Spilling Secrets: The Secret Handshake Conference
Jason Schwartz & Laura Helen Winn open up about the Secret Handshake Conference NYC.
Design conferences are a fairly common occurrence in our industry, and sometimes it’s hard to differentiate between them, especially for the people who stand to get the most out of them: young students and other up-and-comers. It’s almost as if you needed an in of some sort, to get you in the door of the most beneficial ones.
A Secret Handshake, perhaps?
Next week, The Secret Handshake — a two-day conference geared for young creatives looking to learn about things that school just didn’t touch upon — takes place at the ADC Gallery here in New York. ADC sat down with Jason Schwartz and Laura Helen Winn, co-leads of The Secret Handshake, to discuss how the whole idea of such a conference took place.
Jason, you founded The Secret Handshake, but beyond that, you’re an interactive designer. What’s your story?
Jason: It was still the 1990s when I was in college, and that meant that design was still a very tactile experience, with T-squares and isometric drawings and whatnot. I knew that I wanted to do interactive design, but I was about a decade too early (Laughs) I went into industrial design; I fully enjoyed learning about making things for people.
Fast-forward a number of years, and after working for several startups, I opened my own interactive agency in Chicago. I called it Bright Bright Great, and it more or less became the jumping-off point for other projects, such as our own type foundry — Avondale Type Co. — and the Secret Handshake.
How did the Secret Handshake begin?
Jason: It was about 2007, and I started it with a few guys in Chicago. For the first few years, its focus was in-person, face-to-face events where we would be speaking to and advising graduating students. Eventually we moved some of that knowledge sharing to the website, but in recent years we’ve been making a move to return to creating in-person conferences and other events. That’s around the time Laura came on board.
How did you get involved, Laura?
Laura: I graduated from the University of Tennessee about three years ago. I had originally gone to school for photography, but I quickly discovered an interest in graphic design, which brought together a number of personal interests, from psychology, illustration and communication. This eventually led me to teach myself web design, which in turn brought me from Tennessee to San Francisco, working for various startups.
While in undergrad, I had discovered that the secret to kickstarting your career was not about learning Photoshop tricks but more about seeking mentorship, and learning from others who have been in the business longer than I have. Whenever I had the chance, I asked older designers about how they got started. I was surprised to learn that my classmates were afraid of getting into in-depth conversations because they didn’t want to ask stupid questions. I wanted to take everything I was learning and share it with my design peers because I felt like there was vital information they were missing out on.
“While in undergrad, I had discovered that the secret to kickstarting your career was not about learning Photoshop tricks but more about seeking mentorship…I wanted to take everything I was learning and share it with my design peers.”
As a result of that, I started a small side project interviewing designers and posting their advice online. When I moved to San Francisco, I was invited to turn that into an event series at Makeshift Society. After awhile, I was getting burnt out doing all the work alone. A mutual friend introduced me to Jason because he was doing something similar in Chicago. We connected over Skype once as an introduction. The second time we Skyped, I asked Jason to join forces to run a conference and he said yes! We spent the next nine months planning our first event, and actually met face-to-face the day before our San Francisco conference last year!
So let’s say I was a young designer or other creative, just stepping into the industry. Why should The Secret Handshake be on my radar?
Jason: In essence, The Secret Handshake is a peek behind the curtain of the industry. I used to go to a lot of conferences, and kept hearing what I consider to be the worst piece of unqualified advice for anyone to give at a conference, “Quit your day job and follow your dreams!” In reality, that’s pretty scary for someone who’s scraping by financially, or someone without a bunch of clients to keep them busy everyday, or someone who doesn’t know how to run a business.
The idea is that if young people can meet and talk to people who have already been in the business for a number of years, they can learn all about the stumbling blocks they’re likely to hit. It’s helpful advice to guide your career path. There’s everything from skillset building to financial advice.
Now on paper, “Accounting Tips” doesn’t sound nearly as sexy as “Internet Famous Designer Shows Off His Work”, but these are the things that schools really haven’t prepared their students for. A freelance designer who’s just getting out of school probably has never had to write a contract. They’ve never had to fight a contract. So The Secret Handshake aims to help young creatives ask those questions and more. Don’t worry, there won’t be any talks on how to track your expenses or anything like that, but there will be lots of valuable information that young creatives should think about.
“Don’t worry, there won’t be any talks on how to track your expenses or anything like that, but there will be lots of valuable information that young creatives should think about.”
Sounds intriguing. What was the response to your earlier conferences in San Francisco and Chicago?
Laura: When we first started planning The Secret Handshake, we asked ourselves “does the world really need another design conference?” We were wondering if students would feel like they were already getting this kind of information from school.
We decided to go for it, and we’re so glad we did! We held the first one in San Francisco at Adobe in April of last year, which drew in over 250 students from across the Bay Area. Although San Francisco is known for tech, our lineup of speakers ranged from product designers to traditional agency leads to freelance designers.
Jason: We saw that attendees really loved the fact that they could really engage with the speakers instead of just listen to them. We made sure to incorporate even more engagement into the second conference in Chicago, such as a post party where sponsors, speakers, organizers, professional designers and students could sit and talk in mixed groups. That event sold out pretty quickly, and confirmed to us that there is indeed a market for this type of conference.
Laura: And it’s not just the engagement between speakers and attendees that has been fascinating. At both conferences we’ve seen attendees begin collaborative projects together. They realize that their portfolios are lacking in some way, or they need some assistance in achieving some goal, and the Secret Handshake becomes a launch pad for creative collaboration.
So what can we expect here in New York? Your presenter lineup is amazing, with far more female speakers than we usually see at conferences
Laura: (laughs) It just sort of turned out that way. When we were planning for New York, our board made a dream list of speakers, and then we went after them. And we realized that the initial list was like 90% women. I think it’s good for people to see women on stage as voices of authority in their respective fields. We don’t want to know how anyone “balances it all”, we just want to hear about their work.
We’re not vetting speakers specifically for gender or race or sexuality, but we work really hard to check unconscious bias. In fact, we weren’t even looking for traditional graphic designers for New York. We’ve invited a wide range of talent for the New York lineup. Even if you’re attending as a traditional designer, you need to hear from people in other fields who are going through similar successes and obstacles.
“There’s definitely a spirit of community, but it can be very difficult to break into if you’re on the fringe. The Secret Handshake New York conference is for those young people on the fringe.”
Jason: We knew that the lineup of speakers for New York had to be amazing. One thing we’ve learned in preparing for this event is that the design industry in New York is quite different than the one in Chicago, which is in turn different than the one in San Francisco. There’s definitely a spirit of community, but it can be very difficult to break into if you’re on the fringe. The Secret Handshake New York conference is for those young people To be looped into the fold.
Let’s jump ahead to the end of the conference. You’re putting for feet up, reflecting on how it all went down. What do you hope attendees takeaway from it all?
Jason: My goal is to have everyone walk away with that one kernel that will change how they think about their day job, how they handle their own identity as a designer, or a plan to change workflow and their personal business of design. We’ve heard quite a bit of these from attendees who tweet at us or email us with “Remember when x speaker said this? I went home and immediately did it and six months later now I’m here, it worked!”
The Secret Handshake New York
Friday, October 2 + Saturday, October 3, 2015
Professional Tickets: $100.00
ADC Member & Student Tickets: $75.00