At HOW Design Live In Chicago: Karim Rashid, Creative Empowerment, And ‘Digital Freedom’


‘The Analog Age Was A Kind Of Oppression’

Like a Vegas-sideburned Tom Wolfe, Karim Rashid is fond of wearing white outfits, updated, taut, sleek. And his mission is flamboyant liberation:

The digital age has shifted the mechanical age…a new non-serialized age…Total customization. You should be able to go online and pick out your car color from 106,000 colors…customize your shampoo, your jeans.

One of the most effective in a long lineup of some 120 speakers here at F+W Media’s five-day HOW Design Live conference, Rashid is a designer and interior architect who claims more than 3,000 designs in production, work in 40 countries, and, now, about 4,000 devoted new fans. They’re in his audience at the midpoint keynote of HOW’s busy program. Helmed for F+W chief David Nussbaum by vice-president and community leader Gary Lynch, the HOW vertical is one of the best arguments for the niche-interest construct of media-building exemplified by the F+W collection of companies. It includes Digital Book World and Writer’s Digest.

And nowhere can you find a better example of the way HOW is positioned to answer its fans’ needs than in the stylish Rashid’s 45-minute speech.

  • Message: Creative people are intensely valuable, misunderstood, under-appreciated.
  • Pitch: Analog is dead, long live digital, liberator of creative souls, our day has come.

These are heady concepts for a large crowd of mostly young adults whose outfits and generous, smiling natures mark them as “different.”

Many of these attendees are members of in-house corporate creative teams, frequently constrained by commercial limitations and charged with churning out the “collateral materials” that put across their companies’ messages. They come to HOW to learn, to stay connected with the wider industry, and to build motivation.

They’ve come to the right place.

Cairo-born, Canada-raised, US-based, Rashid is the essential stage-prowler. Whatever he may say about the “Age of Digital,” this is also the age of TED talks and Rashid knows how to work a room with that restless, roaming, rousing inspiration that keeps crowds watching.

“As a designer…if I wasn’t from this Earth, how would I see humanity?…shape and push and evolve humanity? We’re all so suppressed.”
Karim Rashid at HOW Design Live

Shortly before Rashid takes the stage, Publix’s Tim Cox speaks movingly to the audience of how an in-house creative team bears the responsibility to “help business people understand…and leverage” creative talent in their companies.

“If you want a seat at the table in the boardroom,” he tells them, “you may just have to dress a little differently.”

And Hong Kong-based paper-specialist, designer Ken Lo, projects exquisite “red packet” designs he has created for the Chinese New Year gifting tradition, bombarding the appreciative crowd with images of double-embossed cards, boxes, wraps. He lets out with a wonderful, earthy laugh that dispenses with any idea that the guy might be holier than thou.

“They call me,” he sets it up, “the king of red packets!” And nobody is laughing harder than he is.

Rashid’s stage thus is very warm by the time he gets there, the house beautifully primed. The computer-driven spots — and maybe a bit of synthetic fog? — are sweeping the house in magenta anticipation.  Thousands of smart, aesthetically driven “creatives” (there’s no escaping that noun-usage of the adjective here) are primed to hear him announce that their time has come, their path is clear, and the way forward is at hand. Analog is dead. Long live digital.


‘I Want To Inspire You To Push Boundaries’

Rashid’s vocabulary on Wednesday is all soundbites. He designs them even more prolifically, it seems, than the 117 projects he tells us that his staff of 12 is handling at once back at the office. He tells his rapt audience:

The first thing you want to do is create. It’s Nature…It’s natural to imagine. We should see where the opportunities are to create change, to better society. I want to inspire you to push boundaries and not take the world we live in now for granted.

No one could come out of his session feeling otherwise. With unflagging energy and a slowly accelerating delivery, Rashid raises hope after hope, responsibility after responsibility, glad tiding after upbeat prediction.

“Whenever I do work,” Rashid says, “I want to contribute something that goes beyond the existing” standard.

The key to that, he asserts, is to reject the strictures of whatever is “normal” or common in a commercially driven world.

We’re all being suppressed. Conformity, conformity, conformity. We don’t even think creatively after a while because we’re all being suppressed. The digital age has empowered creativity because the tools  of software make everything so accessible globally, it’s amazing.

Rashid’s idea of digital as the great liberator is immediately familiar to self-publishing authors for whom digital publishing tools have become the way around the former lock on book publishing held by the traditional industry. This is the same energy he sees working now for designers, and for anyone in the creative professions. Expression is yours for the taking and there’s a world out there that needs saving.

As a designer…if I wasn’t from this Earth, how would I see humanity?…shape and push and evolve humanity? We’re all so suppressed.

The good news, according to Rashid, is that the digital age is zapping “the boundaries, the borders,” the barriers that once stood between creative people and fans of their work.

We’re beginning to integrate with the world. We’re not having differences because of religion or color or place but as individuals. Not the color of my skin, not my creed…The difference now is the individual…You can be a doctor, a surgeon, anything, and you can be an artist in that field…Artists are the ones who are actually progressing their field.

“The analog world was rigid. The digital age is relaxed.”

Relax And Conquer

Curiously, in the kind of gathering represented by HOW and its smart, innovative attendees, that “be yourself and just do your creative thing” goal is far more frequently mentioned than the sheer chutzpah, the drive, the sometimes raw determination you see on a stage like that held by Rashid. It may be the only element of big-time creative success not specifically mentioned here: ambition.

This is climbing, moving, shaking being talked about, intelligent techniques for rightful collaboration and communication. Nothing wrong with such ambition whatever. But it frequently guises itself as “passion” or “commitment” or “perseverance.” In the purview of so many in the creative fields, it seems, “ambition” might sound ruthless. We talk of “dedication” instead.

And by the end of his talk, Rashid is nailing his points with unerring…dedication:

You are shaping the future… whatever work you do generally has its real dissemination in five or six years…We get to a point at which we think working a 60-hour work week is normal. Free time is to be more spiritual…If every child…had love, education, and encouragement to be creative…the world would have no problems.

Several rounds of applause later, the Man in White is off the stage, a neuroscientist named David Eagleman has taken over in a session sponsored by Sappi North America. the neuroscience of touch is Eagleman’s topic. “Haptic Brain, Haptic Brand,” as his session title has it.

Thus, HOW’s attendees move through vastly diverse, instructive, inspirational events at this program so artfully designed for artists, so creatively colored for “creatives.”

If form does follow function, HOW Design Live is the conference poster child for that concept. There’s even a half-hour built into the schedule between each session, an unheard-of luxury at many conferences, time that helps creative minds assimilate what they’ve heard, prepare for the next transfusion of image, idea, imagination.

As Rashid tells us: “The digital age doesn’t need much material to design complexities that we could never do before in history.”

It just needs heart, soul, and a longing to contribute to a world that may not understand you.

On Thursday morning, this beaming crowd hears i Am Other creative director Mimi Valdés tell them that “The pursuit of happiness is universal…and it’s our responsibility to give our audiences something to smile about.”

About 4,000 “HOWies” are watching for their chance. Keep an eye out.