capacity builder for companies… but it can’t solve everything.Anne Yoachim

Shari Benko, Experience Designer

In another talk about recognizing bias, Shari Benko spoke on the relationship between UX and AI. In a field where you’re teaching a system to make decisions, how can you be as transparent as possible? How do you predict behaviors of the people interacting with it? She posed this question which I’ve been thinking about a lot ever since:

How do you design for distrust?Shari Benko

Nakita M. Pope, Branding Chicks

Nakita is a ray of sunshine and pure charisma. Branding is not a specialty of mine, but she makes it super relatable. She has a personal, one-to-one approach to branding and identity and compares it to counseling:

You can help people figure out who they are and most importantly, you can give them permission to be fully themselves.Nakita M. Pope

Steve Thompson, Disney

Steve Thompson talked about getting a gig at Disney and how his career path really started with a foundation in life drawing. An influential teacher in his past encouraged him to “draw from life.” It was this back-to-basics approach that’s helped him throughout all the turns of his career. It’s easy to forget about the foundations, but sometimes the simple stuff is what we need to solve hard problems.

He’s got an effortless, natural drawing style and I just love it.

He also shared the inspiration he’s gained from taking circus class and mastering trapeze. It’s amazing the confidence we can achieve through other ventures outside of our work. It may seem unrelated, but it all affects the work we do and the way we can be fully ourselves.


Jon Arvizu, Illustrator + Designer

I found Jon’s honesty refreshing, speaking about the challenges of running your own business: navigating legal documents, protecting intellectual property, pushing against a lack of motivation, and the stress of leaving things unfinished.

He’s an illustrator and printmaker and his work is really fun. I especially loved his Arizona-themed work (of course).


Cat Swetel, Lost Embossing Consulting

Cat Swetel’s talk was a breakdown of the A3 problem solving technique, but what I found most interesting was the portion about reframing the problems we’re trying to solve. We often come at problems with a solution already in mind.

She gave the example of feeling thirsty. Some may frame the problem as “I don’t have a glass of water.” which is too specific. It already has a solution built in. A better framing of the problem is “I’m dehydrated.” which could be solved in a number of ways.

A good lesson in taking a step back and observing, noticing what we may have overlooked, and adjusting our thought process.


Lisa Peña, The Design School at ASU

Lisa should really give a talk on the main stage next year. Her talk on design awareness had a lot of practical and insightful examples of how we “unconsciously omit groups from our designs” and how we can recognize our biases and design better experiences.

A few examples she spoke about:


Aaron Draplin, Draplin Design Co.

A peek at Draplin’s new book Pretty Much Everything:

Draplin is of course incredibly prolific and showcased that with gusto here. He spoke with passion about how any little thing in our lives—yard sale signs, birthday invites, funeral pamphlets—can become deeply personal, well-designed creative endeavors.

He’s certainly a unique communicator, full of energy and misdirection. The kind of person with a story about everything.


It would be remiss of me to not mention I also gave a talk at this year’s event. There was no video captured, but I plan to post slides and maybe a narrated slideshow soon. Stay tuned.


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